We continue looking at how different ways of learning music affect what we learn and how we think about the music. As I mentioned last time the topic of whether learning by ear is better than learning from notation is a sensitive topic. It seems best approached from an evidence-based perspective. That's true of any question that can be answered though empirical observation, but it's even more important when a topic might bring about an emotional response.
We've seen how learning by ear can improve even sight reading, it's thought to be more fun and challenging than notation-based practice, and it can be more effective than learning from notation in various ways. Unfortunately the evidence I could find from research is fairly limited as most research has an orchestral or classical music teaching setting as its target audience.
In this section we go beyond the evidence, but stick with topics that could be studied empirically. Here we examine differences between learning by ear and notation-based learning in a fiddling context. We will move toward examining qualitative differences in what is learned. I will include a couple exercises that will let you experience some of the concepts I'm discussing.
Learning Tunes (By Ear & Reading)
Once again, remember the comparison between what's in the sheet music and what's in the playing of a fiddler? If not I strongly encourage you to click on the link and do the comparison exercises. It will make what I'm saying much more salient. But in any case, here's another set of comparisons that I think you should find interesting.
Here is the sheet music for On the Road to Boston, a well-known New England fiddle tune.
Now here are some links to several recordings of the tune. It would be interesting to listen to them while keeping in mind the points I made earlier. I mention a couple things about these recordings but there's a lot more to be found in them.
Learning by ear in a class at Maine Fiddle Camp. We all did it, even though there were some pretty difficult tunes!Differences Between Learning by Ear and Learning from Notation
Here is a summary of some of the differences, to be followed by some thoughts on their likely effects.
It wouldn't be too difficult to list other characteristics of the music, and for at least some of them listening would give exposure to more variety.
It would be reasonable to ask if there are any advantages to using the written music. I'd say the answer is yes.
We'll look at some other uses of written notation on the next page. But clearly it does have its strengths. Nevertheless my observation is that learning by ear has many more advantages than disadvantages.
Likely Effects of the Observed Differences. The differences listed above are fairly easy to observe. In order to establish the effects of these differences, it would be best to do some systematic observation and data collection. Lacking that for now, I want to suggest some likely effects of these differences. It should be possible to do research to investigate these ideas, but for now they are logical but unconfirmed suggestions.
Learning by ear, when compared with notation-based learning, gives us better exposure to melodic variations, rhythmic variations, ornamentation, variations in actual pitch and variations in emphasis. Borrowing from behavioral psychology, most concept learning is facilitated by exposure to multiple and varied instance of the concept.
Summary. In summary, learning by listening gives exposure to greater variation in many aspects of the music than learning from notation. This exposure facilitates learning concepts such as what are the possible variations, what variations are considered acceptable within a tradition, what variations are considered not to be acceptable, and of course it should bring about a better understanding of what variations are personally pleasing.
An Extrapolation. Given that learning by ear facilitates learning this set of concepts, I would suggest that it brings about a greater depth of understanding of the particular tune being learned — but also of the set of music being practiced. If someone tends to play a lot of music within a particular tradition, learning by ear facilitates gaining an understanding (or improving an existing understanding) of that tradition.
Based on this discussion it would seem likely that many people who learn primarily from sheet music would have a more limited understanding of the tunes and possibly the tradition in general, whereas people who learn primarily by ear are likely to have a more flexible, multi-dimensional understanding of the tune and of the tradition.
To extend this idea a bit further from actual evidence, a likely further consequence of learning style would extend to attitude toward the tunes. It seems likely that someone who does a lot of listening would have a more flexible and fluid understanding of a tune, whereas someone who does little listing and a lot of learning through written notation might tend to have a more rigid, fixed view of the tunes. I'd guess the correlation to be moderate as there are certainly exceptions.
Given that this is a web site primarily devoted to presenting lots of transcriptions of tunes, obviously I think there is some value to learning from written music. Click the Next Page button for some thoughts on that issue.