what celtic tunes should I learn?

So, for years I’ve been learning Celtic tunes – both Irish and Scottish. When I first started, I had lots of fun simply buying different anthologies – such as O’Neill’s Music of Ireland – and then sitting around playing lots of tunes. Great fun!

The problem is that this “fun” didn’t really get me any closer to my goal of integrating into the celtic music community. To do that, I needed to learn the repertoire of my region. So, as many have done before me, I started going to sessions.

Sessions are definitely a must for anyone wishing to join a local community of musicians; however, sometimes, the musicians don’t know the names of the tunes they are playing. This may seem surprising, but many musicians learn completely by ear – skipping the whole book thing – so they learn simply by hanging out at sessions and slowly picking up the tunes – either by repeated listenings, or by recording the sessions and then studying the tunes back at home.

This is a great way to learn tunes, but this process takes a while. Using books or sheet music, on the other hand, can allow you to jump forward in the process – you can quickly memorize tunes and find yourself with a good repertoire in a short time.

So then the question becomes, “what celtic tunes should I learn?

In the Baltimore area, we’re lucky to have many world-class celtic musicians on hand; I asked one, bodhran player, Myron Bretholz, which tunes he would consider essential; more specifically, I asked him to name 12 jigs and 12 reels that he thinks every ambitious celtic player should know.

His list (below) is a terrific starting point for anyone wishing to learn great session tunes. In Baltimore, of course, you’ll hear these tunes regularly at the local sessions, and also in the repertoire of some of the local, gigging, celtic musicians; however, I would venture to say that anywhere in the world you might travel, where folks gather to play celtic music, you’d still hear some of these tunes:

Myron Bretholz’s Essential 24 Tunes
(or “Tunes that every Baltimore Celtic Musician Should Know”)


1. Kesh
2. Connaughtman’s Rambles
3. Rambling Pitchfork
4. Gallagher’s Frolics
5. Lilting Banshee (a.k.a. Jim Conroy’s or the Maid of Glenroe)
6. Out on the Ocean (a.k.a. Split the Whisker)
7. Tobin’s Favorite
8. Tripping Up the Stairs (a.k.a. Tripping Upstairs or Sacko’s)
9. Trip to Athlone (a.k.a. the Newport Lass)
10. Cliffs of Moher
11. Humours of Ballyloughlin
12. Lark in the Morning


1. Silver Spear
2. Cooley’s
3. Wise Maid
4. Sally Gardens
5. Sligo Maid
6. Farrell O’Gara
7. Banshee (a.k.a. James MacMahon’s)
8. Ships are Sailing
9. Miss McLeod’s
10. Humours of Tulla
11. Congress
12. Over the Moor to Maggie