Irish Music from a Millennium of Unwritten Musicmedharper


• Renowned since the 10th century
• An aural courtly tradition unique in the western world
• Celebrated in church, state and celestial realms
• A profession of high status serving kings and chieftains
• An activity accessible to all society
• That gave Ireland its national emblem 


And we’re only starting to write it down since the 1970s?


Isn’t it interesting – intriguing even - that for such a history as we have in Ireland with the Irish harp, that the first meaningful notations were only published in 1976?  The harp music of Edward Bunting transcribed from the harpers at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792 was arranged for piano when it was published.  Why?  Because Irish harpers passed their music from generation to generation orally – teaching and learning ‘by ear’ - so, they had no need for books of notations!  Indeed they would not have been able to read them anyway!  


To learn and pass music on ‘by ear’ is not so extraordinary!  In Ireland today, we very clearly still have the harp tradition of ‘learning by ear’ as well as the standard classical method by notation, and there has been something of a ‘cultural divide’ as neither side are particularly comfortable or knowledgeable of the other!   And, so often, these ‘misunderstandings’ have led to division, derision, dismissal, insecurity and prejudice – on both sides!  Does this sound familiar? Oh dear… but light is breaking on yonder hill….    


I was trained in classical piano as well as being a traditional harp player.  As traditional players (of age 50 upwards!), we had no concept of teaching, or classes, or being a student as ‘we just did it’ – mixing in with everybody, like learning language as a child) – and ne’er the twain did mix for much of my younger life… 


For us classical musicians, traditional music meant the music of country players not educated in literacy - or much else! - usually playing to ‘all hours’ in pubs where the demon drink is served…


For us traditional musicians, classical players were ‘stuck to the book’ and not inclined to ‘interpret’ the music as they would be expected to – were slow and cumbersome players and not likely to participate in ‘sessions’…


I was both, at the same time – but learned to keep my worlds of traditional music or classical music apart as each was suspicious if not dismissive of the other.  So, I played harp with my traditional friends, having fun to ‘all hours’ in a pub somewhere in the country (or with country folk in the city!); and went to classical concerts with my classical friends – with whom I afterwards went to a pub for a coffee or glass of wine – to ‘all hours’!  My mum never worked out the difference!


But like the subjects of history and geography in school, while there was a vague relationship between the two, they were ‘worlds apart’ – both equally intriguing  – but still separate.


In today’s world of enlightenment and amazing possibilities, we are more amenable to learning of the virtues – of traditional and classical - each of the other.  As Visiting Professor at a university in Northern Ireland, I find myself teaching the values of oral music teaching, creative and social musicianship (‘session playing’) to classical teachers and students – and other-times I teach the values of notation (for discovering new music as well as for the relieving of memory) and the exciting accessibility offered by printed music from all ages, genres and nationalities in libraries and music shops to traditional players.


There’s no doubt that today we are moving to discover, appreciate and delight in each other’s musical worlds – and what a lot there is to discover, appreciate and delight in!  This is a very healthy evolution that excites me enormously.