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A bagpipe of a moral dilemma

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that, out of all musical instruments, bagpipes make the most infernal noise. That, and an out-of-tune violin. The problem with bagpipes, though, is they maintain their infernality no matter how adept you are at playing them. One of my favorite recent cartoons is a drawing by Sam Gross, that pictures the devil sitting atop his throne, looking over the suffering masses under his command. In front of him is a bagpipe player. “You’ll be in charge of the music down here,” reads the caption.

I’m hardly alone in my sentiment. Alfred Hitchcock was said to have remarked, “I understand that the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equalled the purity of sound achieved by the pig.” In the 1800s, American writer Oliver Herford, who frequently coined amusing turns of phrase, wrote, “The Irish gave the bagpipes to the Scotts as a joke, but the Scotts haven’t seen the joke yet.” And in my all-time favorite ode to the instrument, the English humorist Jerome K. Jerome described the travails of a certain friend who was trying to learn how to play. I can’t help but quote here the entire passage from Three Men In a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)—but feel free to skip, if you’ve had your fill of bagpipe humor.

I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes, and you would be surprised at the amount of opposition he had to contend with. Why, not even from the members of his own family did he receive what you could call active encouragement. His father was dead against the business from the beginning, and spoke quite unfeelingly on the subject.

My friend used to get up early in the morning to practise, but he had to give that plan up, because of his sister. She was somewhat religiously inclined, and she said it seemed such an awful thing to begin the day like that.

So he sat up at night instead, and played after the family had gone to bed, but that did not do, as it got the house such a bad name. People, going home late, would stop outside to listen, and then put it about all over the town, the next morning, that a fearful murder had been committed at Mr. Jefferson’s the night before; and would describe how they had heard the victim’s shrieks and the brutal oaths and curses of the murderer, followed by the prayer for mercy, and the last dying gurgle of the corpse.

So they let him practise in the day-time, in the back-kitchen with all the doors shut; but his more successful passages could generally be heard in the sitting-room, in spite of these precautions, and would affect his mother almost to tears.

She said it put her in mind of her poor father (he had been swallowed by a shark, poor man, while bathing off the coast of New Guinea – where the connection came in, she could not explain).

Then they knocked up a little place for him at the bottom of the garden, about quarter of a mile from the house, and made him take the machine down there when he wanted to work it; and sometimes a visitor would come to the house who knew nothing of the matter, and they would forget to tell him all about it, and caution him, and he would go out for a stroll round the garden and suddenly get within earshot of those bagpipes, without being prepared for it, or knowing what it was. If he were a man of strong mind, it only gave him fits; but a person of mere average intellect it usually sent mad.


That is all an admittedly lengthy preface to a certain encounter I observed yesterday early evening in Washington Square Park. As I crossed from West to East, I heard that telltale wail coming from a young woman who hardly seemed large enough to be making such a racket. I sped up, so as to pass the danger zone with the utmost alacrity. But just as I neared her, she stopped playing. A forty-something man had approached her and was holding out a stack of bills, saying something earnestly. Her face went from perplexed, to livid, to that point past livid where you may well use the bagpipes as a weapon. As I soon gathered from the conversation, he was offering her $40 to shut up and leave. I prepared for combat. But to my surprise, she took the money, packed up her instrument, and trudged out of the park. $40 was far more than she’d made in however long she had been playing (I sneaked a peak in her case before moving along; it didn’t look like much more than a few scattered singles), and apparently, she decided the trade-off was worth it.

I have to admit, I’d fantasized about doing something similar many times. I’d role-play the scenario in my mind, and, satisfied, walk on. Now that I’d seen it actually play out, though, my reaction was decidedly mixed. At first, I was elated at the relative silence—and thought it quite amusing that someone would actually have the nerve to do this. But then, I felt really bad for the girl—and guilty at my initial amusement. On the one hand, she had just made more money from not playing than from playing. But on the other hand, what an awful thing to have happen to you. Quite the ego blow. On the third hand (my hands are multiplying for this), she chose to play the bagpipes to begin with. What was she expecting? On the fourth hand, what a callous assertion of dominance on the part of the not-so-gentle man: a bribe? A statement that he can get her to do his bidding by giving her enough money?

Possible mitigating circumstances: a good friend of mine, who lives right by Washington Square and walks there multiple times a week, affirms that said female is a frequent presence in the park. Maybe the man had been storing up his anger for months before it finally became too much? And this was just the final outburst? Also, there is that sign that prohibits all unnecessary noise around the Washington Square area (and what else is a bagpipe?)…

Another possible mitigation: maybe my reaction was so (eventually) negative because he was an older man and she, a younger woman. Would it have been more acceptable coming from a fellow NYU student (I actually don’t know if she goes to NYU; just theorizing based on location)? A younger female? Someone else?

Plus, she didn’t need to accept the money. Just as he was perfectly free to offer, she was perfectly free to tell him to go to hell, where, presumably, he would be met with an eternal bagpipe soundtrack—a worthy punishment.

Still, it does leave me with a very bad taste in my mouth—and an unresolved dilemma. Is such behavior ever justified? Is the man to blame? Am I reading too much into all of this?


Image credit: Bagpipe, Andrea Contratto, Flickr, Creative Commons license. Unnecessary noise sign, Jens  Schott Knudsen, Flickr, Creative Commons license.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. davenussbaum 3:26 pm 05/8/2013

    It’s always hard to judge a situation like this without knowing all the facts, as you explain. But to me, one way of thinking about it is dignity: how would I feel if my wife offered me $40 to stop speaking for the evening (I’m sure she’s often tempted, at such bargain rates).

    On the other hand — like you, I seem to find myself with supplementary limbs whenever I need them — I’m happy to stop speaking gratis when my wife is on the phone or in the middle of watching a TV show (well, usually; and perhaps happy is not the right word).

    So when I think of the exchange, I think it depends on its meaning. If the payment was intended to convey that the man didn’t want to listen to the woman’s horrible bagpipe, and would she please shut up, then I think it’s offensive. I may not be able to fully blame him, but I don’t think I’d do it (though I would fantasize about it).

    But if the man has an infant who won’t sleep and is just trying to get the woman to keep it down, and is providing the $40 as generous compensation for the money she might have earned, then the meaning is different, and there’s nothing wrong with it.

    p.s. on a complete tangent, I remember having Three Men in a Boat read to me as a child — my mother won it as a prize for learning English in her third grade class in Poland. She subsequently forgot all her English, only to have to learn it again twenty years later.

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  2. 2. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 3:32 pm 05/8/2013

    I think that’s a great way of thinking about it, Dave. Motive definitely matters here. But I also can’t help but wonder about *her* motivation for accepting the money in scenario A — and if she took it, does that change the meaning?

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  3. 3. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 3:33 pm 05/8/2013

    (Also, I first had Three Men in a Boat read to me when I was little, too — in Russian! Guess it was big in Eastern Europe.)

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  4. 4. davenussbaum 3:39 pm 05/8/2013

    That’s a good question — if she interpreted it as a reasonable request, arguably she should have refused the money. Then again, given the powers of human rationalization, she may have just convinced herself that she would have made $40 by playing, so really it was well-deserved compensation and not a bribe. You should ask her next time — also, ask if she’ll leave for $20 ;)

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  5. 5. tyler.irving 4:08 pm 05/8/2013

    I’ve been playing the bagpipes since I was 11. It is far from ‘universally acknowledged’ that my beloved instrument sounds ‘infernal,’ in fact there are millions of people for whom the skirl of a well-tuned set of pipes is very pleasant indeed. I know lots of people, myself included, who make good money (a heck of a lot more than $40) playing at weddings and the like.

    But here we’re talking about an unsolicited public performance, and with these I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I’ve played outside bars where I have been asked (usually politely) to stop; other times I’ve been welcomed warmly in and given complimentary beverages. A skilled piper will learn to judge which audiences are likely to be receptive and pick his or her battles accordingly.

    If you choose to play in a public square, you are always taking a chance. Given that there was a noise ordnance, the piper might have been stopped or sactioned by campus police; she evidently decided the risk was worth it and struck up anyway. She also took a risk of being heckled or harrassed by someone who, for whatever misguided reason, didn’t like the performance; in a way that’s exactly what happened. It’s a shame that the gentleman in question is incapable of appreciating the rich tones of this majestic instrument, but as pipers we’ve made peace with this circumstance. Beside, $40 is $40. If I were in that situation, I would have taken it, no questions asked.

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  6. 6. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 4:26 pm 05/8/2013

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Tyler — and obviously, I know that many people like bagpipes. The remarks were meant (obviously, I hope, by the tone) as tongue-in-cheek.

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  7. 7. david123 7:12 am 05/9/2013

    For me it’s a tough question. I love the sound of good music in the park, and often in NYC parks when musicians play they are quite good and they add to the whole experience of being in the park. But what if a musician or group is not good, but just noisy? And what if the choice of instrument is something that a lot of people just don’t like, or for some reason just doesn’t go well in the park? It’s a tough question. Who has the right to judge? Maybe someday when smartphones are even more ubequitous than they are now and there are commonly-used apps that allow a sort of instant communication between groups of strangers in close proximity with each other (like a park), then there can be kind of a quick up-or-down vote — Roman style — that the musician herself will see on her smartphone (or, god forbid, glasses) and realize with her own good grace that she just isn’t wanted in that park on that day.

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  8. 8. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 6:43 pm 05/9/2013

    Interesting speculation, David. I wonder what such crowd-sourcing would mean – and what the legal issues may be.

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