This page is to gather ideas for potential research projects. Some of them I will get around to, but many of them I won’t, either because I have not got enough time, or because I don’t have the specialist skill-set required.
If you are looking for a Masters or PhD topic, feel free to take one of these and run with it. If you have a specific idea for a project that you are not able to do, sent it in and I will list it here, or you are welcome to add it as a comment at the bottom of the page. If you are already working on one of these areas, please feel free to get in touch and tell me what you are at.
If you have any questions, let me know!
Harmony and “non-harmony” in Irish (and / or Scottish or other) music
There are long-standing tropes around whether it is appropriate or inappropriate to harmonise traditional tunes according to the rules of classical “common practice” harmony. This musicological study would analyse both musical examples (audio recordings and written notation) and text accounts, to build a history of this idea. Examples might include “parallel” basses in 18th century arrangements; traditional pipe and free-reed performance styles; discussion of the inappropriateness or otherwise of choral, accompanied or unaccompanied styles of singing through the late 19th and early 20th century; current ongoing discussions of “original” Irish wire-strung harp bass practice; the use of chordal instrumentation in traditional music (e.g. piano, guitar); the influence of commercial style in recordings.
Matching tunes and texts from Lynch and Bunting in 1802
John Lynch collected song texts in Mayo in the summer of 1802. Towards the end of his trip, Edward Bunting came to join him, and Lynch took Bunting to meet the singers, and Bunting wrote down the tunes of some of the songs.
This means that, perhaps uniquely, we have the texts of songs and we have live field transcriptions of their melodies.
The song text notebooks and the tune notebook are all preserved at Queen’s University, Belfast, Special Collections MS4.
This project would study the song texts in the context of recent research into John Lynch’s work, and would study the melodies in the context of my ongoing Old Irish Harp Transcriptions Project, with an aim to re-combine specific sets of words and live transcriptions of melodies, taken from particular named singers.
James Cody’s tune and song manuscripts
Séamus Mac Óda / James Cody was working on commission from Edward Bunting to collect tunes and song airs between 1805 and 1810. As far as I can see there are three music manuscripts compiled by Cody, all of them in Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections. MS4.6 seems to be a kind of rough working book, where Cody wrote tunes and also wrote song lyrics with their tunes. MS4.5 seems to be a presentation book of tunes that Cody made for Bunting. And MS4.33.4 is also a tune book written by Cody, with additions by Bunting.
A project to study these manuscripts could investigate Cody’s life and work; the dating and relationship between the various manuscripts; and especially could look at the pages of MS4.6 which contain connected song lyrics and airs. Máire Uí Bhaoill has been working on Cody’s Irish texts, but as she explains at the end of this 2016 lecture, there is huge scope to critically collate the music and match it to the lyrics where appropriate.
Arthur O’Neill, Memoirs
Old Irish harper Arthur O’Neill dictated his memoirs to the secretary Thomas Hughes in the early 1800s. Two independent manuscript copies are in Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections MS4. Both are available in facsimile and transcription online, and each was the basis of a printed edition, one by Charlotte Milligan Fox in 1911 and one by Donal O’Sullivan in 1958.
This project would be to create a detailed scholarly edition of the two manuscript sources, collating both variant texts as well as the emendments and corrections within them. The large numbers of people, places, and tunes mentioned by O’Neill would be indexed, and expanded upon, to try and identify and expand upon as many as possible. The Memoirs would also be collated against other sources of information from and about Arthur O’Neill, including other manuscript sources in QUB and in Belfast Public Library, contemporary newspaper reports, portraits, transcriptions and piano arrangements in Bunting’s manuscripts, and other relevant sources, to build a much more detailed picture of O’Neill’s life and personality.
I think that Arthur O’Neill’s Memoirs deserve to be published as a stand-alone book, with a reliable edited and collated text, and with a detailed commentary and with illustrations where possible of the people and places he talks about.
My Sources page at earlygaelicharp.info lists various editions or reprints of the …Compositions of Carolan… published in the late 18th and early 19th century by Lee and others.
This project would inspect and collate as many different editions as possible, making a detailed comparison of the full musical notation of each tune to try and understand the publication history, and order of editions. Later publications would be searched to find derivative settings of tunes, to understand the reception and influences of this book. Earlier publications would be searched to try and understand this book’s sources and compilation method (Gráinne Yeats published a commentary on this book’s use of John Carolan’s arrangements of some tunes).
The project could also involve the preparation of a new typeset edition of the arrangements in this book, with detailed commentary on each arrangement, and also potentially a recording of the tunes performed on harpsichord, piano-forte, violin or flute as indicated by the title page.
John Carolan’s book
Dublin, National Library of Ireland LO 1635 is the “Carolan-Delaney fragment,” a single untitled incomplete copy of a book thought to have been the one published in 1747/8 by John Carolan in Dublin, under the patronage of Patrick Delaney.
There are a number of contemporary references that seem to refer to this book, including Mrs Delaney’s letters, the Keane FitzGerald quote, newspaper advertisements, etc.
A worthwhile project would be to publish an edition of the book, with a full technical study of its contents, provenance, binding and structure, and an assessment of the historical and musical background of its publication.
Since the music is presented in classical arrangements, it would be useful for recordings to be made using harpsichord, or violin / flute and continuo
Research in newspapers and archives should be able to pull up more information about John Carolan, in the publishing trade in Dublin and also in London where he is said to have taught harp and possibly also published an edition of the book. Other, more complete copies may exist in libraries or private collections.
Manuscript music culture in 18th century Ireland
Many writers have shown a naivety about literate music-making in 18th century Ireland, considering manuscripts and prints to divide nicely into “traditional” and “classical” genres, and seeing written “traditional” music as deriving from “informants” as if they represent a kind of proto-ethnomuiscological resource.
This project would analyse and discuss written music production, consumption and transmission, both manuscript and print. The relationship between music printing in Ireland, as well as music publishing by Irish people working in England, would be related to the production and circulation of manuscript music within Ireland. Important collections of manuscript music have emerged in recent years, including Pádraig Ó Néill’s manuscripts from Co. Waterford, and Mary O’Hara’s from Co. Sligo, both dating from the 1790s. Other earlier manuscript books of keyboard music may exist in Irish houses or libraries. There are also contemporary literary references to manuscript music production and consumption.
Themes that could be explored are the relationship between “classical” and “traditional” content; regional differences, including between town and countryside; connections to Scotland and to England; interactions between manuscript and print music; and social and class backgrounds to manuscript producers and users.
Harp organology projects
Each of the extant old Irish harps could be studied in-depth. Given a collaboration with the owner of the instrument, a single old harp or a group of two or three related instruments is sufficient for a Masters or PhD study.
Karen Loomis’s PhD study of the Queen Mary and Lamont harps would be a model for this kind of research. My Galpin Society Journal paper on the NMI Carolan harp is a more modest example of the kind of work that needs done on each of the old harps.
Perhaps equally important is the study of revival instruments, from the 19th and 20th and indeed the 21st centuries. See Ulrich Morgenstern, ‘The Role and Development of Musical Instruments in European Folk Music Revival and Revitalization Movements. Some Common Trends’, in Jana Ambrózová & Bernard Garaj (eds), Traditional Music and Dance in Contemporary Culture(s) (Nitra, 2019) for a discussion of the importance of this.
Art history study of harp decoration
Some of the old harps are highly decorated. There is scope for a very detailed art-historical study of the decorative scheme of a single instrument, relating it to motifs and styles found in other media. The most obvious candidate is the Trinity College or Brian Boru harp, whose decorative motifs have been almost entirely neglected but which offers rich possibilities for comparison with medieval manuscripts, metalwork and stone carving, in order to narrow down a date and place of origin of this harp.