Indiana State University Newsroom

Professor studies traditional music in Ireland

December 2, 2010

Nan McEntire knew that those who look for traditional music in the modern world are often warned that they are too late and that they may not find much more than half-remembered melodies.

She set out to prove these warnings invalid. And she did.

McEntire, an associate professor of English at Indiana State University, also studies ethnomusicology. She spent the 2010 spring semester in Ireland as a Fulbright Scholar studying Irish tunes and how musicians acquire these tunes.

The realization that many Irish musicians still learn their tunes by ear sparked McEntire's interest in studying tune acquisition.

"Some young people told me that they knew as many as two thousand tunes, all by ear, without reading any printed music. That is a phenomenal amount of aural retention," McEntire said.

Before going to Ireland last semester, McEntire had traveled throughout Europe and recalled, "Everyone, even in Scotland, said that the Irish tunes were the best, so I thought, ‘I have to go to Ireland and see for myself.'"

The process of becoming a Fulbright Scholar began for McEntire in January 2008 when she read a description of a Fulbright grant to study traditional music in Ireland.

"I thought ‘what harm is there in applying?' You have to throw your hat in the ring," McEntire said. "Even if you aren't chosen, just give it a try."

The Fulbright Scholarship Board awarded the grant to McEntire to conduct her research at the University of Limerick in southwest Ireland.

As soon as she arrived, McEntire was impressed with the vitality of the faculty and the students in Limerick, especially at the university's Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, which sponsored her.

"The university is vibrant and exciting. There are performances going on all the time. Everybody is energized," McEntire said. "Even in a faculty meeting, people would start playing music as soon as the business of the day had ended."

The academy draws many international students from countries as far away as Japan, McEntire said.

"People all over the world love Irish music and dance," McEntire said. "Irish tunes have become a symbol of Irish culture. They are highly regarded, and with good reason. They are engaging and uplifting, fun to play and to hear."

McEntire's research in Ireland was primarily in the form of participant observation, which is a fieldwork technique used when observing through participating in what is being studied.

"This technique is very useful for this kind of work because I was among the musicians and I was often sitting right next to them," McEntire said.

McEntire attended sessions called "ceilidhs," pronounced "kay-lees," to study how musicians acquired tunes.

"I went to lots of sessions and ceilidhs," McEntire said about the informal gatherings of music and dance. "That's kind of where all the music is happening."

McEntire did not just listen to Irish music. She also performed on the Irish whistle. She first learned Irish tunes while studying in Scotland in the 1970s so she was familiar with sessions and how uplifting they could be.

"From intimate gatherings of local residents in village pubs to packed sessions in larger cities, music flows well into the night," McEntire said. "At the end of the evening the musicians are tired, yet curiously energized, staggering not so much from the drink as from the wealth of tunes they have heard and shared. Tunes that are still rolling through their memories, savored in a low whistle, in a rhythm tapped out on a table, or in a spontaneous shuffled dance step across the kitchen floor the following morning."

From her observations, she found that many of the musicians learned their tunes by listening and imitating, often from a local expert or an accomplished family member.

"Many of the musicians I met had not seen a musical score. They learned all their music by ear," McEntire said.

Irish tunes are now easy to find on internet sites like Google and YouTube but this is a recent phenomenon, McEntire said.

Although the music is becoming more accessible, that has not affected the styles that come out of different regions.

"People are still very proud of where they are from and the tunes of their own country. Quite often they will say they learned tunes from the place where they were raised, such as County Clare or County Sligo," McEntire said. "The Irish traditional music ‘scene' is thriving but there is still a sense of regional identity."

Fulbright Scholars often give lectures in other countries. The Fulbright Commission sent McEntire to Scotland and Estonia also.

"The Fulbright experience was extraordinary," McEntire said. "I felt fortunate to be representing ISU overseas."

The research that McEntire did in Ireland will be reflected in the material taught in some of her folklore classes this semester, next semester and this summer. She also presented her findings at the Society of Ethnomusicology conference in Los Angeles in November and will publish an article on tune acquisition in the Journal of Irish Music and Dance.

"Of course, the members of the Fulbright Commission want to see some academic results but I think they are mostly interested in building ties internationally," McEntire said. "A shared exchange of ideas, cultures and cultural values is at the heart of the Fulbright mission statement."

Nan McEntire poses with her bicycle outside the apartment where she and her husband, Dave Stanley, lived while in County Limerick. Courtesy photo/Dave Stanley

Nan McEntire plays with a group of musicians during a session at Guerin's pub, Castleconnell, County Limerick, Ireland. Courtesy photo/Dave Stanley

Contact: Nan McEntire, Indiana State University, associate professor of English, 812-237-3134 or

Writer: Alexa Larkin, Indiana State University, media relations intern, at 812-237-3773