For many people, the term ‘Celtic music’ conjures up images of foot-stomping fiddle music, skirling bagpipes, or ethereal vocals floating over a bed of synthesizers. All of these genres are evocative and have many fans around the world – and for good reason: the music is wonderful, quite diverse, and appeals to our senses on many levels.
However, none of this would be recognizable to a Celtic speaking person during the pagan period – bagpipes didn’t appear on the scene until the late medieval era, fiddles were introduced a few hundred years ago, and synthesizers are of course quite modern.
What kind of music might we envision having formed part of ancient Celtic culture and ritual?
Our earliest evidence shows that the late Bronze Age and Iron Age Celts made use of a wide variety of long metal horns – some side-blown and some end-blown, with a wide range of capabilities. Some were majestic sounding, useful in a procession. Others could be heard for several miles, perhaps to call people to a tribal gathering. Still others are rich in overtones, and might have had a ritual purpose.
There were also small metal egg-shaped rattles with a somewhat delicate tone produced by small pieces of clay or metal inside. These were likely used in a more intimate setting.
Instead of harp music as we now envision it (which is very influenced by music from elsewhere in Europe, from the Rennaissance onwards), the pagan Celts are known through report and archaeology to have used lyres, rather than harps, in the earliest times. These are sometimes depicted with six strings, although a few less or more was possible.
There are depictions of triangular harps from the early medieval period, which seem to have originated amongst the Picts in Scotland. But the tuning and sensibilities of this instrument may have been quite different from the harp music we know today.
There is evidence of small whistles from a very early period, not unlike the shape of a penny whistle. These were made from bone, but perhaps later, also from antler, or metal.
Poetry was recited with lyre accompaniment, and as far as we can tell, vocal songs may have also been sung or chanted a capella – certainly not with the many harmonies and multi-tracking we hear today.
There is a great deal of terminology associated with a range of activities including singing, chanting, and so forth; this was something in which the druids, and later the filid (poet-seers) would have received extensive training.
Evidence from the earliest discernible strata of folk singing suggests that the words, rather than the melody, were considered the ‘core’ of the song. Words could be set and re-set to different melodies, but still considered the same ‘song.’ It seems likely that amongst the everyday folk, singing accompanied many daily tasks, as it did in the folk tradition of the last few centuries. This would be a different type of singing than the more formal poetic recitation and entertainment performed for chiefs and nobles.
This is a fascinating topic, one which has intrigued me for many years, as a professional Celticist and a professional musician.
All of this forms part of an on-going research project of which I am the Director. It’s called Éolas ar Senchais (‘Wisdom / Guidance of our Traditional Lore’). The first phase of research is currently underway, and involves collecting evidence for the earliest ‘Celtic’ instrumental and vocal music, chant, recitation, prayers, invocations and so forth. This will culminate in a book and CD – watch this space for more news!
Phase Two will focus on the known Elements of Celtic Ritual – with a musical component of course (and another book and CD)
Phase Three will focus on Wisdom Traditions – wisdom texts, gnomic poetry, and the fascinating topic of Wisdom that emanates from the Otherworld (and… you guessed it – a book and CD!)
If you are interested in learning more, or making a donation to the project, just let us know! Patrons will receive free books and CD’s, and other goodies, based on donation level.
Sharon Paice MacLeod is a Celticist, author and musician. She is an Old Irish translator at Stanford University and has published several well known books on Celtic religion including ‘Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief’ as well as ‘Celtic Cosmology and the Otherworld: Mythic Origins, Sovereignty and Liminality’.