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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

Part II-C ~ Combining Learning by Ear with Reading Music: Extensions to Fiddling

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 by Ear or from Notation: Some Differences & Their Likely Effects

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.

  • Here's a recording of Rod & Randy Miller playing the tune. Rod puts in lots of variations and melodic extras. Also, listen to the harmony at 1:08.
  • Here's a recording of Vivian and Phil Williams from the west coast playing a very nice but rather different version of the tune. Listen to the B-part harmony at 0:53.
  • Here's Patti Kusturok from Manitoba, one of the best Canadian fiddlers, playing a very Canadian sounding version of Road to Boston to begin an online fiddle lesson. In this country it's a march; in Canada it's generally considered a two-step.
  • And finally, here's Don Messer playing on a recording from his radio or television show. It's unlabeled but most likely from the 1950s or 1960s. Again a very Canadian version of the tune, and with a somewhat different set of harmonies.



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. We've already seen from the previous demonstrations and thought experiments earlier that sheet music gives us less information about the music than listening. I think this exercise should have expanded on the additional information available from listening.

Here is a summary of some of the differences, to be followed by some thoughts on their likely effects.

  • Melody. If you read the sheet music you get one version of the melody. If you listen to one fiddler playing a tune most likely there will be some variations in the melody from one time through the tune to the next. Some fiddlers always play the tune the same way, but most don't.
    • If you find a few versions of the written music you may get some variations. If you listen, especially at a dance, you will hear the musicians play the tune many times, and most likely there will be many variations in the melody. And if you listen to several fiddlers playing the same tune you will get considerably more variation in melody.
  • Rhythm. The sheet music is likely to give a standard version of a tune, which will tend to minimize rhythmic variation. Listening to a good fiddler play a tune will likely expose you to a greater variety of rhythmic approaches.
  • Ornamentation. Most sheet music contains little or no ornamentation, but you'll hear multiple versions of the ornamentation if you listen to a few different musicians.
  • Pitch. The written music just gives standard pitch. But listen to many fiddlers and you'll hear variations of the pitch. Some notes may be deliberately played slightly sharp or flat to produce a desired effect; and some traditions generally play certain notes a bit sharp or flat.
  • Emphasis. Again, this is at best minimally expressed in most written music, but it can be an important component of  the music.

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.

  • Someone whose listening skills aren't yet all that well developed might pick up part of the tune incorrectly. The written music makes it easy for anyone with reading skills to pick up any details that are present in the music.
  • Even someone with good listening skills may have problems picking up all the details of a fast, notey tune. Written music could solve that problem quickly. It could also be done with software to slow down the tune of course.

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.

  • So if we think about melody, exposure to more variations should give a better concept of what is the core melody, and what are some of the variations that fall within the range expected in one or more tradition.
  • It should also help to learn what variations go beyond what is normally played or accepted in a tradition.
  • The same logical argument should apply to the effects of exposure to variations in rhythm, ornamentation, pitch and emphasis.

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.

  • The person has learned what variations are acceptable within the tradition and what variations don't really fit, and that sounds to me like an important part of understanding a tradition.
  • Note that I'm not saying someone couldn't learn most of that from written music; but it would be harder and the result might be less complete.

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.

  • Needless to say, these ideas would be stronger if backed up by evidence. It shouldn't be too difficult to collect evidence on most of these ideas though.

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.


Learning by Ear & from Notation: Some Evidence  Previous Page     |     Next Page   Combining Listening & Reading

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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