Perspective and Meaning in Celtic Music
By Tom Hanway

The term Celtic music1 is often found in catalogs, record shops, and bookstores, especially when used to distinguish this idiom from other styles of music, e.g., folk, rock, bluegrass, jazz or classical. Yet there are six Celtic nations, each with its own distinctive musical style. Within each style are regional2 and local sub-styles, some of which have developed into distinct traditions within the broader Celtic diaspora, e.g., in the Shetland Islands, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island. It’s only recently, and as a marketing ploy, that these national musics have been presented as a single category.

Modern Celticists know that the six Celtic nations have close links and parallel histories.3 Yet these tribe-nations are not and have never been one-in-the-same. Each Celtic nation has its own language, culture and musical traditions, related perhaps but not interchangeable. Accordingly, traditional musicians have often resented the recent blurring of national, regional and even local distinctions. For them, the music of the six Celtic nations is too rich, subtle and variegated for haphazard mixing. "Everyone has a bit of it and no one has it all."4 Homogenized Celtic-inspired music may be commercial, and even pleasing, but it is also often shallow and can never claim to be authentic.

Although written collections exist, Celtic musicians have mostly passed their traditions on orally (and aurally). This direct transmission helps keep the music modal, melody-oriented ("linear") and rich in variation - whether pre-planned or spontaneous. Some Celtic players are passive holders of the tradition while others are creative collaborators who take more chances musically.

Written transmission necessarily simplifies the music. Attempts to distill Gaelic music into major or minor keys for ease of notation trivialize the complex tonality5 and aural nature of traditional Gaelic tunes,6 which use ornamentation,7 such as melismatic8variation9 to generate interest. Tunes are not harmonically conceived (using "vertical" note-stacking principles) - they are monophonic or single-line oriented. Harmonic principles are secondary since the music moves "horizontally" in an ever-changing present that offers endless ways of individual expression and interpretation. This is also true for tunes from other Celtic nations.

If Celtic tunes are harmonized - and the tendency is great they can be re-harmonized again and again. This is the case at the session10 (seisiún ceoil), where a rhythm player (called a "backer"), typically a guitar or bouzouki player, uses chords and tunings which may leave out major and minor thirds yet highlight tonal centers11 in the tunes, which are based on modes12 and use gapped scales,13 typically pentatonic (five notes) or hexatonic (six notes). Some of these modes are the Ionian14 (corresponding to the classical major scale), Mixolydian,15Dorian,16 and Aeolian,17 each whose unique step-pattern of notes fall on the white keys of the piano, starting on C, G, D and A respectively. Some Cornish and Breton songs use the Phrygian18 mode; its unique step-pattern of notes fall on the white keys of the piano starting on E. A popular mode on the Continent, we hear it more often in Spain and in Mediterranean countries, though it can be heard in the music of Riverdance, a composed Irish dance musical, which traditional musicians point out is noticeably lacking a single traditional jig, reel or hornpipe.19 The mixing of Irish traditional music with non-Celtic music may be entertaining and provocative, but it blurs the distinction between Irish and non-Celtic styles.

Traditional Celtic players also consider jazz-, bluegrass-, rock- and classical-inspired arrangements of Celtic tunes as emanating from and ultimately lying outside the core of the tradition. This does not mean composed music cannot be absorbed into the tradition. However, it takes time for new tunes to be acknowledged and incorporated within the many Celtic traditions. Not all of them make it and none of them make it for everybody.

While the term "Celtic music" is more utilitarian20 than "World music" or "Folk music" for selling various artists and styles that might otherwise fall between the cracks, it has taken on a dreamy,21 non-traditional aesthetic. Authentic styles - down-to-earth tune-playing found at sessions and ceílís,22 are not commercially inspired or sales-oriented, in stark contrast to the windswept mood music that is mass-marketed as "Celtic," which may claim to be "relaxing" and tends to lull listeners into a kind of New Age trance. This insipid product relies heavily on synthesizers and crosses over into easy listening, elevator and meditation music. Tennyson’s "mild-eyed melancholy Lotus-eaters" come to mind: "There is no joy but calm!" The generic dreck pushed by record companies as "Celtic" is no such thing, but what is it? (Marketing manipulation for starters.) Fortunately, authentic players still rule at sessions and the real music lives on and evolves.

Regrettably, the term "Celtic music" has become a chimera for players who work within the core of Celtic tradition. The playing of tunes is very situational and contextual - yet timeless and ever changing. The dynamic interplay of continuity and change, repetition and variation, lies at the heart of all Celtic artistic traditions, as in all living tradition.

Riverdale, New York
March 10, 2001

This article draws heavily from the glossary to The Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo by Tom Hanway


  1. Tom Hanway, Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 1998), p. 8, 156. "The term ‘Celtic’ usually refers to a family of Indo-European languages and peoples of Western Europe: Irish, Scots, and Manx (comprising the Gaelic branch); and Cornish, Welsh, and Breton (comprising the Brythonic branch) - peoples collectively known as the Six Celtic Nations." [This article deals with the traditional dance music of the late-20th century Celtic people, whose predecessors have spread their disciplined music and dance around the world.] "Many Continental folk traditions (especially piping) have evolved along similar lines and are compatible with modern Celtic styles - sounding Celtic since they use gapped scales [see infra n. 13], similar modes and motifs, and recognizable meters. Some regional styles, e.g., those found in Galicia and parts of France, have assimilated Celtic tunes into their repertoire and influenced Celtic musicians. Despite their close ties and genuine contribution to Celtic music, it would be misleading to include (under the banner of Celtic music) some Celtic-sounding ethnic styles and not include them all."

  2. A conceptual flaw in many Irish tune books is that settings (transcriptions) gloss over regional playing styles and emphasize single, generic arrangements based on one instrument, usually the fiddle, whose ornamental techniques cannot encompass the types of ornamentation and possibilities for variation of other traditional instruments such as the flute, tin whistle and uilleann [pronounced ILL yan - not YOO lee-an] pipes.

  3. The music of Cape Breton fiddlers is considered a regional Scottish style, arguably more traditional than classical-influenced Scotland fiddling. Cape Breton fiddling - essentially a solo tradition - derives from old Highland Scottish fiddling and is connected to an unbroken tradition of step dancing; it uses articulated bowing techniques in contrast to Irish and Old World Scottish fiddling which make use of legato bowing and slurring. The "roll," a standard ornamental device of Irish, especially Sligo-style fiddling, is seldom heard in Cape Breton fiddling.
  4. Historically, all the Celts have suffered from bigotry, persecution and assimilation. We know of a Celtic language that has disappeared, i.e., Cumbrian (spoken in northwestern England and parts of Lowland Scotland), and in the 17th Century the Middle Breton written standard was abandoned in favor of Modern Breton transcribed according to French phonetics. [see; "Why Study a Celtic language?" on the Celtic League web site]
    The term "Celt" comes from the ancient Greek "keltoi," used to describe various barbarian (by old Greek standards) tribes that the Greeks encountered. The ancestral Celtic language, originally spoken across the European mainland and all the way to Asia Minor (Turkey), branched out by the fifth century A.D. to become the two main variants of today’s six modern Celtic languages, "Q-Celtic" (Goidelic or Gaelic) as spoken in Ireland, and "P-Celtic" (Brythonic) spoken primarily in Britain.

  5. Robin Morton, Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 10. Quoted in James R. Cowdery, The Melodic Tradition in Ireland (Kent, Ohio, Kent State University Press, 1990), 79.

  6. Hanway, supra n. 1, p. 157. "The emphasis of certain pitches in a tune (where and how often they occur) may give the impression of playing different keys or modes as there seems to be more than one tonic. Some tunes seem not to resolve or resolve on a different pitch from the pitch one might have expected." Some tunes use different modes from one section to the next. See melismatic variation, infra n. 8.

  7. Ibid., p. 158 "Musicologists consider piobaireachd (piping) music to be closest to the classical harping and traditional music of the Gaelic world before its gradual and systematic elimination from the 1500s through the 1700s. During this time, draconian measures were used against the Irish: Irish language and culture was slowly eradicated through legal bans and killings. Piobaireachd is linked to the oldest Gaelic traditions... [Today] Gaelic tunes refers to traditional airs and dance tunes from Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Gaelic diaspora, which may include tunes from Appalachia, Cape Breton, Prince Edward Island, and the Shetland Islands. Gaelic tunes are typically in the public domain but may have known authors; many traditional Scottish fiddle tunes have famous composers. Today’s Scottish and Irish traditional dance music is distinctive and varies widely within each tradition; nevertheless, these cousin-styles have borrowed and adapted many tunes from each other and, to a lesser extent, from other Celtic and non-Celtic traditions. Some tunes, especially those from the Isle of Man and Shetland, show a Scandinavian influence or origin."

  8. Ibid., p. 162. "A style of ornamentation is part of the received wisdom and a distinguishing feature of a particular tradition (whether vocal or instrumental). Ornamentation varies considerably even within the Celtic tradition, some styles relying more on preplanned variations than on the personal utterance. It is in Irish music that ornamentation is used most individualistically, but within certain implicit parameters (e.g., generally avoiding chromaticism)."
  9. Ibid., p. 161. "As sung or played, such variation may consist of: (a) the substitution of a series of typically higher and lower notes (e.g., a ‘roll’ on the fiddle) for a main note or phrase of a song or tune; (b) the addition of a single ‘grace’ note leading into a main note; also (c) the replacement of the main note by a pair of notes, usually [but not necessarily] of equal time value (e.g., a quarter note is replaced by two eighth notes). The melisma, the ornament, is typically sung to a single syllable. Some melismata use accidentals." Some uses of accidentals may seem to imbue a tune briefly with another modality (scale), and this may actually be happening although it is the rare exception to the rule: Tunes are usually in a single mode, or sometimes in two modes - one for each section. See complex tonality, supra n. 5.

  10. Ibid., p. 168. "Variation is central to Celtic music and the use of variation varies from one style to the next. For example, Welsh harping relies heavily upon preplanned variation, whereas Irish harping is largely improvised. The use of ornament, especially rolls and slurring, in Irish traditional fiddling is common and quite different from the typical ornament used in Scottish or Cape Breton fiddling, which employs highly-articulated bowing techniques and very little slurring."

  11. Ibid., p. 165. "The session is the performance workshop for Celtic musicians, especially Irish traditional players. It is here that players share and elaborate upon tunes. Here the living tradition takes stock of and fertilizes itself; it grows and evolves in a variety of unpredictable circumstances. Anybody might turn up at a good session and more players from the various Celtic traditions are beginning to mix it up, sometimes with staggering results."

  12. Ibid., p. 167. A tonal center "...is a tone, usually the tonic, that occurs with great frequency in a tune, upon which chords, chord progressions, and tonality may be built. Some tunes have competing tonal centers." See complex tonality, supra n. 5.

  13. Ibid., p. 161. A mode is a "...step-pattern of notes that make up the basic tonal material of a tune. Western music is so permeated by the ‘major-minor system’ (two predominant modes) that the ears of Western players tend to hear music based on other modes as being either major or minor, which can lead to confusion and unsatisfactory results in backing Celtic tunes, which often use modes which are neither major nor minor. Many living and past cultures [e.g., Arabian, Indian and medieval Irish clerics] have connected modes, and the individual tones that make them up, with a complex system of extra-musical elements, e.g., types of action, emotions, thoughts, and colors."

  14. Ibid., p. 158. "Scales or modes that omit certain pitches of a diatonic (seven-tone or heptatonic) scale, often relying on only five or six tones, known respectively as a pentatonic and hexatonic scale."

  15. Ibid., p. 159. "One of the most commonly used modes in Celtic music (e.g., ‘Sally Gardens’), it is the same as the major scale, the familiar: do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do. This step-pattern of notes fall on the white keys of a piano as: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C."

  16. Ibid., p. 161. "A commonly used mode in Celtic music (e.g., ‘The Road to Lisdoonvarna’ - reel). Relative to a major scale, its diatonic series has a flatted seventh. Its unique step-pattern of notes fall on the white keys of a piano as: G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G."

  17. Ibid., p. 157. "A commonly used mode in Celtic music (e.g., ‘The Star of Munster’). Relative to a major scale, its diatonic series has a flatted third and seventh. Its unique step-pattern of notes fall on the white keys of the piano as: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D."

  18. Ibid., p. 154. "A commonly used mode in Celtic music (e.g., ‘The Rights of Man’), also known as the pure or natural minor scale. Relative to a major scale, its diatonic series has a flatted third, sixth, and seventh. Its unique step-pattern of notes fall on the white keys of a piano as: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A."

  19. Ibid., p. 162. "A mode sometimes found in Celtic music (especially Cornish and Breton songs); it is common in Spain and other Mediterranean countries. [It sounds Arabic in origin, possibly owing to Moorish influence in Spain and elsewhere on the Continent.] Relative to a major scale, its diatonic series has a flatted second, third, sixth and seventh. Its unique step-pattern of notes fall on the white keys of a piano as: E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E."

  20. New York fiddler Tony DeMarco, co-author of A Trip to Sligo: A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Irish Fiddling, Sligo-style, hits the nail on the head: "The score of 'Riverdance’ doesn’t have one ‘trad’ tune in it."

  21. I use "utilitarian" in the strict (non-political) sense - meaning "practical" yet aesthetically ambiguous.

  22. Fintan Vallely, ed. The Companion to Irish Traditional Music (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999), pp. 64-65. From "What is Celtic Music?"

  23. Hanway, supra n. 1, p. "A traditional ceílí (Irish Gaelic) or ceilidh (Scottish Gaelic) is a ‘community event,’ really a gathering of neighbors in one of their houses, often at night, so that individuals may share in singing, dancing, storytelling, and the like... Ceílí (dance party) bands began to achieve popularity in the late 1920s, playing Irish music on both traditional and non-traditional instruments (e.g., piano, drums, guitars, saxophones and banjos) in ensembles of up to eight or nine musicians. In [Irish music historian] Seán Ó Riada’s view, the idea of personal variation - so central to Irish traditional music - was lost in the mix: ‘Instead, everyone takes hold of a tune and belts away at it without stopping. The result is a meaningless noise with as much relation to music as the buzzing of a bluebottle in an upturned jamjar.’" From Seán Ó Riada, Our Musical Heritage, (Portlaoise, Ireland: The Dolmen Press, 1982), p. 74. This sentiment could also describe the noise emanating from the legion of Celtic-rock bar bands today.

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