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The Instruments Behind the Celtic Sound

Traditional Celtic folk instruments include the fiddle and tin whistle as well as the Irish pipes, harp, and bodhran.
Traditional Celtic folk instruments include the fiddle and tin whistle as well as the Irish pipes, harp, and bodhran.

“Irish songs are either joyously happy or achingly sad,” a friend once told me. She’s right, not just about Irish music but all Celtic music. It can be lively and fun, melancholy, and even hauntingly beautiful. It’s also quite popular even with those who haven’t a Celtic gene in their bodies. The music is distinctive, instantly recognizable. This is due, in part, to the rhythms including unusual time signatures such as 9/8, and the influence of ancient modes, which give the music its slightly wild sound. Another important part of the Celtic sound comes from the instruments that are used. Say “Celtic music” and most people will immediately think of fiddles and whistles or Scottish bagpipes, but there are other traditional Celtic instruments, such as the Welsh crwth. And the Scots aren’t the only Celtics with bagpipes!

Although it might not immediately spring to mind, the harp, too, has a significant place in the history of Celtic music. Finally, playing Celtic folk music has become a way to keep the culture from being lost. The music, and the instruments used to play it, have become symbols of national identity. Historically, some have been banned as a way of suppressing Celtic people and, correspondingly, have become symbols of political defiance.

The Fiddle

Fiddles are probably the instrument most associated with Celtic music but actually fiddles are used in the folk music of many cultures. The instrument appears in classical music as well since a fiddle is simply a violin. Sometimes, fiddlers choose to use steel strings rather than horsehair or catgut. They may even modify the bridge a bit to facilitate the way the instrument is played, but it’s still a violin. Fiddling refers to a style of playing rather than to an instrument.

The Welsh crwth, a six-string instrument played with a bow, is thought to be a forerunner of the fiddle.
The Welsh crwth, a six-string instrument played with a bow, is thought to be a forerunner of the fiddle.

The violin hasn’t always been a part of Celtic music. The instrument didn’t come into existence until the 16th century AD. The Welsh, however, had their own bowed string instrument, the six-stringed crwth, as far back as the 11th century. At first, it was a played in courts and there were royally-sponsored competitions to determine the best crwth player. By the 15th century, the instrument began to be associated with folk music. By the 19th century, the crwth’s popularity waned as it was replaced by the fiddle. Now, there are only three authentic crwths left in

Wales, all of which are housed in museums. Sad.

The Harp

The harp has an ancient and esteemed history among the Celtic nations. The clarsach, a Scottish harp, pre-date bagpipes, and the Irish harp has been around for at least a thousand years. Harps were played to accompany the singing of poetry of by bards and clan poets. Harpists had years of training and enjoyed a high social standing. In their training, they learned music by heart passed it down from generation to generation. Harp playing became so highly associated with Celtic pride, the English banned it. As a result, the clarsach had nearly disappeared by the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century, the Irish harp also seemed to die out.

The Irish harp is the national symbol of the Republic of Ireland.
The Irish harp is the national symbol of the Republic of Ireland.

However, in 1792, a man named Edward Bunting, a folk music collector, gathered Celtic harpists together in Belfast and, with their help, began writing their music down so it wouldn’t be lost. In 1892 in Scotland, Lord Archibald Campbell, a promoter the Gaelic culture, commissioned the making of a clarsach and held a singing competition which required the singers to be accompanied by the instrument. These actions, as well as people in the Scottish highlands and Irish Gaeltacht covertly keeping traditions alive, preserved the rich history of

Celtic harp music.

The Welsh developed their own harp distinct from all other as it has three rows of strings (others only have one). Additionally, in the Welsh style of harp playing, the left hand plucks the high notes while the right pays the low notes, the reverse of the conventional way of playing. Unfortunately, the ability to play the Welsh harp has become a rare art as most people now opt to use the classical instrument instead.

There is one last thing which shows the significance of the harp in Celtic culture: the national symbol of the Republic of Ireland is not the shamrock but the harp.

The Pipes

Who can think of Scotland without thinking of the bagpipes? Did you know, however, that Ireland and Wales each have their own bagpipes? The Irish uilleann pipes have a sound which is similar to the Scottish bagpipes but softer and a bit sweeter. One of the main differences between the two is that the uilleann pipes have a bellows, pumped by the musician’s arm, which pushes air through the chanter (the wooden piece with finger holes) and the drones to create music. The air for the Scottish pipes comes entirely from the player’s lungs. The Irish pipes are played with the musician in a sitting position. The Sottish piper performs standing up or even marching. Also, the Irish pipes are a double reed instrument as are oboes and bassoons. The Scottish pipes, however, have four reeds!

The Welsh pibgorn is considered a bagpipe even though a bag is no longer attached to it.
The Welsh pibgorn is considered a bagpipe even though a bag is no longer attached to it.

The Welsh have a pipe of their own. It’s called the pibgorn. This single reed instrument is

different from the other two in a number of ways. One is that it has a cow horn attached to its mouth piece and another curved horn at the bottom of the chanter. Also, the modern pibgorn

has lost its bag. Documents speak of the pibgorn being used as early as the 12th century. But, in the 19th century, the popularity of Welsh folk music began to decline. The pibgorn faded with it so that all that was left of the instrument were some drawings and carvings. In the late 20th century, a revival of tradition Welsh music began in an effort to hold onto Welsh cultural identity. This brought the return of the pibgorn sans its bag. The instrument now has become so popular in Wales that pibgorn manufactures have waiting lists of customers.


In Scotland, bagpipe marching bands almost invariably have drums accompanying them. It is Ireland, however, which has two notable Celtic drums. The first is the lambeg, a large, double-headed drum which is held by a strap worn around the neck. It is hit with slender sticks. Despite the thin sticks, the lambeg makes a loud sound. In fact, it is one of the loudest drums on earth. It’s also large, typically three feet in diameter and weighing 35-40 pounds.

The Irish lambeg is one of the loudest drums in the world
The Irish lambeg is one of the loudest drums in the world.

The lambeg is named for a place in County Antrim and is primarily associated with Northern

Ireland. It is strongly associated as well with Unionists who want N.I. to remain a part of the United Kingdom rather than joining the Republic of Ireland. The drum most often is played in parades, especially for the celebration of Orange Day on July 12th each year, a holiday which is to Northern Irish Protestants a celebration of Anglo-Irish pride analogous to Saint Patrick’s Day for Irish Catholics.

The bodhran is played throughout the island of Ireland and has become a mainstay of Irish folk music. This hand-held drum looks like a large tambourine without jingles. The musician plays seated, resting the instrument vertically on his knee, and strikes the drum with a tipper. This two-headed drumstick is held by its middle and the end tips are moved rapidly up and down against the drum head. The bodhran also can be played with the hand and fingers, depending on the sound desired. The bodhran is one of the oldest Irish folk instruments, believed to pre-date the advent of Christianity on the island. Since the 1960s, its popularity has surged as it is seen as a re-connection to Irish cultural roots.


The tin whistle, like the fiddle, is used in the folk music of many cultures but it is integral to the Celtic sound, especially to Irish music. While this instrument theoretically is simple enough a child can play it, the whistle requires skill and talent to be played well.There is a range of types of whistles, from low whistles to the familiar soprano. The price range varies as well from a few dollars (or euros) to hundreds at the high end. Many professional whistlers prefer the less expensive ones, saying that they provide a more authentic sound. In the hands of a skilled player, a five dollar whistle can stir the soul with its haunting wild beauty.

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