learn tunes by ear is one of the hardest things to do when you're
a beginner. It seems terribly intimidating and almost impossible
at timesbut don't give up! Every good Irish traditional musician
learned to do it at some point or other, and we can all relate to
hard if you began by learning off of music (the dots, as many players
call them). You'll find that most experienced musicians are much
more forgiving of your learning curve than perhaps you are yourself,
so don't let your embarrassment make you give up.
All we can tell
you is that you really truly will find that your playing will leap
forward in huge amounts if you learn to learn by ear (called "learning
aurally"). It is almost impossible (although it's happened)
to play the real thing solely off the dots, even if you're listening
to recordings and live players. Many players who learn off of music
have a hard time starting in the middle of a tune or phrase, having
to start the tune all over again if they make a mistake. Others
might even have trouble putting tunes into new sets of tunes, rather
than the ones they've always played them witha distinct disadvantage
in a sessionor with playing a tune outside of the set that
they're used to playing the tune in.
of learning aurally are many. Here's a short list of some of them:
- you'll learn
- you'll retain
the tunes better
- you'll be
able to remember more tunes
- you'll get
the rhythm and feel of the tunes more authentically
- you'll get
the tune up to tempo more quickly
- you'll be
able to concentrate on technique rather than remembering the tune
- you'll be
able to work on variations of settings much earlier
- you won't
have to find a place to store all that paper!
really will. Many players who started off using sheet music do not
date the time they began playing Irish music from when they first
started learning it. They date it from when they began learning
to play Irish music by ear.
In fact, some
of the more snobbish Irish players look with scorn on other players
who can only learn off the music (although using printed dots as
a tool is usually seen as all right). It's simply not, they believe,
part of the tradition. (Do NOT, whatever you do, bring sheet music
to a regular session. If you don't know it well enough to play it
without sheet music, you shouldn't be trying to play it in a session.)
other beginners are a great resource to learn from aurally, because
they're often willing to play a tune over and over again with you,
slowly and ad nauseum. Never discount learning from your peers.
A player can always learn something from any other player. Someone
will learn something from you, too, rest assured!
learn to learn aurally, be sure to not expect too much
out of yourself -- remember, it's not unheard of to still
be a beginner after five years of playing, and many of the
top notch players who have been playing all their lives still
claim beginner status.
fiddler Kevin Glackin of Scoiltrad
says that it can take up to ten years to even begin to approach
mastery of your instrument. Better get going! :-)
by ear depends a lot on knowing where the notes you're
hearing are found on your instrument. Someone totally
new to an instrument probably needs a basic introduction
to scales and half- and whole-step intervals before
they can begin to learn tunes by ear. Even intermediate
players will struggle mightily if they try to learn
a tune by ear in a key they've never played in before."
to learn tunes by ear
by ear is a matter of breaking down the tune in your head into phrases.
After a time (say, roughly 6 or 7 tunes), you'll start to discover
that certain kinds of patterns and phrases appear again and again
in the different tunes, and you can apply what you've learned from
one tune to another one. The more tunes you learn, the easier it
gets. (We promise.)
music, speaking broadly (there are exceptions), are usually broken
into "parts". We label them part A, part B, C, D, etc.
The common, or double, reel, has two parts, an A and a B, both of
which are played twice before going on to the next one. So you'll
play A, A, B, B. Sometimes you'll get a single reel, which is played
A, B, A, B and so on. How do you know which is which? You have to
learn it from a more experienced player, generally, as some places
a reel will be played as a single, and might be played as a double
elsewhere. There are also tunes (Castle Kelly leaps to mind)
that are played with one A and two Bs.
of the parts is made up of eight measures. So, with the repeat,
each part is sixteen measures long. (Tunes that have parts made
up of a different number of measures other than the other parts
are called "crooked" tunes.)
to remember this, for any number of reasons. (For instance, modern
Irish stepdancers always dance two groups of eight in any given
full step. A step for an Irish stepdancer is sixteen measures long,
with a "right foot" on the first eight, and a "left
foot" on the second eight. They also count the first eight
as an introduction before dancing. So if you're playing for a stepdancer
and they want two steps worth of music, you'll have to play 40 measures
of music to start and end together with the dancer; ie: A, A, A,
B, B, or A, A, B, B, A.)
Let's use Jackie
Coleman's Reel as an example.
When we teach
at the session, whoever is teaching the tune will play
through the whole tune so players can get a sense of the tune
itself. Then they play the first part slowly, once through. (Take
a look here for some hints on how to teach
This is the
A part of Jackie Coleman's Reel. This tune is simple and
repetitive, but still a great deal of fun to play. It's a session
standard in just about every Irish session in the world. It's pretty
easy to work up to session speed, too.
then start breaking down the tune into phrases. With Jackie Coleman's,
we would play the first measure (and perhaps the first note, the
F, of the second measure). The measure is played very slowly. The
learner would play the measure back. The teacher plays the measure
again, and the measure is played back over and over again until
everyone is satisfied that they have it. (This process is sometimes
called "call and answer".) During this learning process,
we try to emphasize feel and rhythm, to learn it as part of the
everyone would like to play quickly, it's always much better to
play at a glacial pace well, than playing it quickly and badly.
Don't worry, eventually speed will come. The feel is the important
the teacher-player plays the second measure. The second measure
is learned in the same manner, and then both measures are put together
and played through until everyone has it.
you look carefully at the music sample above or listen to the mp3,
you'll note that the A part naturally 'splits up' into four distinct
phrases. Generally, a lot of Irish traditional music (though not
all) will do this.
first two measures of Jackie Coleman's are the first
phrase. The third and fourth measures are the second
phrase. The fifth and sixth measures are the same as the first
phrase and make up the third phrase. Finally, the seventh and eighth
measures make up the fourth phrase, and are the same as the second
phrase. (Many players think of this as the first phrase being a
question, the second phrase is an answer, the third phrase is another
question, and the fourth phrase resolves the question with another
the learner has learned all of the A part, we would play the entire
part over and over again at a slow speed until everyone was comfortable
with it. We would then teach the
ending measure or "turn," that gets the tune "turned
around" into the B part, and play that several times.
we repeat the process with the B part.
is a slow process at first, but it speeds up considerably as you
get used to it. Eventually, you'll be able to pick up a tune after
hearing it the first couple of times through. Really, you will...it
takes a while, but you'll get there if you keep trying.
important to remember that if you are just starting out, you are
trying to do three things at once -- 1) learn to play your instrument
and know where all the notes are located on your instrument instinctually,
2) learn the style and the tunes, and 3) learning to learn by ear.
Be easy on yourself. That's a lot to try to do at one time!
on the fly
how do you pick up tunes in a session, with everyone roaring away
first of all, remember that listening IS practicing in Irish traditional
music. It's not unheard of to spend 75% or more of your time in
a session listening rather than playing, and it's generally considered
a good thing, because when you're playing, it's much harder to listen,
and listening and paying attention to what's going on musically
(and otherwise) is key to becoming a good session player.
you want to start learning tunes at full speed, though, there are
several tips that can help:
if you're in a regular session (not a slow session or beginner session),
remember that you should play softly. You don't want to annoy other,
more experienced players with wrong notes or twiddling.
try to pick up just one phrase in the part, or even just a piece
of a phrase. Every time that piece comes around, play it. Once you
have it solid, try adding a note or two to that each time it comes
round. After a while, you'll have the entire tune.
remember that regular attendance at a session is the best way to
remember the tune. If you can sing the tune, you can play it. The
best way to learn a tune is constant exposure to it for some
of us, one hearing will do it. For others, it takes weeks of hearing
the tune every session until we have it. Don't worry about it. It'll
get there! Ask if you may record the session (you DO have your little
tape recorder, right?), and be sure to capture the tunes you want
to learn. Listen to the tunes until you can sing along with them.
ever, feel uncomfortable about putting your instrument in your lap
and just listening to the tune everyone else is playing. Nor should
you ever feel uncomfortable about humming the tune along with them
until you know it. (Don't sing so loud that you put off anyone,
though.) In actual fact, many players will respect your evident
ability to respect the music and learn the tune and that you're
not keeping others from enjoying good music together because you
want to play a tune you patently don't know..
the SCTLS, we play each tune up to ten times or more before moving
on to the next, at a moderate speed. This gives you lots of time
to learn a tune on the fly, or to work variations, or what have
you. As a learning session, we want you to play out at the SCTLS,
so please feel free to make mistakes and try new things -- goofing
up is okay here!
upshot is, we can explain 'til everyone involved is blue in the
facebut the only way to learn to do this is...to do it!
mp3 samples of music on the SCTLS playlist page are at a quick beginner's
pace, slow enough that you can pick them up fairly easily if you
are familiar with the process of learning aurally. If you're just
starting out, though, try listening to the mp3s over and over again
until you can sing the tune, before picking up your instrument.
Use a music program to break the tune into the phrases if you like.
If you really get stuck, the printed music is there for you, but
try not to use it -- the more you discipline yourself to learn aurally,
the better you'll get at it, we promise.
importantly, remember -- this is supposed to be fun! Relax, give
yourself a break and some time to get used to this. It'll pay off
big in the future!
Note about Kinesthetic vs. Aural Learning
the mention above about the players who have to start over again
at the beginning of the tune if there is a mistake of the unrecoverable
variety? Those players have learned kinesthetically -- that
is, they have learned the tune by memorizing the patterns of where
the fingers went where, when, in the tune, rather than learning
the story of the tune, as guitarist/mandolinist Jesse Langen
calls learning aurally.
Jesse's rather poetic way of stating it, when you learn the whole
story of the tune (rather than which notes and fingerings follow
which in a certain way of telling the story), even if you goof up
and have to noodle to recover, it's likely that you'll noodle in
the right key and in the right way to continue the story of the
tune until you can recover the original thread of the story.
you've ever watched an expert player cock an ear at the sound of
a tune they've never heard and want to play, listen through a rendition
once and then begin playing right along with everyone else, you've
watched someone learning aurally -- hearing and learning the story
of the tune, rather than memorizing which note follows which. When
you first begin, you usually start off by learning kinesthetically
rather than aurally, but your goal should always be to keep your
mental eye on the prize of aural learning.
It's a mistake, Jesse says, to believe that you, as a total beginner,
have a memory like a sieve when it comes to learning aurally. He
points out that if you've never managed to learn a tune aurally,
then you can't possibly know what your memory is capable of in that
area, because you don't know how to do it. Once you've learned four
or five tunes aurally, then you'll know better what you can and
-- if you can sing the tune, then you know the tune, and it's just
a matter of the process of learning your instrument well enough
to know how to get it from your head and out through your
of the page