Celtic Music

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Celtic music is a broad grouping of musical genres that evolved out of the folk musical traditions of the Celtic peoples of Western Europe. The term Celtic music may refer to both orally-transmitted traditional music and recorded popular music some with only a superficial resemblance to folk styles of the Celtic peoples, some in a serious work to bring the originalities of the celtic traditions into the modern world.

Celtic music means two things mainly. The first: the music of the peoples calling themselves Celts (a non-musicologistic definition which we can compare with French music, European music). The second: what is shared only by the musics of the Celtic Nations (a musical definition). We see further that some consider there is nothing, some others say there is (as Alan Stivell).

Often, the term Celtic music is applied to the music of Ireland and Scotland, because both places have produced well-known distinctive styles which actually have genuine commonality and clear mutual influences. They are famous too because of the importance of Irish and Scottish ascendants in the English speaking world. The music of Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Brittany, Northumbria, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and Northeastern Portugal are also frequently considered a part of Celtic music, the Celtic tradition being particularly strong in Brittany, where Celtic festivals large and small take place throughout the year and because of Alan Stivell’s recordings and tours. Finally, the music of ethnically Celtic peoples abroad are also considered, in Canada and the United States.


In Celtic Music: A Complete Guide, June Skinner Sawyers acknowledges six Celtic nationalities divided into two groups according to their linguistic heritage. The Q-Celtic nationalities are the Irish, Scottish and Manx peoples, while the P-Celtic groups are the Cornish, Bretons and Welsh peoples. Sawyer also mentions the Celtiberian languages as part of P-Celtic.

The Breton musician Alan Stivell uses a similar dichotomy, between the Gaelic (Irish and Scottish) branch and the Brythonic (Breton and Welsh) group, which differentiate “mostly by the extended range (sometimes more than two octaves) of Irish and Scottish melodies and the closed range of Breton and Welsh melodies (often reduced to a half-octave), and by the frequent use of the pure pentatonic scale in Gaelic music”.

Definition debate

At issue is the lack of many common threads uniting the “Celtic” peoples listed above. While the ancient Celts undoubtedly had their own musical styles, these have grown and evolved to the point where considering any modern styles reminiscent of ancient Celtic music is misleading. There is also tremendous variation between Celtic regions. Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany have living traditions of language and music, whereas Cornwall and the Isle of Man have only revivalist movements that have yet to take hold. Galicia has no Celtic language (Galician is a Romance language closest to Portuguese), but Galician music is often claimed to be “Celtic.” The same is true of the music of Asturias and that of Northeastern Portugal (but Portugal has a stronger arabic influence). Thus traditionalists and most musicological scholars dispute that the “Celtic” lands have any folk connections to each other.

A strong case can be made that the similarities between the various musics called “Celtic” derive more from a common origin in the vernacular music of late medieval and early modern Europe than from any innate Celticity. But that is giving too much importance to basic material, knowing that the originality of a music is in the subtle transformation, by a people or a group of peoples, of material shared by larger communities.

Many critics of the idea of modern Celtic music claim that the idea is the creation of modern marketing designed to stimulate regional identity in the creation of a consumer niche; June Skinner Sawyers, for example, notes that “Celtic music is a marketing term that I am using, for the purposes of this book, as a matter of convenience, knowing full well the cultural baggage that comes with it”. If we look at it closer, we see that the so-called “marketing” or “show-business” creation was born in the mind of an idealistic man who first(late 60s) blent the music of all the Celtic countries with a modern touch in his recordings and concerts: the Breton Alan Stivell.


Identifying “common characteristics” of Celtic music is problematic. Most of the popular musical forms now thought of as characteristically “Celtic” were once common in many places in Western Europe. Jigs were adapted from Italian music, for example, and polkas have their origin in Czech and Polish tradition.

On the other hand, there are musical genres and styles specific to each Celtic country, due in part to the influence of individual song traditions and the characteristics of specific languages. Strathspeys are specific to Highland Scotland, for example, and mimic the rhythms of the Scottish Gaelic language.


The Celtic music scene involves a large number of music festivals. Some of the most prominent include Festival Internacional do Mundo Celta de Ortigueira (Ortigueira, Galicia), Celtic Colours (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia), Celtic Connections (Glasgow) and Festival Interceltique (Lorient, Brittany).

Modern Adaptations

The first modern adaptations in the 60s were (though english) those of Jethro Tull, of Fairport Convention, and, in Ireland, Horslips, in Brittany, Alan Stivell, who made the first attempt of pan-celtic modern popular music and is still now exploring new kinds of Celtic fusion. In 1982 with The Pogues invention of Celtic folk-punk, there has been a movement to incorporate Celtic influences into other genres of music. Marxman, an Irish-Jamaican hip hop group that gained notoriety in Britain in the late 1980’s and was banned from the BBC for including I.R.A. slogans in their music, sampled traditional Celtic instruments in several of their songs as well. Sinead O’Connor has also been active in the
fusion movement and incorporated a wide range of modern and traditional influences into her music. In Scotland Gaelic punk bands such as Oi Polloi and Mill a h-Uile Rud that write and perform in Scots Gaelic have recently gained popularity as well. Today there are Celtic-influenced sub genres of virtually every type of popular music. Collectively these modern interpretations of Celtic music are sometimes referred to as Celtic Fusion.

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article – Celtic music