While the ancient Celts undoubtedly had their own musical styles, the actual sound of their music remains a complete mystery. With varied roots from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and more, it is difficult to pinpoint one origin of music, as such, there is no real body of music which can be accurately described as Celtic. But the word itself carries many connotations to the eager listener!
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing for Celtic music.
Instruments of the Celts
Instruments worth tinkering around with are the tinwhistle, bagpipes, dulcimer, guitars, fiddles and flutes, and the bodhrain frame drum. These are the instruments that make up the majority of Celtic music as we know it. Since it’s hard to say what exactly Celtic is, it’s fine to borrow from other nearby region folk tunes. For example, Ireland has all the above listed instruments, but in addition add harmonica, banjo, and uilleann pipes as needed. The key is to use authentic sounding old-style drums creating an interesting backdrop to skilled winds and plucked instruments.
Double the instrument melody lines. For example if you have a pennywhistle/tin whistle playing a melody, also have some plucked and string instruments playing an octave apart. Live performance of the guitars, fiddles and fifes will help the authenticity of these scores. There’s a lot of twists and turns in the phrasing of the melodies, bending of notes, trills, that may be hard to recreate digitally. Not impossible, but difficult, and the live performance adds to the folk nature of the piece.
You'll have a lot of opportunities to play with the rhythm for these types of pieces. The most important first step is to take a look at your game and figure out the pacing. Often times the simple movement speed of your character's footsteps will help dictate your tempo. Celtic music will benefit from a jig, dance, or upbeat tempo in 3/8, or if you are in 4/4, 4 groups of triplets for a 12/4 (6/8 depending on accents) feeling. The point is, stay away from typical doublets (I'm not talking about clothing, but you should probably stay away from those too!).
Parting thoughts… for only the bravest of hearts
Since there’s no right or wrong way to create a Celtic tune, as there’s not much that has been recorded for historic posterity, how it fit in your game’s audio design will be up to you. For ideas, cast a wide net on Irish, Scottish, and English folk music to listen to. The best way to learn is to analyze and hear the commonalities for yourself and keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources.
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. For examples of his latest work and samples, visit www.harrymack.com.