Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

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".

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

I love numbers but this was just a bit too much for me. All it proves to me is that I don’t know enough tunes. For me that is complicated by having tunes I can play only on fiddle or mandolin or flatpick (guitar) or can only accompany.
But at our local session I can play 70% of the tunes unless we have some visitors, which I’m glad to say happens often - otherwise we’d stagnate. Individually we try to introduce new tunes to each other as we learn them ourselves. I suspect I would be more of a spectator or accompanist at one of Dow’s sessions.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

I’ve done up these lists of common or core session tunes, too, and I suspect (Dow can yank out my tongue if I’m wrong) that Dow had much the same intent—to suggest what might be widely common session tunes based on his own personal experience.

If that’s the case, it’s not at all surprising that only a fraction of those 60 tunes (or the 100 or so I once posted) might show up at any given session, or on any given night. So such lists are less about what *will* get played, but which tunes, if started, nearly everyone would join in on. Or at least someone else would join in, because chances are slim that no one else at the session will know those tunes.

In short, yes, it helps to know tunes that are likely part of the wider session repertoire, but it also helps to know many tunes outside that core.

On a tangent: part of what makes some tunes "core" tunes goes beyond their mere "popularity" or "familiarity." Most if not all of the core tunes should sit well in their essential versions on D whistle, keyless flute, and uilleann pipes. Fiddles, squeeze boxes, banjos, and the like can adapt. The point here is that core tunes are, in part, by definition accessible to a wide range of trad instruments.

If being able to adroitly and appropriately holler "hup" is one hallmark of a session maven (see the Hup thread), then so is the ability to consistently segue into tunes that suit the instrumentation and abilities of your session mates. Unfortunately, too many fiddlers (for example, and based on my experience) are unaware of what makes a good flute tune—and which tunes knock most fluters and whistlers out of the fun. It’s disappointing to be rolling along all in a joyful noise only to have someone cluelessly launch into a string of Gm or Emaj reels and wonder why half the circle suddenly dropped out.

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Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Divide by 4 and don’t forget to carry the 2…er a tune. 🙂

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

CPT, I take your point about the difference between core and popular, and I realize I didn’t address it in my post.
I think what I got from this exercise is that the numbers from this snapshot support the view that a "core list" may well be useful (I think it is, anyway), but learning on that basis can’t be as useful as learning tunes with which we have a true connection (even if that connection is just that the tune is played a lot at "our" session).

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

You might learn many of the well known tunes and more but it could be years before they crop up but it’s great when they do.

If you’re lucky enough to have a regular session and lucky or disciplined enough to visit it on a regular basis..then learning the tunes there is probably much more of an advantage.

Of course, you might not know what they are and no one will tell you the names 😉 but we’re told that’s not important. Certainly, you’ll find that a few of those..not all.. that you’re learning will mysteriously appear from nowhere. You can "pick up" those that take your fancy..as and when…while subtly "teasing" out the title from the other session players. About one new "title" a week is enough to be going on with…we don’t want to get their backs up, after all. 🙂

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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Sorry, Dave. I realise that I was only half awake myself when I wrote the above. All the previous posts were a blur and I just typed in the first thing which entered my head. 🙂
Back to sleep now.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Interesting stuff, Alex. It could be argued that by the time you’d done all your calculations you could have learnt a new tune 🙂 but if you’re like me you probably do all the geek stuff in the wee small hours thus not during "legal" practice time.
Not to disrespect Dow or Will’s efforts, but no matter which session you go to, you’ll find, as you’d expect, that the repertoire changes, even with the most commonly played tunes and even in the same session, on different nights.
So to determine the "mode" (ie, the mode being the most frequently occurring value in a set of discrete data) session tunes for the whole world - or at least for most sessions - you’d have to get everyone here to give some sort of list for recently played tunes. The task would be endless, but not impossible, but maybe not worth the effort. So maybe it’d be best to stick to a list "intuitively known common tunes", but not to draw too many conclusions from such a dataset.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Don’t worry about it too much, Alex. It just happens that, for no apparent reason, I’m good at remembering the names of tunes, so I’m using that to help people at our session, just because I remember what it was like when I first started going to sessions and learning tunes. It was hard to get a grasp of the repertoire because most of the time I couldn’t get a name for a tune and there seemed to be so many to learn. I found it hard to know where to start with so many tunes out there. I’d like for there not to be that "mystery" at our session. We’re there to play the tunes together and to learn from each other, and the more information we give each other about what we’re doing, and the more transparent the whole thing is, the better in my opinion.

I do know that I’m not the only one who categorises tunes in my head. Mary does the same thing. Someone asked her about a tune on Tues night and she said "it’s a good one but it’s not all that common - there are a lot of tunes that are going to be more useful to you to learn first". There’s no *harm* in learning a tune like that, but if the aim is to play as many tunes as we can *together*, whilst building up a repertoire that is useful for going to other sessions with (i.e. other sessions in pubs and festivals in Australia, or abroad), then I think it helps to learn our local repertoire, whilst keeping one eye on the core tunes that people elsewhere would expect you to know. Michael Gill said at the time "for every tune you learn off the core list of 60, learn one that’s not on it". Excellent advice there. I myself tend to think of tunes in terms of

1) core "common ground" tunes you know that everyone else will know,

2) the kind of tunes you’d expect people to know who have been playing 4 or 5 years, but you’d expect that not *everyone* in the session will know if you have a range of ability levels in your session,

3) the kind of tunes you’d expect someone to know who has been playing for a good few years and has amassed a repertoire of 500+ tunes, and

4) the kind of tunes you wouldn’t particularly expect anyone to know but someone could well surprise you and know it.

I (we) would tend to try and give an airing to tunes from all these imaginary categories, so that for example if you take the reels from the list I made yesterday, a 1) tune would be something like the Maid Behind The Bar, 2) would be something like the London Lasses, 3) would be tunes like Kit O’Connor’s and the Trip To Nenagh, and 4) would be something like Aine’s Invitation, which is a nice tune but a bit obscure compared to the others.

Now if we chose to play 3) or 4) tunes all the time, our particular session wouldn’t work. A bit of balance is good. It’s like Jeremy says in the introduction to this website: "Some of the tunes are well known, and some are more obscure. It’s this mixture of the familiar and the new that makes for a good session."

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Actually, in answer to your question, Alex, the reason why not many of the core 60 were played on Tuesday is because we’d tend to avoid playing too many of those tunes. Rather than base the session’s repertoire around those tunes, I find that they function better as "session pick-me-ups" to drop in every so often so that everyone gets a play and stays interested in coming to the session. So, in actual fact, in our session you’re probably going to get a better "rate of return" with tunes in category 2). But, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t still going to expect you to know the core 60. Those 60 tunes will stand you in good stead wherever you go in the world. There are probably sessions in some places where those are pretty much the only tunes people know.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Now there’s some fine words Dow… I really like your generous approach to playing with people at all stages of their learning. It’s so good to read thoughtful postings like this. Because of children and other issues I play a lot by myself (with myself?!) and tend to focus on picking up whatever currently pleases me from my favourite recordings, which doesn’t necessarily make for a good session repertoire. And one day I vow to play music with other human beings again! It was a good reminder to see that list of 60 odd that you posted; they’re certainly a useful crowd to know, even if I’m so sick of some of them I can’t see myself ever willingly playing them again! The Kelly’s session sounds like a fine time, too. One day…

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

What may be more useful would be to make a list of the tunes that will defiantly get played. It might go something like this:

1. Those that are the flavours of the month (though not all of them)

2. At least one tune off Dow’s original 60 (though possibly more if there are beginners in attendance, and possibly less if every one knows each other very well)

3. At least a few tunes that no one has played for 5 years.

4. At least one tune that was overplayed 5 years ago.

5. At least one tune that nobody knows, not even the guy who started it.

5. At least three Bothy Band tunes.

6. A rake of tunes that everyone is sick of. Including those that don’t know them.

7. One very very special tune that you try to keep in your head, singing it to yourself on the way home, and vow to remember. But don’t

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Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Sounds like a Eugene Ionesco session.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

ha ha, though Beckett may be more appropriate

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Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

True, Michael. Though hopefully without the random, meaningless stabbing in the middle! (Unless it’s the guy with the egg-shaker who cops it that is).

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"What may be more useful would be to make a list of the tunes that will defiantly get played" ???

’ Definitely’ a typo (or was it?) 🙂

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

ha ha, there goes my dyslexia again

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Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Michael’s nothing if not deliberately, systematically, brutally, entertainingly defiant. So I doubt it was a typo.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Of course I could be wrong!

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This thread may be boring to some, but I suspect many newcomers to the music get a lot out of these threads. I am glad to see the clarification between core and frequently played tunes. There are a lot of tunes that pretty much everyone knows that folks have gotten somewhat tired of, and don’t come up as often as you might think in sessions. We frequently add a more popular tune at the end of sets for the "join in" factor, add to the fun, and musically, it makes for a "big finish" to have everyone piling on!

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Again, no disrespect to your efforts guys, but there seems to be a lot of woulds and shoulds about the lists and in reality, you know what it’s like in a real session - someone allofasudden thinks up a set and away they go - then someone else, then someone else. Even if you have the presence of mind beforehand to bring out your list, the chances are only a tenth of them will get an airing. That’s my experience anyway. So, it’s all very well having guidelines but in reality will they be implemented?

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Danny, I don’t think that’s the point. Several of us have noted that what gets played at any given session or on any given night varies and is open to wild unpredictability. But there are tunes that nearly all experienced session players know, and it’s good for newbies to learn these.

Obviously, the tunes to learn are the ones that get played at your session, but all Dow is suggesting is that it’s also good to know tunes like the Kesh, Morrison’s, Silver Spear, Maid Behind the Bar, etc., because they often serve as the common bond that ties a session together—tunes nearly everyone knows. Set enders, or beginner-friendly, accessible on all instruments—however you want to think of them.

Ultimately, it’s best to know those 60 or 100 tunes, and 700 or 2,000 more. This is just one silo of tunes offered as one of several starting points.

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Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Yep, fair enough. It’s the ones you should target to learn.

(Head bowed, humbled….)

But maybe don’t get too disappointed if you’ve gone to the trouble to learn all of those then what really happens in a session is what I’ve outlined above.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Looks like if I had been at Dow’s session, I would have known only 10 of the reels and 8 of the jigs (and I know about 100 of each, and all but about 8 of the tunes on Dow’s core list). Much more surprisingly, though, there were about 20 tunes on the list from the actual session whose titles I didn’t recognize (and I’ve spent lots of time looking at thousands and thousands of tune titles in llots of sources of tunes in print, on the web, and on CD liner notes).

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Yep, Danny, I agree. Lots of sessions rarely or never play those "core" tunes. I can’t think of when we last played Maid Behind the Bar—some years ago at least. But it’s there if someone starts it.

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Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

A couple of us gathered a list that one hears a lot in this area an published it on our website. I see that list often at our sessions with friends checking off ones we play that they don’t know but want to learn. It is an excellent guide for a friendly session. I would guess that it is a fair way to proceed, everyone knowing that they have been forewarned what could be expected. Surely we play lots of tunes not on the list, but the more we learn off the list, the more participation there will be. The list seems to be of growing importance in one of the sessions I attend.

Further, it’s fun to see people playing a list tune for the first time and having many join in. One very talented flute player learned one off of the list in the past two lunch times at work. He came in and played for the first time with others joining in. He was familiar with how it should sound, learned it accordingly.

There is a lot of repetition from week to week and sometimes I get somewhat bored, but we are playing them faster and better, and more are joining in.

Last night, as things were winding down, I introduced a ‘game’ where I asked each to play a tune they knew, were convinced nobody else knew, but wished everyone knew. That was very pleasant.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Gary Martin’s point made me look at the list too. OK, I’ve mainly learnt from a small area in NW Ireland, but in that list that was played I notice very few tunes that I half know. There were quite a few that I know very well, but a lot that I’ve never even heard the name of!!!

So if almost all you played was reels and jigs, were you doing that old "shedload of fast reels that nobody knows" thing?
Or really you do play a lot of tunes there that we just don’t play here? Then would you have not heard of a lot of ours? I’d give you a list, but I’m not as good with names as you are.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

You can play some of the tunes part of the time and some of the tunes all the time and parts of the tunes sometimes but you cant play all of the tunes all the time.

Re: Repertoire, lists and learning tunes

Just learn as many tunes as you can, concentrating on ones you like.