Discover traditional Irish music with these 8 Irish musical instruments.
Searching for a genre of music that can be identified with its ancestral culture? There isn’t any better option than traditional Irish music. The sounds and tunes produced by this genre of music are as old as the hills. It is a perfect blend of the Irish ancient culture mixed with tunes connected to the very root of its identity.
Traditional Irish music is more valued and cherished by individuals who respect and share Irish ancestry.
As old as it is, this style of music alongside its instruments have been passed down from generation to generation. Ever wondered what instruments are combined to give that sonorous traditional Irish tune? Here’s a list of eight Irish musical instruments used in traditional Irish music. Let’s get started!
Traditional Irish Musical Instruments
When it comes to Irish music, these 8 Irish musical instruments are what you would call “essential”:
1. The Fiddle
The first on this list of Irish musical instruments to watch out for at your next concert is the fiddle. We believe that the fiddle is by far one of the most commonly used wind instruments in traditional Irish music. With its origin as far as the early 1600s, the fiddle has been a key part of the melodious tune the Irish music is known for.
Listeners enjoy the feel of the strings the best during solo interludes by the fiddle player.
Popularly famous for its Irish root, the fiddle has since then grown vast across the globe. At some point, Western European culture was infused into the music of several nations. Similar to the violin, the fiddle is sometimes accompanied by percussion on the wooden box. The traditional Irish musical groove has percussions of several instruments as the sole of its music. Regardless, you can always pick out the distinct sound of the fiddle distance away.
Have you witnessed the melodious groove of some fast-paced fiddle tunes? This Irish traditional musical instrument sure knows how to keep you to your feet even when you don’t feel like. Like every other Irish traditional instrument, the Fiddle also has a significant influence on the music culture of neighboring countries. As the bow bounces on each string or strings per time, you can really connect with the player through their music.
We’ve established already how the Irish musical culture loves its percussion and beats. A major musical instrument known to be the heartbeat of Irish traditional music is ‘The Bodhrán”. The hand-held man-made drum is an instrument carved from the fine woods of Ireland. It is known that the craft of designing the Bodhrán is best done by persons who connect deeply with the traditional percussion rhythm.
The Bodhrán is a lightweight framed Irish instrument popular in every major traditional musical group in Ireland. Native citizens of all parts of Ireland often share a myth about the Bodhrán being a ‘Talking Instrument’. The beats from it they say speak the words of their ancestral lineage as it soothes their soul. The body of the Bodhrán is crafted from fine wood of the Irish forests while the top is covered with processed goatskin.
One fascinating thing about the Bodhrán is how it takes the lead on other instruments used in traditional Irish music. It’s almost as though these instruments awaits a signal from the Bodhrán before making their sounds. In a typical traditional Irish party, you could literally feel the sensation from the drums fill the atmosphere.
Natives just never know when to quit dancing to the rhythm of the Bodhrán when the party starts.
Here’s a demo of the Bodhran:
3. Celtic Harp
The soothing sound of every string instrument has this unique way of setting positive synergy in the room. Just like every musical string instrument, the Celtic harp produces distinct tones that keep every listener anticipating the next note. This ancient Irish originated instrument is known to calm the nerves of rulers when in distress. It just has its way of connecting the human mind with the realm of music.
Nowadays, you’d probably not find so much of this instrument played in contemporary Irish musical gatherings. However, the Celtic harp is dated back and holds a strong connection with the core of traditional Irish music. It is understandable because there are probably a few other string instruments that’d fit perfectly into contemporary Irish music. Also, you can easily fix a box of the guitar into your trunk when touring multiple cities.
Yes, the Celtic harp is large in size. It’s not one of those instruments with cute and fancy casings even kids can joggle around with. Made with finely-carved wooden frames that act as support for wire strings arranged in a fashioned order. The Celtic harp could be quite technical and difficult to learn, more or less master the skill of playing.
It is one of the very few Irish musical instruments that require some level of tenacity to get comfortable playing.
4. Uilleann Pipes
What’s traditional Irish music without a wind Instrument? Well, in this case, not just any wind instrument; ‘The Bagpipes Of Ireland’ as it is popularly referred to. The Uilleann pipe is one of the major solo instruments in traditional Irish music. When you come across individuals who are pretty good at it, the whistle-like melody keeps echoing in your ears hours after. Unlike other Irish musical instruments, these pipes are dated as far as the 16th and 17th centuries.
However, they only became vast in the whole of Ireland between the 18th and 19th. One would expect that a sound this old would fade across time. This would have been the case if only music lovers of Ireland never lost the taste for the Uilleann pipes in the songs. Way back in the days, players of these pipes were often those who also played praises of prominent individuals in events.
The Uilleann pipes, formerly known as ‘Union Pipes’ in English is a sophisticated looking instrument. The combined effort of releasing air into the instrument and holding down each keynote makes playing look so easy. However, in the real sense, it takes some level of commitment, constant practice, and creativity to play the Uilleann pipes.
The wide range of notes on these instruments allows players to tag listeners along on their musical journey.
Check out how these pipes sound:
5. Accordions and Concertinas
Irish traditional music is known to offer one of the best rhythmic tunes in Western Europe. With instruments like accordions and concertinas in the core of the traditional Irish music, that should be expected. All Irish performances, from contemporary to jazz, soul, and so on has these two box-shaped instruments in their setups. Yes, all of them!
Accordions and concertinas are the instruments known for keeping the rhythm and Melody of traditional Irish music going. They operate with multiple note combinations that form various chord patterns played at intervals.
As a music enthusiast, sometimes I try to imagine if truly there’s a limit to the number of chords produced by these instruments. Of course, they’d be a limit. It’s no wonder why traditional Irish music keeps sounding unique.
Have you ever found the squeezing technique applied when playing these instruments cool? The expressions on the faces of the players truly tell that it’s a cool instrument to play. Both accordions and concertinas have a super-nice colloquial name termed ‘The Squeezebox’. Cool right?
Of course, the name is self-explanatory since you’d literally have to squeeze the notes out of the instrument to get the desired sound– and also press a few buttons while at it. Super Cool!
6. Irish Flute
The next instrument on this list is the Irish flute. Another wind instrument originated from Ireland but somehow plays a vital role in the sound of music across Europe and beyond. Looking for an Irish instrument to learn quickly? Try the Irish flute. This flute has one of the simplest mechanisms of instruments worldwide. Virtually anyone can play to a couple of tunes after a few moments of learning the basics.
Before now, adults were the only ones allowed to play the instrument at traditional Irish gatherings or carnivals. However, because of the simplicity of the Irish flute, children are now encouraged to music with this instrument. With just a few and easy to remember combinations, children can play their rhymes while having fun. Of course, playing from a young age gives Irish children the opportunity to be musically-inclined from young ages.
The Irish flute has a similar structure and builds up as the tin whistle. Both instruments have air released into them through the extended mouthpiece. While the neatly perforated holes are covered and released with the fingertips to produce distinct tones. That’s practically all there is to playing this instrument. Blow, hold or release whichever hole or holes makes up your desired note. Irish flute players are good at making melodious solos to the traditional Irish music.
7. Irish Bouzouki
If you’re not Irish, there’s a 99.9% chance you just pronounced that wrongly! Well, since we aren’t taking Irish pronunciation classes today, how about we talk about the instrument? Yes, we can! It’s no coincidence that people take this instrument for the popular Greek instrument with a similar structure.
The Irish bouzouki was first used publicly in major Irish music groups in the early 1960s. Before then, the instrument was played by locals who just wanted to have fun.
The popular Dublin-based legendary musician; Johnny Moynihan got the credits for introducing the Irish bouzouki. This Sweeney’s man first played this instrument in a life Irish traditional music scene in the late 1960s. Since then, the bouzouki has been introduced into the various genre of music across Europe and beyond. The string instrument now adds a rhythmic and sonorous tune to the traditional Irish music.
Many find it so hard to tell the difference between the Irish and Greek bouzouki. Mainly because they both have similar structures and look from afar. However, taking a closer look at both instruments, you’d notice the Irish bouzouki is tuned differently.
The Irish version follows the (GDAD’) tuning trend for the strings, while the Greek has a different tuning pattern entirely. Aside from this clear difference, both instruments are quite distinct in their sounds if you can pick the difference.
Here’s how the Bouzouki sounds:
The last, but certainly not the least on our list of Irish musical instruments used in traditional Irish music is Banjo. Virtually everyone who knows their musical instruments and the sound they produce is conversant with this instrument. The Banjo unlike most string instruments is structured in a distinct way and of course, produces a different sound. It is also one of the very few Irish instruments with a long history of Irish culture.
The Banjo though similar in sound production often comes in more than one type depending on the player and kind of music. This instrument varies in the number of strings but still share the same round body every banjo is known for.
Players can choose to use a banjo with four, five, or six strings as long as it flows perfectly well into the Irish traditional music tune. However, most Irish musicians prefer to go for the five-string banjos for reasons best known to them.
There’s literally no Irish music fiesta, concert, or personal traditional live events without the banjo to grace the ceremony. The banjo allows players to stay connected to the traditional Irish groove as they pluck each string and hold corresponding notes at the fret level.
Many local pubs in Ireland have seasoned banjo solo artists that help entertain their guests. Even with various genres in vogue nowadays, no true Irish individual breaks off their traditional heritage.
Over to you
These are the key instruments that make up the evergreen traditional Irish music that hasn’t stopped leaving you awed. Every instrument on this list is unique in its way and adds a different spice to the Irish tune. From the percussion to strings, to the wind instruments, these eight Irish musical instruments create one sound loved by multiple cultures across the globe.
We’re sure this detailed read has enlightened you on the rudiments of the evergreen traditional Irish musical instruments. Nowadays, let’s get back to listening to those records before you got our attention.
Header image credit: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash