11 The Spirit and Sound of Celtic Music

by Alexei Kondratiev

What, exactly, is 'Celtic music'? People who use the term may have a vivid sense of what it means to them, yet they may conceive of it in very different ways. In this chapter, we look at what makes music 'Celtic' and what does not.

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For some, Celtic music means the lively Irish dance tunes-jigs, reels, hornpipes, and the like-that form the repertoire of traditional fiddlers. For others, it is the wild sound of the Highland bagpipes. Yet others will think of Celtic music primarily as the commercial genre that has recently developed out of New Age styles, full of evocative minor-mode melodies performed on tinkling harps and wailing flutes, with the addition, perhaps, of a pure, high soprano voice in an echo chamber. Some restrict the term to Irish and Scottish music alone. Others are willing to include virtually all the traditional music of western Europe in the 'Celtic' category. Faced with such a variety of definitions, some writers have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as Celtic music: that the very concept of Celtic music has been created by the dominant culture to include all the styles of music that have gone out of fashion at the centres of economic and cultural power but have survived in marginal, backward areas, lending them an aura of quaint exoticism.

There is indeed no doubt that this kind of pastoral fantasy about the pre-industrial world has contributed a great deal to the appeal and commercial success of Celtic music as it is marketed to the general public. Yet the term can be applied without problem to the the musical traditions passed down in Celtic communities as we have defined them in Chapter 3: communities that owe their historical identity to the use of a Celtic language.

Diverse Contexts

The musical traditions found in Celtic communities are themselves extremely diverse in nature and origin. Not only do they vary from community to community, but several styles used in a single community, or even by a single musician, can contrast sharply with each other. This is to be expected, since musical traditions are not normally a static, rigidly conservative heritage, but instead constitute a medium that is highly responsive to changes in the social and cultural environment.

In traditional rural communities, music always has a distinct social function, ranging from intimate entertainment to providing an appropriate accompaniment for important public occasions such as weddings and funerals, or festivals related to the agricultural cycle. In many ways, the more public uses of music provide the community with an image of itself, the image it would like to project to the world at large.

Communities close to the centres of economic power that set cultural trends may be more acutely aware of what is fashionable and unfashionable. These communities will be the first to adopt new, 'socially approved' styles of music and discard old styles that might make their culture appear embarrassingly provincial. Areas farther away from the centre may take much longer to feel the need to adopt these new styles, or may never be exposed to them. On the other hand, even communities that are eager to be perceived as up-to-date with regard to the more public types of music performance can tolerate older styles of music if they are relegated to private contexts such as entertainment for small intimate gatherings or songs to accompany work. So the musical traditions of a single Celtic community can include many strata of different styles, each introduced at a different historical period, and each appropriate for performance in a particular social context. However, a community may also have a distinct, overarching 'taste' in musical matters that will put its stamp on the entire range of styles adopted at various times, often making the native performance of those styles recognisably different from the original models.

Characteristics of Celtic Music

Given this great diversity, is there any element we can consider to be characteristic of Celtic music as a whole? It must be admitted that there are no traits of musical style that are exclusive to the Celtic world, nor are there any defining characteristics that can be applied to all the musical traditions passed down within Celtic communities. Yet there are certain elements that are prominent enough statistically throughout Celtic musical practice that they contribute to the perception of a certain 'sound' associated with Celtic music.

For instance, there is a greater preponderance of pentatonic melodies in the Celtic world, especially in Scotland, Ireland, and, to a lesser extent, Brittany, than anywhere else in western Europe. Pentatonic scales are scales of five notes that usually avoid half-tone intervals - essentially the sound one gets by playing only the black keys on a keyboard. This type of melodic style is found over a large part of northern and eastern Asia, the native Americas, much of Africa, in classical Berber music and, as far as one can tell, in ancient Egyptian music. However, in Europe and the Middle East, it has been largely replaced by more complex scales with chromatic intervals.

The persistence of pentatonic melodies on Europe's Atlantic fringe strongly suggests that the ancient music of Ireland, Britain and the adjacent parts of the Continent-the 'Atlantic culture', as it is known to Celtic archaeology-was based on this type of scale, and that it was inherited by the later Celtic cultures of the area. Whether or not the music of the Celtic heartland in central Europe had a similar sound cannot be known for certain. Even when Celtic melodies aren't truly pentatonic, such as when sections in them contain half-tone intervals, they very often display passages where expected half-tone intervals are avoided, creating an 'open' sound that reminds one of pentatonic scales. This can be observed in at least some of the musical styles of virtually every Celtic community, with varying degrees of prominence. Therefore, it can legitimately be proposed as one unifying characteristic of Celtic musical taste that is a part of the cultural heritage of the Celtic world as a whole.

Throughout Europe, traditional folk melodies are often patterned after scales that are quite different from the major and minor scales used in the harmonically-based, diatonic system of later Western music. Some of these scales are called the 'church modes' because they served as the basis for the melodies in Gregorian chant. They were given names taken from the musical terminology of ancient Greece, although they may not at all have resembled the modes originally called by those names in ancient times.

If, using only the white keys of a keyboard:

one plays a scale:

one gets the mode called:

from C to C:

: Ionian mode (identical to the Major mode)

from D to D

Dorian mode

from E to E:

Phrygian mode

from F to F:

Lydian mode

from G to G:

Mixolydian mode

:from A to A:

Aeolian mode or melodic (non-harmonic Minor)

from B to B

Locrian mode (hardly ever found in traditional music because of its odd structure)

Ionian and Aeolian modes are widespread in Celtic music, but Mixolydian and Dorian are also very common. A form of the Mixolydian mode is particularly associated with Highland piping. The Phrygian mode, common in the Mediterranean world, is very rare in Celtic music, being found only in Cornwall and Brittany. The Lydian mode, common in the Balkans, is virtually unknown in the Celtic world. Use of these modes in Celtic music is often characterised by passages that avoid half-tone intervals and give the melody a fleeting pentatonic sound, as we noted above.

While all these traits are indeed typical of most Celtic music, they aren't limited to the music of Celtic communities. As a rule, tunes easily cross ethnic borders wherever cultures come into contact, so we shouldn't be surprised to find 'Celtic'-sounding tunes throughout England, France, Spain, northern Italy, and Scandinavia.

Types of Music: Traditional Classifications

Before we begin exploring the different types of traditional music that have developed within the Celtic world, we might want to take a look at how native Celtic musicians themselves have considered the material they played.

Scholars of Celtica usually sort tales into cycles with common background and characters, but Irish and Welsh storytellers classified their tales according to the social function served by the telling of the story, such as wooings for weddings, and violent deaths for funerals. Similarly, musicians thought of their tunes primarily in terms of their intended effect. Irish tradition often refers to the Ábhann Tríreach or 'triple strain,' first mentioned in Cormac's Glossary (circa 9th century). This represents the three primary functions of music:

goltraí: laments, music for weeping, intended to provoke emotion and sympathy

geantraí: dance music, lively tunes, music for good feelings, creating a happy and optimistic mood

suantraí: lullabies, various kinds of slow airs, music for sleep, which calmed the emotions and promoted relaxation

Vocal Music

Not all poor rural communities can afford sophisticated musical instruments, and only a minority of individuals can expend the time and effort to teach themselves how to play them correctly. But everyone has a voice, and even if some people are particularly appreciated for their outstanding vocal talents, most people are able to learn songs and sing them, at least for their own enjoyment. Thus vocal music gets transmitted with great ease and over long periods of time, and unfashionable styles have the opportunity to endure in more private settings.

Among the most ancient songs surviving in the Celtic repertoire are the ones associated with certain traditional activities, where they are used either to alleviate the boredom of a long, tedious task such as spinning, or to coordinate the movements of a team performing an action together, such as rowing or mowing with scythes. Notable in the latter category are the òrain luaidh or waulking songs used in the Western Isles of Scotland by groups of women as they pound - waulk - wet tweed cloth to stretch it. These songs are almost all in call-and-response form, with one person singing a line alone and all the others joining in on the next line. In keeping with the activity they accompany, such songs have a strong, heavily accented rhythm, and their melodies tend to be in the older pentatonic and church modes. The lyrics often deal with love and contemporary satire, but also preserve images of the clan life of a much earlier time, telling of intertribal warfare and piracy, and praising clan leaders. While none of them constitute a tradition quite as rich as the òrain luaidh, the other types of work songs found in Celtic communities also tend to be conservative in style.

Lullabies and milking share similar traits. Since both are intended to calm-either a restless infant, or the cow being milked-they tend to have the same slow, hypnotic swinging rhythms and simple melodies. Despite regional preferences for certain modes over others, the style of these songs is remarkably consistent throughout the Celtic regions.

Another type of Celtic vocal music that clearly has ancient roots is the formal lament. The lament has survived in Gaelic Scotland and in parts of Ireland where the native tradition of trained poets with important social roles held out the longest. At the death of an important person the poet was expected to compose a lament in the appropriate syllabic verse-form, which would be chanted according to a set melodic pattern associated with that form. Often the lament would include imitations of keening (caoineadh), the stylised lamentation performed by Irish women at wakes and funerals. Usually this consisted of a descending pentatonic melody punctuated by sudden rises of pitch and catches of breath. Some ancient laments by trained poets have survived in oral tradition, and new ones have been composed in roughly similar style.

Equally ancient is the type of mythological recitation commonly known as 'Ossianic chant'. This has survived in the southern Hebrides, but it was clearly widespread in Ireland several centuries ago, and at least one example was collected in Donegal in the 1940s.

Poems (duain) relating to the exploits of the Fianna are presented in one of two styles:

· A rapid, semi-improvisational chant on four or five notes, shaping itself according to the natural intonational patterns of the words; or

· A slow chant on a simple melody with wide intervals and a metrical pattern emphasising the structure of the verse line.

According to tradition, this chant was invented by Fionn Mac Cumhaill's son Ossian (Oisean in Scots Gaelic, Oisín in Irish) to recount the deeds of the Fianna to St. Patrick. In fact, the custom of chanting these stories may well be pre-Christian, since it appears to have had ritual connotations and it was considered particularly appropriate to perform them on Hogmanay-New Year's Eve-which in Scotland attracted to itself many of the customs of Samhain. It should also be noted that these are the only true narrative songs in the Gaelic world, since the later song tradition of Gaelic Scotland and Ireland doesn't include anything like the ballads of English and Lowland Scots tradition.

There is nothing quite like Ossianic chant among the Brythonic Celts except for the strange Breton song called Gousperoù ar Raned (The Frog Vespers) whose mysterious imagery has puzzled scholars for generations. This song is chanted in a manner reminiscent of Scottish duain, but certain structural correspondences between the Ossianic lays and older poetry associated with Arthurian motifs suggest that the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons may once have had a similar tradition.

In modern Celtic-speaking communities. there is a type of unaccompanied singing that most people identify as characteristic of their tradition, and which is used for entertainment at informal gatherings. In Irish this type of song is referred to as sean-nós ('old style'), and we will here, for the sake of convenience, apply this term generically to all such songs throughout the Celtic world.

Sean-nós songs fall into two categories, which ethnomusicologists label tempo giusto and parlando-rubato.

Tempo giusto songs, as their name implies, have to be performed in strict metre, the tunes are often-though not always-set to identifiable dance rhythms, and their subject matter tends to be light or humorous.

Parlando-rubato songs, by contrast, are performed in a slow and meditative way, in free metre with a great deal of improvisation, so as to convey the intensity of the singer's feeling. The improvisation can manifest as complex melismatic ornamentation of the base melody, especially in Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Gaelic Scotland, or as extreme variations in tempo and dynamics, especially in Wales and Brittany. Today many people who have become familiar with the highly ornamented style of Connemara tend to think of it as typical of all Irish sean-nós but, although now vanishing, there are regional Irish styles that are relatively without ornament and closer to the Welsh manner.

There has been a lot of debate concerning the origin of the melismatic ornamentation in sean-nós. Some have wanted to see in it a sign of contacts with North Africa and the Middle East, but it is more likely to have been inspired by aspects of Gregorian chant. One may note in this regard that, while secular Scots Gaelic sean-nós melodies are, as a rule, only slightly ornamented, the semi-improvisational Gaelic psalm singing characteristic of the Free Presbyterian Church is as densely ornamented as anything from Connemara. This suggests that the memory of an older form of religious music may have been revived in a new context.

These songs tend to deal with unrequited love, unhappy marriage, exiles remembering their native land, and memories of local calamities like battles, drownings, and shipwrecks. In Ireland and Gaelic Scotland, as we have seen, the songs never take a narrative form, although there is often a story behind the song. By contrast, regular ballads are quite common in Wales, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. The Welsh and Manx examples are all relatively recent and may have been composed in imitation of English models, but the Breton gwerzioù seem to be a native tradition of considerable antiquity. While few Irish sean-nós songs can be traced back farther than the 1700s, and some well-known Scots Gaelic songs date to the 1600s, the Breton ballad of Skolan, still remembered today, is directly related to the 12th-century Welsh poem Ysgolan in the 'Black Book of Carmarthen.'

Most sean-nós singing is homophonic, involving no harmony at all. Even when several singers join in on a chorus or recurring line, they all sing in unison. One major exception to this rule is the prominence of polyphonic choral singing in Wales. Today Welsh choirs are often attached to churches and include a lot of Protestant liturgical music in their repertoire, thus influencing their style. Such Welsh choirs tend to conform to classical Western standards of harmony and counterpoint in their treatment of polyphony, yet there remain traces of an older, native system of polyphonic singing. The best-known example of this is the group of carols associated with the plygain service (from Latin pulli cantus 'cock's crow') which is celebrated at dawn of Christmas Day in some parishes in north-central Wales. The harmonic settings of these carols don't follow the chordal progressions typical of the modern diatonic system. Rather they resemble types of folk harmony that are found in isolated pockets throughout Europe, such as in the Pyrenees, the Alps, a few places in northern Italy, Sardinia, Bulgaria, and Georgia. Welsh polyphony may thus have been an ancient indigenous tradition of this type localised in the mountainous country of western Britain, and it may have provided a precedent that facilitated the introduction of other types of choral singing at a later date. Some scholars have suggested that the singing of Welsh stonemasons who participated in the construction of early Gothic cathedrals on the Continent may actually have helped inspire the development of the Ars Nova style of Church polyphony in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Earliest Dance Music

The most ancient dances in the Celtic world, which have survived primarily in Brittany, are of a type intended to be performed by all the members of a community, including children and elderly people. Thus, they usually take the form of circle or line dances that avoid extreme complexity of steps and movement. They originally had a ritual function, marking out the main phases of the agricultural cycle and aiding the work of the fields magically by imitating it in a stylised fashion. This remains an explicit part of such Breton dances as the piler-lann ('furze-beater'), where the dancers' movements are meant to recall the stamping down and gathering up of furze bushes in a field being made ready for planting. While such dances are now characteristic of Brittany, the mimed harvest chant from Gaelic Scotland included in the Carmina Gadelica and the well-known Manx dance-song about the Fenodyree, the land-spirit said to help farmers in their work, are evidence that ritual dance may once have played a fundamental role in village tradition throughout the Celtic world.

Even when these line dances are not overtly tied to agricultural imagery, they often still suggest natural phenomena. For instance, the undulating arm movements of the southern Breton dances known as andro and hanter-dro are often likened to the waves of the sea. While there are broad patterns of steps and movements that are known throughout Celtic Brittany, each region has developed its own characteristic versions of them. For instance, the dañs-fisel and dañs-plinn are variations on the same basic dance rhythm from two different regions of southwestern Brittany, and when done correctly differ recognisably in tempo. Other dances that are associated with specific regions of Brittany and that have entered local tradition at different times are the kost-ar-c'hoad, the laridenn, which has both a 6-beat form and an 8-beat form, the jabadao, and the most popular of them all, the gavotenn, including the distinctive gavotenn ar menez from the Black Mountain country in the Breton interior. Today, as Bretons from many different areas come together for festivals, all of these dances have become part of the standard repertoire of the fest-noz ('night feast'), the Breton equivalent of a céilí.

The musical accompaniment for these dances was, originally, purely vocal. It would be performed by two singers in the style known as kan ha diskan ('song and countersong'). The singers alternate their lines, with an overlap between the last bar of the first singer's line and the first bar of the next line sung by the other singer. This allows them to sing at a brisk tempo for a long period of time without getting out of breath or breaking the rhythm. The texts of the songs used for this purpose are often narrative, making them ballads, not only in the modern sense but according to the original meaning of 'song for dancing' too (Latin ballare, 'to dance). While kan ha diskan remains widespread and popular, instrumental accompaniment has also become common. Since the 15th century at least a particular instrumental duo-the bombarde (a folk oboe) and the binioù-kozh (the native Breton bagpipe, which has a very high-pitched sound)-has traditionally provided accompaniment for dances. The two instruments alternate their lines, in imitation of kan ha diskan. In recent years, with the growing popularity of instrumental bands performing Irish and Scottish dance music, similar groups have been created to play Breton music for festoù-noz.

Communal circle or line dances performed to vocal accompaniment are no longer a feature of the traditions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where more modern dance forms involving couples and interweaving patterns have prevailed. However, there is good reason to believe that at an earlier period the dance forms characteristic of Brittany were common throughout northwestern Europe. On the Faroe Islands, for instance, where ancient customs have been preserved that have disappeared elsewhere in Scandinavia, dances of this type are well-known, suggesting that this is another isolated local survival of a tradition that was formerly widespread.

Another dance form-focusing on individual dancers rather than on the entire community, highlighting physical prowess, endurance and agility-must have existed among the early Celts, since it is characteristic of warrior societies, but no direct survivals of it can be traced in modern tradition. Nevertheless, one can easily see how certain types of Highland dancing and Irish step dancing continue to fulfill the same purpose. The sword dances of Scotland may also represent a distant echo of such a warrior tradition even if, in their modern guise, they have modeled themselves on familiar quadrille patterns. A unique sword dance from the Alps of the Dauphiné, the Bacchu-ber, with its ancient modal melody and odd stamping rhythm, is completely unlike the other dances of the area and is thought to go back to the Gallo-Roman period.

Ceól Mór

The term ceól mór ('great music') is used in traditional Highland piping to designate a certain type of musical piece that requires great skill and musicianship to perform correctly, distinguishing it from the less challenging march and dance tunes that form the rest of the piper's repertoire. We will here apply the term to all the Celtic instrumental traditions that not only require outstanding skill and sensitivity on the part of the performer, but also a sophisticated audience capable of appreciating what is being done. This is the definition of a 'classical' music tradition, which in many cultures contrasts with more accessible 'popular' styles. Pre-modern Celtic society expected elite performers to play for elite audiences, and thus developed a tradition which can legitimately be called native Celtic classical music. Despite regional variations, this tradition displays sufficient unity in concept and form that we are justified in designating all of its manifestations by a single term.

The two instruments that have been most closely associated with the native classical tradition are the harp and the bagpipes. Although neither of them originated in or is restricted to the Celtic world, they are also the two instruments that most people spontaneously think of in relation to Celtic music. It is indeed true that both were adopted by Celtic communities at an early stage and were given a prestige role in the native cultures. As a result, they became the primary focus of elite performance music.


The harp is thought to have originated in Africa, which still has the greatest variety of folk harps. It was very popular in Egypt, from where it spread to parts of the Middle East. Precisely how and when it reached the Celtic world is uncertain, but by the later Roman Empire a stringed instrument called the crotta or rhotta was considered to be the national instrument of Gaul. Since this is clearly a cognate of the Old Irish word crott, 'harp', later replaced by cruit which originally meant 'harper,' the term may indicate that the same instrument was once known on both sides of the Channel and that its use may indeed have spread to the Insular Celts from the Continent. However, it is also possible that the word originally had the generic meaning of 'stringed instrument' and could at first have designated a more ancient form of lyre or zither. Nevertheless, by the early Middle Ages the harp had come to play a central role in the cultural life of both Irish and British Celtic communities.

The type of harp favoured by professional musicians in Ireland had metal strings, and the tension required for tuning them correctly made it necessary to use very hard and heavy woods for the body of the instrument. The strings were struck with the fingernails, which harpers grew long for this purpose. The harp was held against the left shoulder, and the left hand usually played the melody while the right hand played accompanying chords, which were arpeggiated downwards, the reverse of classical harp technique.

Harpers developed a close association with the filí and provided accompaniment for the public presentation of their poems, which would be declaimed by a reacaire or trained reciter who was usually not the poet himself. Probably thanks to this association with a high status group, harpers had far greater prestige in society than other musicians and entertainers. According to the Uraicecht Becc, a mediaeval Irish law tract, the harper was the only one of them to be truly free and to be assigned a specific honour-price. Harpers were remunerated generously by their patrons, so that many of them could afford to live in some luxury.

When the native aristocracy of Ireland and Scotland was driven into exile or lost its privileges during the 17th and 18th centuries, harpers found themselves without the sophisticated audience they needed to maintain their elite musical tradition. Lacking a clear social function, they ceased to train new generations to take their place. Most of their music and lore would now be lost to us if it had not been for the curiosity and diligence of the antiquarian Edward Bunting who attended the last gathering of traditional Irish harpers in Belfast in 1792. Bunting transcribed many of the tunes and took notes on performance practices and native musical terminology.

One of Bunting's main informants was Dennis Hempson (Donncha Ó hAmhsaigh), the last surviving Irish harper to have been trained exclusively according to native professional standards. Hempson still grew his nails long to play in the traditional manner, performed only the high ancient music, and had nothing but contempt for the more modern popular tunes other harpers had resigned themselves to including in their repertoire. From Hempson, Bunting was able to acquire the last remnants of mediaeval Celtic harp lore such as the names of the instrument's individual strings, the different types of melodic ornamentation, and pieces in the old style that illustrated native ideas of musical form.

The basic form underlying all these pieces, and the Celtic classical tradition in general, is that of theme and variations. An original theme or 'ground' (urlár) is first presented unembellished, and then it undergoes a series of metrical transformations that break up the melody in several standardised ways. The 'ground' returns once all the variations have been gone through, or it may be repeated after each variation, as in a rondo.

One of Hempson's pieces, Mairseáil Uí Bhroinn ('Burns' March'), was intended to be used in training apprentice harpers. It deliberately includes examples of all the main techniques that can be used to embellish a 'ground'. This general approach to string music may be quite ancient and may represent a tradition that spread throughout Eurasia in pre-modern times. For instance, it bears a striking resemblance to the Chinese classical music for the zithers known as qin and zheng. While the use of microtonal ornamentation in Chinese music has no equivalent in Celtic tradition and gives it a quite different sound, this approach to form and even the very nature of the variation techniques applied to 'ground' themes are remarkably similar to what we find among Celtic harpers.

Harpers in Scotland and Wales followed essentially the same models as in Ireland. Since at least the 12th century Welsh harpers used Irish practices as their standard, and what we know of Welsh harping terminology makes it clear that it was derived from the Irish. By the end of the Middle Ages, however, other types of Continental harps had come to compete with the venerable metal-strung bardic harp in Britain. Gut-strung harps required less tension and could be made out of lighter woods, and thus were easier to carry around. They were played with the fingertips rather than with the nails, and as a rule were rested on the right shoulder, with the right hand playing melody and the left hand playing chords. By the 17th century the native Scottish harp (clàrsach) was of this type, as were most of the harps used in Wales. The form of the music, however, remained the same. Several Scottish manuscript collections from the 18th century contain music attributed to famous harpers of the century before, and they are very similar in style to the pieces Bunting collected from Hempson. Also, the famous ap Huw manuscript from 16th-century Wales, which preserves older harp music in an idiosyncratic notation system, clearly belongs to the same tradition.

The harp retained its prestige in Wales longer than in Ireland and Scotland, and its association with the ceremonies of the National Eisteddfod in the 19th century gave it a fresh lease on life as harpers found a new context for their performances. However, Welsh harpers tended to adopt the classical orchestral harp and to learn mainstream European techniques for playing it, as well as composing music in contemporary international style rather than basing themselves on the older native tradition. Yet one particular type of harp, the Triple Harp (telyn deires) has acquired peculiarly Welsh associations. It appears to have been invented in Italy in the 17th century. Though it is uncertain how and when it got to Wales, the triple harp has firmly implanted itself in Welsh musical culture. The instrument has three parallel rows of strings, the two outer ones tuned in unison to a major scale while the middle one provides chromatic accidentals. One of the characteristic techniques involved in playing it is to create bell-like 'echo' effects by plucking identically pitched strings from the outer rows in quick succession. The last traditional performer on this instrument was Nansi Richards, but folk musicians have shown renewed interest in the triple harp in recent times. Even as they began to be influenced by the international styles of their day, the Welsh harpers of the 18th and early 19th centuries were still remarkably true to the essence of the Celtic classical tradition. The late 18th century compositions of John Parry, for example, preserve the old theme-and-variations form, often using melodies of folk songs as the 'ground'.

One other type of Welsh traditional music associated with the harp should be mentioned here. Pennillion singing has become a popular form of Eisteddfod composition. Originally rhyming octosyllabic couplets popular in Welsh folk poetry during the late 16th and 17th centuries, pennillion singing may have evolved out of the custom of reciting poetry to harp accompaniment. The harper plays a set melody or 'ground' (llawr) while a singer uses a poetic text as the basis to improvise a completely different melody in counterpoint, which is nevertheless required to coincide with the harp's melody at certain key cadences. The harper Edward Jones' compilation Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards, published in 1784, contains many of the tunes that are traditionally used as 'grounds' for this type of improvisation, indicating that the custom goes back at least that far. Today the improvisational element in pennillion singing has largely disappeared. The versions heard in concert involve little more than one pre-composed melody set in counterpoint to another pre-composed melody, though some performances still manage to capture the exciting quality of the old improvisational approach.


Bagpipes, the other 'Celtic' instrument, also originated in antiquity, probably in the Middle East and Egypt. They became popular in Europe at roughly the same time as the harp, and by the end of the Middle Ages existed in many different forms from Spain to Rajasthan. As discussed in the next section, the great changes in musical taste and practice that occurred during the 17th century placed the bagpipes outside the mainstream of European tradition. Apart from a brief period in the 18th century when bagpipes served as props in a 'pastoralist' fad, they survived only in out-of-the-way rural areas which included the Celtic-speaking communities. During the Middle Ages they were given a high status in the culture of the Gaelic world. They were called by the Latin name pipa, whence píob, their modern name. Bagpipes were also referred to by the native word cuisle (pipers were cuisleannaigh), which seems to have been a generic term for 'wind instrument'. It is clear that the bagpipes were the aristocracy of the wind instruments, much as the harp was among string instruments. A particularly large form of bagpipes with a loud, penetrating sound became associated with leading warrior-bands to battle and, in that role, pipers-although they never achieved quite as high a status as harpers-acquired many privileges from the clan leaders they served.

The huge Irish war-pipes and all the lore and music attached to them disappeared completely after the Flight of the Earls in 1602. However, the Highland pipes survived long enough that, even after the destruction of the clan system, they continued to be used by the Highland regiments that were accepted into the British army. Piping was taught orally through the system of canntaireachd, a language of vocables representing pitches, rhythmic figures and fingerings. While much of a piper's repertoire consisted of marches, it also included ceòl mòr, which required considerable training to perform correctly. This is still a major test of a piper's talent today. Each piece of ceòl mòr is called a piobaireachd---literally, 'piping', often Anglicised as 'pibroch.' It consists of a slow 'ground' subjected to variations as the metrical values of the notes are 'doubled' and 'tripled,' through sections called the taorluath and corluath, together with standard embellishments. The metrical changes give the impression of a speeding-up of the music, but in fact there is no change in tempo. If the piper hasn't been keeping time carefully, he will make the urlár, when it returns at the end of the piece, sound much too fast. Individual piobaireachdan have become associated with the clans of the pipers who composed them.

The structural similarities between the ceól mór of the pipes and the early harp music are so striking that many musical scholars have concluded that they represent two manifestations of a single tradition, a native Celtic understanding of sophisticated musical form, theoretically applicable to any instrument. This is supported by the fact that a famous piobaireachd has the title Cumha Crann nan Teud ('Lament for the Harp Key'), which indicates that it once belonged to the harp repertoire. There are other indications that some pieces were played indiscriminately by harpers and pipers alike. Because of the seniority of the harp tradition, it is probable that the formal basis of ceól mór was developed on the harp and was then imitated on the pipes, eventually leading to the formal codification of rules for piobaireachd performance in the early 19th century. Modern harpers like Ann Heymann have been researching the common ground between harp and pipe traditions, leading to an increased understanding and appreciation of ceól mór in the larger sense, and to a revival of the tradition itself.

Ceòl Beag

Apart from the intricate and demanding pieces they call ceól mór, Highland pipers have also always played what they call ceól meadhonach ("middle music") and ceól beag ("little music"). Each type was designated according to the degree of skill and of focused audience attention they require. The latter category includes marches, and popular dance tunes that have been adapted to the pipes' tuning and register. We will here use the term ceól beag to mean all the music used to accompany the dance forms that today are in the forefront of Celtic folk tradition, although they developed for the most part within the last 350 years. Again, despite many regional particularisms, this development has been remarkably consistent throughout the Celtic world, since most Celtic communities have-albeit at different times and to varying degrees-come under the influence of the same centres of cultural diffusion.

Dance Music

During the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance new fashions in dance and entertainment had spread among the social elite attached to the royal and ducal courts of Europe. The new dance forms often involved paired dancers and complex interweaving patterns of movement, as well as a greater variety of dance steps. For some time there was a sharp distinction between these elite dances and the older peasant dances in the countryside.

By the end of the 16th century, however, there were great changes in the distribution of wealth, fueled in part by the opening up of the New World with its vast resources to exploit. This had given rise to a powerful middle class that didn't owe its influence to aristocratic lineage, and redefined the boundaries of elite culture. New opportunities to acquire wealth and the power that came with it produced new expectations of social mobility. This led to an increasing concern for outward signs of social status, such as the kind of clothes one wore, the kind of house one lived in, and the kinds of music one identified with in the context of public entertainment. Most cultural activities that were associated with the traditional upper classes were copied by other people as a way of expressing their social aspirations and announcing their new-found respectability. Of course, the copies weren't necessarily exact. Music and dances that had originated in aristocratic courts were adapted to local tastes and gave rise to a huge variety of new popular forms. The Celtic world, despite its marginal position, was strongly influenced by these trends. Those areas, such as Wales and Cornwall that were closest to centres of trade and industrial production absorbed the greatest amount of foreign influences. Even essentially conservative regions like western Brittany couldn't remain completely unaffected by international developments of this sort.

Virtually all the dance forms we associate with the traditional music of Ireland and Scotland today first appeared during this period. Certainly the earliest of them was the jig. Its precise origin is unknown, but it must have been in some Romance-speaking area of the Continent, since French gigue and Italian giga are both old words for "leg", a reference to the high-stepping leg movements characteristic of the dance. The familiar 6/8 dance form now known to us by this name, however, seems to have developed its modern traits in England, and spread from there to the adjacent Celtic countries, where it was fully assimilated into local tradition. The first Irish jig was published by Thomas d'Urfey in 1684, suggesting that the form had been popular in Ireland for long enough by then to have become associated with Irish dancing in general. The spread of folk music forms is hard to document with precision, since they typically have been present in an area for some time before they come to the notice of compilers of published collections. In Ireland there may also have been earlier dances in quick triple time that were eventually identified with the jig. For example, the 9/8-time slip jig is a characteristically Irish development, and there are unusual 12/8-time jigs as well. Today jigs are found in all six Celtic countries, testifying to the early spread of the form, and their tunes tend to have native melodic traits.

The other mainstay of modern Celtic session music, the reel, also seems to have originated in Britain as a development of one of the very many 4/4 quadrille-type country dances that became fashionable around the turn of the 18th century. One of its earliest centres of popularity was in Scotland. As the name 'reel' suggests, it was intended to be an immensely speeded-up version of such quadrille dances. This characteristic has remained attached to the Highland reel, which is still usually performed at a breakneck tempo. When reels became popular in Ireland during the later 18th and 19th centuries, they developed a variety of regional traits as they became associated with different local 'set' dances.

Another double-time country dance that appeared in the Scottish repertoire during the 18th century and became popular in the 19th was the strathspey, named after the Spey valley in the western Highlands where it was thought to have originated. Unlike the reel, the strathspey didn't spread much beyond Scotland. It is characterised by its syncopated downbeats, often referred to as the "Scotch snap".

The third most popular dance form in the modern session repertoire is the hornpipe, originally a step dance which appeared in England during the 18th century. The hornpipe became associated with sailors, since it didn't require much space to perform and thus could easily be done on a ship's deck. From this came 'The Sailor's Hornpipe', one of the oldest and most popular hornpipe melodies. By the end of the 18th century the hornpipe was well-known throughout Britain and Ireland, where it became the accompaniment for many set dances that are still popular today. The most widespread type of hornpipe melody is the 'dotted rhythm' variety, thus called because every accented crotchet in the bar takes up half of the duration of the following crotchet. Another variety, often referred to as the 'fast hornpipe,' is performed at a slightly quicker tempo and lacks this dotted rhythm. The fast hornpipe is particularly widespread in Wales and the west of England.

The spread of ballroom dancing across Europe during the 19th century brought international popularity to dances like the waltz, the polka, the mazurka, the galope, the schottische, the two-step, and many others. Some of these dances found a place in the traditions of Celtic communities, especially in areas where there was continual contact with an urban middle class. Only the waltz and the polka, however, found their way to most parts of the Celtic world, and they were set to melodies of a local character.

Introduction of the Violin

With the new dances came new instruments. From the end of the 16th century, by far the most widespread and influential new instrument was the Italian violin, called the fiddle in folk tradition. Easily portable, offering both a bright, far-carrying sound and great flexibility in dynamics and thus in expression, the fiddle was the ideal vehicle for the new musical culture of the time. It was equally appropriate for performing at an open-air dance or at an intimate gathering indoors. By the middle of the 17th century the fiddle was well-known virtually everywhere in Europe, displacing older traditional instruments even as the new dance music associated with it displaced older musical styles, including the classical tradition associated with the Celtic harp. While the demise of the harp and its lore had a lot to do with the fall of the native Celtic aristocracy who had been the harpers' patrons, considerations of fashion and public image could lead to a repudiation of the old music even in places where the native chieftains remained in power. The 17th-century Scots Gaelic poet Sìlis Nic Raghnaill na Ceapach, daughter of Gilleasbuig (Archibald) the laird of Keppoch, wrote a famous lament for her harp, which had apparently been banned from the household as too barbaric and old-fashioned. A piece by the 17th-century Scottish harper Rory Dall Morrison (Ruairidh Dall Moireasdan) is entitled Fuath nam Fidhleirean ("Hate for the Fiddlers").

If professional harpers were to go on making a living, they had to learn the new styles that their audiences wanted to hear. The blind Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan (Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin, 1670-1738) played for Protestant landed gentry as well as for patrons of native lineage. He produced a huge number of innovative compositions that drew on a wide variety of sources, including native Irish melodies, English and Scottish folk songs, and above all the mostly Italian tunes and styles that served as the basis for the international popular music of his time.

It is true that the harpers whom Bunting heard performing at the Belfast harp festival in 1792 played far more popular music than they did any of the native classical material, even as the harp was about to vanish altogether from Irish and Scottish folk culture. And a great deal of music, lore and performance practices must have been lost with Dennis Hempson's generation. But one can exaggerate the break in continuity of the Celtic musical tradition. The Irish musicians, mostly fiddlers, who served as sources for early 19th-century music collectors like P.W. Joyce and George Petrie, had a repertoire largely composed of jigs and reels, but they also played formal laments or caoineáin that had served as 'grounds' in the old 'great music.' Clearly they still had a great deal of respect for the older tradition, and were willing to continue playing melodies associated with it, as slow airs for listening rather than as accompaniment for dancing. Many felt they had taken on the cultural role of the old harpers, even though much of the music and technical knowledge had not in fact been passed down to them.


Nevertheless, the new music offered plenty of scope for virtuoso playing and the showcasing of individual musical talent. Not only were speed and brightness of tone admired but, as had been the case in the older music, each performer was expected to embellish the melody in a semi-improvisational way, using a set of standardised ornaments like 'rolls' and 'cuts'. Different regions of the Celtic world developed different styles of ornamentation that have maintained their distinctness to this day. Foreign tunes were treated in the same manner. An English hornpipe taken into Irish tradition might preserve essentially the same melody, but it would be subjected to specific ornamentations in performance that would transform it definitely into Irish music. New melodies would also be composed to go with the foreign dance rhythms, often based on pre-existing tunes of native songs. It is possible that the skill developed by Celtic musicians at creating variations on a 'ground' melody, as required by the forms of their classical tradition, facilitated this process of adapting native types of melody to new metrical structures.

By the end of the 19th century the repertoire of traditional fiddlers in Ireland, Scotland and Wales included thousands of different tunes. Sgt. James O'Neill was a Chicago police officer who, noting that Irish traditional music was then going out of fashion in Irish and Irish-American society, was prompted to collect as many tunes as he could from immigrant fiddlers. He published over two thousand tunes in his The Music of Ireland (1903) and The Dance Music of Ireland (1907), collections that remain invaluable sources today for musicians in search of material. Brendan Breathnach's Ceol Rince na hÉireann (1923) attempted to be equally comprehensive with music collected in Ireland itself. Between 1784 and 1822, the famous Gow family of Scottish fiddlers produced a series of published tune collections, containing many of their own compositions, and these have served as the nucleus and inspiration for most later Scottish fiddle-tune collections. Nicholas Bennett's Alawon fy Ngwlad ('Tunes of my Country,' 1896) brought together some 500 tunes from the Welsh repertoire.

Other Instruments

Although the fiddle was unquestionably the most prestigious instrument during this phase of the history of Celtic music, many other instruments were widely used. Even though some purists today make a sharp distinction between 'traditional' and 'non-traditional' instruments, such an attitude would never have occurred to most traditional musicians, who simply played any instrument that was available. Free-reed instruments like the accordion and concertina, invented in the 19th century, became instantly popular because they were portable, relatively cheap and easy to play. The banjo was taken over from the minstrel bands that were well-known throughout the English-speaking world at the turn of the century. The clarinet became a common folk instrument in parts of Brittany where it is called the treujenn kaol or 'cabbage stump,' but it didn't spread to other parts of the Celtic world. Nevertheless, there is no reason why it couldn't be used to play Irish or Scottish music. Foreign string instruments like the bouzouki and the cittern have been adopted into Celtic tradition within the last few decades.

The transverse flute is still widely played in Ireland in its original 18th-century wooden form. The tin whistle or pennywhistle, a cheap metallic version of the recorder or blockflute, was originally a children's instrument and one used to teach tunes to beginning musicians who would eventually learn an 'adult' instrument like the fiddle, but it has come to be taken seriously as a virtuoso instrument featured in national competitions.

Uilleann Pipes

Of all the instruments that have been played by Celtic musicians in recent tradition, the Irish uilleann pipes deserve special mention. Although, as we have noted, bagpipes ceased to be fashionable in the early modern period and survived only in out-of-the-way rural areas, their very quaintness and association with rusticity and "pastoral" themes gave them a brief spell of renewed popularity during the 18th century. At the same time an attempt was made to make them more genteel and suitable for indoor performance while preserving their characteristic droning sound. Softer reeds were used, and the flow of air into the bag was assured not by blowing through a mouthpiece but by a a bellows activated with the elbow, whence the Irish instrument's name, from uilleann, 'elbow'. Some bagpipes of this type still used in folk tradition include the Northumbrian pipes in England, the Scottish Border pipes, and the cabreta in the Auvergne, but the uilleann pipes of Ireland are by far the most complex. In their fully developed form they have three drones and three 'regulators,' small additional chanters activated with the wrist, that can provide harmonic accompaniment for the melody played on the chanter. To use all the instrument's resources fully and properly requires considerable skill and coordination, and virtuoso uilleann pipers command a great deal of respect, although their repertoire draws on essentially the same materials as that of the fiddlers, and has nothing to do with piobaireachd.


Dance music implies a strongly marked rhythm, and rhythm is readily enhanced by percussion. The most familiar drum associated with Celtic music is the Irish bodhrán, a frame drum with a goatskin head played with a wooden tipper. Its Cornish counterpart is called the kroeder kroghen ('skin sieve')-often Anglicised as 'crowdy crawn,' which suggests that it was originally a winnowing sieve that could double as a drum at need. Contemporary bodhrán players have considerably extended the range of sound they can get from their instrument, borrowing many techniques from Middle Eastern frame-drummers. In Scotland and Brittany various forms of military side drums and snare drums have been borrowed as percussion for dance bands. Another old rhythm instrument is the sheep-bone castanets, today often replaced by spoons. In communities that had middle-class pretensions, however, the most suitable accompaniment for instrumental soloists was felt to be the piano, in imitation of art-music practices. The piano was a symbol of prestige and respectability for a community that could afford to have one in a permanent dance-hall, and piano players developed a standard way of providing chordal accompaniments for Celtic folk dance tunes.

Revival of Celtic Traditional Music

It was changing ideas of what constituted middle-class respectability that eventually dismissed Celtic traditional music to the invisible underworld of lower-class culture by the beginning of the 20th century. Sentimental music-hall tunes came to be what most people thought of as 'Irish music,' and Celtic music survived publicly in only a few specialised venues, like marching pipe bands. Traditional fiddlers, however, continued to perform in rural areas, even as the folk bagpipes had survived there. Some precious recordings were made of early 20th-century virtuoso fiddlers, like Michael Coleman from Sligo. The tradition thus remained unbroken until some musicians in the latter half of the 20th century learned to look at it in a new, more appreciative way and breathed fresh life into it.

Certainly the pioneer in this process was the Irish composer Seán Ó Riada. During the 1950s he began to research both the surviving musical traditions of the Irish Gaeltachtaí, especially sean-nós singing, and the material preserved in older manuscripts, and was impressed by their sophistication and grace, so unlike the coarseness and sentimentality associated with the popular notion of Irish music at the time. He experimented with re-working this music to present it in a modern concert format, at first submitting it to classical orchestration, as in his famous soundtrack for the movie Mise Éire, but then focusing increasingly on instruments found in native folk tradition, played with native techniques. His efforts helped many people in Ireland rediscover the worth of authentic Irish traditional music. One of his most important contributions, however, was bringing together a group of young musicians to play his arrangements. Ceoltóirí Cualann, as the group was called, branched off on their own in the mid-1960s as The Chieftains, one of the most successful and influential traditional music groups in the twentieth century.

As the group included both classically-trained and traditional instrumentalists, it managed to combine multi-layered, tightly controlled arrangements reminiscent of classical chamber music with the wild improvisational quality of folk playing. This unique sound, quite new in Celtic music and yet very faithful to the spirit of the tradition, completely changed the public perception of Irish music and led many musicians to explore Gaelic heritage with a greater awareness of its distinctive traits and of the creative possibilities it presented.

The other major figure at the roots of the Celtic music revival was a young Breton musician named Alain Cochevelou, who is far better-known by his stage name, Alan Stivell. Taught to play the Celtic harp by his father Jord Cochevelou, a Breton cultural activist and a pioneer in the restoration of the native harp tradition, Alan had also been part of a bagad or pipe band, a device used by Breton activists to maintain a Celtic cultural consciousness in young people even during the difficult years when the French government officially persecuted all manifestations of Breton identity. The bagadoù had a pan-Celtic focus, playing music from all six Celtic countries, appreciating and learning from all their traditions. Having been exposed to this wealth of heritage and having absorbed so many techniques from various Celtic sources, Alan Stivell remained faithful to the pan-Celtic ideal while working primarily within the Breton tradition. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he became a sensation on the folk-music scene, first as a harp soloist and then as the leader of a group. His arrangements were daring and unabashedly modern, not shrinking from using electric rock sounds and aggressively enhanced beats, thus disarming those who dismissed everything Celtic as old-fashioned rural backwater music. This approach proved immensely successful with young audiences, and Stivell's pan-Celtic connections quickly made him famous throughout the Celtic world. Groups began to form under his influence in all the Celtic countries, treating Celtic music in an experimental, innovative manner without sacrificing the essence of the tradition.

Among the most influential of the groups that appeared during the 1970s was Planxty, which combined singing with cleverly constructed acoustic instrumental accompaniment. This became an attractive model for new groups such as Ossian in Scotland, Ar Log and Cilmeri in Wales, Bucca in Cornwall, and many others too numerous to list. A somewhat different but equally influential approach was taken by the Bothy Band, which maintained traditional acoustic styles of playing while emphasising the rhythmic drive of the tunes to an unusual degree. Other groups, like Clannad, came to borrow more and more elements from rock and jazz.

This Celtic music revival reached its peak during the 1980s, helped by a cooperative recording industry and by gigantic ongoing music festivals like those at Killarney and Lorient, which regularly feature performers from all six Celtic nations as well as Galicia and Asturies, encouraging the cross-fertilisation of traditions. Since then the number of active groups has dropped, and the mass marketing of Celtic music has brought it more and more into the New Age category, where its mellow and dreamy aspects are emphasised, catering to mainstream culture's romanticised notions of what is Celtic. More groups have also been mixing Celtic material with rock and other popular styles. It is a matter of debate, of course, whether such music represents an innovative continuation of Celtic tradition or whether it is just rock or another commercial genre with some surface Celtic elements added on. Where one draws the line will depend very much on individual tastes and perceptions. It should be noted, however, that as this music comes to be experienced more and more through urban concert halls and through recordings, it has less and less to do with the life of Celtic communities, and thus with Celtic culture. Nevertheless, and in spite of such developments, the revival is still very much alive, and in its wake more and more resources have become available to those who would want to discover and understand the rich tradition of Celtic music in all of its varied manifestations.

Entering the Spirit of Celtic Music

Celtic tradition from both literary and folk sources makes it clear that music was thought to be a powerful medium that could, under the right circumstances, grant access to the Otherworld, or bring about the kind of inner transformation one associated with such visits.

Music and the Otherworld

In the story of the Battle of Mag Tuired, the Dagda makes his Fomorian antagonists helpless by playing the triple strain so skillfully that tears, laughter, or sleep take over their entire consciousness, banishing their original intent. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi it is the music of the birds of Rhiannon that maintains the trance in which the survivors of the apocalyptic battle of Morddwyd Tyllion feast in the presence of the severed head of Bran the Blessed, hearing him converse with them as though he were alive. The Otherworld messenger who comes to Bran Mac Feabhail and invites him to undertake his journey to the immortal realms describes the land ruled over by Mannanán as lulled by endless choral music which maintains the enchantment of the place.

In more recent folklore, encounters with the fairies are frequently described in terms of enticing music which can lead to a suspension of the sense of time. Professional musicians who hear the music sometimes attempt to reproduce it in their own playing. Some items in the traditional repertoire, usually identified as being from the fairies, are considered to be gifts from the Otherworld. All these examples suggest that music is a link between worlds that takes the listener out of himself and changes him and that, when approached with this in mind, it becomes a sacred art. It is therefore an important component of a Celtic spiritual path.

Performing Celtic Music

How can we engage with existing Celtic musical traditions in a way that brings out what they have to offer as spiritual resources? The best way, of course, is to go from being a passive listener to becoming a performer actually working with the tradition. Since, as we mentioned, everyone has a voice, a good place to start is the purely vocal sean-nós tradition. Don't worry about what you think of the quality of your voice or the limitations of your musical talent. Your primary goal isn't to perform before a critical audience but to get an intimate understanding, through personal experience, of the process of music-making in this tradition.

As we have seen, each singer is expected to provide his own improvised embellishments to the received melody of the song. The melodies given in published song collections are usually unembellished. They are the bare skeletons on which the singer is supposed to put the flesh of a living performance by adding a considerable amount of spontaneously created ornamentation. You will want to listen to traditional singers-either live or recorded-to get a sense of the techniques used to accomplish this, and the kind of sound that is aimed at. You may also want to practice these techniques by imitating certain outstanding performances. However, slavish imitation is not the goal. One hears too many young performers do little more than provide note-for-note reproductions of some famous recorded versions of sean-nós songs. They may do an excellent job of it, and the effect may be quite pleasing, but it completely sidesteps the creative, improvisational element that is at the heart of the tradition.

The primary focus of Celtic song performance is on the music's pulse, linking it to an important theme in Celtic spirituality. Celtic ritual and mythological traditions tend to revolve around the notion of periodicity, of all things changing according to a rhythmic pattern, as winter succeeds summer, striving gives way to repose, death balances life. Music obeys this same cosmic pulse. It oscillates between poles of activity and rest, charging the melody with complex, busy ornamentation at one extreme, then balancing it with long, relaxed held notes at the other. In tempo giusto melodies the pulse will be metrically regular, while in the parlando-rubato style its duration can be varied at will, but the same complementarity of activity and repose within the pulse will apply in all cases. Study the contours of the melody you have chosen to sing to determine how this pulse will manifest within it. Get a sense of how each passage for which you will provide lavish ornamentation must lead to the plateau of a restful held note, then swing back into a phase of improvisational activity. As you do this, be aware that you're expressing an aspect of the pulse of the cosmos, that you are one with its process.

There is yet more to realising the full expressive potential of a melody, however. Before you even attempt to sing it, study the Celtic-language text of the song. Repeat the words aloud, making sure to pronounce the words correctly, and savour their sound. Much traditional Celtic poetry is deliberately alliterative, and the resulting sound-patterns are as much a part of the music of the song as the pitches and durations of the melody.

Then concentrate on feeling how this awareness of the sounds and meanings of the words would affect your treatment of the melody itself. Many sean-nós singers say they tend to give a distinctive ornamentation to those melodic passages that contain words they think are particularly significant in each line of the song. Determine for yourself where those words are, how they fit into the pulse of the melody, and what kind of improvisational treatment you will choose to give them. Only once you have integrated all these elements will your conception of the song be complete.

For musicians who are proficient at playing an instrument and wish to explore the creative and spiritual possibilities of Celtic music on that level, the same understanding of musical pulse will apply, but there will also be wider considerations of compositional form. Certainly one of the best approaches would be an in-depth exploration and practice of ceol mór, in the broader sense we have given the term. Although we have no evidence of such music being put to an explicit religious use, the feeling of intense reverence that the tradition inspired in the musicians of Dennis Hempson's generation does suggest that it was intended to give access to "higher" states than mere mundane consciousness. As such, it had some of the elements of a spiritual discipline and a sacred calling. As happens so often when we look to the roots of Celtic culture, we can turn to India for a useful model of a classical music tradition with spiritual underpinnings. This model seems all the more appropriate since it shares many stylistic traits with Celtic music, including a similar concept of ornamentation.

Typically, Indian musical development also follows a theme-and-variations pattern, though with a looser definition of 'theme.' The 'ground' consists of a particular modal sequence which is at first explored slowly, interval by interval, then turns into a recognisable melody, which undergoes a series of rhythmic variations, usually at an ever-accelerating tempo, until the piece ends with a brief restatement of the original theme. The constantly changing melodic line represents an individual experience in time, while the drone accompaniment suggests the immutable, primal sound of the Universe. When the soloist has stopped the drone goes on for a few moments, reminding us that the eternal music of the world is always there, regardless of what we focus on in the foreground. Each classical music performance, then, is a spiritual experience and is implicitly an offering to Sarasvati, the goddess of music and of all artistic creativity, and many pieces with sung texts are intended to be explicit praises of various divinities. This is not difficult to translate into a Celtic context. A musical performance can be presented as an offering to deities of poetic inspiration who are traditionally linked to harpers and to creative endeavour of all kinds, like Bríd and Lúgh. Choosing a theme and then subjecting it to a series of changes, using the traditional variation techniques of ceol mór and perhaps extending it with new ones (such as fitting the theme into various traditional dance forms, or subjecting it to completely new rhythmic patterns), then returning the theme to its original shape, can readily serve as a meditation on the cycles of transformation so evident in Celtic myths.

Music in Ritual

We have no certain knowledge of what pre-Christian ritual music sounded like. However, we do have some evidence of the development of Celtic musical tradition. From this, we can make some educated guesses as to what kinds of music would sound right in such a context, and what kinds would not. We have seen, for instance, that certain modal patterns seem to be characteristic of a more ancient heritage within Celtic music than others. We also have types of music like the formal lament and Ossianic chant, which are related to ritual and may well have pre-Christian roots, and which can thus provide a clue to the kind of sound appropriate to a ritual in Celtic tradition. Think of it this way: one of the best ways to show respect for an elder is to listen to what they have to say. Often what they want to tell you is what happened to them long ago. Sometimes they want to tell you what they learned. Other times, they just want you to laugh with them. Mostly they want you to listen. Learning lore is a way of listening to the elders who are no longer with you, of showing respect, of demonstrating that their ways and knowledge are important to you. And you may even learn from them.

Is Galician Music "Celtic"?

Anyone who spends some time in Celtic music milieus will sooner or later become aware of the alleged Celtic traditions of northwestern Spain. Musical groups from Galicia and Asturies are regularly invited to pan-Celtic music festivals. Musicians from other Celtic countries have taken an interest in their material-the Chieftains, for example, have dedicated an entire album to the music of Galicia and other parts of northern Spain. Galicia is sometimes listed as 'the seventh Celtic nation.' And yet pan-Celtic organisations like the Celtic League and the Pan-Celtic Congress have always refused to recognise Galicia as a Celtic nation on a par with the other six. Who, then, has the right of it?

Galicia, or Galiza, as it is called in the native language, does indeed have Celtic roots. As its name indicates, it was originally the tribal territory of the Gallaeci, just as their eastern neighbours, the Astures, are still remembered in the name of the province of Asturies. These areas came under Roman rule in the 2nd century BCE and were eventually assimilated into the culture of the Empire. When the Western Empire fell apart in the 5th century CE, most of northern Spain found itself under the rule of a Germanic tribe, the Suevi, who in subsequent centuries were able to fend off the Moorish tide that took over the rest of the peninsula, and thus remained integrated with Christian Europe. During the same period colonists from Britain, part of the emigration movement that also led to the settlement of Brittany, established themselves in Galicia, where they founded monasteries in the Celtic Christian tradition. However, by the end of the 7th century these ethnic religious communities had been forced back into the Roman mainstream, and the Celtic-speakers became Romance-speakers. The present-day Galician language is closely related to Portuguese.

Nevertheless, this area remained quite different from the rest of Spain, never having been under Moorish domination and thus never having absorbed the Arab elements that so strongly influenced Spanish culture elsewhere. Galicia and Asturies are, not surprisingly, much more like other parts of western Europe, like France and Britain and Ireland. During the 19th century a greater awareness of these cultural differences and a growing resentment of Castilian rule led to the birth of Galician nationalism, and to the elaboration of a Galician national mythos by writers and poets such as Manuel Murguía and Eduardo Pondal. Using traditions about Celtic settlements, and placing a huge emphasis on Lebor Gabála Érenn, which has the Gaels coming to Ireland from Spain, they created a Romantic "Celtic" identity for the Galician people. It remains an important element of the culture to this day, leading Galician writers to draw on Celtic literature for many of their themes, and bringing about a general desire for close relations with the Celtic world, fulfilled most successfully at music festivals. Galicia's piping tradition is often pointed to as proof of its Celtic connection, although, as we have seen, bagpipes were once widespread throughout rural Europe and are no indicator of a Celtic heritage.

This is not to say, however, that there are no Celtic elements in Galician culture. Some of the legends about saints, for instance, are very closely related to similar lore in Ireland and Brittany, and are certainly inherited from the Celtic Christian settlement. Many other Galician folk traditions have counterparts in the Celtic world. But by and large these are traits that are shared with most areas of western Europe where communities have maintained a continuous sense of identity since Gallo-Roman times. The Auvergne in the mountains of south-central France, for instance, has an identity that goes back to the Aruerni, the tribe to which Vercingetorix belonged. Much of its folk culture has clear Gallo-Roman roots, and is generally conservative in that it has retained many mediaeval customs that went out of fashion during the 17th century in less isolated areas. It also has a prominent bagpipe tradition, and much of its folk music has an archaic Celtic sound. Auvergnat culture is thus neither more nor less Celtic than Galician culture, and the same could be said about a number of other regions in western Europe. All of them, however, lack a Celtic language, which remains the deciding factor for Celtic identity in most pan-Celtic organisations.