Jim Carroll: What is the signature sound of Dublin city?

"Singer-songwriters remain a dominant feature of Dublin’s imagined sound­world,” according to a new report into the vibrancy - or otherwise - of the city's music scene

What’s the sound of Dublin city? The question has been the stuff of spirited debate for years, with champions of different sounds all arguing their cases. There’s even a school of thought that says it’s actually a city of sounds rather than any one individual sound.

Thanks to researchers Dr Áine Mangaoang and Dr John O'Flynn from the Department of Music at St Patrick's College, Dublin City University, we may now have an answer. Their Mapping Popular Music in Dublin report, as the title suggests, aims to build a comprehensive map of popular music in Dublin – by talking to fans, musicians, and music industry personnel.

Mangaoang and O’Flynn’s report, which involved research, surveys, interviews, observations, workshops and consultations, led to a finding that more than 90 per cent of people firmly believe there is a Dublin sound – and this signature sound is the one produced by “singer- songwriters, guitarists and, to a lesser extent, rap and hip-hop”.

Respondents believe it has a lot to do with lyricism and narrative, and attributes such as authenticity, critical humour, protest and melancholy were all cited as contributing.


“The focus and the perceived value placed on narrative and lyricism perhaps explains why singer-songwriters remain a dominant feature of Dublin’s imagined sound­world,” the authors say, “and why other emerging genres, such as Dublin’s electronic and dance scenes, find it difficult to find an audience against such prevailing characterisations.”

Rap and hip-hop
Yet the authors find stirrings of something new. "The focus on lyricism may also explain the small but significant references made to Dublin's burgeoning rap and hip-hop scenes as a notable feature of the city's contemporary sonic signature (mentioned by 6 per cent of participants).

“It could be that the dominance of narrative form in Dublin’s popular music traditions is extending from folk and acoustic guitar-based singer-songwriters into the genres of rap, hip-hop and MC culture.”

Few will argue with these findings. The folk tradition in the city has deep roots and it’s only natural that it would have re-emerged in the singer-songwriter world of recent decades.

While there may be a wish to present other sounds as the prevailing mood music of the city, people associate Dublin with words and stories and this means singer-songwriters.

What's interesting too is that the acts associated with the city by many of those the researchers spoke to include several who are no longer active. The five most cited musicians and bands associated with the city in the report are U2/Bono, Thin Lizzy/Phil Lynott, The Dubliners/Luke Kelly, Damien Dempsey and The Frames/Glen Hansard.

Mangaoang and O’Flynn make a dozen recommendations which may be of interest to tourism, civic, culture and music industry organisations. These include tapping domestic new music networks for pointers when it comes to music tourism and civic engagement strategies and the development of a “music ecology strategy” for the city.

They also highlight the need to support smaller neighbourhood spaces for emerging scenes; more investment in the provision of information about popular music to those engaged in tourism (including the establishment of a “temporary task force” for high-profile shows and events); the extension of venue opening hours; a need to address the gender imbalance in music in the city; and more development of all- age and youth endeavours.

-  Mapping Popular Music in Dublin is published today and is available at mappingpopularmusicindublin.wordpress.com