The Ultimate Scale for Playing Celtic Music


Let's talk about celtic music for a moment: imagine the grassy fields of Ireland and the crashing of the sea. Architecture with Celtic knots of stone, and dirt path ways leading to a pub filled with roaring laughter, music, and the warmth of cozy chairs near the fire. These famous pubs are built upon friendship, community, food and drink, and of course storytelling! Storytelling is a long tradition in every culture in the world and each culture has their own unique style. Storytelling is often shared in the form of music - think the bards and pubs in Skyrim - yes you’ve got the general image. What made the music and stories in these gatherings so effective was how informal they were. Anyone could get up and tell a story through their instrument, even a worn-down-beaten-up-cheap penny whistle at that. So instead of a formal gathering of master musicians playing precise perfectly composed music for an audience, the audience became the player and the players the audience, all in one! Get some beat up worn out penny whistles, bodhrans, fiddles, and harps  and you’ve got yourself a genuine band! Let the storytelling begin!

For this reason anyone, and I mean anyone, can easily learn and play the penny whistle.

It lends itself so wonderfully to the beginner of music that one can begin playing songs within the first month of practice. No embouchure to figure out, no complicated fingerings to remember, no need to read sheet music right away either or understand theory - simply using your ear, some bravery, and a passion for music and you will be well on your way. The tin whistle is truly the best instrument for any beginner of music. Anyhow that's for another post, this one is focusing on the traditional music of Celtic origins we all recognize and love. Celtic music is often passed down by listening and replicating without any sheet music. The majority of Celtic music is played in one key which makes it easy to play by ear.

This ultimate scale would be the D scale. This is what the D scale looks like in written music form for those who read music (and for those who don’t, no worries, you don’t need to right now). A D scale also looks like this on your penny whistle (insert fingerings) simple no?


An important note to understand is that the penny whistle is built in one key which means it plays in one main scale. There is a whistle for each scale (A, Bflat, C, D, E, F, G) as well as high and low whistles. The scale that comes out depends on the length of the whistle and the size of the bore.

A high whistle plays the scale in the higher register

The smaller the instrument the higher the pitch or sound. The longer or larger the instrument the lower the sound.

Okay, now that we all understand basic music physics - what the deuce is a scale? A scale is a series of eight notes ordered ascending or descending in pitch by a specific scheme. We covered what the D major scale looks like as music notation, audio, and what it looks like on the whistle above. 

 For this reason I recommend…. Well let's be honest… I’m freaking telling you that you will want to get a D major penny whistle. Now for those of you who understand music theory a bit more YES you can play Celtic music on another scaled instrument, you can play any song in any key (scale) but that requires transposing and this post is meant for the innocent newb of music. So to keep things not complicated and to nurture our beginners into masters we will start with the penny whistle in the key of D. So when you noodle around you are in fact playing in the key of D! See what I mean? No complicated fingerings to remember. For the ambitious you can also play in the key of G major, A major, and B minor. Here is a link explaining that! For getting through this whole post I sincerely thank you and here is a song you can play right now using the D scale! A Celtic song no less!

A video on playing the song fast and slow for fingering purposes) and an opt in for the sheet music and a highlight of this post.