How many tunes do you REALLY know?

How many tunes do you REALLY know?

In a recent discussion …

https://thesession.org/discussions/33314

… session.org member Ben Hall suggested: "1500 is about the number of tunes that an average session player, but one of no particularly great shakes, might be expected to know."

(Albeit that later in the thread he implied that his comment referred to session players in Ireland, rather then elsewhere).

-And in earlier threads, some members have claimed to know “thousands of tunes”.

Of course, it rather depends on how you define “knowing” a tune. So here’s my (rather strict) definition of “knowing” a tune:

On being given the title by someone, you should be able to play it (with reasonable competence) through at least three iterations without the support of anyone else joining in and without reference to dots or a crib sheet of any kind.

Q1: On this definition, how many Irish session tunes do you really know?

Q2: Also on this definition, how many “western” traditional tunes do you really know? (i.e. to include Irish trad tunes, Scottish trad tunes, Shetland trad tunes, Welsh trad tunes, English dance tunes, Morris dance tunes, American old-timey tunes, Cape Breton tunes, Breton tunes, etc., etc., etc).

Before responding with a number (to either question), consider this. To back up your claim, could you make a list of your “known” tunes, take it to a session and solo through any tune(s) selected at random by fellow session members from that list?

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I know about 250 tunes that I know the names of. Probably a few dozen more where I don’t know the names. Not being a teenager and not playing professionally, I will probably only be able to learn a few hundred more in my lifetime. I think the players who know thousands of tunes began learning when they were children, and/or play professionally and have reason and time to be learning so many.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Believe it or not I actually keep a list - so I can remember to play them all occasionally.

However I am only learning the fiddle 2 years tomorrow.

I know as follows:

31 Reels

13 Jigs

8 Hornpipes

4 Slip Jigs

4 Slides

3 Polkas

2 Strathspeys

There are about another 20 tunes in total - I almost know or mostly know, but would have to check certain parts etc.

As regarding your suggestion that I should be able to play any of those in a local Session without support if required. I certainly could, and play them entirely too - I couldn’t guarantee that most people would still be there after I’d finished though.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I can play plenty of tunes that I don’t know the names of. (Although nowhere near 1500 of them.) What if you know two or three names for the same tune tune? Does it count two or three times? Does knowing ‘Reavy’s’ count as knowing one tune even if you could play several different tunes through three times if someone asked you to play ‘Reavy’s?’

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I think I must know somewhere between 400 and 600.

Mostly Irish/Scottish a couple of Breton Tunes and thats it. Mostly Jigs and Reels, a few polka’s marches and slides, slow airs and O’Carolans’, though I dont like a lot of hornpipes, I know and like about 10.

I used to think knowing thousands of tunes was a worthwhile goal (and I’m sure it’s good if you do) but I think now your better off knowing and playing your favourite couple of hundred and getting them sounding really well, getting good at improvising, getting good at playing with people and being able to ‘pick up’ a tune you like in a session is more of a goal these days, as well as developing ‘your own’ style and sound.

When I first started playing Trad I wanted to know ‘all the common session tunes’ recently Ive started learning tunes again, but I only learn tunes I really like…. can’t be bothered otherwise… if a tune is just ‘ok’ i’m happy to listen and not play.

Tunes Ive just learned….

Peter Browns Reel
The Donegal Reel
Green Fields of Rosbeigh
The Lady on the Island

Tunes I’m planning on learning

Storm in a T-Shirt
Colonel Frazer
Easter Sunday

Tunes I dont like

The Swallows Tail… thats just annoying
The Copperplate
The Kerry Polka… heard it a millon times been played badly

Good Luck
Kess

Posted by .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Thanks for your response, Mikiemax. An honest answer, too!

… But my question was really aimed at those who have claimed here to know "thousands of tunes"

When you only know a couple of dozen tunes, its quite easy (as you have done) to compile a list and recall (and play) any of them at random.

It actually becomes a lot more difficult to do this when you know lots of tunes!

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

outwesht: For the purposes of my question, tunes with multiple titles only count as one!

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I know a lot of tunes. I’ve been fiddling since 1972, so I’ve picked up a lot…too many to count.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

@celticagent - that doesn’t answer my questions!

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Sorry, that was facietious (or a word that looks similar but actually exists.) I haven’t counted any time recently, but I doubt my personal count is much more than 150. I’ve seen players who just seem to know every single tune anyone ever plays though. If those people claimed to know thousands of tunes I’d be inclined to believe them.
I’d dispute the claim that they were ‘average session players’ though-even in Ireland. You might have one or two people like that at a lot of sessions I’ve been to/listened to but no more than that. And people defer to them or point them out to newcomers etc… ("do you want to start a set? Play anything you want- John over there will know it if no-one else does"-that kind of thing) which shows you that they aren’t average.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I know both of them.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I have a fair working knowledge of about 20 tunes, maybe more if I heard them played and I remembered them. No sessions in my area to practice at though.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I heard once … (could have been rubbish) but the flute player Niall Keegan knew around 3000!
Including every tune in O’Neills 1001 tune collection.

Some else boasted to me once that they knew ‘All’ of O’Carolans tunes which I think was rubbish they, probably knew ”all the popular ones that are played in sessions” so maybe around 30 not 200 plus.

http://www.oldmusicproject.com/occ/tunes.html

Posted by .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I think outwesht probably has it. "I’d dispute the claim that they were ‘average session players’" I, too, have known people who seem to know every tune anyone starts, but they’re precious few. And "thousands" is such a stinking big number. How many tunes can somebody learn in a week? A day? There’re a thousand weeks in twenty years. How many weeks have you been alive? Playing your fiddle?

My tune list here says I know 156 tunes. I don’t get to list airs, but on the other hand I guarantee there’s at least a couple on my list somebody else would have to start for me. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t be surprised if plenty who say ‘I know x number of tunes’ are including ones that somebody else would have to start, or even play through once. There’re different levels of ‘knowing’ of course - it’s why you had to be specific.

Interesting topic.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I have no idea. Honestly. I forget I know tunes. It’s very philosophical. But I can be sitting in a session and someone will play a tune and I’ll think, "Wow, I forgot that one even existed," and play it fluently along with them.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I only know one tune, but I know thousands of variations. Problem is, I can’t remember how it starts.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

On the basis of what has been said in other discussions I took the 1500 to include "could join in with second time round" rather than all being "could play on demand".

On the basis that over the last 5 years, whilst learning an instrument from scratch, I have got over 150 tunes (about 50% Irish) to the state where I would join in at a beginner/ intermediate session I can believe that many who start early get to 1500, though in previous discussions people have more often claimed 600-1000.

However, if challenged to take a list to a session as suggested by Mix I would only put a couple of dozen tunes on it and practice them hard beforehand in the hope of not being too embarrassed. So I am working on my 150 for a year or so before I learn any more tunes that I don’t find myself trying to play by accident.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

On http://lesters-tune-a-day.blogspot.co.uk/ I have recorded 376 tunes all of which I have played through 3 times to camera so I think it counts as ‘knowing’ them. But I am still unable to start more than about 200 of them without a crib sheet to get me started.

Warning the blog is almost entirely English/Morris/Euro so not for the feint hearted 🙂

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Ha - I’ve seen some of your melodeon YouTubes, goldfrog! Nothing wrong with English/Morris/Euro!

But you would have to admit that most of those tunes are a lot easier to play than the Irish ones. This being the case, your tune-count ought to be higher! 😉

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Honestly I don’t know. I DO know that I around the turn of the century could play along to basically each Irish (or remotely Irish) CD in my collection - that’s a bit like David’s "could join in with second time round" rather than all being "could play on demand". I had also played through every single tune book I had, including Henrik Norbeck’s ABC transcriptions online. I don’t doubt that people can have a working repertoire of at least 500 tunes (up to 1000 and more). Many of my tunes have faded away, just like rarely used vocabulary does.

I’ve been to marathon sessions where I’ve played for +10 hours in a row without that much tune overlap - but I’ve also been to sessions where I knew maybe 10-15% of the tunes.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

It might be said that my experience is somewhat limited, as I’ve only played in sessions in England and Wales - and only once in a session in Ireland. As against that, I’ve played at lots of sessions in many different session venues. At most of the sessions that I’ve been to, around 80% of the attendees fit into one of the following categories:

1) Strummers and percussionists – they can’t play melody, so they can’t be said to “know” any tunes.

2) Singers - whilst knowing the melodies of their songs, don’t “know” any tunes.

3) Melody players who are capable of following tune-sets led by others, but never lead any sets themselves. On my definition, they can’t be said to “know” many tunes.

4) Melody players who never lead sets, and only play along strongly with very easy or very well-known tunes. For the rest of the time, they just noodle along or pretend to be playing.

5) Melody players who can lead a very limited number of tune-sets – and they tend to play those same sets every b****y week. Clearly, they can’t be said to “know” many tunes!

6) Beginners and newcomers who sit out and don’t play at all for most of the sets.

The remainder of the session attendees – say 20% (although it might be higher or lower, depending on the session) are the ones who lead the sets and keep the session going. If they weren’t there, the session couldn’t work. But they are the best players there – and since they are in the minority, they could hardly be described as being just “average”. And a pound to a penny, not many of this minority “know” as many as 1500 tunes.

No doubt though there are some musicians who really “know” 1500 (or more) tunes. Those with autism and other conditions can have a perfect tune memory and thus “know” thousands of tunes.

But these folks are very much in the minority.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

My list of titles is currently at 1270. Just added the polkas, need to compile a list of slow airs. On any given page there are a title or two that I can’t recall by looking at the name, I’d have to hear a few bars to get started. For those I want to print up a tunebook, so as to remember how the White Crow or Tom Fitzmorris reels go, etc. So maybe "only" 1230?

Polkas and slides elude me for some reason - I’ll recognize the tune but can’t remember titles of many of them. Why is that? It’s like they’re 2nd class tunes.

I know so much cruft about tunes - recordings of them, publications they’re in, alternate titles, variants, and of course the titles - that I feel like I’m way over the 2k tunes mark, in a sense.

Knowing everything in O’Neill’s, well, that’s not necessarily a good thing, that book’s not without its share of clinkers. Maybe Niall is just yanking someone’s chain with that statement.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

@David50 - looking forward to seeing your list! 😉

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

"Those with autism and other conditions can have a perfect tune memory and thus “know” thousands of tunes."

Ah, so I’m thatched in the head because I have a prodigious memory? Admittedly that’s actually not far off the mark…where’s my check from the government? I mean, I’m trying to remember how some basic aspect of our local government works, and all I can think about is some Bb hornpipe…

What does leading sets of tunes have to do with memory, too? Are there people who can only play along with someone else? My guess would be that they’d be perfectly capable of playing those tunes if pressed, but just aren’t pushy types.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I started with ITM last September, so it’s been almost 6 months. I am working on learning the common session tunes, as well as other tunes that they play at our session, and have learned around 45 so far. Having lots of fun!!

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Kevin Rietmann: "What does leading sets of tunes have to do with memory"

I would have thought that was obvious. If you don’t have a tune committed to memory (in the absence of dots or a crib sheet) you’re not going to be able to lead it.

"My guess would be that they’d be perfectly capable of playing those tunes if pressed, but just aren’t pushy types".

"Yes, just a guess. Over the years, I’ve suggested to many such folks that they might lead some sets. Sadly, they rarely do, even when asked.

"Ah, so I’m thatched in the head because I have a prodigious memory?"

You seem to be implying that you know very many tunes. Care to cite a number? (based on the definitions in my OP, of course!).

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

It really doesn’t matter to me how many tunes I know, as long as I know a percentage of the tunes my friends know and play. That’s why I bring my recorder to every session. It’s an intermediate thing.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Doesn’t how well someone can play a tune come into it ? There are times when all (both ?) of your 20% have arrived late so some of us who don’t know any tunes by your definition have made tune-like noises for half an hour.

At the other extreme one performing musician who used to post here, who could probably lead hundreds of tunes, said in a post that at any one time there were only 100 or so tunes that he had ready for a paying audience.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Tunes that I regularly play, unhesitatingly and competently, in front of a paying audience:

Reels: 14
Highlands: 2
Jigs: 27
Slides: 3
Hornpipes: 2
Schottiches: 2
European tunes: 2

Tunes that I know and can play on the box 3 times through without help:

reels: 79
jigs: 44
other: 29

as above, but a bit shakier (in the process of being learned properly):

reels: 45
jigs: 10
other: 23

I can play the great majority of them on the banjo at broadly similar levels of competence, together with many dozens more banjo-only tunes that I’ve been playing for decades, and which are hard-wired.

Posted by .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Kevin Rietmann: "What does leading sets of tunes have to do with memory"

"I would have thought that was obvious. If you don’t have a tune committed to memory (in the absence of dots or a crib sheet) you’re not going to be able to lead it."

That’s an odd definition of "lead," I’d call that being able to "play" a tune. "Lead" suggests extracurricular skills such as drowning others out, playing with lots of oomph, glaring at those who deign to attempt to start tunes in the middle of your medley, etc.

"Yes, just a guess. Over the years, I’ve suggested to many such folks that they might lead some sets. Sadly, they rarely do, even when asked."

This still sounds like shyness or modesty to me. Unless they’re chained to the sheet music it sounds like they know these tunes, even if they aren’t about to play them in front of their slagging peers. We can’t all be "leaders" in the sense of running things, after all. And sessions are generally group affairs anyway, with the odd solo effort.

"You seem to be implying that you know very many tunes. Care to cite a number? (based on the definitions in my OP, of course!)."

Dude, I did in my first post in this thread! I should add that I started documenting everything so when I was practicing I wouldn’t just play the same old mouldie oldies over and over. By the same token I take note of unusual tunes others play and have a list of those so we don’t just go through a whole evening of real snoozers like the Earl’s Chair and the Brown Ale Mug yawwwnnnnnn. All of which are what you play when you can’t think of anything off the top of your head, if you have much of a repertoire built up.

"Western" tunes, yes, maybe I should add Scotland the Brave and Turkey in the Straw and Spootskerrie to my list, but that might get a bit out of hand. Or require its own list. By the same token why not throw in Walk, Don’t Run, or In The Mood. Incidentally famous piper Leo Rowsome liked to play In the Mood, I’d kill to hear that!

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I’ve just counted up my lists that I use for playing.practising at home, and there are about 700. You could add abut a dozen pibroch to that, and about fifty highland pipe tunes, plus a few assorted guitar tunes from my youth that I can still remember. All together, it works out about one tune a month.

Posted by .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Dia dhaoibh! Greetings one and all!

I’d bet anything that Niall really does know 3000 (and even more!!!) tunes. When I visited Edinburgh regularly in the 80s we had some fierce sessions along with John Martin and others; Niall was thirsty for tunes and I happily passed on any I had.

I also recall a number of occasions playing with a magnificent fiddle player, Brian Montague, who had a phenomenal range of tunes and a wonderful bowing style. I think he was/is an air traffic controller at Heathrow. If you get the chance, have a tune with him.

I don’t keep a tally myself, but I’m not stuck when it comes to a session. I know others here on this site who could play for a couple of weeks (like all day, every day) and not repeat.

Part of this repertoire (and most definitely, SKILL) is acquired by going to other sessions and listening and learning on the spot. I travelled everywhere I could when I was younger and this really expanded my playing, not just my repertoire. I’ll just modestly say I have a few tunes.

Perhaps, if I might, I’d just suggest that the number of tunes is irrelevant and that if you can sit in a session with nice people, some of them friends, some maybe new or just visiting, and a nice tune is the outcome then this can be achieved with quite a limited number of tunes. Now that is where I’d claim to have a treasure chest full of moments and tunes intertwined!

All the best

Brian x

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Mix, I’m tempted to say that if you normally go to sessions where 80% of players are in those categories you listed of people who don’t/can’t lead tunes, other than the same few standards, then you’re going to the wrong sessions!

There are plenty of sessions like that, and they suit many people, but I think Ben’s notion of an ‘average session player’ is someone who is average in a very different kind of session - and there are plenty of those too.

Personally I think his 1500 is on the high side, but I would say that knowing under your definition several hundred tunes would be a completely normal expectation of players, and a session that is not largely made up of players with that size of repertoire is quite limited and, to me, probably not very musically satisfying however pleasant it may be socially.

My numbers? Well I’ve just counted up 24 on the box, though I wouldn’t be playing them amongst strangers. On the fiddle it would be a lot less than about ten years ago,when I was playing much more but I’m confident it would be more than 200 and less than 500. Actually not that confident, I really don’t have lists or anything like that so it has to be a guess. But I’d rather play tunes than count them.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I think I’ve got around 500 tunes or so. I added up 2 tune lists and am figuring for some overlap, but allowing for some tunes that I’ve never bothered to put on lists because you just don’t usually count knowing Egan’s or Rakes of Mallow. I am very much an under-average, amateur (but avid) fiddler.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I also don’t bother counting. I just like playing the music, not collecting tunes, and quite often it’s the tunes that I don’t know that I like best because I can enjoy learning them.

Posted by .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

@Mixoldian I would say I am in category 5 but I don’t play the same tunes every week.

I have been compiling a list for the purposes of practicing and expanding my repertoire
currently my list has 187 tunes in it. Maybe about 10 of those are recent additions that I am still learning.
I know there is a slip jig in there with two different settings, which I recently drilled in, that I’ve forgotten.
I tend to focus on more complex tunes which can be both easy and hard to remember at the same time.

I tend to notice a patter where I hear some awesome tune on a new CD, recently some hornpipes, I will learn many of these tunes. When I play the tunes at the session I end up playing alone, and I end up forgetting the tunes because nobody seems to play them. For whatever reason certain common tunes like Humours of Tulla can elude me to the point where I feel like I am barely keeping up in a session. I would say for example that I *know* that tune, but would never lead it, at least not at full session speed, because I don’t do it justice.

Also I am sure there are a couple dozen tunes that are not in that list because I haven’t been able to remember the titles or find a decent recording of them. I often learn tunes gradually over time from session players I play with a lot. Even though I know the tune, even quite well in some cases, I still find myself asking the names, so they aren’t in my list.

I also have the problem of several lists compiled in different locations. For example I have a tunebook on thesession.org, irishtune.info, and my own abc collection. I wish I had the time to just go through and reconcile them all, but If I’m spending significant time on tunes its more likely to be actually playing them.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I have also noticed a phenomenon where toward the end of the night, after having dozens of tunes swimming in my ears for the last couple of hours, I have trouble playing familiar tunes that I normally could play flawlessly, because they begin to sound odd to me. I am doubting my instinct of how a tune sounds because my brain is just overloaded.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I am afraid, Mix, that by your definition, no one knows more than a thousand tunes. The people I know who have more tunes than that very often don’t know the names of tunes they play. I don’t know a lot of tunes, but even I have tunes I don’t know the name of (but I know others that have two or three names, which kind of balances it out).
My recollection is that we discussed this issue before a few years ago in a thread that explored the different levels of ‘knowing’ a tune, which ranged from bobbing along in someone else’s wake while they played the tune, right up to total mastery, and being able to play variation after variation (a la Matt Malloy and Mason’s Apron).
Myself, while there are usually a couple of people who know over a thousand tunes in the typical session (at least typical in the USA), they are also balanced out by even more folks who only know hundred or so. I would say the average number of tunes known is closer to 300-400.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Randy McSporran: "I’m tempted to say that if you normally go to sessions where 80% of players are in those categories you listed of people who don’t/can’t lead tunes, other than the same few standards, then you’re going to the wrong sessions!"

You’re probably right there! My "analysis" of the "average" session is perhaps something of an exaggeration - but the reality is that there are a lot more sessions of that type in my area than the other kind to which you refer. And I don’t exactly live in a session desert!

Yes, it is more satisfying to attend a session where the majority of the musicians are of an equal or higher standard than yourself. If they all know several hundred tunes apiece, it should be quite a good session. On the other hand, the social side of things is also very important, as indicated by briantheflute above.

One thing I’m definitely not is a "tune snob". I’ve encountered a few of those types at sessions. Someone starts up what they consider to be a "nursery" tune and they put their instrument down in disgust and stalk off to the bar. It’s important to encourage beginners and newcomers. Everyone has to start somewhere. If you know their tune, support them by joining in with it - even if it’s Turkey in the Straw, Spootskerrie or (heaven forbid) Scotland the Brave! 😉

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I don’t know anywhere close to 1500 tunes, more like a bit over 100 (it looks like I’ve got 80ish in my tunebook here, plus another score or so that I haven’t found on this site). This is in about a year of playing the whistle, though, so I can imagine that people who have been playing a lot longer than I have would learn a lot more than me.

I can also speak to the fact that becoming an expert at an instrument means you can pick stuff up quite easily. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I’ve got a degree in classical voice, and I find picking stuff up in that realm fairly easy (depending, of course, on the piece). One of my voice teachers told me that an opera singer should be able to learn an aria in an hour and a full role in a week if need be, in order to be flexible and ready for when opportunity knocks. Obviously, it takes time to actually hone a piece of music to a performance finish, but to learn the notes, etc., should be pretty quick.

So I can certainly believe that someone who’s been playing all their life could hear a tune played three times through and learn it fairly easily, and if they heard it a few times could learn it well enough to play it from memory. If you figure they go to a session every week for ten or twenty or thirty or more years, that’s a lot of tunes they’ll have heard, and will be able to play. So, for someone who really knows what they’re doing, 1500 tunes shouldn’t be too hard.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I’m more in favour of bigsciota’s way of thinking. I prefer music to stamp collecting.

Posted by .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Then there is a case of tunes that are similar but different with different names in different keys. Bundle and Go I find is also called Cronins while the latter is in E minor and the former in A minor. Or Kilfenora and Frost is all over. Maids of Castlebar and McFarley’s. The night Larry Got Stretched in E minor and G minor are quite different in the B part as well. These are just a couple I noticed while combing through my "learning list". I’m sure there are scores of examples like this though I will usually learn one and stick to it. I notice experienced players will often know both versions of these tunes.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

It seems to me to be an odd challenge. I doubt it is in anyone’s interest to sit down and make such a list — unless you really need to show someone you got a bigger one than they have. Also, you don’t always see people remembering tunes by the name. Often it is done by association — ‘this is the tune Sean plays after that jig’, or ‘those notes also start this other tune’.

Nonetheless, it is not unusual to see experienced players adeptly jump right into almost any tune you throw at them. I expect a typical good quality session uses a few hundred tunes regularly. But the tunes at each session vary from other sessions. Some musicians move from session to session and still know the tunes. I tend to agree with the idea that an experienced session player, in an area with a variety of sessions, knows over a thousand tunes — including players of average ability. I would not be at all surprised to find that 1500 is common. There are plenty of people who have been collecting tunes for decades.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I think tunes are probably a lot like sex in that you think everyone else has more than you do. But regardless of how many tunes you can or can’t play, what matters is how you play them. If you can knock off thousands of tunes, that’s great, and if you can play 100 tunes really well, that’s great, too. Obviously, it’d be lovely to play 1500 tunes really well, or 2500, or 3500. But I suspect there are only a small minority of all trad musicians who do that. I wouldn’t doubt that Niall Keegan is one of them, but I don’t think you can argue he’s an "average" session player.

Keep in mind, too, that traditionally a player would really only need enough tunes to cover a dance. Sure, the really good and dedicated ones would know many more times that, but I’m sure there were many fiddlers out there who knew all the popular dance tunes of the region and were satisfied with that. If the couple hundred that show up regularly in your favorite session are all you know, there’s no shame in that. And if you just want to jump in for a tune or two between pints, that’s fine, too.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I counted once a few years ago, and I got to about 250 that I could play by your definition, Mix. I’ve about doubled that since then, not sure where the exact total is. Here are some interesting thoughts and experiences regarding this subject, from some great players…

Just got back from a piping seminar with young phenom Martino Vacca today, of the band The Full Set. Dude is a silly wizard on the pipes, playing jazz and blues on them, and applying his classical training methods in systematic fashion to divide and conquer the great Irish octopus. Was a great seminar and private lesson~ very humble, accessible guy. He said a few noteworthy things, his "opinions" he called them. 1) Learning your instrument and learning tunes are entirely different matters. Learning tunes is easy, any method is fare game (by recordings, dots, ear, whatever, doesn’t matter). Mastery of the instrument takes time and focused practice. Focus on technique, on practicing it, and solidifying it; learn your instrument well. The tunes you know and learn can be like testing your new found conditioning and training on a new racetrack, if you use a runner as a metaphor. 2) It doesn’t matter how many tunes you know; know a handful inside and out, upside down and backwards (he demonstrated what this looks like, and the point was clear). He went on to explain how his friend Blackie O’Connell used this same method to dominate the pipes; rigorous technical training, using a few handfuls of reels, and then just applying the end result of that to all the tunes he learned. After the work was done all the tunes came out the same all-Ireland standard quality. Very systematic approach.

Of course, by the end of the 2 hr seminar, we all questioned how many tunes we really "knew." And we all felt we had a lot more work to do. But, it was inspiring in the context of the evening.

One time when I met Paddy Keenan at a concert he was doing, he mentioned beforehand I could play a few tunes with him at a point in his performance. I got up and had my low whistle along and began to play a version of a reel he was known to play (Devils of Dublin). His guitar player/backer and I were tearing away at it, and Paddy was stumped by the tune. Lol. I was incredulous when he didn’t recognize it. Later in the show, he asked me before playing a set of jigs, on the microphone, if I knew the name of the first jig he was about to play because he couldn’t remember it for the life of him. I thought "oh I’ll never know whatever crazy obscure tune Paddy Keenan is about to play", and prepared to be stumped. I knew the name by the first measure, "the Humours of Glendart." I shouted it after the set and applause, and he was happy. On a different occasion, my piper friend upon meeting him asked him if he knew "Helvic Head" with hopes he could play this favorite jig of his. Paddy simply said: "no", and that put the kibosh on that! Not a note of that tune was played. He too was shocked and confused.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

6,000,000 +1 but I can name only about 600.

Posted .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Knowing a tune is rather like knowing a person. I know the people next door, but I KNOW my brother.
Also, when you see the word ‘know’ written down a few times, it begins to look weird.

Posted by .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

My current tally is about 470 tunes. In addition there are about 40 tunes which I have learnt but since relegated to the "Rested" category. These are tunes which I’m not that fussed about and which no-one ever plays in the sessions that I attend, so I no longer practise them.

Of these I have learnt all but about 50 over the last five years. At one point I was adding tunes at the rate of three per week. Now it’s more like 2-3 per month.

I attend two sessions regularly, one weekly and one monthly. My current repertoire means that I am playing about 80% of the time, perhaps a bit less for the monthly session. On the odd occasion when I attend another session then I can still find myself playing less than half the tunes. So if you are in and out of lots of different sessions and you want to be playing most of the time then my guess would be that you would need around 1000 tunes for that.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Keeping a list doesn’t equate to stamp collecting. There are other reasons. What if someone said " I’m beginning to forget tunes, unfortunately. What I do is note down say the first few notes of a tune, of the different parts" ?

I guess the person who *did* say that in an interview would need a very long list for them all.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

What one musician might be able to get away with on their instrument may not be true for another, just compare how a fiddle and a piper need to approach their instruments. One can dip in and out of a tune varying the volume the other is stuck at 11 and can’t stop. It means that for a decent fiddle player to have a tune at performance standard (if such things bother you) can just take a repetition or 2 for the memory to be jogged or for the basic phrasing to be picked up. On the pipe the memory is probably getting triggered but unless the whole piece has fallen into place it’s probably still a no go. Personally my current performance set is a little over 2 hours long but doesn’t this still doesn’t equate to several hundreds of tunes. I get quite a lot of time to practice and have played for over 30 years too. I struggle to credit some of the claims made or perhaps I’d just struggle to listen to some of the playing.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Being a piper and a fiddler, Steve T, I see no logic in your post. If you know the tune, it doesn’t matter what instrument you play. And just because you yourself don’t know many tunes, doesn’t mean that those who do are either liars or useless musicians.

Posted by .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

My thoughts - I don’t believe that anyone knows 1500 tunes (afaik no-one has personally made a claim like this anyway).

My criteria for ‘really knowing a tune’ would be less strict than Mr Mix’s : without any external reference, playing the entire tune solo, once round only, at a moderate pace, with good timing and zero bummers. Naming the tune would be good, but not mandatory (there are so many names for the same tune, and so many tunes with the same / similar name, and dispute on that alone could arise).

I remember reading in one on Brendan Breathnach’s books that a seasoned trad player could easily have a repertoire of about 200 tunes which he could play from memory. The context of that sentence was to do with dependence on the written form (which was claimed could leave both the ear and the memory underdeveloped).

If anyone ‘really knows’ 1500 tunes, then that would easily be eligible for an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Much of thesession.org membership would be clamouring to be on the adjudication panel, I’m sure ;)

I suspect there would be a shortage of entrants, though 🙂

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

The tradition of stating a player has "over a thousand tunes" is analogous to our musky fishing tradition here: hyperbole is accepted in our definition of "truth." My old timer buddy who represents the old school of fishing, and who taught me the art, loves to tell stories of the 70"ers he’s seen in his life, even though this is virtually impossible for the species. It’s an utterly ridiculous claim, but in the moment of discourse, out in the boat or after the hunt in the pub, I will absolutely swear on all things holy that it’s true. Only when pressed, like in a discussion such as this where someone asks "how big was it REALLY?", will we stuff our hands in pockets, looks to the side with a slight bow of the head and say "weeeeeeeeeell….". 😉

I’ve always accepted this about these claims to tune numbers (I can think of one where the Vallely parents described their children and their friends as having "tousands of choons", in an identical manner to how we describe fisherman and their exploits. We’d substitute the the tune number with a length or girth dimension, and add a "doncha know!" at the end).

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

You’re just wrong, Jim. The repertoire for Irish trad is huge. Try going to any ordinary session in Ireland. You may well find that you don’t know any of the tunes.

Many, many ordinary players know thousands of Irish trad tunes. It’s not a boast; it’s a commonplace, matter-of-fact thing.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Maybe a better word would be "mistaken" …

… but you’re still wrong. 😀

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

My vote is that the truth lies somewhere in between Jim’s claim that "nobody knows 1500 tunes" and Ben’s claim that "many, many ordinary players know thousands of Irish trad tunes." 😀 Although I favor Ben’s approach to this subject, what I would a "roughly-true-thing."

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Posting on your phone, JJ Shea? 😉

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Ben, yes! So frustrating getting those blank posts!

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Meant to type "what I would CALL a roughly-true-thing."

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

http://paddyobrien.net/tune-collection/

"The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection is a historic compilation of 1,000 Irish tunes from the repertoire of Paddy O’Brien of County Offaly, … it’s estimated that he carries in his head the melodies of more than 3,000 Irish tunes."

Volume 3 of his collection is on its way which will take that collection, coincidentally, to 1500 tunes.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

"Meant to type "what I would CALL a roughly-true-thing.""

I thought you did. 🙂

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

You know, the funny thing is about this that the number thing only usually comes up, at least as far as I’m concerned, as a sort of guideline for beginners setting out in the jolly ol’ world of Irish trad. If I were asked to set out on a bike ride and told, "It’s only about 10 miles"; then, after 10 miles, be told, "It’s only about another 10 miles"; then told at the end of that, "It’s just up the road here - about 10 miles," I’d start to get dispirited. I’d rather be told from the outset that I’m facing a 100-mile journey. That way, I can psych myself up for it. Similarly, you might as well face it that there’s a mountain to climb, and that, frankly, my number of 1,500 tunes is a tad on the low side.

In normal circumstances, however, the numbers thing is a deadly dull thing to think about, and of no real interest to me at all.*


*Oh, except that I get fed up of turning up to sessions where people only know 5 tunes, but "play them really well". NOT!!! 😲

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

What we normally hear is what Dezi Donnelly says in that clip.

Is it possible to play 10 tunes well if one doesn’t have some idea of the idiom from knowing a lot of other tunes less well ?

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I’d go further, David. I don’t think it’s possible to play 10 tunes well unless you can play an awful lot of other tunes well. As well. Also. 🙂

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

We’re all a bit different and it also depends how often we play regularly in sessions or live gigs and what our role is there.

I’ve lost count of how many tunes I actually know but that doesn’t mean that I always feel confident about "starting" them all in a session situation. Usually there’s a finite number although there would obviously be many more if I could actually remember their existence at the time.

The same would apply to the number of tunes I would be happy enough to tackle at performance level and I note that some professional bands and musicians are also limited in how large a repertoire they can maintain to a satisfactory standard at any one time while others can change, add, or revive tunes at will or perform a different set each night without any problems.

However, there are any number of tunes which I can play perfectly well if I’m reminded about them or if someone else starts and even more that will "come back" to me after one or two times through. Others are a bit more vague but are easily polished up if need be.

In a way it doesn’t really matter unless you are actually leading the session or being expected to perform or play several tunes from your repertoire in succession. After all, that’s why bands have set lists to help jog their memory.

It’s not so much knowing or remembering the tunes but knowing or remembering that you know them which is the important thing. 🙂

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

It strikes me as a preposterous question, and many people like me would automatically say "I’ve no idea." People who have played with me would confirm that I can recall instantly hundreds, if not thousands, of tunes. This does not mean much, except that I have a skill for remembering tunes; everyone else has either similar or very, very different skills which I do not possess (table tennis, or poker, or photography, or remembering phone numbers). Neither does it mean I’m better because of my capacity to retain tunes - I know lots of musicians better than I who probably couldn’t play as many. We’re all different. We all learn differently, and we all have different skills.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Exactly.
I fully agree with you this time, Nigel.
🙂

Also, the skill of learning many tunes is not the same as retaining them or being able to recall that you know them. However, the learning isn’t necessarily wasted as they do tend to "come back" fairly easily but, as you say, we’re all different.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I don’t think Ben’s estimate of 1500 is at all unrealistic, if you think about it. Most Irish session players start when they’re pretty young. If you start when you’re, say, ten, and learn a tune a week every week by the time you’re forty you’ll have learned the requisite number. Whether you’ll remember them all up to Mix’s criteria is another story, but those are Mix’s criteria, not Ben’s. Of course those of us who started later and didn’t grow up in the tradition are going to have a harder time getting even close to that number, but I find that the more tunes I know, the easier it is to learn new ones-so there’s hope for all of us.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

@Ben Hall:
"I don’t think it’s possible to play 10 tunes well unless you can play an awful lot of other tunes well. As well. Also."

Exactly. The skill level comes from knowing A LOT of tunes. The ones who only aim for say, 10 tunes (at the best level they can reach) never get further. When we’ve learned 100 tunes, we’ve encountered a lot of recurring patterns. Many of the next 100/500/1000 tunes will just feel like variations, and we’re likely to recognize them in groups according to mode/how they "sound" and "feel" (e.g. Em-D tunes, Am-G, Dmix), and are also likely to pick up many tunes after a few times.

Those who say it’s impossible to "know" 1500 tunes have never tried.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

There are many tunes where I struggle to remember how they go precisely, at least for a while; one of the Tom Billy jigs is one I’m working on at the moment, as a friend plays it. Some of the note choices aren’t what I’d expect, for years I’ve been content to sort of fake it on the rare occasion that I’d encounter it in the wild, but now I’m working on memorizing the "correct" version, as recorded by Murphy/Clifford I guess. So perhaps I don’t "know" that tune, or can’t "lead" it, yet. Although I also documented in a thread last year how Denis didn’t know the "correct" version of the jig Queen of the Fair, or made up his own setting, or learned an "incorrect" one from someone else, or…but it’s Denis Murphy, he could do no wrong! Right?

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Forty years next month. I have the shock of it still. A finer man and musician you couldn’t hope to meet. A great store of tunes, many from his time in the States. I have it in my head that I never sat down with him without hearing something new. If you told me Johnny had 10,000 I wouldn’t argue and Denis could match him tune for tune.

Posted .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

[*You’re just wrong, Jim. The repertoire for Irish trad is huge. Try going to any ordinary session in Ireland. You may well find that you don’t know any of the tunes.*]

I’ve been to many sessions in many parts of Ireland, and many times I’ve sat out tunes and listened, because I didn’t know them. Yes, there are thousands of tunes. Quite a few thousand. Everyone knows that. Are you aware of the amount of tune books I own? 🙂

Of course it’s possible for a musician to ‘really know’ 1500 tunes (as per my or Mix’s criteria earlier). I’m just a bit concerned about the reasons for you believing that that is commonplace. Ben, with the best of intentions - you’re just guessing, aren’t you?

For you to *really know* that a player *really knows* 1500 tunes (which is what you are claiming), you’d have to attend sessions where the *same single* musician played 1500 tunes, that is 1500 unique tunes over a period of time, possibly in consecutive sessions. At 50 unique tunes per session, that’s 30 sessions. Assuming a session every single night of the week, that’s about a solid month where you’d have to be there to take note of all the unique tunes played.

Either that or you sit and listen to him playing 1500 tunes, one after the other, with no time limit.

If you then made the same claim, I would believe you 🙂

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I’ll have to agree with Jim. By Mix’s criteria I only know a couple hundred tunes that I can call by name and lead in a set. My standard response when someone asks "Do ya know such-and-such?" is to admit: "Don’t know, kick it off and we’ll see." I’m sure I can play more tunes that I DON’T know the name of than those I do. Many tunes use what I would call "cliches" that repeat themselves over and over again in other tunes and the more tunes you learn the more likely you are to rely on these "cliches" to render a new tune. That helps in learning new tunes but sometimes I find myself starting on one tune and wandering off in an entirely different direction 😉

Since one of the criteria mentioned was tunes "you can lead" in a session, I’ll just add that I almost always lead tunes (or sets,) that I think others will know. I love the Billy Pigg jig: "I’ll Get Wedded In My Auld Claes", but I would NEVER lead it in a session because no one here knows it. For me, the essence of a good session is making music and having fun TOGETHER. (Even if it means just playing the "most popular" stuff however trite.)

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

As I keep saying, but feeling increasingly weary whilst doing so, my *guideline only* number matters not one jot to me. I think it only matters if it seems like a scarily big number. But it really isn’t.

Of course I can’t *know* how many tunes an individual knows. But my number isn’t a number that I’ve come up with on my own. It’s consensus. Amongst a lot of decent-ish Irish trad players. At least, in my experience. And just a guideline. Plus, I can make a reasonable estimate of how many I know, and I am making the reasonable assumption that other players who keep up about as well as I do - I.E. average session players - also know around that number, though of course not necessarily the same ones. I’m not a tune hound - I’m not one of those who knows every single tune in every single session - just every one over here.* 😉

Why I said that the number may be "on the low side" is because, assuming that the tunes one knows are relatively common ones, and one knows about that number, then that’s OK for an average session. But there’ll still be plenty of sessions where one might know less than a third, or less than a quarter of the tunes.

Funny, though - you seem to have changed your mind on this one, Jim. First, it was "If anyone ‘really knows’ 1500 tunes, then that would easily be eligible for an entry in the Guinness Book of Records." I.E. It’s never been done before. Now, on the contrary, you say "Of course it’s possible for a musician to ‘really know’ 1500 tunes". Difficult to square those two.


* not literally true, of course.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

By the way, if I have to call them by name first, then I know two tunes. 😀

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

OK, Ben, let’s just say that some people really know a lot of tunes, and leave it at that 🙂

Many of them will know far more tunes than I do.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Oh, I was quite happy to leave it at that.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

A couple of years before he died we recorded my grandfather’s repertoire. Life got in the way and we lost the heart for it somewhere around 1,300. My father has most of those and more, as do I, and my children more still.

Twelve year olds around here would typically have somewhere around a hundred tunes. Between about 14 and 20, those that stick with it go through a phase of being mad for the music and pick up what seems to be a hundred tunes several summers on the go. And there are lads I’ve played with for thirty or forty years and they regularly come out with tunes I’d swear I’ve not heard them play before.

I think Ben has a very fair sense of it.

Posted .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Hurler-I hope you saved those recordings-they are sure to be family treasures.
Your numbers don’t surprise me. My calculation of a tune a week is doubtless a snail’s pace for an avid young player.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

It’s a snail’s pace for me, 5stringfool. 🙂 (Mind, at 57, I’m still an avid young fool.) A lot of players like me - middle-of-the-road, average session players - put on 2 or three tunes a week. Not every week. But, for instance, during one week last year, I picked up about 20 new tunes. How could you not? There they are, buzzing around in your head, refusing to be shown the door. I write the names down in spare diaries that I keep for the purpose. I never remember the names, but I go through the diaries from time to time, and it’s interesting to see what tunes I picked up where.

Of course, tunes fall off the back end as well … until someone plays them. Then, suddenly, they’re there, with all the memories of places you’ve played them and people you’ve played them with over the years.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I’m just after getting home from a Paddy O’Brian gig at the Plough here in SF and that might be the person with the most tunes in his head that he can produce at will. He might have an eidetic memory though and that could be what allows him to do that. Another musician I suspect has an eidetic memory is Kevin Crawford based on evidence about how he remembers just about everyone’s name even if he only met them once and a few years has gone by. He also has a tremendous repertoire. But when you start talking about how many tunes average folks like us know it’s hard to say. You would have to get specific and do some serious counting. Is it tunes I can start and play on my own… both or all parts? That will be the smallest number. If you mean including tunes I know well enough to follow if someone else is leading them… that would increase the number. There might even be a count for how many tunes I knew but forgot. I remember one guy in here claiming he knew "thousands of tunes," but when I pressed him on it they included tunes that he’s only heard before but never actually played.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I don’t remember that, PB. Was that in the discussion where you thought that "several" meant "seven"? 🙂

And I’m bringing that up because I *do* remember you querying one young fella in a particular thread, and being fairly robustly rebuffed by a few people who could actually vouch for the fact that the young fella in question actually *did* know "thousands of tunes". Several thousand, in fact.

Or was it a different discussion you were talking about?

(Mind, we’re both relying on memory here, so maybe either or both of us has it wrong. I’ve tried to search for it, but I can’t find it.)

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I would put a less stringent definition on ‘knowing’ than has been mentioned above. If you can play along quietly with a half-forgotten tune without making a nuisance of yourself and if you have it pretty much nailed it by the third time through then for me you can count that one.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Really?? OK. Make that three thousand then. 😉

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Actually, no, it’s more or less unlimited, since I can do that with most - but not all - tunes. Most ‘average session players’ will play along on the second time to most tunes. It’s sometimes why they look as if they know all the tunes, when they don’t really.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

How about if you (not addressed to any-one in particular) were cast up on a desert island with your instrument ? How many (existing) tunes could you manage over the years ? Allowing hesitation and flubs before getting it right ?

And in a 100 years time would someone find a rock face with ABC code of the starts of the tunes scratched onto it ?

Maybe that’s what rocks paintings are 😏

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Ben, learning tunes on the fly is another thing entirely. I don’t attempt that. If you can do it and if you can actually learn the tune as played and not just an aproximation to it then more power to your elbow.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

"Most ‘average session players’ will play along on the second time to most tunes. It’s sometimes why they look as if they know all the tunes, when they don’t really."

Well, some will and some won’t. Some tunes are very easy to pick up on the second or third time around while others are more difficult and, obviously, certain musicians are more experienced than others than this.
Also, you’ll get some people who "play along" to everything whether they know it or not as long as they get a few notes in here while many really good players will always "sit out" a tune they don’t know although I’m quite sure they could make a very good attempt at it.

Of course, many will know the tunes and maybe just choose to start on the second part or second time around. If you miss the beginning, it’s usually(For me, anyway) a lot less messy to start playing at a specific point.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

none

Posted .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Yes Ben… you’re remembering the discussion. His pals were vouching for him and everyone seemed well impressed, but as I said, he eventually admitted that tunes he only heard before but he hadn’t actually played were included. He would noodle along with people that actually knew the tunes and I guess they were impressed enough to believe it. If tunes I’ve heard but never actually played are included… then I know thousands of tunes too I suppose.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

jeff_lindqvist makes a good point above regarding recurring patterns. The more tunes you know, the easier it becomes to learn more.

Some years ago I sat through a marathon "survivors" pub session at the tail end of a folk festival. It started at lunchtime and ran through until mid-evening - a duration of about eight hours. The session repertoire was an eclectic mixture of Irish, Scottish, English, American, Shetland and Breton trad. For some tunes everyone was playing, for others only a few (including myself) were playing. On a few occasions only two people were playing - the person who started the tune, and myself.

At the end of the session, someone told me that they noticed that I was the only person who knew every single tune that was played at that session, and complemented me on my vast tune knowledge. "How I had managed to learn so many tunes?" was the question. I couldn’t really give an answer. Some of the tunes I knew very well - others I knew, but I couldn’t have started them. A handful I had never heard before - it was simply that I was able to play them after hearing one iteration.

Notwithstanding the above, I wouldn’t claim a big tune repertoire. And I’m somewhat suspicious of those who claim thousands who haven’t actually made a specific count. It’s interesting to note that most of those who have actually counted and responded within this thread refer to hundreds of tunes, rather than thousands.

Our ceilidh band has a repertoire of around 800 tunes. Not that you need anything like 800 tunes for any given ceilidh. Its just that we like to make life interesting by ringing the changes a bit. I’ve sheet music written out for all of it. Not that I play from music myself, but I certainly need to have a quick peek at it if it’s something that we haven’t played for a while. It’s so hard to keep all that stuff permanently in your head.

Like any ceilidh band, we sometimes need a stand-in musician when one of our regular musicians cannot make a particular gig. I’ve never yet found anyone who knows anything like all our repertoire, so any stand-in musician that we book these days need to be a sight reader (and preferably ear player as well).

I’ve had some interesting conversations in the course of trying to book stand-in musicians whom I’ve never met before - usually something along these lines:

"I need a stand-in musician for a gig we have on x date, and I’ve been given your name as someone who might be able to do it"

"Yes, I’m available - I’d love to do it! Could you send me your music, so I can practice it before the gig?"

"That might be tricky - it’s about 8oo tunes."

"Oh ………"

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Ah. OK, PB. I’ve probably selectively remembered parts of that old discussion and not the parts that don’t fit my point of view. 😉

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

"I’ve never yet found anyone who knows anything like all our repertoire, so any stand-in musician that we book these days need to be a sight reader (and preferably ear player as well)."

Maybe you should try asking different stand-ins. 😀

"Yes, I’m available - I’d love to do it! Could you send me your music, so I can practice it before the gig?"

I can honestly say that I’ve never asked that when asked to stand in. I would, of course, ask what sort of music is played - Irish trad/English/Welsh/a mixture - but beyond that I just turn up. Seems to work. 🙂

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

As a product of local communities, trad can’t sensibly be treated as a monolith. Further, norms among musicians born and reared among ready exemplars are bound to be very different from those that come to the music as adults and whose primary opportunity for music-making is the pub session. If you haven’t lived amongst trad musicians you can’t really know the extent to which the music consumes their lives.

Posted .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

"Consumes" being a very apt description, Hurler. 🙁

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

REALLY know?

I guess I would define that as I’m up on stage with a mic and an audience and I’d better make a good job of it! Playing the tune well, with no help, but also having some nice variations to make it more interesting.

Probably very few of those! Maybe 20 or 30.

Playing along at a session is another thing, then there’s the "2nd time round" tunes and tunes I’ve not heard before that I usually have mostly down by the 3rd time round, just when it’s too late!

I looked though the tunes on this site, ranked by most commonly held in members’ songbooks, and of the 100 most common I knew all but a few, of the 200 most common I knew all but 20 or so. But I can sit at a session for an hour and not know a single tune.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

"As a product of local communities, trad can’t sensibly be treated as a monolith."
Couldn’t agree more Hurler.
A very good Uilleann piper and Nashville recording session player once told me that he loved playing with Irish players because they had "an innate sense of rhythm that was hard-wired at birth."

On the flip side, an excellent Nashville clawhammer banjo player said after hearing a fabulous Irish band render two old-time tunes, "Over the Waterfall" and "Lil’ Liza Jane", at a Nashville pub: "They flat-out butchered those tunes."

Those two comments not withstanding, I would hope we could fully enjoy and revel in each other’s traditional musics, shared or otherwise. And yes, no trad music is, nor should be, cut in stone.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Pipers are finding work in Nashville studios? Get ‘er done, I guess is the expression. ;)

Are you really incapable of playing some tunes without help, Jack (PB)? I can never remember which part goes first in that long version of Lord Gordon, so I’d need guidance with that one, but otherwise I’m pretty confident I can get through any tune I’ve listed, barring the ones I need to print out as I can never remember how they go until they’ve actually started. Maybe people are setting the bar too high here? A guy who can only mime his way through stuff doesn’t know those tunes, true. But someone who perhaps can’t deliver something letter perfect still "knows" that tune, if you ask me.

This all makes it sound like we live in sessions, too. Maybe that’s the case in some instance. I play music at home every day, myself, audience or not, as well as a weekly session.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

@Mix O’Lydian
"Some of the tunes I knew very well - others I knew, but I couldn’t have started them. A handful I had never heard before - it was simply that I was able to play them after hearing one iteration."

Yeah. This is what I’m thinking of.

Tunes we know inside out, that we could play forwards and backwards, in the sleep etc. Tunes we are able to TEACH.

The tunes in the next group are those we’ve played before but never maintained/never learned properly (God forbid!), in other words - tunes that aren’t in our active repertoire. We may still be able to back them properly on guitar etc. Multi-part tunes that I haven’t maintained are typical to this group.

Then tunes from the outer circuit - tunes that sounds super-familiar and are in our minds and fingers after one iteration. They may stick permanently after another five-ten iterations.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Ben Hall: "I can honestly say that I’ve never asked that when asked to stand in. "

I believe, you Ben! Not that I think you would ever want to "slum it" with us if we needed a stand-in. 😉

For the record though, we play a mixture of English, Irish, Scottish and old-timey - and a range of tunes from other western tune genres. However, most of the callers that we work with include dances that require specific tunes: e.g. Dashing White Sergeant, Buttered Peas, Galopede, Three-around-Three, Double Lead Through, Up the Sides and Down the Middle, Swedish Masquerade, Black Nag, Jenny Pluck Pears - etc., etc., etc. Tunes like this can become quite tedious when you’ve played ‘em a few times …. 🙁

… would be quite boring for someone whose preference is to sit a circle in at a session in Ireland where even the average participants know 1500 Irish tunes apiece … 😉

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

[*A very good Uilleann piper and Nashville recording session player once told me that he loved playing with Irish players because they had "an innate sense of rhythm that was hard-wired at birth."

On the flip side, an excellent Nashville clawhammer banjo player said after hearing a fabulous Irish band render two old-time tunes, "Over the Waterfall" and "Lil’ Liza Jane", at a Nashville pub: "They flat-out butchered those tunes."

That’s an interesting story rth, and I’ve noticed that this is a recurring mindset on this site, over many years 🙂

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I’ve tried several times to count the tunes I know, by use of lists like
https://thesession.org/discussions/18049 , lists given to me by other players, tables of contents of books, etc. I’ve never succeeded. There are just too many I know only by ear, with no titles attached within my brain. But I’m pretty sure my count is well over 300.

To me, "knowing" a tune means I can play along without harm or embarrassment if someone else is playing it well, and I can lead it or do it solo after (say) my second time through it. IOW, for tunes I haven’t played in a decade, I might have to go through an "oh yeah" moment on some of the phrases to get them just right.

For whatever reason, the connection between title and tune is very weak in my brain. If someone asks for The Kesh Jig, sure, I can start that. But if someone asks for Off to California, I might have so say "How does it start?" even though I’ve played it thousands of times. And conversely, I can play many a tune very comfortably, have someone ask "what’s that one?" and be forced to say either "I’ve never known" or "I forget."

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Kevin Rietmann asks: "Are you really incapable of playing some tunes without help, Jack (PB)?"

If I haven’t played Lord Gordon in a while I might hesitate on parts, but that particular tune isn’t problematic for me. There are a half dozen Ador tunes that I get confused about the B-part on. You know… the Down the Broom, Rainy Day, Knotted Cord, Bag of Spuds, contingence, etc. If I’m playing on my own and haven’t played those sorts of tunes in a long time I might have a lapse of memory and find myself playing Ador random B-parts hoping I have the right one… sometimes knowing I don’t. If I’m following others who know the tune it kicks my memory in gear and I’m playing without fail. Sometimes I’ll want to start a particular tune but I can’t find it and start another similar tune accidentally. Sometimes I’ll have almost forgot about a tune, and sometimes I’ll sit and listen to it being played and know I know it… but it’s been too long to jump in without sounding like a bull just entered the china shop.

All of these factors make it impossible to estimate how many tunes I know. I play nearly every tune at our local sessions and it gives a false impression that I know a lot of tunes. If I visit other sessions I might find myself sitting idle quite a bit. The whole point isn’t trying to play on all the tunes though… it’s more about sharing and celebrating the music… so the tune count is irrelevant at the end of the day.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

We bought a 114 year old house. The amount of work to get her cleaned up and functional took all we had. Been so exhausted, I haven’t really played any music for almost 3 months. It’s hurting my soul to be away from playing music. Looking forward to mid March to get back on track. Can I belt out tunes I know after several months of not playing? Reckon I’ll find out.

Didn’t really start to learn tunes until about 3 years ago … well into my 60’s. I’ll be happy if I can play 200 tunes well by the time I get into my 70’s.

Before I took a breather, this was where I was with my playing. Pure coincidence that I know and am learning exactly the same number of jigs and reels … that’s a revelation!

Tunes I know:
1 Barn Dance
1 Hornpipe
16 Jigs
4 Polkas
16 Reels
2 Slides
2 Slipgigs
5 Waltzes

Tunes I’m learning:
3 Hornpipes
27 Jigs
6 Polkas
27 Reels
1 Set Dance
1 Slide
6 Waltzes

Interesting question.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

It seems there are quite a few folks here who started to learn tunes when they were older. Maybe that is the trend these days, and your typical session player didn’t grow up playing the music. I see young players absorbing tunes like soaking up water. It has always been like that. If you start learning young, you easily have lots of tunes. After learning tunes for decades, it seems a waste to sit down and make a list. Such a list will always be drastically incomplete. What matters is whether you can play at the sessions you want to play at.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

@ Fiddler3:
"After learning tunes for decades, it seems a waste to sit down and make a list. Such a list will always be drastically incomplete. What matters is whether you can play at the sessions you want to play at."

Yeah, it’s like compiling a list of the words you know in a language… Easy if you’ve had your first lesson and learned some basic greetings, but not when you’re able to speak the language (and maybe do so regularly).

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Youngsters are not youngsters forever. The quote I gave above " I’m beginning to forget tunes, unfortunately. What I do is note down say the first few notes of a tune, of the different parts" was from Matt Molloy.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

@ Fiddler3 and jeff_lindqvist

I might agree that sitting down to write out a list of tunes after decades of playing them might be a fruitless exercise. However, having started out as a GHB piper, all the tunes I learned were already written down, the names of the tunes I knew were written out as the band programme, and any I learned on my own were simply added to the list. The reason I keep ‘lists’ is not so that I can count the tunes, but so I can cycle through the tunes I know without leaving any out or forgetting about them. New tunes are added to the lists as I learn them, but I still go through all the old ones in a kind of never-ending cycle. The only tunes I didn’t make a note of were the ones I played on the guitar (for which I didn’t read music), and I’ve forgotten most of them.

Posted by .

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Besides getting into arguments with strangers, this is primarily what I use the mustard site for - keeping track of the tunes I’ve learned so I don’t forget to play them occasionally. Especially the ones I learned because I liked them and later discovered no one I know knows, or feels like learning. Probably not a necessary endeavor if you spend a lifetime playing only ITM in Ireland, but I live in Indiana and am not likely to relocate any time soon. And, I have to keep track of jazz and Beethoven too.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Notating the first couple bars, or "incipits" as ABC programs call them, is nothing new - Sergeant Early, the piper who had a couple of tunes named after him, made such a list back in the day. I figure just printing a book out of all the odd tunes I can’t quite remember will do the job, albeit take up a bit more room.

Jack - I always cue up some recording in my mind to remember how something goes. Not sure if I do that when I’m playing, hmmm…but at the moment I can hear Seamus Ennis playing the Rainy Day, to get that 2nd part straight. Sometimes in the playing I get things mixed up too though. Corner House is another one of those various A minor tunes that sound far too much alike. One night I tried to play the Burke/Cooney set of Battle of Aughrim/Corner House - they’re much the same melody, note - and wound up playing some other reel by accident…

All of these tunes have a "hook" or "riff" that I latch on to tell them apart. Knotted Cord’s 2nd part has that bit where the melody lingers on B, that stands out in my mind and helps me to recall how it goes. Corner House lingers on D, by contrast. Down the Broom doesn’t linger on much of anything. Etc.

Do you practice a lot on your own? Surely that helps to be able to keep all of these things straight, too.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

If the standard for ‘knowing’ a tune is to be able walk into a studio cold, and lay down a perfectly clean track, 3 times through, in one take, then the stock of tunes that I ‘know’ goes down considerably! My standards are much lower—more like, I have about 2-300 at ready command, and maybe an equal amount that I haven’t played in a while, and given a few moments and some trial and error, I can pull into shape. I came to this music as an adult, and it is only part of my life, and on a good day I show flashes of intermediate-ness. But there are people, even here in the US midwest, raised in the music, with vast repertoires, and who can learn and play along with entire albums the way I learn individual tunes. I can easily believe they know thousands of tunes.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

@Kevin, yes, I will sit down from time to time and play through that family of Ador tunes and other families of tunes that are similar that way. I also play for set dances with different people and I’ll sit and review tunes in their repertoires to be ready to launch into them on demand at tempo when I’m playing with that person. Sometimes I’ll struggle a bit with a tune I know but haven’t played in a while when they come up at sessions and I’ll review those on my own the next day.

I see my repertoire as a model plane collection or anything similar where you take them off the shelf and dust them of and re-glue parts that might have fallen off. I also have included in my head the names, (sometimes multiple), and even where I got them usually. Having names allows me to compile ready-made medleys for the set dances. It also helps communicate to others what they are, but the snippet method is best for that. I know people who have their tunes loaded on their hard drive (brains) without and icons on their desktop (surface memory) to refer to and they find them purely based on the melody or hook. I see my knowing the names and where I got them like icons on my desktop I use to find and recall the tune. I don’t know if this takes up too much ram in my brains that could be assigned to having more tunes though.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I know in my own case I am constantly moving the goalposts on what it means to call myself mediocre, to really know a tune, or to know a lot of tunes, or to able to play fast, to have a good ear, all of it. I kind of suspect some are calling their achievements average out of modesty. Nothing wrong with that but I’m not really buying it.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

When I started my goal was two tunes a week. I learned about 90 in my first year and have learned— via dots— about 50 a year after that. I think I could lead maybe 250 and follow another 200. But interestingly now most of my learning is subconscious: the more time I am at sessions (and the less I am there with my phone 😉 ) the more I seem to pick up. I can now paly loads of tunes I’ve never seen music for and don’t knwo names of. I think it gets easier as the mechanical aspects of playing and the scales get internalised: more mental bandwidth for music.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

One more take on "know:" On a given night in a given situation I may "know" many more (or less) tunes than on a different night. What I remember might be based on tiredness, or on comfort with the group playing, or with the level of the other players (for me weak players can distract and strong ones can either intimidate or life me up). Some nights I can start anything people name. Other nights I can’t start Kesh. So, "knowing" to me is a variable. I’m not at all sure how I could answer Mix’s question…

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Cboody,

I’m glad you mentioned the "off night" scenario.

That happens to me a lot for different reasons including those you have mentioned. I can be playing new good tunes for weeks (and many good older tunes too) but sometimes go into a session and my mind goes blank.
If the session is good, I can soon get into the swing of things especially if others are leading tunes but if there’s more expected of me i.e. to start a tune and I’m not quite in the right mood, my repertoire can suddenly shrink without any apparent reason.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

It’s interesting how it’s always assumed that those who know few tunes automatically play them better than those who know many tunes. Shoot for the stars.

One could as well ask:
Who’s the better musician… someone who can play several hundreds of tunes, well phrased, and with a good sense of rhythm, or someone who can play ten tunes with dubious phrasing, and lacking any coherent sense of rhythm, and very often, tuning?

Of the four musician types (1 few tunes - high skill, 2 many tunes - low skill, 3 few tunes - low skill, 4 many tunes - high skill), I’d say that #3 and 4 are more common than 1 or 2.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

I know about 100 or so well enough to start ‘em out but obviously a LOT more if someone else starts them.

The Irish bunch in Traverse City Michigan (along with help from an itinerant dulcimer player from Minnesota) created a tune book. The unique thing about this is the first few pages have only the title and the first few measures. Once a reader starts a tune everybody jumps in, a uniquely awesome idea. One festival in Canada features a "play around" where everybody sits in a circle. One person plays one A and one B then it goes to the next person who plays a different tune without a break. Forgetting, freezing up or just running out of tunes is no excuse and your sent out. It’s amazing how long some of those old time fiddlers can go, tune after tune.

My excuse for learning tunes however is I’ll not be able to bring my instrument along after I join the "choir invisible" so I’d better cram as many tunes in my brain as I can.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Does anybody have a method of remembering the beginning of tunes other than playing it a zillion times?

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

It’s sometimes easier to remember the B part first, then suddenly the beginning of the A part appears in my head as if I’m repeating the tune. Then I can start the tune.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

"Does anybody have a method of remembering the beginning of tunes other than playing it a zillion times?"
Kevin et al have covered that question very well… hooks, first few notes, etc.
I would just add what works EVERY time for me:
In sessions, let the youngsters start the tune/set. (Under 30)
They may only know a few tunes but they know the names of them and are eager to start them.
You can come in after they’ve settled on a tempo 😉

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Maybe it would have been better to ask, "How many tunes can you really PLAY?"

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

… in which case the answer for almost all of us would be "None".

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

Jean Carignan was said to have known over 7,000 tunes - this prodigious sort of memory seems to go hand-in-hand with his extraordinary skills on the fiddle. He certainly had his classics like anyone else, though - many of his albums or one-offs include ‘Le reel du pendu’, ‘Devil’s Dream’ etc.
It’s also interesting listening to the recordings of him on the 3-disc set ‘Archives’ (if they are actually presented chronologically) - there are some adjacent tracks that feature very similar tunes, or tunes that start almost identically, as if his playing of the one brought to mind the recollection of the other. One can know a huge amount of tunes but may need to be reminded of which ones they all are!
I read in the liner notes to ‘The Floating Bow’ that John Doherty also had that sort of capacity to pick up a tune very quickly and not forget it - I imagine it’s a mixture of experience and talent?

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

jrathbun asks: "Does anybody have a method of remembering the beginning of tunes other than playing it a zillion times?"

The human brain is an fascinating thing. When I can’t remember how a tune I know starts… I ask other musicians at the session. If they don’t know the tune… then I play the "hook" and see if it triggers the memory for me or any of them. If that fails I wait till I’m home and refer to my resources. What’s interesting though is how the brain goes about recalling long buried tunes. If I play the hook and try to trigger the memory… and it fails… I’ll move one to other things… but that doesn’t mean my brain stops processing it. When I come back and try again later—bingo! This works if I can’t remember the B-part, etc., too.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

How true about the B parts for A dorian tunes. They are all so similar it’s hard to attach to the correct tune sometimes.

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

@jrathbun

" (along with help from an itinerant dulcimer player from Minnesota) " Don’t itinerant musicians usually get paid?? This one didn’t 🙂 See you in July

Re: How many tunes do you REALLY know?

By way of update - for my own sake as much as for this thread - it will be nice to have a reference. I can now play

39 Reels



20 Jigs



9 Hornpipes



2 Airs (1 is arguably misclassified by me)

9 Slip Jigs



8 Slides



8 Polkas



2 Strathspeys

1 Barndance

And again there are 20-25 tunes that I’m in the process of learning - or have gone through - but omitted to return to, so will have to learn properly again.