Teach Yourself Bagpipes by Lindsay Davidson

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Reading music is the same as reading text. Notes have two basic values - pitch and duration.  These values are represented on a set of five lines called a “staff” or “stave”.  We learn about the two values independently, and combine this knowledge when learning tunes. 


Notes are named using letters from the alphabet.  The pitch is indicated by the vertical position of a note on the stave.
Every stave starts with a clef - this indicates a reference note for us to read every other note from.  In ‘piping,  we use a “G Clef”.  This is so named as the curly section of the clef goes around the line which indicates the note called “G”.  

Staff with note names
Try to remember the following rhyme to help remember the names:

Every Good Boy Deserves Fun and then has a smiley FACE.

The highlighted letters in the first half of the rhyme correspond with the names given to the lines (including low E which is not used in piping) whilst those in  the second half corresponds with the names given to the spaces (including low F which is not used in piping).

In pipe music,  some notes have tails going downwards and some going upwards.  The rule is that all gracenotes have tails going up and are not to be included in the arithmetic of the bar.  All other notes (usually bigger) are melody notes and their total values added together should give the number of beats of the specified type indicated in the time signature (see below).

There is a small flash applet which you open in a new window here. This will give you 'flashcards' for learning to identify notes.


There are six common symbols used to indicate duration of a note.  These symbols have a variety of names across the world,  but the meaning of the symbols themselves are universal. The longest note, referred to as a “whole note” is called a semi-breve.  By dividing this systematically into two equal portions,  we get two notes,  each called a minum.  We can also think of these notes by their other name - half notes,  as they each take up half as much time as the whole note.
From here,  we move to filled in circles for the note heads,  starting with a crotchet (half of a minum,  and therefore,  a quarter note, as it is also a quarter of a semibreve).  By adding tails,  or cuts,  to notes,  we half their value.  Tails are never added to open circled note heads.  Therefore,  a quaver,  is half of a crotchet,  or an eighth note.  Keeping going,  a semi-quaver,  looks like a crotchet with two tails, which means it is a crotchet halved twice,  giving it a value one sixteenth of a whole note;  thus this is called a sixteenth note.  A demi-semi-quaver,  is a thirty-second note.

Here are the notes in a table (often called a 'note tree'):

1 Semibreve  
takes up the same amount of time as
2 Minums  
takes up the same amount of time as
4 Crotchets  
takes up the same amount of time as
8 Quavers  
takes up the same amount of time as
16 Semi-Quavers  
takes up the same amount of time as
32 Demi-Semi-Quavers  

Adding a dot onto a note increases its value by one half.  Adding a tail halves the value of the note

(i.e quaver + dot = 3 semi-quavers).

A BAR is the space between the vertical lines on the stave. This was first used to make rehearsal easier by dividing the music into  easily readable sections containing the same number of beats.

At the start of a tune there are two numbers,  one above the other like a fraction.  This is called a TIME SIGNATURE and tells the player how many beats there are in a bar.   The top number tells how many beats and the bottom number indicates the type of beats.  If the number on the bottom is 4,  then the beats are all quarter notes (crotchets) and if it is 8 then they are eighth notes (quavers) etc.

When reading music, careful to make sure that every beat lasts the same amount of time as every other beat, and that notes which are the same have the same amount of time (i.e. quavers last the same amount of time as other quavers)

There are many many explanations about how to read music on youtube and elsewhere on the internet.

Here is a small list which may be helpful:

Visual Music Minds channel - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjUxQg9cHiOYqaRdtZ6pfoQ
Mrs Musical Pants - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcueqsFShdlJ3tmeKhC0yMA
Music wth no pain - https://www.youtube.com/c/musicwithnopain/featured

Lindsay Davidson has no affiliation with these - they are just helpful.

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