Why learn tunes by ear?

"As someone who's learned mainly by ear for 20 years, I can vouch that it does get easier the more you do it. But even the best aural learners get stumped now and then (usually on some simple 4-note sequence that just doesn't click). After you've played this music long enough, you'll start giving yourself the excuse that some tunes are "counter-intuitive"--the notes don't go where you'd expect them to. And that's okay. Part of what keeps me playing Irish music is it's infinite variety. If I could figure out every tune the first go round, I'd be bored. Just persevere and be patient with yourself."
Will Harmon
Fiddle/Whistle/Juggling
Montana, USA

Learning to 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 times—but don't give up! Every good Irish traditional musician learned to do it at some point or other, and we can all relate to your frustration.

It's especially 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 with—a distinct disadvantage in a session—or with playing a tune outside of the set that they're used to playing the tune in.

The advantages of learning aurally are many. Here's a short list of some of them:

  • you'll learn faster
  • 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!

Honest. You 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.)

Remember that 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!

As you 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.

Donegal 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! :-)

"Learning 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."
Will Harmon

How to learn tunes by ear

Learning tunes 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.)

Irish traditional 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.

Usually, each 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.)

It's important 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 a tune...)

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.

We 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 tune.

Though 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 thing.

Then 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.

If 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.

The 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 answer.)

After 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.

Then we repeat the process with the B part.

This 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.

It's 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!

Learning on the fly

But how do you pick up tunes in a session, with everyone roaring away but you?

Well, 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.

If you want to start learning tunes at full speed, though, there are several tips that can help:

First, 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.

Second, 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.

Third, 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.

Never, 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..

At 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!

Practice Learning Aurally

The upshot is, we can explain 'til everyone involved is blue in the face—but the only way to learn to do this is...to do it!

The 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.

Most 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!

A Note about Kinesthetic vs. Aural Learning

Remember 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.

In 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.

If 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 can't do.

Remember -- 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 instrument.

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