The instruments of traditional music

Here I'm collecting information on the instruments and playing styles of traditional Scottish and Irish music. (Some of these pages can also be found in other subject groupings.) This is not intended to be a complete listing of all instruments in current use. For that, try Ceolas. I'm just including interesting (to me), unusual or hard-to-find information that I run across.

Buíochas do Caoimhín Mac Aoidh as ucht an ailt speisúil a thug sé domh. Thanks to Caoimhín Mac Aoidh for the very interesting article he contributed.

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Wire-strung harp
We all know that the harp is the national symbol of Ireland. Is that the same harp you see in an orchestra? Read about the origin of the wire-strung Gaelic harp.

The Irish harp in England
At the same time that the armies of Queen Elizabeth I attempted to subdue Ireland, the Irish harp was introduced to English musical audiences. Read how it was received.

The Irish harp in poetry
A few selections from Irish Bardic poetry (c. 1400-1650) demonstrating the esteem and love felt for the harp in those times.

The ap Huw manuscript
This manuscript of early Welsh harp music may also give us some insight into Irish harp music of around 1100 AD.

The Breton harp
Brittany, the Celtic nation that is now a part of France, had its own harping tradition for many centuries. Today this tradition is being revived. The story plus assorted travel tips.

Regional Irish fiddle styles
How do fiddling styles vary in the different parts of Ireland? Caoimhín Mac Aoidh, the noted authority on Donegal fiddling, gives an introduction to the topic.

The fiddle music of Donegal
This is an article I wrote for Fiddler Magazine, giving an introduction to this interesting regional style which has recently come to popular attention through the recordings of Altan.

An interview with Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh
An interview I did for Fiddler Magazine with Altan's founding fiddler.

An interview with James Byrne
Another interview I did for Fiddler Magazine, this one with James Byrne, a great performer with a very traditional southwest Donegal style.

The baritone violin
A long-forgotten instrument is making a come-back. Fiddle virtuoso Darol Anger gives his thoughts on this growing trend.

The Irish flute
Suite101 Featured Site You may have heard people use the term "Irish flute". Does such an instrument actually exist? And if so, what is it? The answer to this question takes us on a fascinating journey through little-known areas of music history and acoustics. (Also check out the history of flute vibrato on the vibrato page.)

The cello in traditional music
The cello is an instrument strictly used in classical music. Its introduction into traditional music is a modern aberration. If you believe that, take a look at some of these quotations.

Cello accompaniment today
Here are some of my ideas about concepts of cello accompaniment in traditional music.

The Irish banjo
Is the banjo a traditional Irish instrument? Dr. Mick Moloney, noted Irish banjo player and musicologist, tells the history of the Irish banjo.

The Scottish lute
Do fretted instruments belong in the Scottish tradition? Interestingly, one such instrument is found in the earliest records of Scottish music.

The Irish lute
Was the lute played in Ireland? The answer is a very qualified "yes".

Other fretted instruments
A collection of historical references to other fretted instruments in Scottish and other traditional music.

Fretted instruments in traditional music
Well, actually there's a whole page available on this topic alone. Most of what isn't included here is involved with justifying the place of the lute as a folk instrument in Scotland, in addition to its accepted role as a court instrument.

Related topics:

You can find more information on similar subjects at my Celtic links page. My music links page contains links to pages about instruments that are not particularly associated with traditional music.

I have been asked from time to time why I don't have information about bagpipes or other instruments. The reason is that I may not have anything to add to what is found at Ceolas. However, I'll start a small list of links to interesting sites here:

  • Thomas Johnson's uilleann pipes site (Irish bagpipes) has interesting information about the very influential piper Johnny Doran and other topics.
  • Na Píobairí Uilleann ( The Society of Uilleann Pipers). Includes tune of the month. Tá leagan Gaeilge ar fáil.
  • History of the Bodhran—despite claims of an ancient pedigree, the bodhran was only introduced into Irish music in the middle of the last century.
  • The whistle (feadóg) is one of the oldest instruments used in Irish music. However, until fairly recently it was considered to be a toy rather than a real instrument. It was something that children played until they were ready to start the pipes or the flute. It is quite common in older references to see statements along the lines of "the writer, like most small boys, made many such instruments with his pocketknife in years gone by". I would speculate that it was the Chieftains who are responsible for the whistle becoming considered a serious instrument. The Chiff and Fipple website is a collection of all sorts of whistle information. A collection of whistle sound samples is available at Sounds of the Irish Tinwhistle. Whistles are sometimes called "tinwhistles" because during the 19th century they were commonly made out of tin. Before that, wood or bone was used. The first person to manufacture whistle out of tin was a Mr. Robert Clarke in 1843. His company is still in business today. Another name is the "pennywhistle". This is not because this was the original price charged by Mr. Clarke (they were cheap, but not that cheap!). It is because people used to play on the street and passers-by would throw pennies into your hat which you placed at your feet. According to the Clarke website, Mr. Clarke sold many whistles to Irish labourers who worked on the canals and railways.

  • Finally, there's a new instrument on the block: the uilleann whistle. It's a whistle with a drone attachment. You blow it through a tube. It's actually misnamed since uilleann is the Irish word for elbow. I guess it's intended for people who want to play pipes eventually. The fingerings are pipe fingerings which are not the same as whistle fingerings. You could get the same sound by putting two whistles in your mouth. For example, a Eb whistle with all the holes open would give you a D drone. Or you can tape over the holes in the drone whistle to get different pitches. Whenever I do this, my wife asks me to stop.
  • Martin Wynne, the celebrated County Sligo fiddler and composer of traditional dance tunes.

Book Check out the links page for additional references.

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