(This article originally appeared in Mel BayMel Bay's Guitar Sessions® Web Magazine, May 2001)

Listening to and Backing Celtic Music
by Tom Hanway


In conceptualizing this article a story by melodic banjoist Bill Keith comes to mind:
In the early sixties, progressive banjoist Roger Sprung and New York City friends from the Greenwich Village scene drove down to Marshall, North Carolina (near Asheville) to a bluegrass gathering - where moonshine was even made available behind a tree - to meet and jam with traditional players. A local singer was giving his rendition of a song when he was interrupted by a New York City autoharp player who had brought along his personal song book. "Stop! That verse doesn't go there. Let me show you how it goes." He then read from his sacred printed version of the song. The out-of-towner embarrassed his friends and the North Carolinians by attempting to tell the latter group how to sing and play their local music.

This incident made some distinct impressions on Bill about jamming etiquette: (1.) There is no accounting for taste - good or bad. Playing in context is key. (2.) It is a bad idea to interrupt the flow of the music; such things as chords, lyrics and melody lines may differ from context to context. Unless such things are agreed upon beforehand, one should not assume that one's version of a tune is the only way to play it. (3.) It is unwise to correct one's hosts and mentors. When local traditional customs are ignored, second-guessed or trampled, someone always notices - but not always the transgressing innovator.

Part I: The "Authentic" Music of the Six Celtic Nations and the Celtic Diaspora

In Celtic music, those who make interesting use of variation (whether melismatic, intervallic, rhythmic) and ornamentation (whether spontaneous or pre-planned) are highly regarded. Creative interpretation, within implicit parameters, is the rule. A potential pitfall of bluegrass, rock, or jazz-influenced accompanists would be to exceed the boundaries of what is considered tasteful improvisation by any Celtic standards. If the chords and rhythm become objects of whimsy, so might the melodies, and tunes might be lost to "the changes." This has long been a problem with "fiddle tunes" at bluegrass jams, where players must work particularly hard to play the same melody - if they are to play it together - within the mix of styles on various instruments.

The orally transmitted music of the Irish, Scots, Manx, Welsh, Breton and Cornish peoples are not one in the same, just as their languages are not one in the same. Each Celtic nation has its own language, culture and musical traditions - related but not interchangeable. An old-time Cape Breton (Scottish) backer, a guitar player, would tend to use a boom-chuck rhythm, similar to country, swing and jazz guitarists, whereas many Irish backing guitarists would tend to use a syncopated style and avoid altogether American country and swing rhythms, or use them very sparingly. Accordingly, traditional musicians have often resented the ongoing blurring of national, regional and local distinctions.

Terms like "Celtic music" and "world music" gloss over the important differences between ethnic, cultural, regional and local styles. They tell us nothing about the music in the Celtic diaspora, for example, in Shetland, Galicia, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton. All attempts to reduce Celtic music to the printed page miss important and defining aspects of it. I have written elsewhere on the definition of "Celtic music" and how the term has been confused with and used to sell other forms of music. See http://www.celticleague.org and click on "Celtic Music" Tom Hanway, "Perspective and Meaning in Celtic Music" (2001).

In Celtic music, instrumental compositions are simply called "tunes"; tunes are not songs - songs have lyrics. Tunes are the instrumental dance and listening music of the six Celtic nations, comprising two main language branches - the Gaelic (Irish, Scottish, Manx) and the Brythonic (Welsh, Cornish, Breton). Gaelic tunes include the air, the single, double and slip jig, march, rant, reel, clog, hornpipe, the slow and dance strathspey, Highland fling, Kerry slide, set dances (Irish) and set-tunes (Scottish/Cape Breton). Piobaireachd is piping music - played on the píob-mhór or Great Highland bagpipe, considered by musicologists to be closest to the classical harping and traditional music of the Gaelic world before its slow demise from the 1500s through the 1700s. Most Celtic music can be played successfully without any backing or accompaniment. Some Celtic music, e.g., Breton music, typically involves the interplay (call and response) between two main instruments, the binou (a little bagpipe) and the bombarde (an oboe-like instrument).

The Irish and Welsh have proud harping traditions, though Wales alone has an unbroken tradition of harping, going back to the ancients. Ireland's Turlough O'Carolan gave us Italian-Baroque-inspired harp tunes and planxties which are now favorites of guitarists and even 5-string banjo players. There are sprightly Cornish country dances and the laridenn and an dro from Brittany (Breizh) in France. Breton tunes are very localized, with villages having their own tunes, and the tradition is the most fragmented of the Celtic musics.

Continental dance tune forms are found even in Irish music, for example, the mazurka, polka, and waltz. Shetland, Galicia, the Canadian Maritimes and other parts of the Celtic diaspora also have flourishing Celtic tune traditions, variously infused with musical elements from old Scandinavia (in Shetland and the Orkneys), old Scotland and Acadia (in Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island), and Ireland (in Galicia, Australia and America). Some of the older breakdowns (or hoedowns) in old-time and bluegrass music derive from centuries-old Irish, Scottish and Welsh reels and hornpipes.

Traditionally, piping tunes had no harmony save for droning, typically at a fifth, but even at a fourth, third, or second if appropriate to the tune, whereby tonal centers were reinforced. Fiddlers also used drones as harmony. Harpers from Ireland and Wales undoubtedly played various types of harmony, but we cannot be sure what they played without actual recordings or transcriptions; the O'Carolan transcriptions hint at what Baroque-style harmonies could have been played, but even these give us just the bare bones melodies (and not how he actually played them). Musicians played solo, adding personal ornamentation, or in small groups, with everyone playing in slightly heterophonic unison, each adding ornamentation and fleshing out the melody.

The bulk of Celtic tunes handed down to us date between the late sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries; some tunes are much older, e.g., "Brian Boru's March." Even today, in piping, fiddling, and harping, the ornamentation and the tune are virtually inseparable. The ornamentation is the tune. This is also true of more recent compositions that are entering the living Celtic traditions which grow, change and adapt from other music forms, sometimes in astonishing ways.

Some nineteenth century tunes resist harmonization or being locked into a single tonality. They have "complex tonality" with competing "tonal centers," like two (or more) little suns exercising gravitational pulls on nearby satellite notes. They give the impression of changing keys or leaving notes hanging in mid-air. Such melodies may befuddle classically trained musician whose "ears" have been trained to hear equally tempered music, major-minor keys, modulations, and Western harmony. Some traditional Irish and Scottish, e.g., Cape Breton and Western Highlands fiddlers make use of slightly sharped or flatted pitches, or "half-sharp" notes, especially at the third and seventh degrees of the scale.

Part II: Celtic Melodies and the Modes

The "backer" at an Irish music session, or seisiún ceoil, is not, by definition, a "lead" player. Nonetheless, he must "know the tunes" of the lead players - pipers, fiddlers, flute and whistle players, accordionists, banjo and other tune players, who focus on notes, ornamentation and variation. In fact, theirs is a solo tradition embracing monophony. "Celtic back-up," which involves playing stacked tones simultaneously (hence chords) is a twentieth century concept. Celtic tunes can be played alone, in unison with, or split between melody players. Many tunes are rooted in the pre-Baroque church modes, which emphasized the relations of tones played successively. See http://www.standingstones.com/modeharm.html for "A Beginner's Guide to Modal Harmony" (2001).

Homophony, polyphony and heterophony are secondary to the melodic impulse that characterizes all Celtic tune playing. The monodic thrust in Celtic music - the playing of a single melody line - is more clear-cut than the homophony of Euro-American music styles, such as jazz, rock, and bluegrass, where "lead" players play back-up and "rhythm" players may play countermelodies or insert a "solo."

"Accidental" heterophony (when several singers or players perform the same melody but don't quite match), however, is an everyday occurrence at sessions, where players ornament tunes and add personal "variation" at will. No matter how heterophonic the result, monody or melody is the most salient feature of Celtic instrumental music. Players who bring a personal, innovative touch to tune playing are highly regarded within the various oral Celtic traditions, which, through centuries of internal music development, have established their own cultural values, social etiquette, aural language, and unwritten rules.

The technique of "note frequency analysis," used by Irish musicologist Tomás Ó Canainn, tallies points for each time a note occurs (its frequency) and adds extra "points" for such things as the highest and lowest notes, notes occurring on a downbeat, accented beat, extra long beats, or a note proceeded to by a leap greater than a fifth, etc. By simply looking beyond key signature and final note, and instead observing tonal centers and modality, Ó Canainn concludes that traditional dance tunes have a "melodic rather than a harmonic philosophy behind their composition." - Tomás Ó Canainn , Traditional Music In Ireland, (Cork, Ireland: Ossian, 1978), pp. 27-30

The implication is that one must really listen to the melody of a piece of music so as not to jump to any conclusions about its key. To classically trained and Westernized ears, some tunes seem to modulate from one key to another and then back again. Depending on the tune, this may or may not be the case. "The Blarney Pilgrim" is a well-known example: It has a pronounced D tonality, though it makes more sense on paper in G. It could be a "gapped" G-Ionian (major) scale or a "gapped" D-Mixolydian scale - in either case hexatonic (six notes) - in the former leaving out the seventh degree of the scale (F#) and in the latter leaving out the third degree (still F#). Consequently, this tune is ambiguous between D and G.

It is often the deft use of gapped scales (pentatonic and hexatonic) that makes Celtic tunes so slippery and ambiguous between tonalities. The use of modes, which may not always conform to simple major and minor keys but may possess characteristics of both, and the shifting of the tonal center between sections (change of mode): Both of these elements contribute to the elusive character of Celtic tonality.

A good example of shifting modality between sections is "The Connaughtman's Rambles," which moves from D-Ionian to B-Aeolian. Celtic instrumental music is a realm where the phantom of tonal paradox, like a country gentleman, switches between moods and partners effortlessly - cutting in, swinging and parrying with tuneful colleens, as stilted longhairs look on enviously from their sanctimonious seats.

Today almost anything goes in the backing (harmonizing and re-harmonizing) of Celtic tunes, yet it all boils down to context and reaching consensus, either at the session, or in the practice room or recording studio. It is considered bad etiquette at traditional Irish sessions for a backer to back a tune he or she does not know; it is presumptuous and may create bad feelings at the session. In the Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, Sarah McQuaid observes, "It never ceases to amaze me when piano and guitar players plunk themselves down ... and roar confidently in my ear, 'What key are they in?' ... These ... are the very people who go obliviously generating untold quantities of bad feeling among melody players; these are the people who give guitarists a bad name.... [If only] the guitarists who frequent traditional music sessions would resist the urge to play willy-nilly, and try listening to the tunes for a change." - Sarah McQuaid, The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book: Playing and Backing Traditional Irish Music on Open-Tuned Guitar, (Cork, Ireland: Ossian, 1995), p. 43

There's no shame in not playing if one does not know a tune. People trained in bluegrass, rock 'n roll and jazz might have a hard time sitting out a tune and just listening when they can identify the tonality and know how to play - but play what? Having knowledge of classical harmony or elaborate chord substitutions is not essential to backing up tunes, but knowing the tune is. Understanding composition and harmony concepts is important, but not as important as being able to recognize tunes and lilt or hum them. Major and minor scales, chord substitutions and bass lines are good to have in one's toolbox, especially for improvising in a variety of contexts, but in the various Celtic musics, learning the tunes and local etiquette must come first.

Knowing the tune and the local or "traditional" style of back-up (if it exists) is paramount. An understanding of music theory is useful but not essential for learning how to back tunes using altered tunings (e.g., DADGAD) or widespread Celtic playing techniques, although these vary from person to person and session to session. Back-up can be learned firsthand by playing regularly with local players and absorbing the tunes and back-up techniques through ear training and practice.

Yet it is quite common for overeager players, especially guitarists, to jump in once they think they have found the right key and chords, and some "bludgeon-strummers" are frequently incorrect in their assumptions of the key (tonality), which may be "complex" - having more than one tonal center. A tune may also change tonality (with or without changing modality). Some Scottish tunes use "double tonics," with tonal centers one tone apart, using hexatonic scales and two modes, e.g., "Sweet Molly," which uses the E- Dorian and D-Ionian modes. See http://www.purr.demon.co.uk/jack/Music/Modes.abc for Jack Campin, "Scales and Modes in Scottish Traditional Music" (1999).

The most frequently used modes are the Ionian (major), the Mixolydian (more major than minor sounding - flatted 7th), Dorian (bluesy, more minor than major - flatted 3rd and 7th), and Aeolian (natural minor - flatted 3rd, 6th and 7th). Some Cornish, Breton and Galician music uses the Phrygian mode (very minor sounding - flatted 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th). The Phrygian mode is more common in Spain, Mediterranean countries, Scandinavia and Russia. It occasionally crops up in some Gaelic (especially in Scandinavian- or Mediterranean-influenced Irish and Scottish) music.

Mel Bay author Chris Smith writes: "[T]his modal foundation means that Celtic harmony works differently than ... European classical ... harmony. This can be confusing and you need to ... understand how a tune's mode and its appropriate chords interact.... Due ... to my training in jazz, where harmonic substitution is a prized skill, it's my conviction that harmonic variation is a musical parameter [whereby] an accompanist can contribute ... to the presentation of Celtic dance melodies. This music in its most traditional form is melodic and rhythmic.... [R]eplicating [in back-up] this melodic and rhythmic material ... runs the risk of being redundant: if you're contributing nothing, why play? In contrast, if you ... can manipulate Celtic harmony, you can present beautiful, shifting harmonic frameworks for these melodies, to the extent that listeners and players alike actually 'hear them anew.'" - Chris Smith, Celtic Back-up for All Instrumentalists, (Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, 1999), p. 49.

Smith mentions two "great swing drummers" of the early 1940s and how they made jazz rhythm "more implicit, flexible and susceptible to reaction," to illustrate an interesting theoretical approach: "[B]ecause rhythm is the most ubiquitous and fundamental part of musical organization, you can get ideas and inspiration for playing Celtic rhythms from many other world music traditions... [In] traditional music ... all players should (emphasis added) be responsible for time, and no one player's time should be the- arbiter. - Smith, p. 57.

Clearly, the author has an open-minded, eclectic approach to Celtic music that is not afraid to draw from many non-Celtic styles and traditions.

Such an approach is honest and eminently useful in certain contexts; it points towards an extraordinary fusion of Celtic, jazz and world music styles that could make for great listening or dance music. In all likelihood, purists would view this as an encroachment upon established forms and would deny its relevance to the real tradition. Meanwhile, honest innovators would rejoice and set about learning how to use all the new tools afforded by "shifting harmonic frameworks," rhythmic concepts, and an ensemble approach, where no one "player" dominates in a "flexible rhythmic interaction." One could argue that the rhythmic, intervallic, and melismatic variations of "tune players" would be accorded less status, obscured, or at worst, buried by such a democratic approach to "Celtic music" - where backers and players are on an equal footing in an ensemble that elevates harmonic-rhythmic exchange to the status of melodic invention.

Smith's "shifting harmonic frameworks," however they are presented, still derive from the oldest ecclesiastical modes, favored up through the Renaissance, for their melodic richness, before the rise in subsequent eras of equal temperament and familiar European polyphony. Singers, fiddlers, and melodists, who can physically alter the pitch of notes, may play something closer to "just" temperament in actual performances, by slightly flattening thirds and sevenths, bringing them closer to what the ear might otherwise naturally expect to hear. Many tunes use hexatonic or pentatonic scales and are ambiguous between modes and could be harmonized to sound either more major or minor. See Patricia Vivien Yarrow, http://clem.mscd.edu/~yarrowp/MODEXh.html for "A Brief Introduction to Modes in Early and Traditional European Music (1998).

Part III: How to Avoid Being a "Clueless" Backer at the Session

The beauty of the various Celtic musics lies in their very individuality and irreducibility to the printed page. Although Celtic music is not a universal "meta-style" which can be fully captured using standard notation, a good theoretical background and ear training is certainly a practical place to begin. At the same time, the careful explanations Euro-American theorists and performers offer, demonstrating how driving rhythms, bass lines, power-chords, drones, moving triads, contrapuntal motion, and various combinations of homophony and heterophony can be used to play various Celtic tunes, do not necessarily mean that traditional players would use such techniques "back home." This includes the very notion of "Celtic back-up," which, on the surface, seems not to take into account national, regional, and local distinctions.

Some sessions don't even allow backers to take their instruments out of the case; this is especially true for backroom sessions consisting entirely of fiddles, or fiddles and flutes. These players may only want to hear certain melody instruments. Sometimes only one or two backers are allowed. At these types of sessions, a considerate player would not pull the instrument out of the case without first being asked. Alas, some people have not learned proper respect and would jump in willy-nilly; these types may quickly discover a stony and awkward silence around them.

For the beginner, newcomer, or "punter" (non-player), it is only proper to ask permission to do such things as tape, take pictures, or shoot videos at a session. The regular players or host will usually grant such permission, but it should not be taken for granted. Even asking if a seat is taken before sitting is the socially correct thing to do. Quite often, the best seats are reserved for special players who have not shown up yet; they may not show up but being refused a seat is not intended as a snub. On the other hand, earning a seat closer to the "center of action" is a fair goal for the newcomer to the session. This will take patience, listening, focus, and practice. How well one performs a tune is far more important than how many tunes one can pound his way through.

Lead players are typically accorded higher status than backers, unless the backers happen to be exceptional players, singers or songwriters. The local etiquette will not change to conform to the neat transcriptions or theories of books and articles, yet the river of Celtic traditional music has united many related Celtic and non-Celtic currents, and the tradition is a living one. The dynamic interplay of continuity and change, or repetition and variation, lies at the heart of the various Celtic traditions. Traditional players never ask themselves if they are "authentic" - a nebulous term.

Traditional tunes, as solo pieces, have more of a melodic-rhythmic (horizontal) rather than a harmonic (vertical) philosophy behind their composition. Rhythm already comes with the melody - also its accents and variations. Chords and backing rhythms may be added later: backers may harmonize (and re-harmonize) Celtic music at will, which may reflect varying moods. To set "correct" chords to Celtic tunes would be to fall in the classical trap - no matter how well intentioned; it would set the chords in stone, in accordance with Western harmony principles, and would limit the possibilities for creative backing obtainable only by firsthand experience. In actual performances, Celtic players routinely experiment and make off-the-cuff substitutions, sometimes omitting major and minor thirds, bending or even ignoring the rules of classical and jazz harmony.

Tunes use modes and gapped scales and were not written with diatonic chord progressions in mind (often necessitating major or minor thirds) - nor do they necessarily depend on them. However, this does not mean that a jazz or classically trained pianist or guitarist cannot employ harmonized diatonic chords (triads), suspensions, contrapuntal melodies, or a combination of musical techniques to back tunes. Even dyads (two-note chords typically omitting thirds and using octaves) come in handy, and are typically heard on the bouzouki and guitar (especially using DADGAD tuning). DADGAD, dropped D-tuning (DADGBE), and other open tunings that favor drones are still fashionable among traditional and innovative Celtic backers.

In superimposing "imported" backing ideas, e.g., classical harmony, complex chord substitution, or world music rhythms, on a traditional session, one must be careful not to usurp the session leader's role or undermine the session's national, regional, or local character. Two obvious ways of accomplishing this are 1.) not overplaying, and 2.) not playing on everything. Many have tried to inject foreign ideas and instruments into Irish and Celtic music but few have truly succeeded in changing and improving upon the music. The most common error is to try to make Celtic music conform to non-Celtic musical forms. Some sincerely believe they have mapped out a new musical vista - the real problem lies in confusing the map with the terrain, in confusing non-Celtic ideas that wrap themselves around Celtic musical styles with actual Celtic playing. Yet if it works, that is to say, if it is tastefully offered to and accepted by others, a new back-up approach may earn a place in the meritocratic toolbox of Celtic backing styles.

Special thanks to ethnomusicology Ph.D. candidate Toby King at Columbia University, for editing the first drafts.

© Tom Hanway 2001


Cooper, Peter. Mel Bay's Complete Irish Fiddle Player. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 1995.

Cowdery, James R. The Melodic Tradition in Ireland. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990.

Cranitch, Matt. The Irish Fiddle Book. Cork, Ireland: The Mercier Press, 1988, reprinted, Music Sales Corporation, 1993.

Dunlay, K.E. and Reich, D.L. Traditional Celtic Fiddle Music of Cape Breton. Wayland, MA: Dunlay and Reich, 1986.

Hanway, Tom. Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, 1998.

McQuaid, Sarah. The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book: Playing and Backing Traditional Irish Music on Open-Tuned Guitar. Cork, Ireland: Ossian, 1995.

Nelson, Mark. Mel Bay's Complete Book of Celtic Music for Appalachian Dulcimer. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 1995.

Ó Canainn, Tomás. Traditional Music in Ireland. Cork, Ireland: Ossian, 1978.

Reck, David. Music of the Whole Earth. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977.

Smith, Chris. Celtic Back-up for All Instrumentalists. Pacific, MO: Mel Bay, 1999.

Referenced Web Sites




Campin, Jack - "Scales and Modes in Scottish Traditional Music" (1999).

Hanway, Tom - "Perspective and Meaning in Celtic Music" (2001).

Yarrow, Patricia Vivien - "A Brief Introduction to Modes in Early and Traditional European Music" (1998).

http://www.standingstones.com/modeharm.html for "A Beginner's Guide to Modal Harmony"(2001).

Back to Tom Hanway's main page...