Irish Instruments: Taking Cues from the Past

irish instrumentsCeltic music is the folk music of Ireland and uses a number of traditional and unique instruments. A lot of the music is played on various types of fretted instruments such as the lute and banjo which gives the music its unique sound. The Celts have been making music using various kinds of fretted instruments since the early 1600’s, and the most popular type of traditional song is a ballad. Usually with a sad or wistful melody these songs tell tales carried down through the generations of old memories or losses from the past and their origins, in most cases, are shrouded in folklore and mystery. If you have ever wanted to learn more about Irish instruments, now is the time. You should also check out this Udemy course, How to Dance Irish!

Accordion A relatively modern instrument due to its complexity, the first known records of the accordion date from the 1880s. It is now a very popular instrument in traditional Irish music and can be found playing as a part of an Irish folk group or solo all around Ireland. Accordions can have a keyboard much like that of a piano or a set of round buttons connected to the bellows.When the player expands and contracts the bellows in produces either one or two different sounds depending on whether it is a single or double “push-pull” accordion.

Bodhrán The origin of this type of drum is unknown, but there is speculation that it originated either from Africa or Asia and was brought to Ireland by the migrating Celts.What’s certain is that, until recently, it was almost exclusively used in music played in the southwestern part of the island. Its use became widespread during the Irish music renaissance in the 1960s and has now become the percussion instrument of choice with most groups playing traditional Irish music. Pronounced “bow rawn” which is the Gaelic word for deaf, it resembles a tambourine as it has goatskin stretched tautly over a round wooden frame with wooden crossbars on the underside of the drum. It can be played either with fingers or using a beater. It also has tiny screws in the frame that allow the player to tune the drum to get the specific sound they want.

celtic harpHarp The harp has been around for thousands of years with evidence of ancient types of this instrument discovered in tombs of the pharaohs. During the middle ages, the harp was the common instrument of nobility and any musician who could play the harp well was revered. A harp player was often paired with a bard who would sing to the rich with the harp accompanying. Harps have been getting steadily more sophisticated with pedals and pads for the player’s fingers, but pure Irish folk music players usually use a simple harp played with bare fingers to produce the distinctive Irish folk sound. Fiddle The fiddle has been a part of traditional Irish music for centuries and was a common instrument for travelling musicians as it was light and easy to carry. In the early days, it was little more than a board with string strung across it which is a far cry from the beautiful instruments of today. As fiddles have become more advanced, so has their role in Irish folk music with them often providing complex counterpoint melodies in and around the traditional tunes.

whistleFlute The Irish flute owes its origins to a combination of two different inventors. Charles Nicholson pioneered a wooden flute with enlarged holes for his oversized fingers in the early 1800s and Theobald Böhm took Nicholson’s wooden flute design and changed it the metal design we see today. The metal flute made wooden flutes less popular making them much cheaper as people wanted to upgrade to the metal flute. This made wooden flutes, which had previously been prohibitively expensive, accessible for everyday musicians and cemented their place in traditional Irish music.

Tin Whistle This originated in China as a bamboo flute, and it has been made from many materials during its long history and journey into Irish folk music. Tin, due to its sound and low price, became the material of choice for Irish musicians and a traditional one has six holes and is either in the key of D or G which is the same as the Irish flute. They are as popular today as ever as they are cheap and easy to learn.

PipesUilleann Pipes Not to be confused with bagpipes the traditional instrument of Scotland, Uilleann pipes are used for traditional Irish music and use bellows to produce their distinctive sound rather than pipes used by bagpipes. They have been around in one form or another since at the roman times and perhaps even as far back as the Egyptians. They were originally introduced to be used in war as their loud, distinctive sound could be heard of the sound of battle and provide direction to the fighters. The name Uilleann, pronounced “ill-in” referring to the method of their play, evolved from their original name of Union pipes and their distinctive and melancholy sound is regarded as indispensable to any good Irish folk music group. It is heartwarming that the traditional Celtic roots are still so deeply embedded in Irish culture and the traditional songs are still so popular. Generations of families continue to learn and produce the ancient sounds and when combined with traditional Irish step dancing provide a spectacle that absolutely fabulous for people of all ages. Irish folk music is still constantly evolving, and modern versions of age old ballads are often introduced at the plethora of Irish music festivals that are held, not only in Ireland, but around the world. However, the original melodies and lyrics are still the most popular and are replayed in Irish pubs and restaurants anywhere that people of Irish descent have settled.

If you feel overwhelmed by the intricacy and beauty of Irish instruments, you really shouldn’t. To help you along, you should check out this Udemy course, You Can Play Guitar and Really Understand Music Quick & Easy. Another helpful Udemy course is, Basic Concepts of Music. In addition, if you want to share your music with the world, you should read this Udemy article, How to Promote Your Music: 5 Marketing Lessons for Upcoming Music Producers.