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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


How We Learn Tunes

How one learns a tune can have major effects on how one plays it and how one thinks about the tune and even about fiddle tunes in general. Most fiddlers seem to have a preference either to learn tunes by ear or to learn tunes from written notation. Many people who learn by ear don't read music or read it minimally. Many people who learn from written music don't believe they are capable of learning by ear, and even find the idea to be frightening.

I believe that learning by ear is an important tool for learning fiddle tunes. Although abilities and skills differ considerably, I believe that everyone is capable of learning by ear at least well enough to be useful. I also believe that written music, used wisely, can be a very useful learning tool. This is true even for people who don't read music or who read it minimally. It doesn't take very advanced reading skills to be able to use written music productively. For example if you can't figure out a particular musical phrase in a tune there's a good chance you could use written music to help figure it out.

In this section we look at listening, learning by ear and reading music as learning tools. There's a fair amount here, so I am breaking it up into several relatively short pages to make it more approachable. They are best read in the suggested order. I start with some basic concepts.

Why This Section is Here

In some ways it's rather odd that I’m presenting so much written music, as I don’t really read music very well. I don’t even believe in learning primarily from written music unless you’re pretty familiar with the tune you're learning,  and perhaps even more importantly with the tradition it comes from. This is best accomplished by spending a goodly amount of time listening: preferably to a variety of fiddlers playing the music, but at least to an adequate sampling of recorded music.

The following discussion of listening vs. reading clearly represents my opinion. I think it’s valid, but I realize some people disagree.

  • If you currently learn fiddle tunes primarily from written music, I hope you will find the following section of interest and think about  whether any of  it might be relevant/useful to you.

Think you can't learn by ear? That's almost certainly not true! Be sure to check out the section on Learning by Ear for some ideas on how to make it happen.

Listening, Learning by Ear & Learning by Reading Music

These concepts are important for this discussion, so let’s look at how they relate.

Listening & Learning by Ear. Listening is a broad concept. It could include paying minimal attention to music that is playing, up to being very focussed on the music or on some aspect of the music. Focussed listening could be purely for enjoyment, and hopefully all of us do that. It could be for the purpose of familiarizing oneself with a piece of music, or with a musical tradition. As musicians this type of listening is very important for understanding the music we want to play. Listening might be directed at learning to play a piece of music. The latter would be considered learning by ear.

Learning by Reading Musical Notation. This is how many people learn music. It can be very effective with practice. But it will be far more successful if it is accompanied by a lot of listening; that’s how we learn the stylistic features that make our playing worth listening to.

Organization: This section is broken into two parts: Part I is a discussion of  learning by ear and from written music. Part II looks at ways of combining the two. The next page looks at some of the reasons for making ear learning an important part of your tune learning strategy. Click on the button below.

Contact Form: If you have questions, corrections, or any other feedback or thoughts about this or any other part of the web site, please feel free to send me a note!


Learning Tunes

The first part of this web site presents a pretty good selection of traditional and some more contemporary tunes from New England, Canada, Sweden and related traditions.  The second part is intended as a resource for abc notation.

The page begins the third part of the web site which looks at some issues we have to deal with as fiddlers. In particular I want to look at how our techniques for learning tunes affect how we play those tunes later on, and even affect how we listen and our perception of fiddle music.

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