Ancient Traditions in a Modern World
Celtic music is a loose term used to describe traditional music from areas of Europe—among them Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany (in France), and Galicia (in Spain)—where the Ancient Celts had the most lasting influence. It also refers to newer music that’s developed worldwide based on 3,000-year-old Celtic traditions.
Celtic music has an oral tradition and is not usually written or read, so tunes have been passed down, changed, and even recycled with a variety of lyrics. Celtic musicians often say that they never perform a piece of music the same way twice.
Along with the variances among tunes, there are the distinctive styles and instruments used in various Celtic countries. Today’s Celtic style is often a blend of traditional Celtic tunes and folk music that grew out the 1960s, when many artists mixed the two genres together. The strongest influence in modern Celtic music often comes from Irish and Scottish traditional music.
Several types of bagpipes are common to Celtic music. Scottish Highland pipes are the loudest, usually too loud for indoor play. Popular in Ireland are the uilleann pipes, played by means of bellows. In Brittany they play the binou and in Celtic Galicia the local bagpipes is the gaita.
Fiddles have long been a mainstay of Scottish and Irish music, and the four-string tenor banjo is popular among ceili bands and ballad groups. Traditionally instruments vary according to country. The mixing of Celtic with folk music has seen string instruments such as guitars, mandolins, and hammered dulcimers used in modern Celtic music.
Foot percussion and dance is a staple of Celtic music. The bodhran is a goatskin drum common to Irish music that has become popular in other Celtic music, but you may find all kinds of exotic percussion instruments in modern Celtic bands
A family of free-reed instruments have been used in Celtic countries since the early 19th century. Among them the melodeon, button accordion, and concertina (pictured above) are sometimes used in Celtic music. In Scotland the piano accordion is popular.
Flutes have been played in Celtic countries for more than 1,000 years. Wooden flutes played with today’s Celtic music are often replicas of traditional instruments. Tin whistles (or pennywhistles), some priced under $10, are great first Celtic instruments to try. However, even though they look quite simple, they can be tricky to master. In Brittany you are more likely to find the bombarde, an oboe-like shawm that is fingered like a tin whistle with an extra hole.
The harp has been a part of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and Breton Celtic traditions for hundreds of years. Most Celtic harps are small and played on the knee. The Scottish harp is the clarsach, and the traditional Welsh harp is the triple-harp.
The Chieftains is a classic Irish group that first gained popularity in the 1970s, while Altan is a more contemporary Celtic group.
The High History of Celtic Music (Sound and Vision, 2004) by Winnie Czulinski takes a humorous look at Celtic musicians and their instruments through the years.