The Best ITM Tune-Learning Tutor

Getting Started

Ten Steps for Learning Tunes on Your Own

First, before you even start to learn any tune, you need to be able to listen to it repeatedly.  That means, listen until you can distinguish the parts and tell the difference between one recording of it and another.  You’ll need to have (1) a real recording of the tune — which does NOT mean midi or any other computer generated sounds, or (2) a friend willing to record it for you, or (3) access to this website (and I suggest starting with the short list).

Second, listen to the tune so often that you can hum the WHOLE TUNE to yourself.  If you can only hum a bit of it, then you need to listen more.  This is a very important step, and by putting in the time up front to listen repeatedly you will reduce the time it takes to learn to play the tune.  (This is the step that too many potential players don’t take seriously.)

Third, now that you can hum the WHOLE TUNE to yourself, you can start to learn it.  If you don’t have a slow version, then use a slowdown program that will reduce the tempo without altering the pitch: “The Amazing Slowdowner,” “SlowMP3,” “Speedshifter,” or something else (there are LOTS of programs that do this available for free).  When you start to play, begin by finding the home note, what’s called the tonal center of the tune.

Fourth, begin to chunk the tune.  That is, break it up into phrases, and work on those phrases.  Because you can hum the whole thing, you’ll have a better idea how the chunks fit together.

Fifth, when you play parts of the tune or the whole tune, you will need to listen to yourself.  You need to be able to hear what your doing and compare it to the tune you can hum in your head.  It may help at this stage, but will definitely help later to be able to record yourself playing and to listen to it so that you can correct your mistakes.

  • If you play the fiddle (or other bowed instrument) you will need to think about your bowing.  You may just want to start by using a single bow stroke for each note, and alternating directions, but be careful not to lock this in as different tunes require different kinds of bowing.
  • If you are playing mandolin or banjo (or other plectrum instrument) you will need to think about your pic pattern.  You may want to start by picking stroke for each note, and alternating directions, but be careful not to lock this in as different tunes require different kinds of pic patterns — for example, tunes in the Jig family (double jigs, slides, slip jigs, etc.) do best with a DUD DUD pick pattern.
  • If you play whistle or flute (or other wind instrument) you will need to think about your breath, tonguing, and in some cases embouchure.  To give the tune the right lift, you will need to focus on phrasing. Different types of tunes have different phrasing.

Sixth, be sure you are playing the notes cleanly and clearly, regardless of tempo.  Play through the tune, record yourself, play it back, and listen for places you need to work on.

Seventh, work on your trouble spots repeatedly.

Eighth, learn to play through the tune with confidence.  This means put away the sheet music, MP3 players,  and anything else that might be a crutch.  If you have trouble, first spend time trying to remember how the parts go together before you run to the music or the MP3.

Nine, gradually increase the tempo of the tune, but maintain the pulse, and keep the notes clean and clear.

Tenth, I say elsewhere, keep your ears on your toes!  That is, start working on variations.  Listen to other versions and hear how they differ.  Then try to introduce a variation into your own playing.  Being able to play a tune in more than one way is very useful. Tunes are not always played the same across sessions, but by having some variations under your belt you can better pick up a different way of playing the tune.

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Use these steps for each tune you try to learn.  The more you go through these steps, the easier and faster you will progress.  You will, in fact, come to understand which of the steps you tend to stumble over and which come more easily.  The result will help you to define your learning style.

KC Irish Center

If you are in the Kansas City, Missouri area and you are interested in classes on Irish Traditional Music, please follow this link to the Kansas City School of Irish Music:


  • Posted February 28, 2019 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sarah, here’s a link to the KC School of Irish Music page:

  • Sarah Powell
    Posted January 19, 2019 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    When is the next beginning sessions course beginning?

  • Rusty Koenig
    Posted June 6, 2017 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Nicely stated “template” to follow. The whole “listen, listen, listen some more and when you are sick of it, listen to it ONE more time” thing I never really thought about it but I naturally do this, and tend to check out the different variations of it. I tend to drive some people crazy at work with my “playlist” lol.

    Also this is how I decide what new piece I want to tackle. I hear a tune that I like and hit the replay button and as I work I do not really “air bow” the notes or anything but instead of “humming it to myself” I just imagine myself playing the piece (a lot better and one step further than simply humming a piece as your brain gets into the mode of “playing” it as you learn the “notes”) Also, another benefit of simulating the motions of playing it as you listen, it also allows you feel the full range of “emotion” of the piece without actually playing it or even “air playing” it… like when people play their “air guitar” to their favorite song”. So basically as you “hum” it, go one step further and imagine yourself creating the sound instead of “singing along with it”. The closest thing to this is when you actually sing a song where your voice is the “instrument”. When you sing a song to yourself you can actually import the “emotion” that you will not get by simply humming along to it as you not only focus on the notes/beats to the piece but the WORDS that you must ultimately produce rather than just the “wire frame” of the piece that humming to yourself will get you.

    And….. once you listen over and over as you point out and add in the full range of “simulation” in your mind you are 10 steps further ahead of simply focusing on the “notes” (humming it to yourself). When i “listen” to a piece like this, even the adrenaline rush of some pieces that you get from playing it can be achieved because full range of it is playing out in your mind.

    One great mind that used this type of process was Albert Einstein. He often talked about his “thought experiments”. He worked out some of the most complex stuff by simply doing this. Instead of putting chalk to chalkboard to physically work out the complex problems, he simply ran “simulations” in his mind similar to simulating yourself playing the piece in your mind as you listen.

    Now…. after you have “played” the piece multiple times in your mind as you listened to it over and over, when you actually pick up your instrument and go to physically play the first note for the first time, all you really have left is the “muscle memory” training because the emotion of the piece and everything else was figured out long before you even picked up your instrument 🙂

    It all boils down to being able to put yourself in the “zone” without actually physically playing your instrument yet mentally you are in that “zen state” as if you were playing it.

    If you want to understand the speed of light, lay down your chalk and stop thinking numbers and formulas and imagine yourself sitting on the end of a beam of light, traveling through space and imagine what the “world” or “universe” would look like as you ride that beam of light through it. Einstein figured out some of his most famous “theories” with that simple “thought experiment”

  • Alan curtis
    Posted February 22, 2015 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Your slow versions are excellent learning tools and your ‘ learning tunes’ advice impeccable though demanding! Fascinating notes on the tunes. Inspiring stuff, thanks!aa

  • Jean J. Smith
    Posted January 5, 2015 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    I would like to buy a recorder / slowdowner(without losing pitch) type of device and do you have any suggestions? I don’t own an iPhone.
    Thanks !

    Posted June 30, 2014 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    We stumbled over here from a different web page and thought I might
    check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you.
    Look forward to looking into your web page repeatedly.

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