This is RPG-ology #64: Signalling, for March 2023.
On a British television show I sometimes watch, what they call a “Panel Show” which essentially means it’s dressed up to look like a game show but the contestants are all comedians whose job isn’t to play the game but to entertain the audience, a joke was made about bagpipes, and it got me thinking a bit.
The background to the joke was that at one time creditors would harrass debtors by hiring bagpipers to play outside their homes and places of business. There is actually a law in England forbidding that as a debt collection practice.
The joke, from one of the comedian panelists, was that the Queen must owe a lot of people money. Well, you probably have to be an anglophile to get that. However, it got me thinking about the use of bagpipes, and they fall into a category of musical instruments whose earliest purposes included military use. The other three types of instruments which I recognized as being in this category were horns, most notably bugles; drums, most notably snares or what are called war drums; and whistles, most notably fifes but also bosun’s whistles. These were all used on battlefields and in combat situations as signalling devices, ways of getting messages to divisions of soldiers spread around a large area.
Massed battles work better if the various military units on the field coordinate their movements. That usually means someone who can see the whole picture gives instructions to individual unit commanders to do certain tasks at specific moments, but the general commander who can see the whole picture is probably some distance from the people on the lines, at some vantage point. Even if he could shout loudly enough to be heard over the noise of the battle–which he certainly could not–he would lose his voice before he won the battle. Signal flags have been used, but if a semaphore flagger can be seen by the troops he is signalling, he can be targeted by the enemy. It is much more difficult to locate the bugler, the drummer, or the piper, who can send his signals from protected cover.
The bugle is the obvious signalling device in this list. Its brash tone cuts through the din of other noise, and it can be heard at quite a distance. Modern marching bands rely on trumpets and trombones as the primary instruments for projecting sound to the hearers for this reason. It is also obvious that even without the modern valves brass instruments could produce melodies–most of us recognize the simple six-note call to charge, the longer morning reveille wakeup call, and the end-of-day taps for which words have been written, but there are a host of other melodies including mess call for mealtimes, retreat, and a host of other military purposes. In a time before radio, it was an effective way to send orders to units on the field.
Drums were similarly used. Although they did not work as well after the invention of gunpowder weapons, their rhythmic poundings could be heard for long distances and could be interpreted by those in the know. Some cultures used them to alert their people in a large area that they needed to gather to defend the village. If you live just far enough from your local high school, you probably can make out what the drums are playing when the band practices on the football field better than any other instrument, because the percussive sound carries.
Fifes and whistles also carry, because they are high-pitched. One problem vocalists have when they sing with a band or orchestra or even a choir or accompanist is that frequently the background music is in the same range, that is, covering the same frequencies, as the singing. That means they have to be louder to be heard above the accompaniment. However, the fife can be heard precisely because it is “above” the accompaniment, playing notes in a range other instruments can’t reach, and so carrying above the sound to reach the ears. This in the past proved especially effective on ships, where the sounds of surf and winds and creaking masts were all in the low to middle ranges, but the pipe could be heard throughout the ship because of its piercing notes. There are as many bosun’s, or boatswain’s, pipe calls as there are bugle calls, giving directions to crewmen whether during battle or while on regular duty.
I have left the bagpipes for last, because in some ways they are the most complex and therefore the most useful. The piper can play complicated melodies like the fife, but which carry very like the bugle, and at the same time are supported by simple harmonies through the secondary pipes. The harsh reed tones cut through most sound, and the range, while not as high as the fife, can still be heard above the battle.
The intricacies of bagpipe signalling can be illustrated by an historic event. A particular Scottish laird had taken his troops out to battle, and in his absence an enemy captured his castle. As he was returning home, the commander of the occupying force instructed the man’s bagpiper to play the song that would welcome home the laird, intending to ambush him when he reached the castle unaware. However, the piper changed a few notes in the song as he played it, informing the approaching laird of the situation. It cost the piper his life, but it saved the laird and his army.
All these instruments have musical uses in the modern world (well, some would argue that the bagpipes don’t, but really, they do). However, in the worlds in which many of our games are set they were primarily used for military purposes. If you run large battles–and I think most of us eventually find ourselves doing so–understanding how these are used to signal troops on the field can bring a bit more realism to the fight.