Celtic music is a broad term that includes many traditions and genres that originate from western Europe. The connecting thread of Celtic music is that it evolved from the traditional folk music of that area including Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany in northern France.
As with any genre of music, especially a genre this broad, Celtic music has a large variety of instruments that are used to play it. Anything from the raucous fiddle to the haunting bagpipes to the ethereal flute can create this music.
This article will cover several of the common instruments found in Celtic music, including how they are played, how they sound, and a little of their history.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find another instrument that is more indicative of Celtic music than the Fiddle.
The fiddle is basically a violin. The body is the same, but a fiddle is often stringed with steel strings, while a violin uses nylon or gut strings.
The playing style of a fiddle is slightly different as well. A Celtic fiddler uses more quick fingerwork and short bursts of sound as they play.
Despite the violin and the fiddle being essentially the same instrument, fiddlers have far fewer resources. In Celtic music, there are regional differences for the fiddle too.
2. Celtic Harp
Any person who has had a glass of Guinness will be familiar with the Celtic Harp.
Four feet high and strung with 34 strings of gut or wire the Celtic harp has been used for thousands of years, not only for music but also to accompany storytellers and create quite an immersive experience for the listeners.
When playing the Celtic harp, the musician is usually seated with the harp leaning against them and a hand on either side of the strings.
Celtic harps can be simple in appearance or elaborately carved.
3. Tin Whistle
The Tin Whistle lies within the same family as the flute and is a staple to Celtic music. It is rather small and easy to carry, which perhaps led to its ability to remain so relevant.
Like the flute, the tin whistle is a tube of metal. It has six tone holes in which the musician can place their fingers to create differently pitched notes.
In Celtic music, the tin whistle can be an accent instrument, only playing a few chosen notes, or playing the melody.
The Pipes might be some people’s first thought when they think of Celtic folk music. Pipes can include both the bagpipes that are one of the most famous Scottish instruments of the highlands and then you also have the Uillean pipes which are from Ireland.
Depending on what type of pipes you’re playing they might have different parts.
They will typically all have a leather bladder that the musician fills with air. Traditionally these were made out of animal skin but not so much nowadays.
This bladder is held under the musician’s arm while they hold the chanter which looks something like a recorder or an oboe and is connected to the bladder.
By pressing on the bladder while using quick fingerwork on the chanter, it forces the air out the end of the chanters which creates its distinctive sound.
There are some differences between the two varieties of pipes.
The Scottish bagpipes are played while the musician is standing, and they blow directly into a mouthpiece to fill the bladder.
The Uilleann pipes, on the other hand, have bellows that are held under the arm. These bellows are used to fill the air bladder rather than blowing air into them like other types of bagpipes.
The Flute is similar to the tin whistle, just larger. When it comes to Celtic music, the wooden flute tends to be preferred over the more modern metal flute.
To play the flute, the musician blows across an opening in the mouthpiece and uses their fingers to cover the correct holes for the desired note.
Like the tin whistle, the flute can be both used to add accents to a song and to create the main melody.
Another instrument popular in Celtic music is the Accordion which can come in all shapes in sizes.
The most common that you might see in Celtic music is probably the Melodeon which doesn’t have piano keys like most types of accordions but instead has rows of buttons to play the notes.
Despite the differences in how they’re played, in between the two sides of all accordion are the bellows.
To play the accordion, the musician pulls the bellows apart and pushes them back in a while, holding the desired keys.
It is the action of pushing and pulling the bellows that pushes air across the reeds inside the accordion and produces sound.
Music is never complete without some form of percussion. When it comes to Celtic music, that comes in the form of the Bodhran, this traditional music is a type of drum held in one hand and played with the other.
The Bodhran is created by stretching a piece of treated goatskin over a round frame.
Most often, the Bodhran is played by hitting it with a small drumstick called a beater. Some musicians may also choose to play it with their hands.
You can achieve the different tones by where you hit them. The middle of the Bodhran will create a deep tone, while closer to the sides will create a short lighter tone.
The Concertina is another type of accordion but a rather distinct one. This accordion has a hexagonal shape and is rather small.
The difference between a concertina and a full accordion is that the accordion has a full keyboard on one side that allows the musician to create full chords with the movement of the bellows.
The concertina is a very easy instrument to learn, meaning even children can learn how to play it.
The Bones are also known as Spoons in some areas are another traditional Celtic instrument.
Traditionally, the bones are played with two pieces of wood that are held in one hand together and slapped between the leg and opposite hand to make a percussive sound.
The bones are very easy to play and can be picked up by anyone in a matter of moments; they simply need to be able to hold a rhythm.
The name ‘bones’ comes from that bones used to be played using two sheep rib bones.
10. Irish Bouzouki
The Irish Bouzouki is an offshoot from the Greek instrument, the bouzouki and is similar to a mandolin. It sounds similar to its relative, the Greek bouzouki, but the sound is lighter.
The Irish bouzouki has a rounded pear-shaped body and a long narrow neck. The musician plays this instrument by holding down a combination of strings on the neck and plucking the notes down at the body end of the instrument.
Despite looking old, the Bouzouki is a recent addition to Celtic music and only made its way into Irish music in the 1960s.
The Bombard is a long flute-like instrument that is related to the oboe.
It is played in the same way as a tin whistle, by blowing into the mouthpiece and covering the correct tone holes for the desired note.
This instrument is often played together with the binou (another type of bagpipe). This pairing harmonizes lovely together as the binou plays both an octave above and an octave below the bombarde at the same time.
The bombarde is often only played for small portions of a song at a time. The reason for this is the bombarde requires quite a lot of breath from the musician to play.
12. Hammered Dulcimer
The Hammered Dulcimer is a trapezoid-shaped board with pairs of strings stretched over it, like a zither. It is played by hitting the strings with two small hammers. The sound created by the dulcimer is similar to the harp.
The hammered dulcimer has been a part of Celtic folk tradition since at least the eighteenth century. Another version that has been known to be played is the tiompan.
The hammer dulcimer is not the most popular instrument in Celtic music, it is speculated that the bulk of the instrument (similar to a piano) and the time required to tune it for play.
Considering that the instrument will often have at least 50 strings, it’s no surprise that it might be difficult to have on hand at all times.
And finally, the Voice is an instrument that must not be overlooked when it comes to Celtic music.
Celtic music has a variety of traditions that has different styles of using the voice for music. In some cases, there may be a single singer performing the words of a song. In other traditions, there is often a full chorus of singers.
Meanwhile, both Ireland and Scotland have unaccompanied traditional singing called the sean-nos and the puirt a beul, respectively.
Summing up Our list of Celtic Instruments
These instruments together create the foundation of what Celtic music can be.
Whether it’s a traditional folk song or a modern hybrid twist, these instruments will create the Celtic sound that any musician could be looking for.
These instruments come at a variety of difficulty levels, portability, even historical use in folk music.
Not all of the instruments on this list have been used in Celtic music from the dawn of time, but they have all cemented their place eventually.