Techniques for learning new Tunes

Techniques for learning new Tunes

How do people go about getting new tunes fixed in their head. If I already know a tune, eg from a recording then I find it much easier to learn.
When I’ve never heard a tune before and its not already fixed in my head I find I can pick it up in a session but then when I’m on my own it all seems to be forgotton. How long does it take other people to learn a tune to the point where it just comes along without having to think about what you’re doing?
What do other people do other than playing it over and over again.

Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

The easiest way for me to learn a tune is by reading it in standard notation. Often the way it happens, I will hear something that immediately appeals to me, I pick up a little of it, then hopefully find it in my trusty O’Neills. If not, then I begin to look other places…like here. Learning by ear is a much longer, indirect way, and yes, only by repitition, unless you are one of those blessed with a wickedly fast ear/memory.

Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

I guess that we are all different, or at least learn differently. If someone shows me a tune, I can have it in an hour, but I still have to play it several times a day to get the tune to "stick" in the long term. If I learn it by notation, it takes me a month. I can shorten the "month" to a week or two, if I learn it phrase by phrase, just as I would learn it from another fiddler. But it certainly comes faster if I hear another playing the phrases, as I learn it.

ps. When I can play a tune without having to think about the notes, and can focus on tone, intonation, etc., I consider it "learned".

Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

What I hate about the way I learn is that I’ll half-learn a tune during a session, but not well enough to remember how it goes to practise it, and usually I’ve forgotten the name of it anyway, so I can’t look it up. So, the next time I’m at a session and someone starts it up, I’ve still only got it half learned. Over and over again. *sigh*

Zina

Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

Don’t know how many tunes you already know, but ‘121 Irish Session Tunes’ by LE McCullough has been a great learning tool for me, & I know it’s already been posted here but oh well. It’s a great 4 CD set with tunebook that allows you to play each tune ad nauseum on repeat, also to turn off either the chords or melody, & then you can sneak a peek at the notation if you’ve really botched it. For me, it just depends on the tune—some naturally & quickly by ear, others a struggle. Motivation is key, if you know somebody who already knows it or you are just dying to play along with a certain recording.

Anyway, got my copy at www.homespuntapes.com … good luck!

Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

Anyone who can even half learn a tune from hearing it for the first time at a session amazes me!

For me, after a while, certain tunes from a session will beging to stick out for me. So now I want to learn a particular tune. A friend or my teacher will show it to me, and because its already in my head and I’ve been humming it, I’ll learn it right then, very quickly. But now I have to play it several times a day for a while to get my fingers to remember it as well, and also to get comfortable enough with it to play it at a session.

The other option for me is, if no-one is around to show me the tune, to go to O’Neill’s or some other book and look at the written notation. I just make those notes match the rhythm and melody that’s already in my head. I could never look at notation for a tune I’ve never heard and learn it stone cold—I need the music to be playing in my head first and foremost.

There are times when I have taped tunes from a session and learned them off the tape with no notation, just from constantly rewinding to hear the phrase over and over.

Riggers, maybe you just need to tape a few tunes at your next session.

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Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

Chris Smith has a couple of articles on tune learning on his website. I haven’t actully used any of this myself but I don’t hesitate to reccomend it to other people. I believe the relevant material is in "byear" and "callresp" which are at the top of the page.

http://www.geocities.com/coyotebanjo/instruction/

Steve

Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

I’ll wade in here because I learn tunes from just about every conceivable source—I have to, because I’m stuck out here in the center of the Irish Trad Music universe, surrounded by and immersed the tunes, in lovely central Montana USA (a conceptual neighbor to Inner Mongolia)….

Seriously, I learn most of my tunes (on fiddle) by ear, but from a variety of sources. Many come straight from other players, sharing them live and in person at sessions. Others I pick up off of cds or radio programs. These typically come at me at full speed, so you have to be quick at getting them into your head. So it’s good to listen carefully without playing the first time around, then softly play along the second time, and then catch any missing parts the third time around. Some tunes hit me as "counter intuitive" where they’ll jump down when you’re expecting up, or vice versa, etc. These might take a few more run throughs to figure out. I’m not shy about asking someone to separate the tricky phrase out and slow it down—that’s only reasonable. But I’ll admit that, if someone has a setting I really like, I’m a stickler for trying to get every note, rather than just the general feel of the tune. I enjoy being able to play note-for-note with someone, rather than just getting it close. This isn’t always the quickest way to pick up a tune by ear, though, and sometimes I’ll settle for "close enough," and then come back later and fine tune it.

Learning by ear is like using money to make money…the more you have already, the easier it is.

Two things are going on when I learn a tune by ear: planting the melody into my memory, and reconstructing it through bowing and fingering on fiddle. Putting it in my memory is relatively easy because there’s no instrumental technique to consider. Just lilt the tune aloud or in your head. It gets easier the more you do it. Just keep doing it, and a few years down the road you’ll wonder why you ever thought it was difficult. Most tunes aren’t that long, so they stick after a few times through. On 3, 4, or 5 part tunes, I focus on the first two bars as a signature to remind me of the rest of the part and how it differs from the other parts. Lots of newbies tryo to play along on a tune the first time through without listening to it first. That’s just improvising, not internalizing the specific tune. Take a listen first, and then give it a go. The more familiar a tune is (say, you’ve heard it every week at the session for three months, without ever trying to play along), the easier it is to learn. With experience, a tune can seem "familiar" upon hearing it two or three times. Think how quickly kids pick up Happy Birthday or the signature phrase from Beethoven’s Ninth, or a zillion other stand-out melodies we’re exposed to early on.

(Reminds me of the great poster of a man in a trench coat flashing a statue outside an art museum, under the heading, "Expose yourself to Art.")

Putting the tune on your instrument also gets easier the more you do it because the technical aspects eventually fade into the background. You think of the melody, and your body does what it has to to play those notes. If you still have to think about *how* to bow or finger things to get the tune, this will make learning by ear a little slower. Just keep at it, and keep playing…it will get easier.

Of course, it helps if the aural source of the tune isn’t too fast, but even more important is that the notes are clear. It can be really difficult to learn tunes if you can’t hear one clear line of notes, played with some semblance of rhythm and phrasing, or if the player throws in wild variations every time around. On the other hand, the more you learn by ear, the better you will get, even able to learn tunes from sloppy players, or pulling one clean melody out of a sea of session noise, or reconstructing a clean setting out of a mangled attempt by someone who "knows" the tune but hasn’t mastered their instrument yet.

I also learn from the dots, ABCs, and tablature from the web, books, notes scribbled on bar tabs, etc. A lot of people on thesession.org have said they don’t remember tunes as readily if they learn them from sheet music, but I haven’t had that problem. I tend to quit visualizing the dots as soon as the tune is aurally in my head from playing it off the dots a few times. Again, it helps to be completely comfortable with instrumental technique—and also sight reading. The better you read, the easier it is to pick up tunes from paper. After doing this for years and years, I can learn tunes by reading the sheet music or abcs and lilting the tune in my head. Then I can transfer it to an instrument later. Again, it just takes time and practice—no special gimmicks.

So for me,the point is to turn the source of the music—whether it’s dots or sound—into sound in your head, and from there onto the instrument. For most of us, I’d wager that hearing the tune is the most direct way to get the sound in our head, with all the nuances the player gives to it. But it’s possible with sheet music or abcs too, and that’s useful for those of us who don’t always have a live or recorded source handy.

Kevin Burke likes to tell a story about a studio musician who asked him to play a G major scale. Burke did so, and they other guy just laughed. "That’s not a G scale," he said. "Sure it is," said Kevin, and he played it again, from the high g on the first string, down to the ring finger G on the third string. "But what are all those extra notes?" the studio guy asked. Kevin played it again and realized he was playing the scale in a jig rhythm with rolls and triplet and cut notes sprinkled onto nearly every note. He’s so accustomed to hearing notes that way, it didn’t occur to him that those "extra" notes were extra at all, or that they might confuse a non-ITM musician.

Learning by ear or off the dots is the same thing—you have to get so used to hearing all the "extras" that they become totally natural and expected, so you’ll put them in in your own playing, even if they’re not in the source you’re learning from. This won’t happen overnight, but it comes sooner than later the more you listen and play.

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Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

I recently purchased a software program called the Amazing Slow-Downer. It’s great! I just pop in a CD and have the ability to slow down any track without changing the pitch. If a tune is in the wrong key, I have the option of changing the pitch. I have been able to learn some tunes that would be too tough for me at regular speed. I’m able to pick up all kinds of ornaments and variations. I highly recommend this for a learning tool.

http://www.ronimusic.com/

Joyce

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Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

Just as Joyce posted, I was thinking of adding a P.S. to my epic above. I agree that the slowdowner types of software can be really helpful, especially if you’re trying to catch the subtleties of someone’s ornaments or timing. But I’m so used to learning tunes at full speed, sometimes it’s easier for me to hear what’s going on if I *don’t* slow it down. But the really important thing I want to add is that we all have slowdowner software in our heads! Try it. Think of a tune you know really well. Now lilt it in your head. Now do it again, but at a slower tempo. Chances are that it wasn’t hard—AND you probably kept the pitch the same. I do this all the time, dreaming up variations, just savoring my favorite bits of tunes when I’m driving, allegedly working, etc. It’s a great way to "practice" even when you don’t have your instrument with you….

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P.P.S. (sorry, heh). Since Riggers asked how long all this takes…

Depends on the tune and how familiar I was with it before I tried to learn it. Straightforward tunes (most two-part jigs, less intricate reels—like Rolling in the Ryegrass, Silver Spear, etc) are pretty well locked and loaded within 10-15 minutes. It helps a lot, as Scotty says, to revisit a new tune every day for a week to really fix it in long-term memory. More complex tunes (3 or more part tunes, or meandering stuff like Dispute at the Crossroads and Beare Island) take closer to an hour to learn, occasionaly longer. And I find that they’re easier to lose even after playing them for months. So I tend to keep the more intricate tunes nearer the top of my short list of tunes to play regularly, at least once or twice a week, to help keep them fresh.

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Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

All the best music is played in my head - and never when there’s an instrument to hand. All the variations are long forgotten by the time I pick up an instrument, and when I have the instrument in hand, the ideas don’t come - a certain amount of brainspace is taken up with the technicalities of playing and the creative bit is suppressed - a sort of mental epiglottis.

For me it goes without saying - music is about hearing, and hearing a tune is the only way to learn it. I can sight read tunes reasonably well, and I can hear the tune in my head without playing it, but I can rarely remember a tune by reading the dots alone. When I started out, my main source of tunes was recordings. Oddly enough, I found that the most effective way of learning them was to write them out from listening - in this way I was forced to pick out every note, and so when it came to playing back what I had written out, I would already have the tune in my head. Nowadays, I tend to learn tunes by absorbing them over time, either from sessions or recordings, or a combination of the two. Sometimes, if I don’t have a recording of a tune, I read the dots to fill in the gaps, or if I do have a recording, have a good, hard listen and then try playing along to it. Some tunes just seem to sink in note-for-note - sometimes they just come out of nowhere and I can’t remember where I’ve heard them before. I recommend learning to pick up tunes by ear to anyone, and tyhe sooner the better. If you can learn Baa Baa Black Sheep, you can learn The Bucks of Oranmore.

Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

I am very hungry for tunes. So, the way I learn them is to attack them from every angle I can.
I listen to recordings whenever I get a chance. I write the tune names down on lists. I go to
a tune-learning session. Actually, I wish I had time for more sessions. I go to as many Irish trad
concerts as I can learn about, and I feel left out when I miss them. I sing or lilt the tunes (in my head
if people might be bothered by out-loud lilting.) I also use the written music,
but mostly as a reference. I have found the most effective way to learn the tunes is by ear - and
that’s probably because that’s the tradition. People don’t bring sheet music
to sessions. I do a lot of jotting ABC down on my palm pilot to help me memorize the names of
tunes, and match them with the melodies. I bring a mini recorder to sessions and music lessons.
Darn it! I wish I were better at all of this, and I would know more tunes by now! I also wish I knew
a better way to learn about the little stories and history that often go with the tune. I guess one way
is to keep reading the "tune" section on this web site.

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Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

Grab the midi file from an internet source use software like postcard and you can slow the tune down repeat pharases
use a number of backing instruments, for fiddle i find the ocarina effective and one good point is, the midi files are so bland
you have to sound "great" reality sets in later. When your stuck in the middle of the Bush the internet is priceless. I will now look at the
101 tunes G.DAY and O.ROO

Re: Techniques for learning new Tunes

Hi folks.
Lots of good advice here.
Over the past year I’ve been doing exercises that I’ve devised for the whistle; arpeggio patterns, pentatonic scale patterns, modal scale patterns etc. I do these most days and my ability to play difficult tunes quickly from notation has improved dramatically. The quicker I can play through a tune the faster I can learn it.
As has been pointed out everybody learns differently so try as many different techniques as you can; and find what works for you.
The most important aspect to me is to enjoy the learning process itself and not to see it as just a means to an end.
The more you play the better you get so try and play every day but above all enjoy it.
All the best PP.