Irish Music Instruments: You've Probably Heard or Seen Them More than You Realize!

Traditional Irish folk music was based on a few staple Irish music instruments.  Together they produced an unmistakable sound.

Having been a musician most of my life, I enjoy learning about these instruments, listening for them in traditional and popular music, and sharing information about them with friends and family.

It's also fun to approach band members and ask them to tell you about their instruments. Having some knowledge in advance makes these conversations even more interesting.

Here we will introduce you to four of the primary instruments in traditional Irish music.

The Irish Bodhran Drum

Irish Music Instruments - Bodhran Drum

This special drum is constructed out of a wood frame with dried goat skin.

There is a handle placed in the back of the drum by which it is held while the other hand is free to beat the drum to the lively rhythms that drive Irish music.

Though a simple design in terms of construction, a bodhran is often decorated ornately with Celtic artwork.

This Irish music instrument began as a war drum, then evolved into more peaceful purposes. Today it finds its home in Irish / Celtic bands and orchestras.

While the drum keeps the beat and rhythm of Irish music, various other instruments provide the lively Irish sounds that so many are familiar with.

Have a look at the Bodhran drum in action!

Irish Uilleann Pipes

Uilleann Pipes (practice set).  Courtesy of Prncd90.

While obviously similar to other types of bagpipes, Irish Uilleann pipes ("Union pipes") have a number of distinct features.

First, their tone is generally sweeter and softer than many other kinds of bagpipes.

Second, they have a wider range of tones, typically two full octives, with sharps and flats, than most other instruments of their kind.

Third, the way they function gives the musician more flexibility and control over their instrument compared to other kinds of bagpipes.

The musician has the ability to produce simple chords, along with rhythmic or harmonic accompaniment to the melody.

Finally, Uillean pipes are almost always played sitting down!

Here is a quick demonstration of the classic Uillean pipes...

The Irish Penny Whistle

Irish Music Instruments - Penny Whistle

In comparison to the Uilleann pipe, the penny whistle is a much simpler Irish music instrument to play.

This however does not mean that it lacks power and authority!

On the contrary, the penny whistle is one of the most common and widely played Irish instruments.

With a mouthpiece resembling a recorder, the penny whistle is generally made out of rolled nickel or brass and has six holes.

With two-octave ranges, the penny whistle is also available in different keys. The finger rings on a penny whistle are not unlike the ones you might find on a clarinet or flute.

Here is an example of the penny whistle in action.  Perhaps you recognize it?

Irish Fiddle

Irish Music Instruments - Irish Fiddle

First let's clear up a common misconception about this Irish music instrument... There is no specific instrument called a fiddle. 

The word 'fiddle' is simply a nickname for a violin.

It is the style of play that turns the traditional violin into a fiddle.

Irish fiddle is known for its lively, bouncy style, typically used in Irish jigs and reels.

Generally there is no vibrato.  The musician uses other forms of ornamentation such as trills, slides and cuts.

Known composers of Irish fiddle music are scarce.  Most music of this type was played by ear and passed down through the generations.

Click here for an example of the Irish fiddle in action!

That's It for Irish Music Instruments...  What's Next?

These four traditional Irish music instruments can be heard in nearly all Irish music types.  Listening for them, identifying them and telling stories about them is a fun way to share your Irish side with others!

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In the meantime, thank you so much for visiting! 

We hope you will continue to explore Irish culture and traditions, and to share your Irish side with the growing community at Irish!



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