Learning to Learn by Listening
Learning to learn tunes by ear is one of the hardest things to do when you’re just starting to do it. The process is seriously intimidating and almost feels impossible at times — but don’t give up! Every good Irish traditional musician learned to do it at some point or other. We can all relate to your frustration. So breath and be patient with yourself.
Tony MacMahon once said that Irish trad music is “more learned than taught.” It sounds like a Berraism, but it isn’t. To learn to play the music well you have to push yourself, the drive has to come from you, and you have to work at it to get it right. That will also be a source of some frustration. Mentors, teachers, or instructors can help you a great deal, but that mostly with pointing out pitfalls and technique problems. With trad, most players are primarily self-taught. We’ve all gone through the stages of self-doubt and (some) success. Like distance running, more than half of the game is mental. The work comes in the form of thousands of hours of listening, and listening more closely, and then playing. That’s what it takes to be anything from a well-respected regional player to a world-class player.
Why learn by ear?
What skills do I need to learn by ear?
Ok, but really, how do I learn by ear?
Why Learn by Ear?
- Aural learning is natural. Kids speak before they read words, and sing before they can sight sing. Playing by ear is a small step from singing by ear.
- Aural coordination is fun. Developing coordination between your ear and your hand(s) is actually easier than between your eye and your hand(s), it just takes a bit of practice. And it’s fun!
- Tunes are not always available in written form. Often you’ll hear a great tune just whiz by without knowing its name or anything else about it.
- Much of the music in a tune is very difficult if not impossible to notate as played. For example, changes in bow pressure, subtleties of phrasing, ornaments, etc. There is standard notation for bow direction, but it’s rarely used for folk music. As with any style of folk music, and early classical music, the written sources are only a rough indication of what actually gets played.
- Ear learning makes you a better player. Every player approaches a tune differently, and each repetition of the tune is unique. Learning by ear helps you become more attuned to these differences, and makes your own playing more varied and interesting. When you learn a tune by ear, the tune seems to enter a different part of your brain―the part that’s directly connected to sound and music. Though reading music is a very useful skill, when you stare at a piece of paper while you play you’re taxing your brain, making it do visual processing, instead of aural processing. For some people the visual processing makes it almost impossible for them to do some or all of the following: listen to what you are playing, to listen to what others are playing, pay attention to how you are handling your instrument, be cognizant of your body, draw the rhythm into your body. When you play your eyes should be used to make contact other musicians or the audience. Staring at the dots on the page makes you oblivious to what is going on around you — just like walking/driving and texting.
- The tunes become much better tunes! A tune has a life of its own―it’s not static. People often notice regional variations in a particular tune, but that’s only a small part of the story. As mentioned above, tunes are really works in progress. It’s something like the “telephone game”, coupled with natural selection―each playing of the tune is different, and the better variants tend to persist. When you learn a tune by ear, you become an active part of this creative process. When you learn “by the dots” you don’t.
- Music IS live music. Back in the misty past, the only music there was was music that actual people played. The word “music” just meant “live music.” If you wanted to learn a tune, then you had to pick it up from a living, breathing player. Then some months past, and folks used to go out and “buy music,” which meant that they purchased dots on paper and brought it home to play on the sousaphone they kept in the corner. Weeks later the CD was invented, and you’d hear more talk of “buying music” when purchasing a CD. Don’t be fooled by such figures of speech. It is still the case that the only music there is is music played by a living, breathing person. Everything else is just a replica. Statues look like people, but they aren’t. Just try talking to them! A reflection of a tree is not a tree, and a dot is not a tone even if it has a flag. (Though it seems by the way some folks treat the, the dots must be sweet like candy!) Keep in mind that an image of a vat is just an ersatz vat, not a real vat, and you can’t climb in or out of it no matter how you try. Anyway, to belabor the point a bit more, a picture of a landscape is not an actual landscape — though someone might say “I bought a house in Ireland” and mean that they bought a picture of a house in Ireland, but I bet you’d be able to tell the difference. Yet, a recording of a guitar chord is sometimes really thought to be a musical chord. The recording of a song is really thought to be a song. The recording of a tune is really thought to be a tune. Still, thinking it doesn’t make it so. Be more reflective about reflections. Don’t be fooled by imitations. If it’s not live, then it’s just dumb old Memorex.
What Skills Will I Need?
- Recognize Time signatures: What is the pulse of the tune? How are the beats grouped?
- Determine the Key/Mode:
- On what note does the tune resolve?
- What is its mode? (major third or minor third? flatted sixth or not?)
- Develop your Pitch Sense: Note whether the tune goes up or down, and start to recognize intervals.
- Focus on Phrases: Listen to tunes by chunking (breaking them into smaller phrases)
OK, But How Do I Do It?
First, relax. There is no such thing as learning a tune perfectly. Small variations are fine, some are better than fine, and others are better than that. The sour ones, not so much. But there are lots of ways to play a tune. Traditional music is about passing on musical ideas. People are different, tunes will be too. This is what makes it a living tradition as opposed to the other kind. The ideas that follow have been useful to many of us and many of our students. Still, since people learn differently, use what works for you.
- Carry and use a simple recording device. When you hear a tune you like, record it to learn. (You may need to ask permission.)
- Use Slow-Down Software. There is software available now that allows you to play the tune back at a slower tempo without altering pitch. This can be very useful for working out the tricky bits.
- Listen to the tune many times. As Molly McLaughlin says, listen until you can hum it. When you can feel it’s pulse in your body, you are making a good start. If you have a recording, play the tune as background music while washing the dishes or building a porch.
- Then try to figure out what key it’s in
- Then try to work out the notes on your instrument
- Chunk It! Break the tune into smaller chunks, learn each chunk, and then gradually put them all together. A “chunk” can be as small or as big as you like. Its boundaries can be based on musical phrases of any length. You might start at the end, and work your way forward. Work most on the parts that are the most difficult for you.
- Tune Structure. Many tunes have an AABB structure, with each part being a standard length. Some times there are other common patterns: the B part ending the same way as the A part, specific musical motifs (or shapes) showing up in each part. Listen carefully and notice when this happens. When you work on those bits you are working on multiple parts of the tune at once!
- Notice the pulse of the tune. Find the emphasis in the tune that makes it stand out. Think about the pulsed notes as forming the bones of the tune.
- Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. Some tunes are complicated, but the bones are simple. Forget the fancy phrases, take out the fills. Learn the bare tune. THEN add the passing notes, triplets, rolls, grace notes, twiddle bits, filigree, and gingerbread, but only after you have the core of it.
- Pay attention to the shape of the tune. By “shape” I mean the movement of pitches in the tune. Think of the way “tripping up the stairs” starts with an upward shape, and “my darling asleep” starts with a downward shape. Knowing the shape of the tune can be very useful when learning it by ear.
- Pay attention to the patterns of the tradition. Tunes from particular traditions have common traits. Listen for similarities: tune structure, rhythmic patterns, keys/modes, common phrases, etc. Often you’ll find a set of phrases that are repeated across many different tunes, and building up a phrase vocabulary is especially helpful when learning by ear. Polkas and Hornpipes often have expected endings.
- Pay attention to patterns on your instrument. Phrases of a tradition will sometimes be derived from the instruments used. Focus on what you’re actually doing with your hands and fingers when you play a phrase (i.e., the physical pattern) and notice similarities across phrases, as well as across tunes.
- Pay attention to the “hooks” in a tune. Some tunes have very memorable phrases, called “hooks,” that make the tune stand out. Think of them when trying to remember how to play a tune, or how it starts. Memory in general does not work in a straight line, remembering tunes is the same.
- Pay attention to exceptions. There are exceptions to standard patterns all around.
- In some tunes one part is double the usual length (e.g., “Trip To Durrow”)
- In others the parts are half as long (e.g., “The Morning Dew,” the A part of “Monaghan Twig”)
- Sometimes a tune has extra notes (or even extra beats!) at particular points.
- Association. One way to remember a tune is to develop an association that will help you recall it. Who taught it to you? Where and when? Do you have a particularly fond memory of playing it with someone, some place, on some occasion? Think about the setting you’re in when you play it. Go to your favorite places and play your favorite tunes. Make up words that get the phrase in your mind. These and other things can help you recall phrases of a tune.
Someone once said “If you keep trying to learn from sheet music it will always sound wooden and lifeless.” Now that’s both true and meaner than it needs to be. Sheet music seems like a necessity for those starting out. Of course, the skill of reading music right off the page is impressive – I can’t do it well at all. It is ONE skill, and a musician needs to also develop the skill of learning by ear because sheet music is an undoubted distraction when playing well with others in a trad session. That’s because there is a whole lot of interesting individual expression that is just not “on the page.” So choose just one recording of it that you really like, and study it. Use slow-down software to get it slowed down to where you can pick out the individual notes. Learn it note for note, paying attention to where she/he puts the ornamentation, and other diddley bits.
I have been asked often enough who to listen to in order learn to play traditional music in the right way. The fact is that there are a range of right ways that can express the sense of this music, just as there are many ways to read a poem or produce a play. This doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” It means that there’s more than one way to play tunes as part of this living tradition. There are also many more ways to not play in the tradition. It’s especially unfortunate when the player doesn’t realize that. So listening to the tradition is essential. When I first cam to this music I literally stopped listening to anything else for about six years. I realize, however, that the trad players I’m especially fond of are not everyone’s favorites. There’s room for differences in taste. So, I offer a couple of lists of some different and great players who breath life into the tradition when they play. The first list is of players from previous generations. The second is of contemporary players. They will provide a map to help you find out how to express the tunes.
This is a short list of traditional players from previous generations that you should listen to.
- Martin “Junior” Crehan, fiddle (co. Clare: 1908-1998)
- Bobby Casey, fiddle (co. Clare: 1926-2000)
- John Kelly, fiddle (c. Clare: 1912-1998)
- James Kelly, fiddle (co. Clare: b 1957)
- Willie Clancy, uilleann pipes (co. Clare: 1918-1973)
- Tony MacMahon, accordion (co. Clare: b 1939)
- Kilfenora Ceili Band (co. Clare:
- Kevin Crawford, flute (co. Clare:
- Noel Hill, concertina (co. Clare:
- Finbar Dwyer, accordion (co. Cork)
- Julia Clifford, fiddle (Sliabh Luachra: 1914-1997)
Here’s a short list of contemporary players of interest.
- Aly Bain — a great Shetland fiddler
- Natalie MacMaster — a Cape Breton fiddler who has become a megastar in trad music
- Sharon Shannon — an extremely popular accordion player from co. Clare.
- Kevin Burke — one of Ireland’s greatest fiddlers, and member of many legendary groups.
- Angelina Carberry — a great Irish tenor banjo player!
- Donal Lunny — a force in Irish music, bouzouki player.
- Andy Irvine — veteran of Planxty, Patrick Street and many others
- Paddy Keenan — reknowned piper from the Bothy Band and Moving Hearts.
- Martin Hayes — world-renown Clare fiddle player.
- Josephine Marsh — accordion player from Ennis, Co. Clare.
- Jay Ungar & Molly Mason — Jay Ungar is the composer of Ashokan Farewell
Altan — a tremendously popular traditional group from Co. Donegal in Ireland.
CDs For Slowplayers
Sets in the City – This CD by Tipsy House features music for three popular set dances and a few waltzes as well. It is available through Michael Riemer, Michael Duffy, Martin Sirk or Jonathan Coxhead. It may also be ordered on line from Tipsy House. It’s a great CD and will make a nice addition to your collection even if you are not a set dancer. Click below for sample tracks:
The Ookpik / The Parting – MP3
Cameronian / Annie Walsh’s / Lads of Laois – MP3
The Godfather / John Kelly’s / John Brady’s – MP3
For a longer list of players go to Traditional Irish Music.