What makes Celtic music sound Celtic?

I have very basic music theory, so please bear with me.

Some tune, I hear, and say that’s Celtic. They usually are.

Other tunes, I hear, and say “that would sound good on the pipes,”. When I dig around, I can usually find that someone has prepared an arrangement for the pipes

So, what am I hearing that helps me to do that? What makes a tune sound Celtic? What makes a tune a good candidate for the pipes? Is it a minor key?

Certain keys (G major, D major, E minor) are easy on instruments such as fiddles and tin whistles. Certain modes (Dorian, Mixolydian) are also often used in Celtic music.

Songs to be played on pipes usually have a small range, as bagpipes can’t play very many notes.

Certain types of dances in certain time signatures (reels in cut time, jigs in 6/8) are commonly used in Celtic music.

Celtic music also uses a lot of grace notes (very short notes in between the main notes of the tune.) Bagpipes actually need to play these short notes in between notes that are supposed to be repeated, because they can’t repeat notes normally.

Hope this helps.

Should we be concerned that a Northern Piper needs to ask?


In sean nos singing, grace notes are used to denote emotion. Proper sean nos does not vary in volume - it would have been sung to be heard throughout a hall of outside gathering. So the grace notes are used for emphasis.

I’ve asked a very similar question before without a good response perhaps because I don’t know how to phrase it.

The easiest example of I can think of is in Fairytale of New York but also in many traditional-sounding tunes. It’s a certain high note that gets hit suddenly before the line goes back down to its normal pitch. In the aforementioned Fairytale, examples of this type of note are when the singer sing “place” (and perhaps “through”) in the line “But the wind blows right through you it’s no place for the old”.

Is this also something enabled by the key (since Fairytale was apparently released in D Major like Emily mentioned)?

The choice of instrument can also make a difference. No matter the tune, it’ll always sound Celtic on a tin whistle.

IM (very limited) E, DADGAD tuning on the guitar sounds Celtic.

The high notes would be “enabled by the key” if the range of the tune fit the range of the instruments/singers.

Also, in the case of that song, the jig-like 6/8 time signature of much of the song, as well as the instrumentation (tin whistle, accordion), contribute to the Celtic feel.

Why has no one mentioned the harp yet? :dubious:


I heard Stivel live in concert in '76. His music sends chills right through me.

I’ve heard this called the “Sting” and it appears in a lot of traditional Irish music. A kind of “Spike” in the melodic line.

Which, to quibble and pick nits, is basically an open stringed Dsus4.

Lowden Guitars: http://www.georgelowden.com/

are made in Ireland and designed for use in Celtic fingerstyle. Many players’ base tuning is DADGAD…