What Is Celtic Music?

The phrase “celtic music” has many different meanings to many different people. It is often the subject of many arguments among Celtic music lovers. Who is right? And who is wrong?

Well, there is no right or wrong answer. At it's core, “celtic music' could be defined as the traditional music of the Celts who settled in Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Wales, Galacia, Brittany, Nova Scotia, and the Isle of Man. But during the last thirty years or so the term “celtic music” has undergone a transformation.

Traditional Celtic Music

Thirty years ago, “celtic music” referred almost exclusively to the traditional music of Ireland. The now-dormant website Ceolas defines “celtic music” in terms of their website as traditional Irish and Scottish music. They make the supposition that most Celtic musicians are bound to play those styles of music if they play traditional Celtic music no matter where they are from.

Another school of thought is that of Texas-based Celtic website owner. He told me that to be a Celtic musician in terms of his website, you must have a background in the traditional music of the Celtic nations. Basically, if you don't know how to play reels and jigs, you can't play Celtic music. His argument was that even Enya started off playing Irish traditional music.

Traditional Celtic Folk Music

John Wilmott of Celtic Ways pointed out to me that there are also regional differences in definitions of “celtic music”. In the United Kingdom, when people mention “celtic music”, they too are talking about the traditional reels and jigs of the Celtic nations. And often times, even traditional folk songs of Ireland and Scotland are called just that “folk songs” not “celtic songs”.

I was performing once with The Rogues, a Scottish pipe & drum quartet. The former bodhran player argued that they did not play Celtic music. They played Scottish music. And he has a point considering the Celtic people of Scotland were based in the Highlands an 95% of the current population is based in the lowlands of Scotland. However, as one reader pointed out, the vast majority of the music was originally Celtic and preserved despite the Highland Clearances and repression of the Scottish Celtic culture.

Celtic New Age

This takes us to the other side of the spectrum–Celtic New Age. In the early 1980's “celtic music” took a new direction. Enya and Clannad introduced a new sound that is now known as Celtic New Age. This style of “celtic music” is largely based more around synthesizers and heavy effects. It attempts to capture the “feel” of “celtic music”. Clannad was followed by Loreena McKennitt, Sara McLaughlin and many more artists. Each one having less of traditional sound and having more of a “feeling”.

Celtic Rock

Then, there is Celtic Rock. Celtic Rock began with the formation of the Scottish band Runrig who combined Scots Gaelic in a modern rock band. They were the first successful band to do so, and their success spawned countless imitators.

In general, most Celtic Rock bands combine their sound with some traditional Celtic sound whether that be instrumentation (fiddle, bagpipes) or vocal (singing in Gaelic). But Larry Kirwan of Black 47 would argue differently. In the band's biography, Black 47 was playing at an Irish pub when someone shouted out “Play some Celtic music”. Kirwan's response was basically, “I'm from Ireland. I am Celtic. Therefore, we are playing Celtic music.”

‘Celtic Music' Redefined

Obviously, there are some varying definitions as to what Celtic music is. For a more complete definition and the it's evolution, check out the Standing Stones article on What Is Celtic Music?

From what I've seen, many Celtic organizations like the Southwest Celtic Music Association and the Arizona Irish Music Society seem more interested in promoting and educating the growth of the organization and the music community, than hindering it with archaic definitions. I, too, am more concerned with helping Celtic music grow than to hinder it with old definitions. For better or worse, “Celtic music” has changed. Consequently, if you're looking for traditional Celtic music, look for “pure drop” Celtic tunes.

Tunes vs. Songs

You see, there are two types of Celtic music: tunes and songs.

Tunes make up the bulk of the instrumental “celtic music” that you hear about. The Chieftains perform tunes. If you go to an Irish seisun, you will Irish tunes.

Songs, on the other hand, are the traditional vocal compositions that were passed down. Songs like “Whiskey in the Jar” have been performed hundreds of different ways by countless artists.

How does Celtic MP3s.com define “celtic music”?

In case you haven't figured it out, I do not subscribe to the traditionalist view of “celtic music”. As far as I'm concerned, a musician can call their music whatever they want to call it. But will I print it in my newsletter? Not necessarily. I have my standards too.

I'm kinda of in the middle ground. Yeah, I love the music of Enya as much as I love the music of The Chieftains. And as far as I'm concerned, they both play Celtic music.


What Is Celtic Music? — 1 Comment

  1. Thk u for the definition of Celtic music. A very interesting read, I always thought Celtic and Irish music were the same. Now I know

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