Enda Glacken: An Introduction to Celtic Music

Celtic Fiddle – Angela Anderson-Cobb

Today we have a special post by Enda Glacken, a native of Ireland and founder of thecelticjeweller.com.

Although the Celtic music of today draws most of its influence from ancient Celtic music traditions that date to prehistory, the term “Celtic music” has only been used to describe this particular musical genre in the last century.  Today, the term can refer to a broad range of music from Northwest Europe, including the styles of Scottish music and traditional Irish music.

At its most basic, Celtic music refers to any of the folk music of the Celtic people, thus referring to the traditionally Gaelic peoples of Ireland, Scotland, Manx, and the traditionally Brythonic peoples of Brittany, Wales, and Cornwall.  Similar to the linguistic distinctions between the languages, musical distinctions divide both groups easily, although many commonalities form the basis of each musical style.   For example, Gaelic Celtic music, common in Scottish music and traditional Irish music, usually strictly adheres to a pentatonic scale, a scale with five notes per octave as opposed the seven note scale identified with the major and minor scales.  Moreover, traditional Gaelic music has a greater octave range than Brythonic music, which is distinctly compacted. Thus, while in common practice Celtic music has become synonymous with Irish music, particularly folk music, the term is technically applied to a much broader population.

Celtic music can also be identified by the distinct musical qualities shared between the traditional music of the culturally Celtic people, and not simply their geographical location.  One of the most distinguishing features of Celtic music is the movement of melodic lines up and down primary chords.  One of the key reasons for this identifiable style is the ease of which Celtic melodies can be varied, or repeated in altered form. In these cases, the melody, or the linearly successive notes that are easily identified as a single “voice” are prone to variations or alterations.  The traditional instruments of the harp and bagpipes commonly lend themselves to this task. Additionally, these melodies are also easier to predict, allowing for a very natural, improvisable harmony to develop underneath the melody, especially given the use of common recognizable cadences.  Finally, Celtic music has identifiably wider tonal intervals that allow for stress accents to adhere to the traditionally Celtic accent in its music.

Uillean Pipes – Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, there are still many distinct genres within the classification of Celtic music, often geographically divided amongst the different Celtic nations.  Traditional Irish music, or Irish Folk music, employ traditionally Irish instrumentation such as the fiddle, flute and harp and is further divided into singing and dancing music.  Scottish music, such as the Strathspey, evolved in a similar manner to the Scottish Gaelic music, and has its own distinct musical style, instrumentation, and dance; the Great Highland Bagpipe is a distinguishably Scottish instrument.  The Welsh Cerdd Dant and Canu Penilion respectively refer to their traditional string or vocal improvisational styles.

Today, Celtic music is also apparent in many other modern forms of music under the title of Celtic fusion.  Many traditionally American genres of music lend their roots to Celtic origins, such as bluegrass and country.  Early colonial Americans in the New World came from Celtic countries and greatly influenced the creation of what is now considered classically American music. Other music traditions that have Celtic roots include Atlantic Canadian music and even rock and roll.  More recently, Celtic fusion has also expanded to include explicit fusion from artists that combine many of the different Celtic styles into a pan-Celtic style.  Celtic rock, metal, pop, and countless more sub-genres have begun to experiment in bringing together once entirely separate styles.

Celtic Harp – Ed Gaillard

The great adaptability of Celtic music can be seen in the numerous genres which it has influenced and inspired, and its diverse musical tradition has left an undeniable mark on all it has touched, extending far beyond just Scottish or Traditional Irish music. If you’re looking for a good introduction to traditional Celtic Music, some accessible modern artists include: Planxty, Christy Moore, The Dubliners, and The Clancy Brothers.

Author’s Bio
Enda Glacken is a native of Ireland and writes enthusiastically on all things relating to Ireland and jewelry. He is the founder of thecelticjeweller.com, a modern online Celtic & Irish jewelry site. You can find his thoughts and musings at his blog  or connect on Twitter @celtic_jeweller.

What about you? What types of Celtic music do you enjoy? What did you learn from this article? Do you have any questions for Edna?

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5 thoughts on “Enda Glacken: An Introduction to Celtic Music

  1. Thank you for this – it’s made me think. In my stories set in the Celtic past I’ve tended to give the ‘court’ a token bard with a harp; this has made me wonder thether that’s too simplistic. An excuse to dip into research mode!

    • Thanks for the comment Andrew!

      It’s true, especially with regards to Celtic music that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. But for me, learning about the instruments and history of the music was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Nothing like good excuse to dive in!

  2. Wonderful guest post. I LOVE Celtic music….and now I understand what it is about the melodies that seems to draw me in.

    Oh, and congrats on being a NaNo winner, my fellow STL writer!

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