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The Musical Bridge – 4 Traditional Irish Musical Instruments

Music of the Emerald Isle

Irish Countryside
Irish Countryside

On the Perennial Blog, I have several different ongoing article series, many of which that have been recurring since the founding of this six year ago today on March 16, 2016! One of these ongoing series is The Musical Bridge where we have journeyed to France, The United States, China, Northern India and Pakistan, and Scandinavia so far. Today, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, we are going to travel to the Emerald Isle and learn about four traditional Irish musical instruments, the Irish whistle (feadóg stáin or feadóg), the Irish fiddle (fidil or veidhlín), the Irish harp (cláirseach), and the Irish hand drum (bodhrán). If you would like to read a brief history of St. Patrick’s Day and the difference between Irish, English, and Scottish breakfast teas, hop on over to my other blog,

Irish Whistle, Penny Whistle, or Tin Whistle

Feadóg Stáin or Feadóg, pronounced: fyad-oge st-aw-in

Tin Whistles by Daniel Fernandez from Wikipedia

The Irish whistle is also called a penny whistle, or tin whistle is known as a “feadóg stain” in Irish Gaelic. It is one of the most recognized and regularly used instrument in traditional Irish folk music. It is a simple six-holed instrument in the woodwind family. It is played by blowing into a narrow “windway” or opening that is on the end, rather than across like a modern metal flute. This is similar to a recorder or a Native American flute. A Irish whistle player is known as a whistler.

Originally whistles were made of bone, and examples of bone whistles dating from the 12th century have been discovered in High Street, Dublin, Ireland! Modern whistles are made of tin and the first mass-produced tin whistles were by English instrument-maker Robert Clarke around 1840. Since the 20th century, the whistle has been made out of a wide variety of materials, including exotic woods, PVC plastic, aluminum, brass, composite materials, and sterling silver.

The Irish Whistle is a diatonic instrument, meaning each instrument only plays in one key, which is typically D for Irish whistle. D tin whistles allow the whistler to play comfortably in the both D major and G major, two of the most common keys found in traditional Irish music. This is different from a modern flute which is able to play chromatically or is all 12 of the major and minor keys. Since the instrument does not have chromatic abilities, whistlers use a lot of embellishments, such as rolls, turns, and grace notes to add melodic interest and are central to the Irish folk music style.

Watch and listen to whistler Anna Robins demonstrate Irish folksongs on the Irish whistle.

Irish Fiddle or Celtic Fiddle

Fidil or Veidhlín (Irish spelling of “fiddle” or violin”)

Fiddler in Violin Shop
Fiddler in Violin Shop

Looking at the image, you may think that the fiddle looks an awful lot like a violin and that’s because the fiddle and the violin are actually the same instrument. The difference between them isn’t in how the instrument is built but is in how they are played. The fiddle is one of the most important instruments in traditional Irish music and dates back several hundred years, to about the 17th century when violins made their way from Europe to Ireland. A person who plays a Irish fiddle is known as a fiddler.

Unlike violinists who perform with a lot of vibrato, rapid, slight variation in pitch which produces a stronger or richer tone, a fiddler play with a straight tone unless performing a long, sustained slow notes. Just like whistlers, fiddlers embellish melodies through traditional ornamentations. Fiddlers use bowing techniques as well to give fiddle music its distinct style, such as slurring into the beat to produce a lilting feeling in the music.

Watch and listen to fiddler and violinist Michael Sanchez demonstrate Irish fiddling. Notice the way he phrases the melody and uses ornaments.

Irish Harp

Cláirseach, pronounced: klahr-shuh

Seated Harpist
Seated Harpist

While the shamrock might be one of the most iconic symbols of Ireland, the Irish harp is the national emblem of Ireland. One of the most famous Irish brands the brewer Guiness uses the harp as the trademark image of their brand. Ireland is the only country in the world which uses a musical instrument as their national symbol.

While the origin of the harp in Ireland are unclear, but there are historical records of stringed instruments being played in Ireland beginning in the 6th century. The law codes from the time state that stringed-instrument players had a high status and would sit in a position of honor at royal banquets along with the poets and away from the common entertainers!

The Irish harp has a triangular frame and 30 to 50 brass strings. It has large soundbox carved from a solid block of wood, a curved neck, and a large column that is curved outwards. A harpist performs by plucking with the fingernails to produce a ringing, bell-like sound. Like the Irish whistle, it is a diatonic instrument with seven notes per octave. In modern times, chromatic versions have been built.

Watch and listen to harpist Ann Heymann perform on intricately carved example of an early Irish harp.

Irish Hand Drum or Irish Drum

Bodhrán, pronounced: bow-rawn

Decorative Drum by Hinnerk Ruemenapf from Wikipedia
Decorative Drum by Hinnerk Ruemenapf from Wikipedia

The hand drum is one of the oldest instruments in the world. Handheld frame drums are known to have been played since the ancient world and to be an important part of the ceremonial life of people around the globe. In Ireland, the handheld drum is called the bodhrán. While it may be played and held in the hands, it is also commonly held in the hand and played with a beater or stick called a cipín or, in English, a tipper.

The Irish drum is circular and usually has a diameter between 12 and 24 inches and a depth of four to eight inches. Its frame is traditionally made of a wood, although modern drums may be plastic. The traditional drumhead is made of goat skin and modern drumheads may be synthetic. To play the drum, a drummer holds it on the thigh, supported by the arm and the upper body. One of the player’s hands is be placed under the skin to tighten or loosen it by pushing to provide changes in pitch and timbre (tone color).

Although the bodhrán is a well-known as a traditional Irish instrument today and hand drums are ancient instruments, the bodhrán is a more recent innovation. It is thought that it was invented in the 19th century from the tambourine. (All frame drums are types of tambourines some with and some without jingles.) The instrument exploded in popularly in the 20th century with many people contracting their own drums out of willow branch frames.

Watch and listen to drummer Patrick T. Reilly demonstrate playing on the bodhrán with a tipper.

☘️ Happy St. Patrick’s Day! ☘️

And, thanks to each one of you for six wonderful years of!

Let’s keep creating and blooming together!


For Further Information

Anraí, Róisín. “The Traditional Irish Tin Whistle.” Your Irish Culture, December 16, 2019.

Anraí, Róisín. “Traditional Irish Fiddle - Irish Musical Instruments.” Your Irish Culture, May 30, 2020.

Brown, Rachel. “A Guide to the Irish Bodhrán Drum.” IrishCentral, March 14, 2022.

Collins, Blaine. “Bodhran Page: History of the Irish Drum.” Celtic Music Instruments, May 31, 2018.

“Early Gaelic Harp.” Early Gaelic Harp Info: History (early medieval). Accessed March 16, 2022.

“The Historical Harp Society of Ireland.” Home I The Historical Harp Society of Ireland - The Historical Harp Society of Ireland. Accessed March 16, 2022.

“Irish Harp.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed March 16, 2022.

Onwudinjo, Miki. “Ten Fun Facts about the Irish Fiddle.” OUPblog, March 13, 2015.

“Original Clarke Tinwhistle.” Original Clarke Whistle, Key of D or C. Accessed March 16, 2022.

Parker, Jonathan. “The Tin Whistle: Ancient, Simple, Accessible, and Grand.” Center for World Music. Jonathan Parker, March 9, 2022.

“Penny Whistle in D.” Historical folk toys - catalog continuation page: Penny Whistle in D. Accessed March 16, 2022.

Redmond, Layne. “When the Drummers Were Women: A Spiritual History of Rhythm.” Amazon. Echo Point Books & Media, 2018.

RogadorHi, Christine. “The Irish Harp - History and Meaning.” Ireland Travel Guides, March 8, 2022.

Vallely, Fintan. The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. Cork: Cork University Press, 2011.


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.


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