The Ill-Tempered Musician: The Contested Role of Tunebooks in Irish "Trad" Music

By Mina J. Carson.

Published by The International Journal of the Book

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Even more than other folk musicians, players of Irish traditional (“trad”) music are willing at any moment to engage in fierce debate over the place of sheet music in learning and teaching the “tunes.” Can one learn a tune as fully and deeply by seeing it first on a page? Is learning by ear an ethical as well as a social good? In the “sessions” or “sessiuns” that constitute the heart of modern Irish “trad” playing, is it just plain wrong to open sheet music or a tune book, or is it acceptable?

Given that sessions are arguably a few decades old, and that other Irish music practices also cannot claim a linear history, it is intellectually provocative to hear (or virtually “hear” on an internet forum) many musicians claiming a longstanding oral and aural tradition as the basis for their antipathy to tunebooks as a way of learning music. It is also fascinating to watch the negotiation, the apologies, the argumentative backing and filling, that accompany this chronic debate. One musician claims to learn tunes from a book only at home alone. Another says that she was trained as a classical musician but only reads notes when playing classically. A third argues that he uses printed music because he just can’t afford to learn at the feet of Cape Breton fiddlers, although he’ll surely try to get there from time to time. A last and adamant voice argues that pulling out a tunebook at a pub session is like “reading your responses when somebody is trying to talk to you.”

Several aspects of this surprisingly vigorous discussion bear dissection. What are the passions aroused by the idea of propagating a predominantly aural/oral tradition in modern societies in the twenty-first century? What does it mean that the tradition itself postdates the era of mass literacy in that society? Are there indeed cognitive differences between learning by ear and learning from a book that affect the music one plays? What are the social functions of “sessions,” and what dimensions of social power, control, and mentoring may experienced players choose to exercise in that setting? Are these dimensions affected by neophytes having access to tunebooks?

Keywords: Irish Traditional Music, Tunebooks, Sheet Music, Folk Music, Aural Tradition, Ethnomusicology, Irish History

The International Journal of the Book, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp.109-116. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 809.582KB).

Prof. Mina J. Carson

Associate Professor of History, Department of History, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA

As a historian of U.S. social and cultural history, my research topics have included the settlement house movement, feminism and the family therapy movement, and the history of women in popular music. My publications include SETTLEMENT FOLK: SOCIAL THOUGHT AND THE AMERICAN SETTLEMENT MOVEMENT (University of Chicago Press, 1990) and GIRLS ROCK: FIFTY YEARS OF WOMEN MAKING MUSIC (co-authored with Susan Shaw and Tisa Lewis, The University Press of Kentucky, 2004). My current research projects include a continuation of our explorations of women's careers and creativity in rock music, and the extension of my interest in the social and cultural aspects of popular music to contemporary American folk music and Irish "trad" music.

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