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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-B ~ Combining Learning by Ear with Reading Music: A Look at the Evidence

Here we look at how different ways of learning music affect what we learn and how we think about the music. This is a topic that seems to generate strong opinions, but it's also a topic for which it's possible to do empirical (observation-based) research. In the previous page we looked at the importance of backing up opinions about observable phenomena with valid evidence.

On this page I want to summarize the evidence I was able to find that's relevant. On the next page I will go beyond the evidence in places, but I will make it clear when that happens and include some hopefully interesting exercises to support what I'm saying.

Learning by Ear and From Notation: Some Evidence

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.

Let's start with the evidence: what have music education researchers found that might be of use to us? This will be based on research discussed in the Musco paper I talked about on the previous page. For the most part I'll present results and conclusions without going into all the details of the studies being discussed.

First of all I have to repeat what she concluded: many or most of the studies had methodological or logical problems that interfere with being able to interpret them very clearly. I suspect that many of the researchers are much better at teaching music than at researching the teaching process. But there were some good studies, and some clear evidence was produced.

  • Several studies looked at changes over time. In general people got better over time as the result of some combination of practicing and playing music. No surprise there. But it was found that the quality of the practicing was correlated with who improved more over time whereas the quantity of practicing wasn't.
  • Playing by ear was found to improve even in those who didn't have formal ear-learning training. A moderate correlation was found between sight-reading skills and skills with playing by ear. Another study found what appears to be good evidence that sight reading ability is improved by exercises in playing by ear and in improvisation.
    • A suvey of 8th-grade band students found that ear training exercises during warm-ups made them think more than notation-based practice and were more fun.
  • There are a couple good experimental studies relatively free of flaws that interfere with their interpretation. In a semester-long study, keyboard students in college learned melodies with chords, performed melodic patterns by ear and did a few more ear-learning exercises.   Students showed major improvements, demonstrating that skills in playing by ear may be taught; this addresses the beliefs some people have that they can't learn by ear. However, there was no comparison group that either got no training or training not involving ear training, so this study is limited.
  • One of the best studies discussed was one by the author. Musco did a study with middle-school band members. Students learned tunes in the keys they would be using in a concert (Bb, Db and G). Some students learned a series of melodies by ear, while a control group practiced scales and exercises in the same keys. At the beginning and end of the study eveyone played a familiar melody by ear and an exercise by sight in each key. Scoring was for pitch accuracy. The experimental group showed significant improvement for two of the keys (G, Db) whereas the control group showed no improvement in any key. Both groups improved substantially in sight reading in all three keys.

Alogether these studies provide evidence for the beneficial effects of ear training, and it was also associated with improvement in sight reading despite fears to the contrary. It made students think more, and it was more fun. All this shows the beneficial effects of ear learning.

On the next page we'll look at some issues that go beyond the research I presented, and I'll ask you to do some listening and thinking about things. Click on the Next Page arrow to continue.


The Importance of Evidence Previous Page     |     Next Page   Ear vs. Notation Learning: An Exercise & Discussion

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