Celtic Music
by on 06.06.2015

Celtic Music

celtic girl and horseCeltic music: The horses have been put to bed.  Now close your eyes and imagine you are sitting with all the ancient kin around the communal fire 10,000 years ago on the Steppes of Central Asia.  A song is sure to begin.  What would that song sound like?

Today, if you put together a playlist of all the Indo-Europeans’ traditional music — especially of the Celts, the Persians, the East-Indians (including the Romas or “Gypsies”), and the Spanish — pushed shuffle, then play, you can still hear that ancient song.

In fact, after the Arabs conquered Persia in 651 AD, they stepped from being Bedouin desert nomads into perhaps the most sophisticated culture of the time overnight!  They adopted the elaborate Persian culture, including their music, and carried it with them everywhere else they conquered, so you can also hear that ancient song anywhere Islam touched down.  East-Indian ragas admit to also adopting Persian musical structure — but, since they are close kin, it was perhaps more like borrowing your brother’s bridle.

It is a lone melody without harmony.  It is an earthy, passionate, and often melancholy voice, adding flourishes of melisma.  Sometimes, the voice needs nothing else and sings alone.  (Our composer/producer Sherese Timeless has a “ground-breaking” book in the works about this, but we don’t want to give her premise away!  Stay tuned!)

Sometimes, touches of different types of guitars, different types of drums or fiddles or pipes or flutes are added to dance around the voice.

Turn off shuffle, and you can begin to hear the differences, too, as you listen to each group, now flavored with their unique experience, their unique place, after leaving their kin on the Steppes of Central Asia beginning around 3500 years ago.

Traditional Celtic music, which we concern ourselves with here, is earthy and passionate, melancholy and joyful, epic and bawdy, staying true to that ancient song.  Nothing is swept under the rug — every topic is game.  Every feeling or event can be turned into song — and is!  So many types of songs, it’s as if Celts could speak through song alone.

Since Celtic songs and poems were traditionally passed down orally, capturing them in writing and recording became serious business in the late 19th Century.  Few collectors understood the importance of leaving them be.   In their original form, they found:

Ireland and Scotland:

Sean-Nos – meaning “old-style,” considered the oldest kind of Irish singing.  You’ll hear that ancient song, and the resemblance to Persian, and East-Indian will send a shiver up your spine, as if you are hearing the songs around that shared 10,000-year-old fire.

Puirt-a-beul – (“poorsht-a-beel”), Originally Scottish “mouth music” or lilting or jigging.  It was to imitate the sounds of seals, birds and bagpipes, mourn the dead, and provide dance rhythms.  Mouth music is full of non-sensical words and sounds.

Caoineadh – a lament.  Often it was a female tradition of coming in to “keen” the deceased with lots of high-pitched wailing.  It was a way to pay tribute.

Canntaireachd – a traditional kind of chanted music that was designed to teach students bagpipes, and their special music, piobaireachd (“pibroch”).

Epics – about everything and anything, making it feel ever so important.  A particular Persian tradition as well.  Listen to traditional Persian and you definitely hear epic.

Ballads – muckle sangs-about battles; cornkister or bothy-about migrant workers’ life; jorrams-rowing songs; waulking-also called a milling frolic (a primitive variation of a quilting bee), wool weaving song.


Kan ha Diskan – or call-and-response singing.  A Breton tradition, two people alternate chants, a duel of sorts, rather than a duet.

Gwerziou  – a Breton tradition of solo unaccompanied ballad singing.


Rivieranas – one of the oldest Galician vocal traditions made up of unique musical codes to prevent anyone else from joining in.

Alalas – chants based on a single theme that drone on, with or without Galician bagpipes, spiced up with Germanic and Persian seasonings from centuries ago.  They’ve been compared to Gregorian chants.

Habaneras – Galician sensual, love songs.

Desafio – Galician duel songs.  Call-and-response act in which groups of women scream insults at each other.


Cynghanedd – unique to Wales. It means “harmony” but rather than harmony in the usual sense, it is an incredibly complex system of musical alliteration.

Penillion – a type of Cynghanedd where a singer tries to keep pace with a bardic harper, who would mix and mash meter, measure and other musical aspects at whim.  It could be fast or slow, and while the singer didn’t have to begin with the harper, she did have to end precisely with him.  Pairs of singers can also do call-and-response.

Plygain – an early morning competition to outsing your neighbors and any outsiders, with the words being guarded as family secrets.

And these are just examples of what Celtic music does with the first instrument — the voice.  Soprano, alto, tenor and bass have no place in traditional Celtic music.  Aficionados would tell you not to take lessons or go near a “modern scale,” insisting this would ruin your voice for authentic Celtic singing.  You sing whatever pitch you prefer that day, whatever wells up out of you.

Just make sure you let that ancient song of hiraeth, Welsh for “longing,” come through.  It’s no wonder when this music came to America and met the African version of longing adopted from Persia by way of Islam, it found a kindred spirit, recognized an ancient connection and blended together to make American music.  It’s one of those things that defies exact translation.  If you feel it, you know it.  Sound familiar?

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Czulinski, Winnie, Drone On!  The High History of Celtic Music, Sound and Vision, 2004

Celtic Music-Wiki:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtic_music captured 3-7-14


Eliyora Entertainment LLC.  Ever Entertainment.®  © Paradunai LLC.  All international rights reserved.  All trademarks property of Paradunai LLC.  All personas, concepts and original songs created and performed by Sherese Chrétien.

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