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Tune Links (16, indented)

Learning Fiddle Tunes by Ear & from Written Music, & Combining Methods Effectively

Learning Fiddle Tunes by Ear & from Written Music, & Combining Methods Effectively

Learning Tunes I ~ Listening, Learning by Ear & Reading as Tools for Learning Tunes

Here we look at reading music as a learning method, and its relation to listening. I hope you will start this page by taking a couple minutes to look at what's in the boxes.

 

 

Here's a set of short exercises I hope you will try, especially if you learn primarily from written music. They are part thought experiment and part observation.

Thought Experiment #1:

When you listen to fiddle music (or, if relevant, when you play your fiddle), many fiddlers have  a characteristic sound that lets you identify them. For example, I can often identify Rod Miller's playing, or Jean Carignan's playing, or Marcel Robidas' playing within a few notes.

  • What are some of the components of the playing of a good fiddler? There's the melody, there may be harmony. What are some of the other components?
  • If you want, write them down; we'll be using them below.

 

Thought Experiment #2:

Let's make this a bit more specific. Try to remember a good fiddler playing a tune (or better yet, listen to a recording).

  • Try to identify some of the components you came up with in the first experiment. Were there any others you hadn't already come up with?

 

Besides the melody and the harmony, you might have identified variations (both melodic and rhythmic), grace notes, slides and other ornamentation, and likely other components of the music that affect how it sounds to you.

Observational Exercise #1:

Here's the observational part. Below is a recording of me playing the first phrase of the French Club Waltz. Keep in mind that while I don't consider myself to be a great fiddler (and this isn't a great recording), I'm a good musician.

  • Listen to my playing of the tune. Try to identify the slides, grace notes, and other musical details. Again consider taking some notes for later.

 

Besides the melody and the harmony, you might have identified variations (both melodic and rhythmic), grace notes, slides and other ornamentation, and likely other components of the music that affect how it sounds to you.

Observational Exercise #2:

Here's the observational part. Below is a recording of me playing the first phrase of the French Club Waltz. Keep in mind that while I don't consider myself to be a great fiddler (and this isn't a great recording), I'm a good musician.

  • Listen to my playing of the tune. Try to identify the slides, grace notes, and other musical details. Again consider taking some notes for later.

 

In the previous exercise you identified slides, grace notes and other musical components of a recording of me playing the French Club Waltz. Here is the sheet music for the tune, taken from this web site.

Observational Exercise #3:

This exercise has two very similar parts.

  • Take a look at the sheet music. Then think about the various components of my playing of the tune that you identified.
    • What did you identify that's not in the sheet music?
  • In Thought Experiment #2 you thought about the playing of a good fiddler and identified some of what that person does. Which of those components wouldn't generally show up in the sheet music?

 

Concluding Exercise and Thoughts

My guess is that you came up with quite a few components to the music that don't typically show up in most transcriptions of fiddle tunes.

Here's what I get out of this. I come to a couple conclusions that seem to me to be inescapable.

  • Those features that aren't usually included in the written music are very important components of most fiddle music.
  • To me they seem to be largely what distinguishes one fiddler's playing from another's.

And finally, I have to ask:

  • Does it really make sense to use primarily your eyes to learn something that's completely auditory in nature?

Which leads to the final Concluding Thought Exercise:

  • To what extent do you agree with my conclusions?
  • And as written music obviously has some value, what should be the role of written music, and how should it fit together with listening as tools for learning fiddle tunes?

We will look at those issues in the rest of this section of the web site.

Listening and Reading

I hope you did the above exercises comparing what's shown in a typical transcription with what is played by a fiddler. It's exactly what isn't written down that best distinguishes one fiddler's playing from another.

I've observed over the years that the proportion of fiddlers who don't read music or who read it at best adequately has gone from pretty high when I first started playing music in the 1970s to fairly small. If someone puts out sheet music at a jam session or in a class (e.g at Ashokan or Maine Fiddle Camp), nearly everyone can play the tune. The trend is clearly toward more fiddlers having good reading skills. For this large proportion of fiddlers it's much faster and probably easier to learn by reading music, and this is what's happening.

If you did the above short exercise, and if you think about listening to a really good fiddler playing a tune, I think you'll agree that there's a lot more to a tune than what's written down in most sheet music. Certainly there are times when the sheet music can be very helpful. When learning something very complex it undoubtedly helps someone with good reading skills to use the written music.

But listening is still important for adding in all the subtleties that really make it sound musical. Fiddle music is rich stuff! Someone who can sight read a fiddle tune and make it come out sounding like a fiddle tune has almost certainly done a fair amount of listening to fiddle tunes and probably a fair amount of previous fiddling.

Consider an experience I had when I first started playing New England fiddle tunes.

  • I remember when I first saw Cole's 1000 Fiddle Tunes — an excellent source for all sorts of tunes, now available as Ryan's Mammoth Collection. Each tune was just two lines. How could that represent all that I was hearing? Well, it can't! It just represents the important notes of a particular way of playing the tune.

In Part II of this series we look at some thoughts on how learning methods affect playing and how to combine listening and reading music constructively while learning a tune.

But first, please click on the Next Page button for some ideas on finding sources of music for an interesting listening experience and some interesting sources for learning by ear .

 

The NH Old-Time Fiddle Website covers a variety of topics related to traditional music and dance of New Hampshire and surrounding areas.

Designed & Edited by Peter Yarensky

 

Contact & About Page + Site News

Use the Menu (upper left) to navigate. Here are the main topics covered on this web site.

  • Fiddle Tunes! Tunes in abc notation and in PDF format.
  • abc Notation . Music written out in text form that can be displayed as standard notation and played back for proofreading or tune learning. Section includes:
    • abc tutorial on basics of using abc notation & links to web sites that document/teach abc, sources of music in abc, & to abc reader/converter software.
  • Learning tunes by ear and from notation, a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each, differences in what is learned, combining the use of both kinds of learning with relevant links.
  • About Fiddle Music. General discussion of fiddle-related topics, starting with choosing chords for a tune.
  • Lamprey River Band. About the transition from the Dover dance to the Durham dance with schedule information.

 

 

Learning by Ear, from Written Music & Combining the Two