Celtic music is about 3000 years old- so how do we know what it sounds like? Come with me to ancient Europe and check out what the Celts were listening to!
As you may have guessed, we know how Celtic music sounds because of oral tradition. Long before the times of smart phones, people had to actually remember things (I know, shocking, right?). They would memorize songs and teach others for generations to come. As millenia passed by, the music evolved and changed; however, the quintessential “Celtic” sound stuck around and is staying alive 3000 years later thanks to artists like Adrian von Ziegler.
What was it about?
History was recited and stored in Celtic songs and poems. Martin J. Dougherty notes in his book, Celts, that if a bard (highly revered professional poet) made a mistake in the dates, names, etc., it would be easy to spot because it would throw off the entire song. Of course, with human memory acting as unwritten textbooks, many legends have formed from these poems. Songs weren’t just historical recitations, though. They could cause some serious social damage.
Praise and satire were commonly employed by bards. Satire would be used to mock a fallen enemy or disgrace someone for an unjust action. If a bard were to satirize someone, that person could kiss his reputation goodbye. A bard could even satirize a king without punishment. What if someone wasn’t particularly fond of being satirized? It could be undone with a song of praise. A song of praise could also unimaginably raise a person’s reputation. But bards didn’t just shame or honor people- they could prevent wars.
Wars between tribes could start from a simple insult. There were songs about wars, but sometimes they prevented them. A bard was supposed to be able to grab and hold people’s attention. If a dispute arose, the bard could cool the hostility with a song. Why should people have a war over dishonoring someone’s pride? Music didn’t just save lives, it helped make them more fun!
As in any party, music was essential. How can you have a party without music? The Celts, like any culture past and present, would hire bards to entertain at parties. Some were hired in royal courts to entertain the family or guests to a party. Their voices were their primary instrument, but the Celts developed numerous other instruments to aid in their poems and storytelling.
The bagpipes that we’re used to are the Scottish highland pipes. The uilleann pipes are like the Irish version, except that they are much quieter and have different numbers of the same types of pipes. There’s the chanter pipe (main pipe), drone (tuned an octave lower than the chanter), and the bass (tuned down two octaves). Uilleann pipes have 3 or 4 drones, whereas the bagpipes have 2. The uilleann pipes also have extra pipes called regulators that allow certain chords to be played.
The hammered dulcimer is similar to the zither. It originated in India around 900 AD. It is played using-you guessed it-hammers. These little wooden hammers are used to hit the strings and produce smooth sounding pitches. A common instrument which works using hammers is the piano. On a piano, you hit a key which triggers a hammer to hit a string. With this dulcimer, you’re skipping a step and hammering it yourself!
Bouzouki and other Guitars
Guitars were used for background rhythm rather than taking on melodies. The bouzouki (pronounced “boo-zoo-key”) sounds like a tinny lute. That’s not a bad thing! The unique sound of the bouzouki gives some Celtic music its flair. Other guitars include the banjo, cittern (like a bouzouki, but with a more reverberating sound), and mandolin. All of these but the banjo have “double strings.” I.e., every string has another string right by it tuned the same way. This gives the chords a fuller sound. Imagine a twelve-string guitar- it’s the same thing.
The Irish drum, or Bodhran (pronounced “boh-rawn”), was traditionally made with wood and goatskin. Now, other skins or synthetic materials are used. It is played with a type of drumstick called a tipper. One would hold the drum with one hand using a handle on the inside, and use the other holding the tipper. The player would hit the ends of the tipper against the drum, with two-headed tippers allowing for faster drumming. Playing using the fingers and knuckles is also common. For plenty of bodhran information, check out this link.
The bombarde is a small oboe-like instrument. It takes a lot of breath out of the player, since high pressure air is needed to play it. It’s used for shorter parts because of this. The bombarde shines in short and sweet melodic parts. It is in the shawm family of instruments, meaning it has two reeds instead of a clarinet, per se, which has only one.
- Flutes were made of wood and gave a much smoother sound than metals ones.
- Harps were typically leaned against one’s leg while performing.Harps have been symbolic in Irish nationalism since the 10th century, and were originally a trade good from Egypt. They typically have 12-19 strings, with the ones played by the Celts having 12 or 15. These harps were played sitting down with the harp resting on the player’s leg.
- Fiddles are violins. The name “fiddle” really refers to the folk music which is played on one.
- Melodeon/Accordion/Concertinas are so-called “squeezeboxes” and differ either by rows of buttons or body shape. For example, the concertina has two hexagonal ends with buttons on both ends. You may have never heard of a melodeon, likely due to the fact that there’s only one difference between that and an accordion: accordions have an extra row of buttons.
Celtic Music Theory
For my fellow music theory geeks out there, here are some methods used in Celtic music. If music theory isn’t your thing, don’t worry, there are explanations below. For more, click here.
- Major, minor keys
- Dorian, mixolydian modes (give a minor and major feeling, respectively)
- Grace notes used frequently
- 6/8 meter used frequently
- Lively and quick tempo
- Pentatonic scales used frequently
- Emphasis typically on beat one
- The two main types of keys in music (a key dictates what notes are played in the song).
- Modes: take a key, start on any note and play the scale with the same notes as the original key. For example, C major has notes CDEFGABC. D dorian is the C scale starting on D, so the scale is DEFGABCD. Major and minor are the ionian and aeolian modes, respectively.
- Grace notes are quickly played notes in between main notes used in a piece.
- Meter dictates what type of note gets one beat and how many beats are in a measure. 6/8, for example, counts eighth notes as one beat and has six beats per measure. Reading from top to bottom, X amount of Y notes.
- Played faster and maybe with some “swing.”
- A normal scale but without the 4th and 7th note (typically).
- The first note of every measure may be accented or played with a tenuto (slightly longer). Many other methods could be employed.
If you thought this was interesting, just wait until I finish up the rest of my Celtic posts. If you think someone else might like this, feel free to share it! As always, thank you very much and I’ll see you next post!
Celtic Design: https://www.pinterest.com/carolsuekreisch/celtic-tapestry/
Uilleann Pipes: http://www.ehx.com/forums/viewthread/2710/
Celtic Tribe: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/400538960585007253/
Bard Re-enactor: http://annoyinglizardvoice.deviantart.com/art/Celtic-bard-176666682