Welsh traditional music and the geographical distribution of the welsh speech community (1997)

Welsh music seems to remain forgotten as a Celtic tradition while Irish, Scottish, Breton (and often Cornish) musics dominate the field of study in Celtic music. There are many reasons why Welsh music is different to that of other Celtic cultures, many of which are social and historical. Though the harp is often associated with Wales, there seems to be no real instrumental tradition as such in Wales, apart from airs that were written especially for the harp, many of which are nowadays used to accompany Welsh songs.

Harp airs are the best known of any kind of traditional music outside Wales. The instrument is thought to be of 11th Century origin, and there are records of a Welsh harpist in London at the time of Samuel Pepys’ diary of 1665. Brinley Richards, in “Songs of Wales” writes: “Welsh music is essentially harp music, and exhibits in almost every phrase evidence of the instrument upon its development” (taken from “Welsh National Music and Dance”, p.55). Most harp airs were therefore not meant for vocal interpretation such as Penillion singing, but those that have been used have been melodically modified in their intervals and movements to give them a smoother, “vocal” quality. Harpists often embellished or-ornamented the often short melodies to develop them into a set of variations, as pipers do with Scottish bagpipe music.

The scales used in Harp airs are related to the modern major and minor scale, with occasional use of chromatic notes. Playing techniques were made easier by the invention of the triple harp in the 17th Century, the identical outer layers providing an extended diatonic scale for each hand, with the middle layer containing the accidentals. The harp was reinvented in the 16th Century to include chromatic pedals, and though this is the harp most widely used by orchestras and in major Welsh festivals such as the Eisteddfod, the triple harp is still used by some folk rock bands and travelling gypsies.

Many harp airs take the form ABA, with the B section keyed in the relative major or minor, or the dominant (as is the case with “Llwyn Onn” and “The Ash Grove”), and there are aspects to their harmonies and melodies that make harp airs distinctive. In the oldest versions of some existing melodies, the 7th is often flattened, and others are a mixture of major and minor tonalities, making them modal in character. This is said by the bard Sohn Parry to be one of the chief characteristics of genuine Welsh music” (“Ancient and Modern Music”, taken from “Welsh National Music and Dance” p.56).

Many harp airs, especially those used for Penillion singing use the lydian mode of the major scale (with a B-flat). Pentatonic scales, as in old Irish and Scottish music, are rarely used, as are the “snap” rhythms that are associated with much Celtic music. Instead, many of the rhythms used in harp airs are based on the reversed dotted rhythm.

Melodic phrases are often formed on the notes of the tonic, dominant and sometimes (though less often) the subdominant chords. The melody “Llwyn Onn” makes use of these chords (though has been modified in recent arrangements, see example), and the melody itself is based on scale-excerpts in the form of 5- or 6-note runs. Octave falls and rises are common, especially on the tonic “and the rise from the tonic to the supertonic, or the fall from the tonic to the subtonic in the penultimate note of the final cadence in both major and minor melodies is also characteristic (“Welsh National Music and Dance” p.57). This musical device is also used in “Llwyn Onn”. The range of the melodies rarely exceed the twelfth or fourteenth, and is often limited to the octave, while the metre is often in duple or quadruple time, with triple or 6/8 time also being common. There are very rarely changes in metre in harp airs once the melody begins.

Folk songs are similar in character to harp melodies, though they do have their differences. Changes in metre are more common in folk songs (such as in “Gwenno Aeth i Ffair Pwllheli” or the use of triplets in the chorus sections of “Migldi, Magldi”).

Many folk songs are based on the Dorian mode, though singers would often incorporate their own embellishments, in the form of quarter-tones or third-tones into the basic Dorian structure, ie DII (from “Some remarks on Certain Vocal Traditions in Wales” (Dr. Alfred Daniell, 1911) – “Analysis shows that within the basic Dorian mode, the 3rd and 7th notes often sound around a quarter-tone flat of the correct pitch (as above) and often the 4th, 5th (and sometimes the 2nd) sung about a sixth of a tone flat”. In the Journal of the Welsh Folk Song Society (1914-25), Miss R.6 Gilchrist says that the sharp 6th produces the effect of a transition from the tonic minor to the minor on the dominant – a shifting of tonal centre, whereas an English or Scotch Dorian usually appears to oscillate between its tonic, and the major keys of its 3rd and 7th degrees (“Welsh Traditional Music and Dance” p.66).

A former President of the Welsh Folk Song Society, Dr. Mary Davies agreed that on listening to recordings of folk songs there were “peculiar intervals which eluded the staff notation” (ibid, p.65). The decline in the amount of traditional Welsh folk songs being performed today may therefore be blamed on the fact that many songs are learned from books and transcriptions rather than from the oral tradition that is characteristic of other Celtic cultures. These    slight vocal inflections cannot be notated by traditional means, and so some of the performance’s “authenticity” is lost.

Penillion singing is a folk melody sung over a different harp accompaniment, and is defined by the bard John Parry as “singing epigrammatic stanzas with the harp… confined to North Wales, and, indeed, was scarcely known in South Wales until the revival of the Eisteddfodau. This peculiar, unique…mode of singing must be ancient and probably derives its origins from the domestic bards of old, who used to play the harp and sing with it, verses composed extemporally” (“Welsh National Music and Dance”,p.83).

The comments about Penillion singing being a Northern artform raises the important question of geographical dispersion of the Welsh speech community and how this affects the way popular- music forms such as harp airs and folk songs are performed today.

The maps (27.1-5) show various aspects of the Welsh‑speaking population, and they show, between them, that North Wales, especially the areas of the Lleyn Peninsula and Meirionnydd (coloured black on map 27.3) are the areas in which the population has changed least over the last few years. The number of holiday homes owned in these areas is also the highest in Wales (over 20%) suggesting that these areas are rural, with a widely dispersed population. The statistics also show that even though the population of these Northern areas is low compared to the urban areas of mid-Glamorgan, the percentage of Welsh-speakers is actually higher than anywhere else in Wales, despite being in gradual decline. This suggests that the Welsh language has been preserved better in the North, and this is reflected in the locations of some of the organisations that work towards promoting Welsh traditional music.

The Welsh Folk Song Society is based in Criccieth (Gwynedd) while the Welsh Cerdd Dant ( Penillion) Society is based in Corwen, Clwyd. ECTRRC is based in Llangollen, while the first Cerdd Dant Festival took place in Pwllheli (near Criccieth) in 1985. From these centres, these organisations can work towards maintaining the folk tradition in Wales. Buddug lloyd Roberts, current President of the Welsh Folk Song Society, states that the alms of the society is to keep the past alive for the future. They publish folk songs that have recently been discovered, and arrange festivals so that choirs or soloists may have the opportunity to perform these songs as soon as they are published. These recently-discovered folk songs are also incorporated into competitions as part of local and national Eisteddfods so that children and adults throughout Wales can learn the songs and continue the culture.

Similarly, the Welsh Folk Dancing Society works to promote Welsh traditional Dancing throughout Wales by organising workshops and festivals in areas ranging from Anglesey, Builth Wells, Newport (where they claim there is a strong folk dancing tradition to this day) and Llangadfan – the home of William Jones, who collected some of the best-known Welsh dances. The Society have organised a festival in Llangadfan to celebrate the bicentenary of his death this year. They are currently expanding their ideas, working with the disabled, teaching Welsh folk dances to the partially­ sighted etc.

There seems to be a wider audience for traditional music than one might at first think. Welsh ” Gwerin” bands combine folk melodies with electric instruments and have created a younger audience for traditional music, and though the arrangements are not always true to the original, the Welsh Folk Song Society are happy with the way traditional music is being kept alive in the world of rock music in Wales.

Other forms of Welsh popular music that are not “traditional” as such, but still associated with Wales, are male voice choirs and brass bands. It could be argued that the existence of these ensembles in Wales is down to the geographical distribution of Welsh speakers, since they both came into prominence in the 19th Century at the same time as the industrialisation of Wales. The coalmining areas of the South and the slate and granite quarries of the North employed Welsh-speaking workers, while the owners were mostly English‑speaking upper- or middle-class. Brass bands and choirs were set up as an inexpensive form of entertainment during those hard economic times, and music-making was an important part of 19th Century industrial Wales. Religion and worship was also important to the Welsh workers, and many of the hymn tunes collected as part of the new Methodist movement in the 19th Century were ancient folk songs that had been adopted for worship. This probably began after the non-conformist movement of the 17406 and some of the hymn tunes still used today in parts of Wales are versions of early folk melodies, adapted and harmonised for four-parts by editors in the 19th Century. It is therefore in the areas where the Welsh language has survived most strongly that traditional hymn tunes have remained part of church and chapel worship.

The regional nature of Welsh traditional music is reflected in the words to some folk melodies which refer to certain towns, areas or events associated with those areas. Such songs include ” Gwenno Aeth i Ffair Pwllheli” (” Gwenno Went To Pwllheli Fair’), ” Ffarwel i Ddociau Lerpwl” (“Farewell To The Liverpool Docks”), ” Bonheddwr Mawr o’r Bala” (“The Gentleman From Bala”) and hymn tunes such as “Bethel”, ” Llansannan”, ” Peniel” and ” Siloah” which are all named after villages in Wales.

One attempt at educating about Welsh traditional music at a national level is the National Curriculum for Music. The general introduction to the Welsh National Curriculum states that “pupils should perform and listen to music in varied genres and styles from different periods and cultures… It should include examples taken from

  1. The European “classical” tradition from its earliest roots to the present day;
  2. Folk and popular music;
  3. The music of Wales;
  4. Other musical traditions and cultures.”

“The music of Wales” appears under a different heading to “folk and popular music” to emphasise its importance within the educational structure in Wales. Suggested examples of study at different key stages of the National Curriculum include:

  • Singing nursery rhymes and folk songs of a limited vocal range, including “hwiangerddi” and other Welsh songs (Performing, Key Stage 1, (7 years);
  • Singing from sol-fa hand signs;
  • Singing traditional Welsh folk songs;
  • Taking part in a simple two-part “Cerdd dant” arrangement (Performing, Key Stage 2, < 15 years);
  • Playing by ear a well-known melody such as “Ar Hyd y Nos”;
  • Preparing and rehearsing a Cer-dd Dant arrangement for performance in an Eisteddfod;
  • Listening to a recording of an arrangement of ” Cysga Di Fy Mhlentyn Tlws” and performing it in a similar or contrasting style;
  • Performing a modal improvisation…(Performing, Key stage 3, (14 years);
  • Recognising modal elements in Welsh folk tunes (Appraising, Key stage 3, (14 years);

Not only is folk singing part of the National curriculum in Wales, but children are also encouraged to learn and perform folk songs for local and national festivals and Eisteddfods, making sure that the tradition is kept alive into the next generation.

This is the main aim of all the “traditional music” organisations in Wales who seem to spend much of their time working to arrange festivals and workshops, promoting the use of Welsh traditional music and dance, not only in Wales, but in the wider European context, in the hope that it will gain equal status as a Celtic tradition.


  • WS GWYNN WILLIAMS – “Welsh National Music And Dance” ( Curwen, 1932)
  • “The Rough Guide To World Music”
  • DAVID IAN ALLSOBROOK – “Music For Wales” (University of Wales Press, 1992)
  • KEITH GRIFFIN – “A Dying Tradition?” (from “Welsh Music”, Vol.5, No.8, Summer 1981)
  • WYNFORD BELLIN – “Welsh and English In Wales” (from “language in the British Isles”, C.U.P, 1984)
  • VIV EDWARDS – “The Welsh Speech Community” (from “Multilingualism in the British Isles”    eds. Safder Alladina and Viv Edwards, longman, 1991)
  • COLIN WILLIAMS – “language, Nation and Territory” (from “Language and Nation” eds. Paul Mears and Ann Ryan, British Association For Applied Linguistics, 1991)
  • also, National Curriculum (MUSIC) (Wales edition)

Musical examples taken from

  • “Welcome To Wales” (Music Exchange Publications/2,19SO)
  • ” Alawon Gwerin 1-3″ (collected by Buddug lloyd Roberts)
  • Collected Penillion (collected by Haf Morris)