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

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

Combining Listening and Reading in Your Learning Method

If I didn't think sheet music had some role in the learning process I wouldn't be presenting nearly 400 tunes here. I have my doubts about learning primarily from sheet music, but I think it can serve a very important role as a supplement to learning by ear, and the two may have complementary roles. Here are a few ideas on combining the two approaches productively. How you do it will depend on your skills with listening and reading, and on the style of learning that works best for you.

  • Starting to Learn a Tune . It's best, if possible, to listen to a tune quite a bit before starting to learn it. This makes you far more familiar and able to learn the tune. I've noticed, for example, that at Maine Fiddle Camp (and other places where tunes are taught), some teachers play a tune once and then start teaching the tune. If it's not already familiar, this makes learning unnecessarily difficult. Others play a tune many times through first. This makes us familiar with the tune and ready to learn it.
    • I'd recommend listening to multiple recordings by people whose fiddling you like, or even better to fiddlers playing the tune live. Dances are good settings. If you don't have recordings, try looking the tune up online in a web browser and on YouTube. Add the word fiddle to your search if you get too many irrelevant search results.
    • Important note: Someone who is used to learning from written music might reasonably point out that someone who is good at sight reading can learn a tune to the point of playing it reasonably well up to dance tempo much faster from written music than even a good ear learner could learn it by ear.
    • That is true. My response would be to ask how long it would take to play the tune without sheet music if someone requested it at a jam session.
  • Filling in the Details. Eventually in learning a tune you may come across a part that you just can't figure out. One way to proceed would be to use software that slows down the tune. Another way would be to look at the sheet music. It will tell you at least one way to play the phrase you're having problems with.
  • Constant supplement. After doing your listening to get familiar with the tune, you may decide to use the sheet music as you're learning regardless of whether you need it. As long as you continue listening as well this is probably fine.
  • Remembering the Tune. After you've learned a tune it's nice to be able to remember it. I find it handy to write out the sheet music for a tune as I learn it. This gives me a reference for reviewing how I play it. It also helps me to learn the tune more solidly, and probably forces me to learn all the details specifically enough to be able to write them out. On the other hand, many people report that tunes they learn by ear they are more likely to remember but tunes they learn from written music often aren't learned as solidly, and are less likely to be remembered.

I'm sure there are other ways to use written music and listening together, but this is a start.


Ear vs. Notation Learning: An Exercise & Discussion  Previous Page     |

Part II-D ~ Combining Learning by Ear with Reading Music

Here I present some ideas on combining the role of listening with the use of sheet music in learning tunes.

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