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Celtic music - can it be defined?

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(@hughm)
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Joined: 20 years ago
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I guess DS might be best placed to answer this question:

How, in a musical sense, can Celtic music be defined? Is it characterized by certain minor key scales and sounds? Certain cadences?

I fear that many players (like me) love it when we hear great, rousing Celtic music, but shy away from delving into it because "it all sounds the same."

This, clearly, is a fear borne of ignorance. Surely, the variety of Celtic music is as varied as blues - and its elaborations as extensive. (Neo Celtic? Space Celtic?)

Also, there should be some smarty-pants out there who can tell me where (and when) the distictive Celic sound arose.

Thanks.

Hugh


   
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(@slejhamer)
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As we haven't heard from DS in a while, I'll point you to this article which has some history on so-called Celtic music as well as interesting points of view: http://www.standingstones.com/celtmusic.html

But basically, it has become a catch-all phrase that encompasses many types of music. Traditionial Irish and Scottish, Welsh, Breton, pub ballads, airs, jigs, hornpipes, reels, "new age," anything associated with Riverdance ...

I've seen U2 described as having a Celtic influence, I guess anything Irish must be "Celtic" ;). Also what about Thin Lizzy covering the song "Whiskey In The Jar" - does that make them Celtic, or does their arrangement qualify as Celtic? Some have said so!

I understand the comment "it all sounds the same" as I've heard it before, but I do think after getting into it the variety becomes much more apparent. Three songs I'm working on right now are completely different from each other: "She Moved Through The Fair" which has mournful lyrics set against vaguely Celtic / new-age music, "O, The Britches Full Of Stitches" which is an energetic dance tune, and "Si Beag, Si Mor" (aka "sheebag and sheemore"), a flowing, haunting O'Carolan tune for which I've got two excellent fingerstyle arrangements.

One thing I've read to develop a better understanding of Celtic music is to listen to musicians who don't play guitar. The tunes played by pipers, fiddlers and harpists might help differentiate the styles better. Not sure about that - I prefer guitar. :D

"Everybody got to elevate from the norm."


   
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 geoo
(@geoo)
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Also what about Thin Lizzy covering the song "Whiskey In The Jar" - does that make them Celtic

Or Metallica for that matter. :lol: That was my first listen at Whiskey In The Jar. Wasnt until I joined a Ren group that I found out it was an OLD song.

Anyways, what Slej says is true. There are many different styles that are not truely Celtic that are classified as such. Trying to define a Celt period is difficult because there were so many different "flavors" of them. If I hear a song that sounds like something I would hear at a Medieval Faire then I call it Celtic. I know its not. But its a very good catch all phrase.

And dont forget, you are playing a style that wasnt developed originally for the guitar. Modern guitar didnt exist then.

Geoo

“The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn” - David Russell (Scottish classical Guitarist. b.1942)


   
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(@dsparling)
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A great place to start is

http://www.ceolas.org/ceolas.html

and

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtic_Music

I mostly come from the traditional side of Irish music, and not as a guitar player - but I have found that guitar is a great instrument on which to play the music.

Sorry I don't have more time to elaborate...:)

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(@fretsource)
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There's not much to add to Slejhamer's astute observations that the term Celtic music is a convenient catch-all phrase, and I use it myself to describe the traditional music of Scotland and Ireland.

In my own vague definition, I (wrongly) exclude Welsh music, because it feels very different in spirit and also Cornish and Manx music, because I don't know any. That applies even more so to other historic Celtic centres such as Galicea and Asturias. I do include the music of Brittany, however, but that's because the Breton harpist Alan Stivell has done tremendous work in presenting it alongside Scottish and Irish music to great effect.

The link Slejhamer supplied says it all in my opinion - and that author makes a good point that, what we commonly think of as Celtic music would be more accurately termed Gaelic music, limiting it to the music of Scotland and Ireland, rather than the music of Wales, Brittany and elsewhere.

A final observation I'd like to add is that, here in Scotland, while my guitarist friends and I commonly use the term 'Celtic', I notice my various 'piping and fiddling' friends, talk only about Scottish or Irish traditional or folk music and almost never use the term 'Celtic music' to describe the type of music they play.


   
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(@demoetc)
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I saw a PBS (U.S. educational telvision network) series a few years back entitled The Story of English, or something similar. It traced the spread of the English language through the 'new world.' One thing that came up was how the Southern 'drawl' you hear in some of the southern states of America actually developed from Scot and Irish accents/dialects, and it was explained that this was because of the influx of the Irish and Scots to the southern areas of the U.S. way back when.

And though it wasn't touched upon (I don't believe), the music also came over. There is a lot of Gaelic culture, including music and dance, that you can see a relationship between - Irish hardshoe dancing and Southern U.S. line dancing, the reels, the use and style of the 'fiddle'. I think it's probably easier to see if you compare Gaelic music (yes, I think Gaelic is a much better description) and the music of Appalachia. The old tunes, the traditional songs, the manner of singing, even, as far as dulcimer, the instrumentation.

This all said to bring in the idea that Gaelic/Celtic music has what seems to be a pretty strong branch here in the U.S., a separate development as it were, and though U.S. Country and Western isn't exactly like traditional tunes or sounds from Ireland and Scotland, the comparisons themselves are sorta interesting when considering the music from that part of Europe.

Best regards.


   
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(@dsparling)
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A final observation I'd like to add is that, here in Scotland, while my guitarist friends and I commonly use the term 'Celtic', I notice my various 'piping and fiddling' friends, talk only about Scottish or Irish traditional or folk music and almost never use the term 'Celtic music' to describe the type of music they play.

I noticed that too...Michael Coleman or Kevin Burke - Irish fiddlers, Seaums Ennis - Irish piper, Alan Stivell - Breton harpist, Alasdair Fraser - Scottish fiddler (in many cases the "style" of music and country of origin for the musician is the same, but I think the adjective usually describes the style of music)...but guitar players are often simply called "Celtic" guitarists.

The term "Celtic" does seem to be a bit of a catch all, but the traditional music from the different "Celtic" countries is very distinct and different from one another (even traditional music in one country can be quite varied - there are several regional styles of Irish music, at least as far as feel and ornamentation - quite noticeable in fiddle playing, though a blending of regional styles has occured in the last several years with the advent of global media).

Even here in the states...I believe there about nine regional styles of Missouri fiddling.

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(@u2bono269)
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who or what is DS?

http://www.brianbetteridge.com


   
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(@greybeard)
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who or what is DS?
dsparling?

I started with nothing - and I've still got most of it left.
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(@dylan6776)
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(aka "sheebag and sheemore"), a flowing, haunting O'Carolan tune for which I've got two excellent fingerstyle arrangements.

Er, any chance of sharing those arrangements? :D

Never assume the other fellow has intelligence equal to yours. He may have more.


   
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(@slejhamer)
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Er, any chance of sharing those arrangements? :D

Check your PM. :)

"Everybody got to elevate from the norm."


   
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(@dsparling)
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I saw a PBS (U.S. educational telvision network) series a few years back entitled The Story of English, or something similar. It traced the spread of the English language through the 'new world.' One thing that came up was how the Southern 'drawl' you hear in some of the southern states of America actually developed from Scot and Irish accents/dialects, and it was explained that this was because of the influx of the Irish and Scots to the southern areas of the U.S. way back when.

And though it wasn't touched upon (I don't believe), the music also came over. There is a lot of Gaelic culture, including music and dance, that you can see a relationship between - Irish hardshoe dancing and Southern U.S. line dancing, the reels, the use and style of the 'fiddle'. I think it's probably easier to see if you compare Gaelic music (yes, I think Gaelic is a much better description) and the music of Appalachia. The old tunes, the traditional songs, the manner of singing, even, as far as dulcimer, the instrumentation.

This all said to bring in the idea that Gaelic/Celtic music has what seems to be a pretty strong branch here in the U.S., a separate development as it were, and though U.S. Country and Western isn't exactly like traditional tunes or sounds from Ireland and Scotland, the comparisons themselves are sorta interesting when considering the music from that part of Europe.

Best regards.

I recall that show as well. And that was a few years ago...that show first aired in the mid to late '80s :) I had the book that went with the show at one time...and I believe PBS just aired a sequel to the show about a year ago.

There are many tunes in the American tradition that came over from the British Isles (and elsewhere, of course). Right before I joined GN, I had started working on a book proposal for a book tentatively titled "Celtic Hymns for Fingerpicking Guitar," which was to include several arrangements of hymns with melodies that originally came from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (a few of my early lessons here at GN were tunes that were to be in that book). During my research, I came across a story about Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains and how when he first heard the country/bluegrass tune Cotten-Eyed Joe, he recognized it as an old Irish reel called The Mountain Top...to quote Maloney, "It was the same tune and it was one that obviously went across from Ireland."

Several years ago I had several friends in a US-based Irish band called Scartaglen. The band's singer, Connie Dover, later released several of her own CDs...after recording her first solo CD I recall her saying that Scottish musician/producer Phil Cunningham (Silly Wizard) upon hearing her singing the 19th century American folk song Jack of Diamonds quipped "That's no Jack of Diamonds...that's Farewell to Tarwathie."

Back to the PBS show...I seem to remember that the show mentioned that the music from Cape Breton (Canada) was played more like it was in Scotland originally than it is in Scotland today...fun and interesting stuff.

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(@hbriem)
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There are several lessons right here at Guitarnoise that directly address this question.

First and foremost is the incomparable David Hodge's introduction to Celtic Music: A Celtic Air.

If you do a search for "celtic" in the Lessons section, you should find 13 other lessons that are directly or indirectly about Celtic music.

I hope this helps.

--
Helgi Briem
hbriem AT gmail DOT com


   
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