'Tuning In'
: Practices in tuning and pitch related inflections in the Donegal fiddle sound community

  • Aidan O'Donnell

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The research for this thesis was centred on an examination of tuning and fingered pitch discrepancies as apparent in the fiddle tradition of Co. Donegal. This tradition has long been acknowledged as an important sound in terms of the make-up of the wider Irish tradition, a fact supported by the body of literature and other media in the public domain directly engaging with it. However, to my knowledge, this is the first research aimed at investigating
whether discrepancies in tuning and /or fingered pitch discrepancy may be directly related to the categorisation of a certain sound community. The primary research questions are based around whether a Donegal ‘sound’ is apparent, and what is the relationship of the individual in contributing to the creation of that sound. Aspects of regionalism in traditional music are also challenged, and therefore geographic variance, as well as generational variance are also investigated. The research was achieved by way of a dual approach; through qualitative and quantitative means. A sample of fiddle players from County Donegal were interviewed in order to fully understand their particular personal experiences, and so as to understand any potential processes that they engaged with as part of the performance of tuning and fingered related pitch discrepancy. This was coupled with the recording of the tuning process and musical examples performed by these fiddlers as part of the same interview recording. Each was asked to tune to the same tuning fork (A 440 Hz). By uploading these aspects of their performance practice to a sound software programme (Melodyne), data was then cultivated that allowed for analysis and comparison between the fiddlers. This identified specific patterns and lines of inquiry. Idiosyncratic perception emerges as a central aspect of understanding the processes and product of tuning and fingered pitch discrepancy. Central to the research questions investigated are the relationship between the sound of the individual to
that of the wider sound community. A specific framework was forwarded to analyse the processes and values at play in that interaction. The paradigms of ‘Participatory discrepancies’ (Keil 1994) and ‘Tuning in’ (Thacker 2011) emerge as important tools in understanding that relationship, across varying contexts. Mechanical aspects of tuning and finger pitch discrepancy are also discussed, in particular with regard to the use of Harmonic, Melodic, Colouristic, and Corrective tuning (Fyk 1995), as well as ‘structural/ diagnostic tones’ and motivic analysis (McKerrell 2005). The bow is highlighted as a factor in the
performance of some discrepancies. This research also presents findings that assesses whether the emergence of certain patterns associated with tuning and finger pitch discrepancy can be categorised geographically or generationally.
Date of AwardJul 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorLiz Doherty (Supervisor) & Brian Bridges (Supervisor)


  • Participatory discrepancies
  • 'Tuning in'
  • Donegal
  • Fiddle
  • Music
  • Irish traditional music
  • Expressive intonation
  • Idiosyncratic perception
  • Categoric examplar

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