University of Limerick
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Bridging the gap between theory and practice: locating music theory, its pedagogies and curricula for Irish traditional musicians

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posted on 2023-11-23, 12:46 authored by Avril McLoughlin

Music theory, its associated curricula and pedagogical praxes are frequently situated, defined and contextualised in terms of western classical music. Derived from this highly literate and notation-based culture, this defining interpretation of music theory becomes problematic, especially in the context of Irish traditional music education. As a consequence of the prioritising of western classical music in music theory curricula, Irish traditional music, amongst others tends to be excluded. For this cohort, the omission of Irish traditional music from music theory curricula reinforces and perpetuates the notion that music theory is abstract, unrelated to and separate from their practice. Additionally, if and when Irish traditional music is analysed, this music is subject to the imposition of classical music values, which in itself is problematic. Consequently, students taking music theory class, particularly those coming from a different musical practice such as Irish traditional music, often develop a sense of antipathy towards the subject. It is this disjuncture that gives rise to this thesis’ central research questions. How do you reimagine music theory so that it is relevant to the practices of Irish traditional musicians? What pedagogical approaches support and facilitate students’ understanding of the conceptual structures of this reimagined music theory?

Semi-structured ethnographic interviews were conducted with nine key Irish traditional musicians, whereupon interpretive thematic analysis revealed three themes. This data not only guided the redefinition of music theory within the context of Irish traditional music, but also informed practical pedagogical approaches trialled with undergraduate Irish traditional music students, in the form of action research. Guided by a theory-informed approach, pedagogies in Phase 1 considered teaching musical concepts through singing and playing keyboard, whereupon they were contextualised in Irish traditional tunes. Phase 2 explored a practice-informed perspective, in which guiding principles were generated in pedagogy from repertoire and music. These guiding principles may be understood and defined as a theory of music.

This thesis proposes that through redefinition, music theory becomes nuanced and informed by practice. Consequently, music theory becomes an area of study that reflects the structures of Irish traditional music. This research advocates the employment of a practice-informed and participatory approach in the music theory classroom. Furthermore, this thesis supports the idea of an inclusive and diverse approach to knowledge. Understood in this way, music theory stems from, reflects and incorporates practice, thus bridging the gap between theory and practice.



  • Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences


  • Doctoral

First supervisor

Niall Keegan

Second supervisor

Sandra Joyce

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