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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-A ~ Combining Learning by Ear with Reading Music: On the Need for Evidence

In this section we expand upon the issue of how the method of learning affects what you learn and thus what you play. In the previous section I think I demonstrated pretty clearly that when you listen to a tune you will hear a lot that's not in the written notation. For most transcriptions this would include things like ornamentation, harmony, variations and more.

These differences can affect your attitude toward the tune, how likely you are to play melodic variations, your understanding of the tune, and more. We will look at these differences, and then at the possibility of combining learning by ear with the use of written notation. But first a bit on the importance of supporting one's opinions with evidence.

But first I need to say something about why I think this discussion should be evidence-based rather than opinion-based, and why this topic can be tricky to evaluate because we have to interpret research findings carefully. Then on the next page we'll start to look at the actual effects of learning style more carefully.

Effects of Learning Style on How & What We Learn: Opinions & Evidence

Did you take another look at 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 do so before going on; it will make what I'm saying much more salient.

If you learn primarily from written music, you'll probably end up playing music very differently from if you learn primarily by listening.

The importance of evidence. Now, as a behavioral scientist I must point out that whether different methods of learning affect what you learn (and how) is an empirical question: one that may be answered through observation. It serves very little purpose to express opinions about an empirical question unless one can back up those opinions with evidence; and clear evidence counts a whole lot more than strongly stated opinions with no supporting evidence. As this is a topic that tends to generate strong opinions, backing up opinions with evidence is especially important.

  • For example, some music educators actually avoid teaching students to learn by ear because they think it will compromise their learning to read. Some apparently viewed it as "a pleasurable if not sinful pastime", in the fine tradition that says anything fun is sinful, and real learning should be unpleasant because my teachers made it unpleasant for me.
    • Now I do remember Jerry Holland commenting that when he was asked to read music in his lessons, he learned the music so fast by ear that he never really bothered to learn to read all that well. So there may be some truth to that belief; although if I were teaching someone who was as good as Jerry I don't think I'd worry too much about how the person was learning!
  • In fact, massive amounts of evidence support the idea that teaching students to learn by ear is very beneficial to their musical ability and enjoyment. There's even evidence showing a moderately strong relationship between ear-learning ability and sight-reading skills in a study of high school instrumentalists. While that doesn't prove that one causes the other, it demonstrates that the two go together rather than detracting from each other.
  • Without evidence people are able to believe all sorts of strange things, but empirical evidence isn't very forgiving when your ideas are incorrect.

The importance of valid evidence. Therefore I looked for scientific research on this topic to see what, if any, evidence had been collected on the topic. It turns out there hasn't been a whole lot, but I did find a review article published by Ann Marie Musco of  Georgia State University in 2010 called Playing by Ear: Is Expert Opinion Supported by Research? The article, and most of the research on this topic, are clearly more part of the world of classical music than the world of fiddle tunes; but they can still be useful.

  • She used the following definition of playing by ear : it may be defined as performance of pre-existing music learned aurally without the aid of notation. She also pointed out the need to distinguish between learning by ear and learning by rote , which we generally refer to as memorizing .
    • Both can produce the same result of being able to play a tune without written music; but they are very different processes, and learning by rote often involves learning in part or even primarily from written music.

She pointed out that sometimes it's not obvious how learning occurs. For example, imagine that you're at Maine Fiddle Camp — a cheerful thing to imagine as I write this in December! We're in class, and Don Roy is teaching the Rimouski. After playing it a few times, he breaks it down into phrases. He plays each phrase, and we try to play it back; that continues until most of us have it and then we go on to the next phrase. If you’ve been to Maine Fiddle Camp or Ashokan, or to any fiddle class at a camp or workshop, you know how that goes.

  • Are we learning by ear or learning by rote? Different people in class will be learning differently.
    •  I'll be focussing on listening to the his playing and trying to figure out what's going on in the music; so I'm learning by ear. But you might be watching his fingers to figure out the notes. Doing that you could learn the whole tune, but when he plays the B part and asks what comes next, you might be unable to remember the next part.
    • You've learned the tune by rote but you haven't really listened to it! So while it may be useful at times to watch someone's fingers, that's not learning by ear. When studying learning by ear one has to watch out for hidden opportunities to learn by rote.

Using the evidence. It's important to consider that evidence doesn't always support our favorite theories, but unless we have reason to doubt the evidence we need to consider changing our ideas to fit the evidence; the reverse, as tempting as it may be, just doesn't work!

Complications arise because there are sometimes other factors that may be relevant that aren't obvious, and sometimes evidence isn't clearcut.

  • For example, in the above example a teaching technique intended to encourage learning by ear may, for some people, produce learning by rote. When this sort of thing happens in an experiment, it's referred to as a confounding variable. It can complicate interpretations of our research findings, or even render them uninterpretable. Thus we have to be careful in our interpretations, and not be too quick to claim to be proven correct.
  • For this reason scientists generally talk about evidence as supporting one explanation or another. If you're quick to say you've proven someone's ideas correct or incorrect, there's a good chance you're wrong or at best partially correct.


On the next page we'll look at how learning by ear and learning from notation can produce different kinds of learning. Click the arrow to continue.


Learning Methods  Previous Page     |     Next Page Learning by Ear & from Notation: Some Evidence

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

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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