Updated: Oct 2, 2020
The term “Celtic music” is nowadays misused and not recognized properly.
That mistake created a divided view of what really Celtic music is. An ordinary listener can consider Celtic music every relaxing, moody pieces of music that consist of musical phrases played by national instruments of countries like Ireland or Scotland (bagpipes, Celtic harp, low whistle, carnyx). In this case, the term Celtic music is used interchangeably with Irish music.
For more experienced listeners interested in this topic, Celtic music is a repercussion of Celtic culture that has been present in Europe for 2500 years. It represents not only the musical aspect of Celtic heritage but also poetry, elegies, historical documents etc. It sticks to traditional Celtic pieces of music coming from Britain, Ireland, Scotland but also from France, Spanish, Italy – even Poland. Celtic culture had its influence on each of those countries as well as all those countries had their influence on Celtic development and existence. A careful listener will notice that the pieces presented and categorized in this work are very consistent, but at the same time, they have visible influences from the regions they come from.
The word “Celtic” comes from the Greek word “Elton” referring to barbarian tribes present in Europe at those times. That is a proper word to describe the style and mood of Celtic music which mainly touches such themes as love, journey, exile, the uncertainty of tomorrow, loneliness, war. Lyrics are stories of living traditions presenting the heritage of the past, showing respect to ancestors.
The musical aspect is as well interesting. A vast majority of Celtic music maintains certain rules. First of all, Celtic pieces tend to evolve and change. There are changes of themes and motifs that are very often reintroduced. That changeability keeps conservative tendencies – the variations emerge slowly and are quite predictable due to consequently respected principles. As a genre presented and transmitted orally it carries a great fluidity. Conducting the research, one can find a vast spectrum of variations of certain tune. Sometimes they differ in mood, resolutions, articulation, etc. Celtic music in major part represents a wave of traditional Western Europe. It is clear that in the first stage it was passed from one generation to another. That made this genre highly individualistic and open to new interpretations being called “music of the people”.
The characteristic sound and style present in many Celtic pieces are achieved by common use of Dorian and Mixolydian modes and pentatonic scales. There were certain pieces that used such a rare scale as Mixolydian with a flattened sixth step. One should remember that the Celts were present on the lands of the Far Occident – that popularized the use of a different range of instruments which have very specific abilities and usually differ in performance and scale from the instruments known on the West. The existence of quartertones and flourishing ornaments, slurs and grace notes should not be a surprise – that also makes difficult to transcribe traditional pieces for the guitar or piano.