Here’s the Scientific Reason Outlander’s Bagpipes Make You Sad

Bagpipes on Outlander. Photo: Ed Miller/Sony Pictures

The bagpipe is a paradox. On the one hand, it’s regarded as a deeply annoying instrument — we complain about its blaring, unchanging volume and grating sound. But as anyone who watches Outlander or who’s been to a police officer’s funeral can tell you, it also has the capacity to emotionally annihilate you like few other musical devices can. Outlander is about to return for a time-tossed second season of intrigue, and although there's likely to be less bagpipe in Bear McCreary's score (this season being largely set in France, not Scotland), we can count on hearing at least some bagpipe moments that will get us teary-eyed. (You're less likely to have gotten weepy over Better Call Saul's bagpipe moment last week; if you did, we're not judging.) But why do bagpipes make us sad? And how did they become such an iconic instrument for Scotland? We turned to musicologist John Powell, author of the upcoming book Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica — The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds for answers.

Why do bagpipes get people emotional?
Well, all instruments make people emotional. There's no great trick to that. The biggest flag to whether a piece of music makes you sad or happy is the speed it's played at. So if you play any instrument slowly, the music will come across as being fairly sad. Even if you play music in a minor key quite quickly, it'll sound fairly happy, which is what a lot of Spanish music does. So at funerals, you always play very slow music generally, and particularly with the bagpipes. But if you had a solo sax player playing the same thing, it would sound equally sad.

Yeah, but you don't hear slow sax music playing at funerals very often. Is there some historical reason why we have bagpipes playing sad music?
If you've got a solo bagpipe player, it's a very loud noise. Wind instruments, like saxophones, clarinets, and bagpipes, make a lot of noise. You couldn't fill a large church with a flute, because flutes have a limit on how loud they can be played. But instruments that have reeds in them, like bagpipes, can be played louder than that. So you can fill the whole area. Bagpipes have drones: they have three pipes on them, which just send out one long continuous note underneath the actual tune. You get a really full effect like a small organ. Because it's a bagpipe, you can't have breaks between the notes. The notes are continuous. And all these things give you a continuous sound, which is very moving if you're hearing slow music.

That said, bagpipe music can be quite irritating to the ear. Is there a reason why bagpipe music can be so grating for some people?
The bagpipes are a very limited instrument in many ways. You can't have breaks between the notes. There's no dynamics: you can't play loud and then quiet. And you can't change the timbre, [or] the flavor of the sound. All you can do is play more slowly or more quickly or lengthen the notes you're playing or shorten them. And all the time, it's fairly loud. So yes, they can get pretty annoying because of the sameness of the experience. You can put trills and grace notes between the big notes you're trying to play as the tune. That's the only thing you can do. If you're playing the bagpipes with an orchestra, it's extremely difficult to keep the two things in tune. The notes on a bagpipe are different from the notes on all instruments. A bagpipe was originally developed as a solo instrument. It's a big, noisy, solo instrument. You've got to be very careful what you do.

What are the historical origins of the bagpipe?
They go back thousands of years and all over the world. You can't really count how far back it goes because it just goes back too far. They initially just had one drone, so you'd have a bag full of air that you blow up, and you then squeeze the air into what originally would have been two pipes: one was a drone and the other one was the one with holes in it that you play the tunes on. The second drone was added in the year 1500; the third drone, the modern bagpipes that we know today, appeared in approximately 1800.

They’re worldwide? Where else were they?
In the UK, we have Northumbrian pipes, and in Ireland, we have uilleann pipes. Arab countries, Spain.

They didn't originate in any one place? Was it a kind of convergent evolution, with everyone having the same idea separately?
Yes, they evolved everywhere.

So why do we associate them with Scotland and not the other places they were developed?
The ones we hear most are the Scottish ones, and we would have heard them from the Scottish regiments of the British army. That's where most Americans would have heard them originally. If you were a lord of a certain area of Scotland, you would have a family piper and quite often they were family themselves — the job was inherited from father to son. If you're a Scottish lord back in 1700 you'd hire the piper who'd be with you all your life. Then you get Scottish people joining regiments in the British army, and they would have their own pipers for the obvious reason that the lords used to have pipers so the regiments would have pipers. One of the uses would be to march into battle with your piper at the front making a hell of a din and cheerful noise. Also to drown out the screams of your friends being murdered. In war, those Scottish bagpipes went all over the world.

So I presume Scottish immigrants brought the bagpipe to the U.S.?
Yeah. And Scottish ex-soldiers.

In the U.S., they're strongly associated with police funerals. Is that true in the UK?
Yes, particularly in Scotland. You wouldn't necessarily do that in England. It's not the emotion behind the sound, it's the fact that they're loud.

It's a feedback loop: One of the reasons people get sad is because of long, slow notes, but also because of the fact that it's used in these sad situations. We’re sad because we associate them with sad things.
Yes. Anything that has a history like that, we have a strong memory of it. It’s called “appropriateness.” For example, in my book, I talk about the wedding march. It's a very dull tune, it's not particularly happy. But we all accept it because it's what we've heard before at weddings. We associate that tune with weddings, even though it's dull, rather boring, and not very joyous. So you've got music for the bagpipes, and we know they're played at funerals, we've seen it on TV with the funerals of police officers, so immediately, we link those two things together.