Italian Language Blog

La Zampogna Posted by on Mar 3, 2009 in Culture

In my recent blog about Le Cioce I mentioned that although the use of this type of footwear has more or less died out it is still possible to see them being worn by Zampognari, the players of the traditional Italian bagpipes which are known as Zampogne.

The name zampogna seems to have come from the ancient Greek word symphonia, probably due to the fact that the instrument produces a harmony of sounds rather than a single note, although if the instrument is not tuned very precisely ‘cat’s chorus’ might be a better description! The faint hearted or vegans amongst you may wish to skip the following paragraph which describes the traditional construction of the zampogna.

Basically, the zampogna consists of a leather bag with pipes stuck in it. The bag is made out of the hide of a goat or sheep which has been removed whole from the  slaughtered animal (you were warned!), cured and turned inside out. The animals hair is left on and is contained on the the inside of the bag which is called an otre (leather bag, or container made out of animal skin, from Latin uter which is also the root of the English word uterus). So now, if you can imagine (or perhaps you would rather not) an inside out headless sheep with the four leg stumps protruding, the next stage is to tie off completely the two rear legs and one of the front ones. This leaves you with one leg stump into which you insert your blowpipe and a soffietto (bellows) which acts as a simple leather valve. Aha!, I hear you say, but what about the hole where the head used to be? Well this is where we insert the round stock which contains the chanters and drones (the noisy bits, for the non-musical reader).

Those of you who skipped the above description will be pleased to know that many contemporary Zampognari, particularly those from the Scapoli region, are now using instruments made from a rubber inner tube which has been covered with an artificial fleece.

The zampogna is a double-chanter pipe, the chanter being the wooden tube with finger holes resembling a recorder, and each chanter is tuned differently according to the particular folk tradition of the music to be played. Usually the double-reeded zampogna will have a soprano chanter on the right and a bass one on the left. In the dialect of the Ciociaria region where these pipes are very popular these are called ritta (right) and manga (left). Zampogne will have as many as three drones, which are the pre-tuned pipes that play a single continuous note. There is also a single-reeded version of the zampogna know as the surdellina, and it is the very short chantered version of this which is traditionally used to play the famous Tarantella.

The reed of the zampogna is usually made from stalks of the canna marina (a giant reed), although these are sometimes substituted with plastic. Zampogne, which are traditionally played throughout the southern regions of Italy and the whole of Sicily, are particularly linked with Christmas, and especially the well known carol “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (You come down from the stars) which is based on an old zampogna tune.

To find out all you ever wanted to know about zampogne but never dared ask visit the zampogna museum in Scapoli: Museo della Zampogna

I can’t help wondering who was the bored musical shepherd that, contemplating his sheep or goats one day, and wishing he had a musical instrument on which to ‘ammazzare il tempo’ (kill the time), thought to himself in a flash of inspiration: aha!

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  1. Rollando Spadaccini:

    I was not aware that the Italians had bagpipes. How does this compare with the Scottish or Irish bagpipes? Which has better tonal and sound qualities?

  2. Serena:

    Ciao Rollando, If you do a search on the internet you will find sound samples of various types of bagpipes. E.g. you could do a search for Zampogna+wav or Zampogna+sound sample. Here is a link to an interesting site that seems to cover most types of bagpipe:
    From what I know the Irish or Ulien pipes are played by filling a bellows-type bladder with the elbow. They have a larger tonal range than Scottish pipes and don’t usually have drone pipes.

  3. Rollando Spadaccini:

    Wow! I listened to some of the samples from the album “Bag pipes of the World.” Interesting to say the least. (laughing) Unless it is my hearing aid, only bag pipes from European countries sounded the best. Recorded music is only as good as the recording. I never had sat through a whole album of bag pipe music. So, I am not sure I can now. A little bit goes a long way. I’m more into opera, many, but not all.

  4. Terry:

    I enjoy your etymologies, explanation of word origins.

  5. U Ciarameddaru:

    Thanks for informing people about this wonderful instrument. Depending on how you count them there are about 10 different types of zampogne found throughout Lazio, Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Calabria and Sicily. Interestingly, Puglia doesn’t have a traditional bagpiping tradition (with some minor exceptions). There are actually at least 3 different types of single reeds zampogne – The Surdulina, like you mentioned, plus a pipe found in Eastern Sicily and Southern Calabria locally known as “ciaramedda,” as well as another single reed pipe found in Southern Calabria called “a moderna.” I have to correct one other mistake, you labeled the “soffietto” as bellows. In fact there are no modern zampogne that are bellows blown (however there are surviving diagrams of a bellows blown Italian bagpipe from the 1500s). The “soffietto” is simply the blowpipe in which the piper blows into to inflate the bag. And for your vegan readers, I’m sorry to say that the trend of using a synthetic bag is almost exclusive to the Scapoli tradition, and most other pipers prefer using the traditional goat skin (Sheep is almost never used).
    In response to the guy wanting to know if Italian pipes are different than Scottish the answer is a resounding YES. The main thing that sets Italian pipes apart from other European pipes is that Italian pipes have two chanters which gives them the ability to harmonize with themselves as well as create complex poly-rhythms. My biased opinion is that they sound MUCH more pleasing as well ; )

  6. Serena:

    Salve U Ciarameddaru,

    Thank you for your interesting contribution to my blog, I wanted to write a bit about La Zampogna because a bagpipe is not something that most people usually associate with Italy, and I find it’s tradition and construction technique fascinating. Are you a musician by any chance? As you can tell from my mistake about the soffietto I am not, my husband is a guitarist but knows nothing about wind instruments. Now that you mention it I realise that obviously La Zampogna doesn’t have a bellows, I just used the translation of soffietto in my Italiano/Inglese dictionary which only gives ‘bellows’ I must admit that I was a bit confused about this, so thanks for clarifying. I wonder why it is called a soffietto though?

    A presto, Serena

  7. U Ciarameddaru:

    Cara Serena,
    I am one of only a handful of Americans who play this instrument (there are a few others who have them hanging on the wall…). I play a variety of zampogna with single reeds from Eastern Sicily (Catania) as well as another variety with double reeds from the province of Salerno in Campania. I have relatives in both of these arias and personally know many bagpipe makers and folk musicians who play not only the zampogna but many other fascinating and unknown musical instruments such as the chitarra battente, lira calabrese, tamborello, organetto (which I also play…), friscalettu, marranzanu, etc. etc. Sadly, Italian folk music has been lost amongst Italian Americans and we only think of obnoxious 40’s Italian-American pop songs when we think of “Italian Music” while in reality there is a growing resurgence of interest in Italian folk music taking place in Southern Italy and there are many music festivals including a Zampogna festival in Scapoli Italy the last weekend of July, which I attended last summer (there are other Zamp festivals as well in other areas).
    Regarding the word Soffietto, it simply comes from the word “soffiare” meaning “to blow.” The word for bellows is “Mantice.”
    In Sicily the dialectical word for zampogna is “ciaramedda.” And someone is who plays it is a “ciarameddaru” – hence my screen name here 🙂

    If you have any other questions about the Zampogna or Italian folk music please feel free to ask,
    Daviduzzu “u ciarameddaru”

  8. Josephine:

    A very fascinating page thank you for putting it together. My last name is Zampognaand now finally have the background knowledge to my name . i will definetly visit the museo di Zampognaonmy next trip to Italy.

  9. Serena:

    Salve Josephine, It would be really interesting to explore your family tree, do you have a musical background yourself?


  10. David:

    That’s a very nice last name to have. Certainly somewhere in your family history there was a zampognaro. If you tell me what part of Italy your Zampogna name came from I can tell you rather precisely what type of Zampogna your ancestor would have played.

    Also, I don’t know where you people are located, but this October in Las Vegas there is an Italian American Folk Music Conference. I will be giving two separate zampogna (and organetto) workshop demonstrations. Here is the website:

  11. Josephine:

    That would be wonderful if you could tell me more info about the type of instrument my ancestors would have played. My family is originally from Calabria and yes I am musical but I don’t play any bag pipes, keyboards only.

  12. Rosemarie:

    Bagpipes are also a traditional Spanish instrument, particularly in Asturias, northern Spain .. children learn from an early age and the virtuoso players are revered like pop stars.

  13. josephine:


    On a recent trip to Italy I was unable to make it to the Museo di Zampogna as it was off the track. However whilst in Calabria we visited a town called Gambari where there was a market showcasing traditional customs of the south. To my delight there was a young man who handcrafts traditional Calabrese musical instruments. Amongst his master pieces was a beautiful Zampogna.I asked him how much it was so that I could bring it back to Australia but it was about $1000 euro so I thought I should be grateful with just some photos of me holding it. I was also privledged to a performance of where the young man played it for me. I was surprised that I became overcome with such emotion. It was such a memorable experience finally seeing and listening to an instrument I heard about all my life.

    • Serena:

      @josephine Thanks for sharing your experience with us Josephine.

      Saluti da Serena

  14. Linda:

    I was in Dollar Tree, which had all kinds of green decorations, which made me think of St. Patrick’s Day, which made me think of bagpipes, which made me realize I had forgotten what Italian bag pipes were called, so I googled it & came across your delightful blog. The Italian bagpipes are more ancient instruments than the bagpipes in other parts of Europe, and I read somewhere that when traveling to conquer new lands, the Roman soldiers would march to the music of Zampognari to unify their pace and give them energy on long marches. Since reading that, I’ve always had the theory that the Scots and Irish, who are so proud of their bagpipes and see them as a national symbol as well as an ethnic instrument unique to them, actually were introduced to them by the Roman soldiers when they invaded Great Britain. I’m sure the Scots would take the news with their usual equanimity, but I’m just as sure that the Irish stiano diventando pazzissimo! 😂

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