Remembering Tunes

Remembering Tunes

How do you all remember tunes? I’ve been learning to play the fiddle for less than a year and now know about 15 tunes. The more tunes I learn the more I get them mixed up with others. I still find it difficult to get the tune in my head until I start playing the first few notes. I couldn’t sing or hum a tune that I know and I need to think of the first few notes or a particular left hand placement as a trigger to get me going.

How do others do this, given that some of you experienced musicians probably know hundereds of tunes??

David

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I embed tunes in my brain by concentrating on 2 or three and playing them obsessively over and over again for hours and hours for several weeks, then suddenly, they’re there! If you have a nature prone to fixation then you are ideally qualified to play this music!

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To be honest, I can’t remember hardly anything off the top of my head. But, if I hear a tune that I know, my fingers know what to do. I know too many tunes to keep them all at the surface at once….that’s why I will never, ever lead a session in my life.

I think it’s something you either have or don’t have. Some people remember every tune they’ve ever played, and others (like me), only remember them once they hear someone else start it. I’ll generally focus on a certain number of tunes at once, and remember those tunes if I need to start a set, but if I don’t play them on my own regularly they go back to my subconscious.

The best thing you can do is play as much as humanly possible, and try to regularly go over tunes you haven’t played in a while. I try to keep a list of tunes on the computer where I record a snipet of each one, and listen to them periodically to remember what tunes I know.

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I do try to do exactly as you suggest but just when I think I have a tune in my head I might start playing the second part and a phrase from another tune that sounds simlar starts coming in! Some tunes I mix up at the start eg. Off to California and The Fairies Hornpipe but start of with the same notes and I have to really disipline myself to ay thwe 4th note differenently for each. Once I have go that the rest of the tune flows ok.
I guess it will just be down to more practice and experience.

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Must type more slowly …..
I do try to do exactly as you suggest but just when I think I have a tune in my head I might start playing the second part and a phrase from another tune that sounds simlar starts coming in! Some tunes I mix up at the start eg. Off to California and The Fairies Hornpipe BOTH start OFF with the same notes and I have to really DISCIPLINE myself to PLAY THE 4th note differenently for each. Once I have go that the rest of the tune flows ok.
I guess it will just be down to more practice and experience.

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If you can’t sing or hum a tune that you know, you don’t know it.
I don’t consider that i know a tune until I can imagine exactly what my fingers would be doing while I’m lying in bed.
I think I’d better rephrase that: Until I can image — while I’m lying in bed — what my fingers would be doing when I’m playing the tune. When I come to a bit I’m not sure of, I can guarantee it will be a bit I tend to stumble over when I’m actually playing it.

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I use to just remember the tune if I heard a couple of bar’s or so. But this Co, Antrim Accordion player said if you learn tunes always link them to the name and if you can remember the name of the tune after about 5 minuets or so the tune will come to you most time’s.
Also a Melodion player from the same county said to me,
Write a list down of all your tunes, and go over them, as you call the name on the list play/practice the tune — Not the whole list at once one or two each day… And you will remember the tunes you know better.

jim,,,

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I’m a relative beginner but I agree with gam….if you can’t hear the tune in your head, you’ll struggle to play it. It’s only hear it in your head that’s important (my singing is not great) because if you don’t have the tune there, you won’t be sure if you’ve got it right.

And the other thing is to listen, listen, listen, then you won’t be able to get the tunes out of your head. When you wake up in the night and the tune is there, you’ve got it!

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The problem with that, Jim, is when tunes get so closely associated with their name that you can’t play them until you have connected name and tune. I’ve certainly been in situations where someone plays a tune and you KNOW you know it, but can’t bloody well figure out how it goes until the correct name pops into your head the third time through. Then the player leading the tune goes onto the next one and you’re like, "Dammit, I KNEW that last tune!"

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I know some excellent players, one knows the name of every tune he plays and the rest vary between knowing most names to about half the names. And most tunes have two names and many names have two tunes….

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I find that listening to tons of music helps. It’s easier to figure out a tune that you are familiar with than something you’ve never heard. Tape your local session(s) & start with those tunes. Also figuring out any old song helps to line up the ear brain finger trifecta. Record yourself playing a simple tune you know - listen to it & be critical, compare it to a fiddler you like & try to focus on problem areas (timing, intonation etc)

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DavidEd, how are you going about learning them at the moment? Are you using any special techniques?

I often find it useful to sing the tunes I’m learning - that way I can learn the notes and rhythm without having to worry about technique or ornamentation.

I find that by concentrating one one tune at once and not practicing any others, and going back to it every day for several days, I soon "own" a tune. That doesn’t mean I’ve polished it, it just means it’s in there.

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This thread has inspired me to go over some old lists of tunes that I haven’t looked at (or played) in a number of years, and as soon as I remember to play it properly I record it one time through and save it to my file of tunes.

One thing that helps me when learning unfamiliar tunes is to play along with a recording of someone playing the tune, until I can play it without thinking.

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Thanks for all the useful replies.

Red Menance: I started to learn tunes by mostly reading the music (and occasionally listenign to them also to make sure the rhythm was ok). I now try to learn more by ear. I will still use the printed notes to start me off but as soon as I have played it through a few times I’ll play from memory or listen to a recording if I need help.

Gam/Minijackpot: I understand what you are saying, but I haven’t yet been able to listen to an entire tune and been able to sing it or hum it; but then I’m not very gifted in the singing department. I would love to be able to learn by ear only; I hope it is a skill that will come with practice but I’m not there yet.

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I agree with gam in that, for me, I don’t consider I know a tune until I can sing it. I also keep a list of tunes. The lists helps me remember to play tunes that I learned a long time ago. I also had a problem with similar sounding tunes. I got a lot of good advice from this site on dealing with that . I think the thing that helped me most was to play both tunes together, one after the other, over and over and over until they became so embedded in the grey matter as separate organisms.
Good luck!

Use your Noggin!

Modern society tends to discourage memorization, and we have stopped focusing on it in schools. I never thought I would be able to memorize lots of tunes, and especially not lyrics to songs. But repetition is the key, play things over and over and over, and eventually they will sort themselves out. And while you play that tune over and over, don’t forget to have fun playing it. That is where playing in the pub with a drink at your side comes in—positive reinforcement. Enjoy!!!

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I find it helpful to keep tunes in sets. Somehow, once the first tune gets going, it jogs my memory for hose that follow. Of course, if I can’t get the first tune out, then it isn’t very helpful…

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Not sure if this will help, but the general trick in remembering large amounts of information lies in how you ‘block’ them. The bigger the block you create, the easier it is.

I am always astounded how actors remember their lines, but apparently it is by thinking of them as a single entity rather than a set of parts. The same goes for how you know words - for example you remember your name as a single block rather than a set of letters.

I find the same works for me with tunes - though how you get there is another matter. I find that I am not thinking in terms of notes at all - simply in terms of playing a certain tune, and then the notes somehow just come one after the other… Perhaps that’s where being able to hum or la or whistle the tunes comes in - you don’t need to be a good singer, only to hear it in your head.

If I listen to a tune often enough I find I have learned it without even trying - perhaps it is possible to make too much conscious effort. So making or listening to recordings is helpful - oral tradition at work!

Another element is pattern - there are many set phrases that trad tunes use, and knowing them helps increase the block size - so long as you use the right ones, and don’t jump to false conclusions.

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I think that part of your issue is that you’re still remembering tunes kinesthetically – muscle memory. Your fingers are remembering the sequence, and when you know a tune with a similar sequence, you get confused. This is completely natural when you’re first starting out. And if you’re aware of that, it can help you change it.

Learning and "memorizing" tunes that way is a daunting task. You have to remember 128 notes, and what order they come in! That’s a lot to remember. So the natural thing is to push some of the responsibility off onto muscle memory.

What you should work towards is what I call "internalizing" the tune, as opposed to "memorizing". Technically, they may be basically the same thing, but when you internalize a tune, you get the contour of the tune into your head. And then you really only have 1 thing to remember, and that is "how the tune goes".

Ultimately, you will gain the familiarity with your instrument, so that any tune that you have internalized, you can play. This is where the muscle memory does come into play. Your fingers know how to find notes that are a given interval away from the last note you played… And notice, I said that you remember the "contour", not the "notes". So you can start to play tunes in a different key, because you know how the tune goes, and you know your instrument well enough to play what is in your head.

When you’ve only played for a year or two, this seems like it is a long way away! But if you set this as your goal, you’ll start to see glimmers of hope in achieving this very soon!

Practice listening to tunes. Listen in your car, listen at work, listen when you’re going to sleep. Actively work on being able to sing (or lilt) along with a tune while it is playing. After the tune is done, then see if you can lilt by yourself. The more you practice your ability to listen accurately, the better you will get at internalizing tunes.

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TheSilverSpear

Pheww I am glad I only was told this a year or so ago, most of my tunes are from the - Diddle me a few notes and I’ll get the tune.

I Just put this on another post there,, Hope it helps !

http://www.answerbag.com/q_view/688880

jim,,,

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practice

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Identifying tunes heard in a different context can be a problem. Last week in my chamber orchestra we were having a first run-through of Vaughan Wiliams’ "Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus", a set of variations for string orchestra and harp on an old folk tune.
I knew that tune forwards, backwards and sideways, but could I remember its name? Not on your life - or at any rate until about two hours after I got home, when it popped up in my head unannounced. It was Star of the County Down.

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"……..and now know about 15 tunes……"

"…….The more tunes I learn the more I get them mixed up with others"

There is the answer, you only THINK you have learned them. Until you can play all 15 in a row, without co@@ing them up and without false starts or "head scratching" you have’nt learned them at all.

The approach outlined by RichardB is the one I adopt - its hard work, but it pays off.

You just need to be enough of a perfectionist to persist until they are right.

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ormepipes With out this < You just need to be enough of a perfectionist to persist until they are right. > All the word association in the world wont stop you making a B@lls up of the tune in your session etc.
- lol.. jim,,,

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Yup, and because I’m a perfectionist, I still know I don’t get them "right" !!! - but it will NEVER stop me trying.

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I’m a beginner, too, about a year in. I find that it helps me if I can remember, visually, which finger on which string the tune starts on. Otherwise, although I can hum the tune all the way through, I have a hard time starting it on the instrument in the correct key.

I’ll start a tune, and I’ll be playing it, right up until I run out of notes by being too high on the E string, or something. Then I think, "Dang, I need to start it lower down." So I hunt and peck, trying to find the right note to start it on.

So, I am learning that I have to memorize exactly which finger on which string starts the tune. Then I can play it out of my head almost every time.

We are all different! :-)

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Thanks again for all the great responses. Thinking about my progress over the last few months I do think I have been working less on building the muscle memory in my fingers and thinking more about the musical phrases. It is getting easier and I am practicing every day. Great advice on getting the tune in my head first. …Now my family are going to have to put up with me humming continuously as well as listening to all the screetching from my music room :-)

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I sing the tunes. I’m not a great, or even a good, singer. It’s really just lilting syllables. I’ve whistled all my life. Whistled with my lips that is. But now I find the lilting is even better. That’s really what I do to get the tunes in my body.

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We play the tunes in our minds. Then they come out on whatever instrument you play. But you can’t play a tune on an instrument unless your mind already has it.

My head’s always playing tunes, and playing around with them—inventing variations, trying out different tempos and keys. But mostly just playing the tunes. Then when I pick up my fiddle or mando or flute, the tunes pop right out.

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I think at some point during the learning process, it just becomes internalized, like Will and Pete have said. If I knew how to go from point A, where you’re memorizing what seems like a huge string of notes and relying on muscle memory to play the tunes, to point B, where you can get the general contour of a tune after hearing it only three or four times, I’d tell you. But I don’t know. It just sorta happens. It improves in small spurts and there is definitely a period of "this is really hard and I suck at it" to push through. The other more experienced players here will also be able to remember when they first discovered they could play a tune they never consciously learned note for note, but have just heard a zillion times at sessions or wherever. It’s cool when that happens. You have to be exposing yourself to Irish music all the time in order to facilitate your brain into making those connections.

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P.S. I wouldn’t recommend memorizing tunes in sets, although a set can be a handy way to "block" tunes, like Ian wrote about. But once you get the tunes, separate them. You really do not want to be one of those people who can’t separate their sets. For example, I remember at one session I was visiting, I really p*ssed off one of the regulars because I happened to play one or two tunes that were in their set sets (for all you session etiquette nazis, they had asked me to start some tunes :)). That meant that an entire set of tunes was no longer available to them because they couldn’t play the other two without the one I’d played. And they *always* play that set in the session so they were a bit offended that this blow-in took their tune from them. Not being psychic, I didn’t know any of this until another more sympathetic regular quietly pointed it out to me later.

So yeah, don’t be that guy. Tunes should not be married for life.

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Sorry, that post makes sessions to those who haven’t been to many seem like scary minefields of potential social transgressions. They’re not all like that. Except when they are. :)

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On the other hand, TSS, this can be a lovely and diabolical way to break up loathsome sets. I see it as an educational tool, because if they absolutely **must** play "Generic Em Jig" every session, then if you pluck it out and stuff it into another set not involving the other Em Jigs That We Always Play, then they are forced to create something new. And the guitar player gets a merciful reprieve.

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I like lovely & diabolical. Anyone remember who said,"Those who forget the tunes are condemned to repeat the (same) tunes."?

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As we have discussed at other times, there are different degrees of ‘knowing’ tunes. As time goes by, you will not only be acquainted with the tunes, you will know them in depth, as the Rev says, you will know their "contours." You will be able to ‘pick them out of a lineup," and play along with them whenever you hear them. Although, as Trevor says, you may blank on their names, ha ha!

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You talking ‘bout Santayana?

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That was to Ben

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In my own tongue-in-cheek way.

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I’ve played fiddle and guitar for about thirty years, and I’ve noticed that for the past couple of years I can play tunes "in my head" and make up variations in phrasing, etc. I’ll see an image of the fingering in my mind’s eye — it’s like practicing without an instrument while laying in bed.

As for remembering tunes, my capacity seems to hover at about two hundred tunes; old tunes rise to the surface while others sink into oblivion, only to unexpectedly surface later, sometimes years later — it’s like tune convection!

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Muscle memory is separate from the other type. When you
spend too much time reading sheet music, you develop a
muscle memory of tunes but the other type of memory is not
as strong. This means you tend to crash + burn all the time. If you
practice from memory and you can lilt the tune, then it
doesn’t matter if you drop notes, it just turns into a variation or a
little bobble.

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I think when you really know a tune your mind plays it back just a bit ahead of your actual playing. Somehow that gets your fingers ready for the next note or note pattern or whatever. And I suspect too that as you get further into this music you become like Will and the mind not only plays back the tune a bit ahead but also works out the variations for you ahead of your playing. Once in a while that happens for me.

As to confusing tunes or sections of tunes: Don’t worry, we all do it. It get’s better as time goes on. Though I suspect most of us could name a couple of tunes we simply can’t play in close proximity with much comfort….

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Aye well, it’s not about the numbers is it. I’d rather listen to someone playing 5 tunes really well than misremembering and noodling along to 500.

DavidEd, in some respects it’s not about whether you learn a tune from notation or by ear, it’s about separating knowing the tune from knowing how to play it. I usually use a combination of sightreading notation and listening to recordings.

You’ll probably find learning to play a tune you know already to be really simple, because you know how it’s supposed to go.

The trick is to separate the two mechanisms - learn a tune so you can whistle it or hum it or diddle it, then learn how to play it on your instrument (which for a whistle player like me might mean trying different fingerings, playing with the breath ornamentation etc.)

This breaks down the job into much more manageable chunks, and knowing the tune first will mean your ear will tell you when your fingers are wrong so you’ll be less likely to internalise mistakes.

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Practice practice practice

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Practise.

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Start using your memory for other things - give it some exercise. Learn poems. Don’t use the speed dial on your phone. Remember email addresses. Learn the dates of your favorite historical figures - the more work you do with your memory, the better you get at using it.

But mostly, learn tunes and play them. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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Think of how many tunes your brain has in it already. TV show theme songs, commercial jingles, folk songs, popular songs, etc. Hundreds if not thousands, right? So what’s a few jigs and reels compared to that?

People often are boggled by the mind’s ability to remember, at least until they realize how much they remember already!

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Sheet music is your problem. Make a nice bonfire and burn it all!

You’d never cross Mary Had a Little Lamb with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star because you understand them as songs and learned them by ear. I bet you can pick up your instrument and play them with minimal effort too.

Irish tunes have to become familiar the way songs are, and the only way you do that is listening a lot and then working the tunes out by ear.