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St. Patrick's Day

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Bagpipes are an important part of Irish music tradition

Celtic culture is rife with tradition. Traditional music is one identifying factor of the people who reside in countries awash in Celtic heritage, such as Ireland and Scotland. The strains of bagpipes can be heard during various celebrations and memorials. Bagpipes can produce uplifting and upbeat tunes or somber notes ideal for moments of reflection.

Bagpipes are in a class of musical instruments known as aerophones. They produce sound through reeds from a constant reservoir of air trapped in a bag. Bagpipes are comprised of an air supply; a bag that holds the air; a chanter, which looks similar to a recorder and has finger holes to produce the melody; and one or more drones, which produce the sustained pitch. In bagpipes, the drones are the pipes placed over the musicians' shoulders.

Since the 14th century, bagpipes have appeared in European art and literature. Evidence of bagpipes in Ireland can be traced back to 1581, when John Derrick's "The Image of Ireland" clearly illustrates a bagpiper. However, actual examples of bagpipes found before the 18th century are rare.

What some music aficionados may not know is that not all bagpipes are the same, and Irish bagpipes have distinctions that set them apart from other varieties.

Irish bagpipes, or uilleann pipes, differ from other types of bagpipes, including Scottish Highland pipes. Uilleann is derived from the Irish-language term piobai uilleann, which means, "pipes of the elbow." A full set of uilleann pipes has a chanter, three drones and three keyed regulators. A half set will have no regulators. The pipes are tuned in the key of D, and unlike many other pipes, the reed will over blow. This gives uilleann pipes a range of two octaves. The chanter also can produce sharps and flats. In addition, regulators give them extra dimension of sound. Irish pipes have a softer sound than other bagpipes, enabling them to be played indoors.

Although bagpipes have been integral to ancient Irish history, they are still alive and well today. Many bagpipers still proudly play them throughout Europe and in North America. The resonating sound of the pipes can be heard during parades and various celebrations, such as on St. Patrick's Day.