Repertoire, lists and learning tunes
It is very nice to have a walking tuneopedia in our midst in the form of Dow. (If you think that word sounds silly, have a look at http://www.conservapedia.com/ - should we laugh, or should we be afraid?)
I was very interested in the list Dow gave on November 30 2006 (see https://thesession.org/sessions/1311/comments) of "core tunes" that he felt that beginners should have under their belt. There are 60 tunes there, and the reason what follows interests me is that, although one can always argue back and forth over the contents of such a list, I am quite sure that it was carefully thought out and based on a lot of experience.
He has just reported the tunes that were played last Tuesday (it’s further down on the same page linked above). I couldn’t dream of doing a job like that, firstly because I go home from the session in time to do a normal day’s work on Wednesday, and secondly, but mainly, because I have nothing like the breadth of tune knowledge needed.
Back when the first ("core") list appeared, I wondered about what tunes are *actually popular* at this session, so I was particularly interested in the new list. I myself have recently started learning tunes again, and I don’t have the same capacity to pick new tunes up at the drop of a hat that some people claim. I also have other things to do as well, so I need to budget my tune-learning time to maximize its efficiency. I wanted to know how useful such a list of "core" tunes is.
As a bit of a computer nerd (I was doing my household accounts on one in the 1980s) I have kept my personal tune list in electronic form more or less since I began learning them. Once you’ve got started it’s very, very easy to continue updating it. Being used to sorting data, filtering it and so on, I thought it would be interesting to put the three lists in relation to each other. My findings follow.
The analysis covers 334 tunes altogether.
Of these, 246 are tunes that I know, including about 150 that I know really well (might be prepared to "lead off", knowing that I might be playing alone), some that I will follow when others are playing and some that I am learning. This is my "personal" list.
60 are on the list of tunes suggested by Dow as "core" tunes that beginners should have under their belt.
98 were in fact played at Kelly’s on 13 March 2007.
I therefore started with 404 names; the other 70 are accounted for by tunes on more than one of these lists.
Of Dow’s 60 core tunes, I now know 47, or 78%. The others are mostly popular, and it would be good to learn them before too long, but 47 is a good start on that list, I think.
And how many of that core list was actually played? Seven. You can look at this two ways: 12% of the core list was played, and 7% of those played are in fact on the core list.
From my personal list, 22 were played, which is close to 22% of course, and means that 9% of "my" list got an airing.
However, if I ignore my airs, barndances, set dances, English tunes, highlands, marches, mazurkas, polkas, slides, slip-jigs and walzes, I come down to a personal list with a mere 120 reels, jigs and hornpipes. Of these 20 got played, which is a hit-rate of nearly 17%.
What can we conclude?
We could consider the (plainly false) hypothesis that all tunes in the general repertoire are equally popular. The 7% hit rate of the "core" list suggests that in that case one would need to know the best part of 1000 tunes in order to play along with most of the session.
Bearing in mind that all tunes are of course *not* equally popular, and assuming that the "core" list does indeed comprise the 60 most essential tunes, we would have to assume that the "rate of return" on learning tunes beyond the first 60 would fall. That would suggest that, to play along with most of the session, you would need two, three or even more thousand tunes under your belt.
I can’t say that I find this entirely convincing. I suggest that the *real* lesson in all these figures is that (as Dow indeed suggested when he first posted his "core" tunes) the value of all such lists is limited, and they have to be taken with a big pinch of salt. I also suspect that it is a mistake to think too much in terms of a "general" ITM repertoire. The real situation is more lumpy, grainy or "marbled". Many tunes are of course widely known, but a tune that is wildly popular or even hackneyed in one place is little known or even almost unheard of in another place – and the places are not necessarily all that far apart. Change over a couple of important session members, and the whole repertoire of that session takes on a new look.
So by all means let’s learn tunes that we hear a lot and like, but learning the tunes that "speak" to us is going to bear more and better fruit than learning any tune *just* because it’s popular. One point buried in those figures is that of my 120 unsystematically acquired reels, hornpipes and jigs, not only were more played than from the core list of 60 (unsurprising, as there are twice as many), but a higher *proportion* was played, which did surprise me, since I take it as read that the core list was carefully thought out.
You could also conclude that to maximize your joining-in rate, you should just learn reels, maybe jigs and at a push hornpipes. I point that out with dismay, as it goes in the direction of "sessions promote the lowest common denominator".