Picking up tunes by ear

Picking up tunes by ear

Are there any tricks to learn tunes from CDs? I only picked up one tune by ear so far. That was at a session in Ireland. They where playing a fairly easy polka several times that night and when I got back to the place I was staying I just picked up my flute and played it! I was so happy! There are no sessions in my area so there is no chance to listen and ask someone about the tricky parts. I find it extremly hard to learn from CDs (ask a beginner like me to learn “the mason’s apron” from Matt Molloy’s CD “shadows on stone” or any other tune/CD for that matter). Someone said in another thread that he /she is getting ideas for ornamentation (or learning styles?) from other instruments. I bought a CD by North Cregg shortly after I read this and I found that hearing the “basic tune” is much easier if it is played on banjo or button accordion but I didn’t try to learn a tune from that CD yet. I tried to learn “the first pint” by ear but I gave up after a while and asked for sheet music. My strategy was to listen to it again and again untill I could hum it (or “lilt” along) and then I picked up the tin whistle. Some phrases have been easy enough but others…! After a while I couldn’t remember the tune at all. Are there any CDs that you can recommend? Something more like a session than like “the masters playing at their best”. Or any other tricks (I’m thinking about getting the tunes on my computer and slowing them down)? Or maybe just tunes that are easy to learn by ear?

Posted by .

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

I think CDs are terrible to learn tunes from, because you don’t get to be in a CD unless you can play very fast and with a lot of “personality”. In other words, when Matt Molloy records “Mason’s Apron” in a CD, he wants to make it sound great. Making it easy for you to learn is not part of his plans.

Fortunately, there are some people “out there” with the time and talent to do transcriptions. Get the sheet music, especially if you can find one that was transcribed from the CD you’re trying to learn. Use the sheet music together with the recording to learn the tune. Don’t try to play just like Matt Molly do (that’s for the jazz people to do 🙂). Try to get to a point where you can play the right notes and “own” them, put your own interpretation in the tune.

This site is one of the good places in the ‘net to find sheet music. The other good place is the “Tune Finder”:
http://trillian.mit.edu/~jc/music/abc/FindTune.html
Check both places… For Mason’s Apron, the one in the Tune Finder is from O’Neil. From my experience, O’Neil is usable if you don’t have another source, but not always the most accurate transcription. The version here in The Session is pretty close to what’s in that CD.

Good luck!

g

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

Learning tunes by ear is difficult at first, but grows easier if you keep trying. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at hearing the intervals between notes, recognizing the various ornaments, and catching the overall structure of a tune. Partly, it’s a matter of drumming into your head all the sounds your instrument can make, so you’ll recognize them when someone else plays them. And partly it’s a matter of becoming familiar with the standard motifs of Irish music–you’ll pick up certain phrases and patterns that occur in many tunes, making it easier to learn the next tune that uses those phrases and patterns.

As glauber says, CDs aren’t ideal to learn from. The music tends to be fast and fancy, there’s usually a lot of competing noise (other lead instruments, accompaniment), and the tunes may not be in the most widely played key. A more subtle concern is that a tune on a CD is like a bug trapped in amber–it’s always the same, every time you press the play button. While this may seem an advantage if you’re trying to capture the tune for the first time, I think it’s a dangerous habit to subject our imaginations to. If we play the same tune repeatedly from the same CD, that specific version gets implanted on our deepest synapses and won’t let go. In my own bag of tunes, I’ve got some that readily unravel into variation after variation, and I can surprise myself after a pint or two. These I usually learned from another live player, or from sheet music of the basic melody line. But other tunes, carefully netted and pinned in place from a CD, tend to mimic the CD and nothing more. Anyone else experience this problem?

If CDs are the best source you can find, try to focus on the basic melody, rather than all the tricks. Play the tune for a few months before you go back and pick out all the ornaments and variations. By then, you’ll have some ideas of your own, so the CD won’t trap you.

For flute, try the father/daughter team of Mike and Mary Rafferty. The web site for Cherish the Ladies should have one or two of their CDs available. Mike plays nice, pure drop flute, not too fast, and not over-ornamented. His playing is remarkably tasteful and clean.

Will

Posted .

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

I agree with everything said above. I’ll just put in my $.02 and encourage you to develop this ability because: A. You can do it, it just might take a lot of work. B. It’s a cool ability to have. For one thing, you can play along with the CDs.

As said above, try to express the tune in bare-bones form. Get it in your head. Make it so you’re humming it when you’re not thinking of anything (better a nice Irish tune that you “can’t get out of your head” than something by In Sync, right?) See if you can hum it slowly, as well as at tempo. Then, pull out the whistle.

Posted by .

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

Well, I have mentioned this before specifically in another thread, but the best way to pick up and study your favorite tunes from CDs is to use software or stand-alone equipment to slow the stuff down. I’ve been doing this for some time now and, in addition to being fun (I mean, you almost feel sort of naughty for doing it), it has really helped my playing and been a great source for learning tunes. Check out the link to Reed Kolter Music, Inc. under the ABC Software section.

I find that slowing a tune down by one quarter is more than enough to get the gist of a tune. But sometimes, to get a really really juicy intricate passage (usually some kind of syncopation), I slow down by one third. In any case, I can learn the tune quickly this way and be up to full speed easily in no time.

So that’d be my suggestion, Irina.

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

I agree with you completely, Will – I have the hardest time with the “trapped in amber” thing when learning from a CD. Not that I’m great at improvising the variations, far from, but it IS easier when I’ve learned it aurally from another player…

zls

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

My method of learning from a CD is as follows:
Play the first bar
Press pause
Skip back
Play the first bar again
(Repeat steps one through three several times)
Hum the first Bar
Try it on your instrument
(Repeat steps one through seven several times)
Play the second bar and repeat the above steps
Play the first two bars together and repeat the steps.

This is why God invented the Pause button. And yes, it gets easier and easier as you go along. Even by the end of the tune, you may find you are able to learn several bars in a stretch, where you could only process one at a time when you began. When you have some grasp of the entire tune, play it several times alone, tap your foot, and take your time getting it up to speed. Do not play with or listen to the CD while you are shaping the tune you have just learned, and try to become very comfortable with it before you try to play along up to speed. As you are doing this, listen for where YOU think ornaments belong, and for the tempo YOU think the tune sounds best at. Try a few things. The tune will still be quite maleable for a while after you have just learned it from a CD.

It is more fun to learn from another player, but I personally draw from all the resources that are available to me and often find myself learning tunes this way. It takes me about fifteen to twenty minutes to get all the notes of a simple two parter, then another ten or so to get it happening smoothly.

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

Another trick to try…

If you want to learn by ear, I whole-heartedly recommend that you learn the tune from another (live) musician. There are just too many nuances and variations that you can’t get from a recording. That being said, if all you have available is music from a CD, I suggest you just listen to the tune ALOT before attenmting to learn by ear.

In my case I have a 45 minute drive to work. If I am interested in learning a recorded tune, I pop it into the CD player in my car, skip to the track I want and hit the repeat button. I am now exposed to that tune for an hour and a half each day. I doesn’t take too many days of this treatment before I’m humming the tune in my sleep. Its at this point that I attempt to play the tune, with out listening to the CD.

I essence, I make every attempt to memorize the tune before I try to play it on an instrument.

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

A lot of CD players will let you repeat part of a track as well, so you could just set it to play the first few bars over and over, then the next few, etc. The hazard in this is that you may subconsciously train your ear to expect the tune to repeat where it doesn’t!

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

What Fiddler on Vermouth posted up there: yup, that’s it. All you have to do is adjust the reps to suit you.

One thing you might work on to make the transfer from humming to playing on your instrument easier: practice humming tunes (simple ones at first: Twinkle Twinkle and the like) and then playing them. The idea is to get to the point where if you can capture it in your head (i.e. you can hum it), you’ll be able to play it.

Posted by .

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

One other suggestion (in addtiion to the very good suggestions already posted here): There are many book and CD (or cassette) sets of tunes available for learning purposeis. (You don’t have to look at the sheet music…in some cases, you can just buy the recording separately.)

These often have just a single instrument playing, and sometimes the tune is played slowly and then up to speed. It’s a lot easier to hear the notes when it’s just the one instrument. There are several of these that have collections of Irish session tunes. Some possible sources for obtaining these: Elderly Instruments, Ossian, Andy’s Front Hall, or other catalogues. All of these have web sites.
Zhenya

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

I find that I can learn tunes by ear easily when I do the following; First select the tracks you want to learn and transfer them to an audio cassette. Then play the cassette endlessly in your car as you go to work /school / sessions. Continue this until you are sick and tired of it, and finally, wait about a week and play it again–– The tune will be indellibly etched on your brain and you can learn it / them easily. Also after waiting the week you will have forgotten how much you hated it !!!!

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

This may be heresy on a site full of tunes in written form, but one of the best things you can do to develop your ear is to quit reading. Not forever, but while you’re getting your ear in shape. Beyond that, pick a good record with one or maybe two melody players and a lot of tunes that you like, and listen to it at least once a day for a few months. Get absolutely sick of it. Good ones for this are the first Mary Bergin record, the Matt Molloy record with Donal Lunny, Kevin Crawford’s D Flute Album, that sort of thing. Put your Altan and Dervish on the shelf for a while, there’s too much going on there.
Once you’re entirely sick of the stuff, pick one and sit by the CD player and learn it. You want to be thinking in terms of phrases - don’t try to get one note, then the next, and don’t try to get the whole A part at a go. Pick out phrases that sound like coherent musical units and learn those so you can play them when they come along. That’ll help you figure out what comes after and before them.
Singing the bits helps, too. It gets the tune locked in to your ears, so you can find it on the instrument.
Of course the most important thing in all of this is an empty house…
-jon kiparsky

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

I agree, Jon. I only started learning by ear in December, and I now truly feel that I didn’t really start playing Irish until then. Hey, I’m pretty good for a player who only started less than a year ago. 🙂

zls

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

Thanks everybody for your advice.
Since I started this thread I’ve been listening to this one tune over and over again and I realised today that I’m humming it whenever the CD is not on. So I think I might give it a try. I know there is sheet music for it in the Tune Finder -I hope I can resist that temptation!

Posted by .

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

I can only add to the others tips by saying you really have to KNOW the tune by heart. Hum it till it sinks into yer bones!!!

Then another trick I used when I first started was get a program called CAKEWALK, you can download it for a free trial, you insert a MIDI file (there is a million of them on the net!) you can slow the tune down speed it up, take it bit by bit, and play along till you get it. Then, if all else fails and you really need the notation to get a jump start on the tune, Cakewalk can spit out the musical notation for you in ANY key you choose! Pretty nifty.

Hang in there and it will come! I can’t imagine learning Masons Apron from a CD, its just too fast, so don’t kick yourself🙂
Cheers, Nan

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

Hey, i can’t imagine learning Mason’s Apron at all, but it will come, in another 20 years.

g

Re: Picking up tunes by ear

One thing that has helped me to learn by ear is to have a friend of mine play a new tune to me and have me learn it.Also don’t look at it as being really hard,try to clear your mind and think easy.
Good types of tunes to start with are polkas and jigs.
GOOD LUCK!

Posted by .