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What is Celtic Music? Part 2 Instrumentation

In last week’s blog, we discussed where Celtic music comes from and the two basic types of Celtic music: dances and laments. This week we will look at the instruments that are typically used to play this music.


If you lived in Ireland, Scotland or Wales in the 1800s and early 1900s, your Saturday night entertainment definitely wasn’t watching Netflix or even black and white TV shows. Instead, you got together with friends in their kitchens to play music and dance. This is how the style of Celtic music we play today was learned and played and this type of get together was called a ‘ceilidh’ (pronounced kay’lee).

The instruments that people from this region used when playing Celtic music included the following:

In the following video, you’ll see performers using traditional Celtic instruments like the harp and the bodhran drum. The group is playing a dance tune called a jig, which is in 6/8 time. You can tell you are hearing a jig if you can say "JIG-i-ty, JIGi-ty | JIG-i-ty, JIG-i-ty" or (1-2-3, 4-5-6| 1-2-3, 4-5-6|, with the emphasis on beats one and four) as you listen.

In the next performance, we see a traditional wooden flute, a fiddle and a harmonium. The harmonium is a small reed organ with a keyboard and foot-operated bellows. (Go to 0:58 if you would prefer to skip over the interview with the musicians straight to the music):

Interesting things to listen for and see when watching this video:

  1. Notice the wooden flute, with mostly holes rather than keys and its conical shape (unlike the cylindrical silver flutes we play)

  2. Listen for the interesting percussive effects that the flute plays at the beginning

  3. Listen for the unique sound of the harmonium (similar to the accordion)

  4. Notice the harmonics that the fiddle plays at the end

  5. Listen for the repetitive nature of the tune, with new embellishments at every repetition (very typical of Celtic music)

In my next blog, read about Celtic music in Canada!

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