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What is Celtic Music? Part 1 Origins

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

Every year I organize a Celtic Party for my students. Over the next three blog entries, I’ll share some information about Celtic music as well as some musical examples in preparation for our upcoming party.

Celtic music is folk music that comes mainly from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The people who live in these locations are known as Celts, which is why the music is now called Celtic music. The folk music that Celtic music is based on originated as early as 2000 years ago. It was passed down orally from one generation to the next (by listening and learning by ear) without being written out on paper.

In the 1920s this music became more popular in North America, especially among the Irish who immigrated here. Today Celtic music is popular all over the world

There are two types of Celtic music:

1. Instrumental music based on folk dances and

2. Slow, mournful songs called airs or laments


There are 3 basic types of dance tunes in Celtic music: jigs, reels and hornpipes. You can tell them apart by their underlying rhythm (or the dance steps you would use to dance to them!).

Steph Geremia is one of my favourite Celtic flute players. In the following video, Steph is playing a set of dance tunes called “reels”. Reels are in 4/4 time (although the emphasis is on the first and third beats, so they are technically in cut time 2/2).

If you want to figure out if a tune is a reel, try saying "THIS-is how-a REEL goes | THIS-is how-a REEL goes," (1& 2& 3 4| 1& 2& 3 4| ) while listening. Try it while enjoying this video:


Laments started out as sad poems that were sung. Over time, they were also played as exclusively instrumental pieces.

The next example is a well known lament called The Foggy Dew (many of you have played it!) This is a sad song whose lyrics talk about the losses of war. Written versions of the melody can be traced back to the 1880s, although the tune was passed down orally for generations before that. For those of you who are old enough to know of her, Sinéad O’Connor recorded a version with The Chieftains in 1995.

Here is a version played by solo piano:

Read my next blog entry where I discuss what instruments are commonly used in Celtic music and where you can hear some more examples of great Celtic music!

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