Irish folk instruments - continued

Melodeon and accordion.

I suppose get castigated by melodeon and accordion players for saying this, but in my view melodeon is a baby accordion that can only play in the limited number of keys. Sure enough the sound is different between melodeon, a piano accordion and a button accordion, but the differences are not as great as the similarities.

The melodeon is a much more convenient instrument carry around and to play in a confined space, such as in a pub session, whereas button accordion or piano accordion, with its greater volume and ability to play in all keys, is particularly suited to solo playing or as a part of an Irish ceilidh band.

The piano accordion is typically suited to the formal styles the playing of chords, whereas the button accordion can be played at greater speed and with greater delicacy, which suit some styles of Irish music. Are there any musicians who play button accordion and piano accordion? I've never met any. It's probably because the fingering is so very different between the two instruments. The piano accordion, as one would expect, has the right hand keyboard on which the tune is played, laid out exactly the same as the keyboard of the piano. The button accordion, as one would expect from its name, has the right hand keyboard is used for the tune, laid out in a complicated sequence of buttons. To the non-expert it looks completely mystifying, but the arrangement is ergonomically extremely clever, and fantastic speed can be achieved with a minimum of and movement and finger movement. There is an amazing video on YouTube of a youngster playing Winter from Vivaldi's four seasons on a large button accordion. His playing the whole orchestral part and at the speed that only Nigel Kennedy with his Orchestra achieve. Truly amazing. It is also instrument used frequently in Eastern European clips matter music, partly for the speed but partly for the delicacy that can be achieved on the instrument. 


The banjo is an instrument that was invented and developed in the United States of America, but with the intimate connection between Ireland and the USA, the banjo has found its way back across the Atlantic in the opposite direction to the major flow of the Irish people. As an instrument it has the advantages of speed of playing, loud volume without a PA system, relatively low-cost and extremely robust. 

The mandolin family.

The full family of instruments are the cittern and mandolin (both ancient instruments used for both classical music and folk music), bouzouki (Mediterranean/Eastern European instrument) and acoustic guitar. They are often used as harmony and rhythm instruments in the Irish band, but the mandolin in particular is also used for playing the tune. 

The Irish harp.

There is a long tradition of heart playing in Ireland. The most famous folk harvest in history, Turlough O'Carolan, was much in favour in the Royal Courts of Europe in the early 1700s. His music is still played today (transcribed from his playing, as he was blind and played entirely by ear, allegedly composing new pieces as he went along), and there are a number of Irish ballads that celebrate him both as a musician and a Bringer of peace and accord between nations at that time.

The Irish, or folk harp, is very much smaller than the concert harp, and is much more the size of instrument that is seen in Roman numerals and onto productions of Greek vases. It is an instrument of great charm, best used for playing highly ornamented Irish ballads rather than for the driving music of the Irish jig or Irish real that might be used for Irish ceilidh dancing. 

Hammered dulcimer.

This relates to the Eastern European, and much larger instrument, there's another. It's recently delete that is a relatively recent addition to the Irish folk music ensemble, only been played in Ireland since the eighteenth century. 

The bodhran.

The bodhran is the quintessential Celtic instrument, and there are many kinds of this instrument. One that most people are familiar with is a drum that is held vertically in one hand and arm, and struck with a double-ended stick that is held on the other hand and used with a sinuous wrist motion. The aspect ratio of the drum diameter to drama height is large, having a large diameter drum skin but only a shallow would know. Such instruments are tuned approximately to 1 note, but can be played in different parts of instrument to give different tonality.

There are other aspect ratio brands available, the slightly smaller diameter skins and much deeper hoops. Using pressure on the skins, the pitch of the note can be varied to an extent by the player so that the instrument can almost be used as melodic accompanying instrument as well as a rhythmic instrument. It is quite rare to hear one of these kinds of bodhran being played well. 

The bones and spoons.

If you go to an Irish folk band session in southern Ireland, perhaps in pub or club, at which all guests are welcome to join in and play, you will typically find a couple of fiddles, a squeezebox or two, a couple of whistles, a lot of guitars and even more people playing the bones (or spoons if they don't have bones to hand).

The bones are a percussion instrument that were extremely popular in the 1930s and 40s and probably before that. My father is a dab hand at the bones, although at ninety-three years old he doesn't play them any more, in fact I think is loss the it is a great pity. A good player can get some very complex rhythms out of them, and they are loud. My goodness they are extremely loud when you've got a dozen people hammering away on them, and they seem to inspire such enthusiasm. Sometimes at a session, everything else can get drowned out by them and you have to persuade the bone players to go and get a few drinks down just to shut them up.

In the compact nurse, loudness, and cheapness stake, they must win against all other instruments. 

The Voice.

The Voice of course, is in its own way, musical instrument. Traditional for Irish songs is the gravel voice of the male singer and the sweet angelic pure voice of the female singer. Because of this it's uncommon for male and female to sing the same range of songs.