Celtic Music

Celtic folk song is for the most part pentatonic in origin. The 5-scale note forms the basis of the 6-note (hexatonic) and 7-note (heptatonic) scales respectively. It is this gapped scale system that distinguishes the music of the Celts from the more widely used major-minor system.

Lamond, Mary Jane
Lamond performs plaintive ballads of lost love, work songs and joyful dance tunes from material she has researched from oral and archival sources (courtesy Maclean's).
MacMaster, Natalie
Natalie MacMaster's traditional Cape Breton fiddling style is based on a rich Highland Scotland repertoire from the 17th to 19th centuries (photo by Richard Beland, courtesy Natalie MacMaster).

Celtic Music

Celtic music references in ancient sagas, medieval texts, even in the works of Dante and Shakespeare, all attest the importance of music, both vocal and instrumental, in Celtic realms. Celtic music, in Canada as elsewhere, is derivative of a genre whose antecedents are rooted in Continental and Insular CELTIC LANGUAGES. During the last 2 centuries, collectors and musicologists have retrieved, edited and analysed an impressive corpus of Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Breton, Manx and Cornish folk-songs. All of them have emphasized the importance of folk music as the prime medium through which the musical style of a nation can develop as a distinctive art form.

Celtic folk song is for the most part pentatonic in origin. The 5-scale note forms the basis of the 6-note (hexatonic) and 7-note (heptatonic) scales respectively. It is this gapped scale system that distinguishes the music of the Celts from the more widely used major-minor system. To avoid monotony, folk singers exercise their creative instincts through the use of melodic and ornamental variants.

The principal instruments identified with Celtic music are the harp, the bagpipe and the fiddle. The harp is common to all Celtic areas. Harpers, many of them blind, flourished in Ireland, Wales and Scotland until the 18th century, when political, religious and social changes threatened the extinction of their language and their culture. The harp was used both for accompaniment and as a solo instrument. It was the instrument which incited Highlanders to battle until it ceded that role to the bagpipe after the Battle of Harlaw in 1411. Harpers disdained the adaptations of their music to the pipes at that time, and later to the fiddle which they regarded as an inferior instrument.

The bagpipe has a long history in Celtic society. The war-pipes and small pipes of Scotland, the Uilleanann pipes of Ireland, and the biniou, a smaller instrument played in Brittany only in accompaniment with the bombard, all had their own music, and all are still very much part of the music in their respective areas. The fiddle tradition is a more recent development. Although well known in Scotland prior to 1680, it was enhanced and enriched by the great upsurge of dancing in the 19th century. Scores of folk tunes were adapted as dance music and transmitted in writing, not orally as with other forms of folk culture. Ireland, too, has a strong fiddle tradition. In both countries, as in Canada, the fiddle has experienced phenomenal popularity during the past 2 decades.

In Canada the preservation and development of authentic Celtic music has occurred wherever Celtic languages have been retained. Highland SCOTS, in particular, for generations continued to sing the songs of their forebears, to which they added their own compositions reflecting their fortunes in the New World. Their piping and fiddling remained strong, too. This is not to say that other Celts neglected their traditional music. WELSH, IRISH and Breton tunes can be heard in choral, orchestral, solo and folk-group renditions in many parts of the country today. Celtic influences on popular music have become particularly strong, with artists and groups such as Ashley MACISAAC, Natalie MacMaster, Loreena MCKENNITT, Leahy, The Barra MacNeils, The RANKINS, and others receiving national and international acclaim. Local dance groups stimulate and perpetuate music essential to their art. Whatever the form, music remains for Celts a distinctive and treasured part of their cultural heritage.

See also FOLK MUSIC, ANGLO-CANADIAN; FOLK MUSIC, FRANCO-CANADIAN.


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