Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Hello, I don’t want to annoy anyone (sorry Gonzo and any others I’ve annoyed), but I need to ask this question because it’s making me worry slightly. I have been trying to learn by ear for the longest time, and have successfully done so with certain phrases of tunes and every once in awhile I figure it out instantly. That being said, there are just certain parts of tunes that I can’t get. No matter how hard I try and focus on the part it goes completely over my head and I have to resort to looking at the settings on this site. Is this a huge problem, or will this sort itself out with time and practice?

Thanks! :)

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Like any other aspect of learning music (or anything else), there are two rules that are always present:

1. Some things will come to you more easily than others.
2. Everything gets better the more you do it.

What you describe as your experience sounds just about normal to me. I started out an ear musician, learned to read and the rudiments of musical theory, and now use both as needed, favoring neither one way nor the other. After better than forty years of playing, I can tell you that I do better at both, which is not to say that it took that long, only that progress has never stopped, which delights me no end.

One last thought: The more you want it and do it, the quicker it will come. But be kind to yourself. It will never come as fast as you wish. If it did, it would probably sap the motivation right out of you, although you probably don’t think so.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Kellie, you are young. Science is just now showing us that the brain can grow new brain cells. One area particularly showing the ability to grow new neurons is our auditory cortex. The more you use it, the more you gain. It should come as no surprise that an autopsy of a renowned concert violinist’s auditory cortex showed nearly double the density of neurons as that of a non musicians. Current CAT scan studies show similar growth for nearly any instrumentalist. More listening, and more playing are the key. The good news in all this for a geezer like me is that this ability is not limited by age.

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You have to work up to it- if you try too hard with too difficult material you make no progress and can be put off.
Put off for life in fact; this is the single reason most people give up on music (and other crafts).
So don’t be ashamed of being caught out not able to play simple things - it comes with practice but you have to start with simple stuff. "Baa baa Black sheep" is a good one, and all the other simple tunes kicking around in your head. These are the building blocks of music.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Time and practice. You said it yourself.

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Dude, get out of your head and play some music. You are overthinking it.

Getting good is easy. Focused practice + time = improvement. That’s all there is to it. I challenge you to go a month without posting on this site, take all the tine that you would spend here, and use it to practice. Real, isolated practice. And then at the end of that time see where your playing is at.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

+1 for what Wesley said… Take him up on his challenge…

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

No Don’t!

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

The thing is I already spend a considerable amount of time practicing, like 2 hours daily possibly more.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Possibly slightly less aswell could be an hour to an hour and a half some days especially when I have school.

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There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm, thinking things out, and asking questions. It’s all equally important to learning.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

It is different for everyone. People usually have different learning pathways: auditory, visual, and tactile or some combination of these abilities. Learning by ear is easier for people who are primarily auditory learners. The challenge is to build and integrate your auditory learning skills. ITM is perhaps more rewarding for auditory learners and sometimes looks down on visual ( sheet music readers ) or tactile learners, but if you are a visual or tactile learner you might just have to work a hell of lot harder to learn and recognize tunes by ear, but it will come to you if you stick with it. If you are lucky enough to have multiple sessions you can alternate between attending slow / medium sessions where people use sheet music and medium / fast play sessions where nobody is using sheet music. You can also find music tracks to play along with or use an ABC player where you can vary the tempo. It is important to remember to enjoy playing at sessions and to cherish the times when you play well or are encouraged by others and gain a feeling of belonging.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

In my experience a teacher can also help you learn by ear, evaluating how you are doing and helping you see what strategies would work well for your particular way of learning. Good luck!

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OP: "there are certain parts of tunes that I can’t get. No matter how hard I try and focus on the part it goes completely over my head and I have to resort to looking at the settings on this site."

I’ve done that many times, when I have a session tape that’s unclear, and some passages of a tune are missing or drowned out by background noise or what have you, and I can check against various versions on this site and fill in the missing bits with phrases that are at least plausible or possible.

Personally I pick up tunes fastest and most accurately when I can see the musician’s fingers. It’s a case of the senses of sight and sound reinforcing each other; the eye fills in what the ear might miss.

So if you play fiddle try getting a video of a fiddler playing the tune and just play along, listening and looking. Ditto whatever instrument; I prefer seeing the fingers of an uilleann piper due to Back D having a unique look (while on flute and whistle D and d can be fingered the same) or if not a piper, a whistler or fluter. I can usually pick up tunes from the fingers of a fiddler/mandolin player/ banjo player too. (I was baffled years ago by watching a certain fiddler who usually fingered not individual notes, but chords… at least I could recognize the chord-shapes which narrowed down the possible notes.)

About practice time, I wonder, Wesley, how many hours a day you were practicing leading up to your audition, and how many lessons per week. I know in my brief stint as a music major I might be practicing 6 hours a day and doing lessons a couple times a week. That’s the thing, as Wesley points out: focused practice. The teacher helps provide the focus.

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In response to Richard, when I initially auditioned for the military band I play in now I was practicing 5 to 6 hours a day, 7 days a week, and taking 3 separate 1 hour lessons a week. This was mainly to make up for my lack of technical skill on the flute, as up to that point I had mainly played bassoon with the flute as a secondary study. Most of my time was spent playing scales and technical exercises with a metronome, as well as about 2 hours of tone exercises a day.

During my tenure at the military school of music, I had one graded lesson a week, plus a 1 hour or so lesson every evening. I practied on my own for about 4 to 5 hours a day there, in addition to attending a marching band class for 2 hours, a wind ensemble class for 2 hours and at least one other ensemble for an hour or so.

My time there was spent mainly playing tone exercises and the studies out of the Taffanel and Gaubert book, plus etudes for my lessons.

The reason I suggest that you take a break from this website is that the time element of the equation involves time spent not practicing as well. Practice sessions have diminiahing returns, ie practicing for 4 hours will not give you twice the benefit of practicing for 2 hours. Everyone practices differently and this has been discussed before. If you want to see improvement you need to give it time, not come running the the session.org to ask for a change in strategy. I can heartily recommend more frequent and consistent lessons as well. A good teacher can help you improve by pointing out the things you are doing that aren’t working, as well as what is.

I hope this has been helpful and will be taken to heart. I have said it before and I will say it again, there are no shortcuts in music. Doing it right now will prevent you substantial heartache later.

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For many of us, this is hard stuff. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

Now…back to practicing.

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Take heart, young Kellie. The god news is that if you can pick out any bits of music by ear, you have some natural ability. As with most human endeavors, there is a continuum here. You may be familiar with the anecdotes about great musicians, from Mozart to Ray Charles, performing astonishing feats -hearing long and complex pieces of music once and being able to reproduce them perfectly. On the other end of the spectrum is tone-deafness, the inability to distinguish pitch at all. I believe the latter is more rare than the former. In my 50 odd years of playing music I have encountered only one person who literally could not tell the difference between the lowest note on the piano and the highest.
So you are, like most of us, somewhere in the middle. The good news is that you can develop and improve your abilities. The bad news is that it takes time and effort. There are ear-training software programs, some on-line and free, which will help you to work on your ear. A quick google search came up with a half a dozen or more, including Good Ear.com. However, I am morally certain that to use any of these services you will need to have at least a basic knowledge of music theory. So you should consider taking music theory as an elective if your school offers it. If not there are a number of basic texts like Music Theory for Dummies that should teach you what you need to know. If you decide to go this route and run into things that need clarification, you can always PM me and I will be glad to help.
Now before any of you jump down my throat, I am not saying that music theory is a prerequisite to playing Irish Trad or any other style of music. It can help a lot though. One approach to ear training which has been used for centuries is solfeggio, which requires a basic knowledge of scale theory. Moreover,there are thousands of tunes that consist largely of arpeggiated chords, and once you recognize that these tunes are easy to learn. The Boyne Hunt, for example, took me less than ten minutes to learn because it is mostly D Major and E minor arpeggios. It can also help in composing, although once again you don’t need a PhD in Music Theory to compose dance tunes. One big caveat- there are aspects of the study of music theory that don’t apply to Irish trad, at least not in the usual way. Voice-leading, for example, which a lot of theory courses spend a lot of time on, doesn’t have much use in jigs and reels. Likewise functional harmony doesn’t work the same way in trad as it does in Strauss waltzes or Mozart symphonies. But knowing what aspects of music theory apply and which don’t can deepen your understanding and appreciation of Irish music.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

I struggle with this, as well. It gets better with practice. I had a couple of suggestions from some very good players.

Learn the tune. Listen to it over and over again, carefully. This may take many playings of a recording.

Learn it well enough that you can hum, sing, lilt, or whistle it. This gets the notes and relative positions really fixed in your head. I had some group flute lessons, and he had us tapping our feet and lilting the tune before we touched an instrument. It worked.

Take it in smaller chunks, a few notes at a time or a phrase at a time.

Hope this helps. It’s all been useful to me. Keep working at it!

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Hello Kellie! Can you hum the tune in your head? Think back to simple melodies you know without hesitation - "happy birthday" or "Mary had a little lamb" or Queen’s "Bohemian Rhapsody" (sorry, that might just be me). I bet you can hum those without thinking, right? If you listen to a tune long enough so that it saturates your brain, it will be easier to reproduce it on your instrument. It really does get easier the more you do it, and the more Irish music you listen too. Stick with it - I promise it will pay off for you!

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Sometimes even the easiest tune can have parts that are difficult to decipher due to the recording quality itself, the speed, what the musician does during the very measures (bubbly ornament/other notes sounding at the same time, open strings etc./(mistakes)/variation upon variation so it’s hard to identify the basic melody), the combination of instruments (are they playing in unison or not?). Perhaps the tune has a range outside your instrument? Perhaps the tune is in another key, perhaps the INSTRUMENT is in another key… Perhaps you could learn ten other tunes in the time it takes to crack the current one.

As 5string said, some tunes are just easier than others.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

"… there are just certain parts of tunes that I can’t get… it goes completely over my head and I have to resort to looking at the settings on this site."
Can you think of one example where you remember this happening recently?

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Another thing which might help is to do scale exercises - with reference to the books if necessary, and then try to pick out tunes in the scale but by ear alone.

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Can you give me a timestamp interval? Also is that the only recording you’re using to learn the Mountain Road or have you practiced with other versions too?

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

This version mainly. And 10 seconds in to 14 seconds in it goes by really fast.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Yes it is. That’s why you have to work at it. The more time you devote to disciplined, that’s the most important word here, practice of, well, anything. the better you get at it. It’s my belief from observation and personal experience, that time spent practicing without discipline is 90% wasted. When you only diddle out tunes it may be emotionally satisfying, but you really haven’t learned much. I have no idea what your work ethic is like but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the more discipline you have the more you’re apt to agree with me. At least that’s the way I see it.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

The way I hear bars 7 and 8:
FA A/A/A BAFB|ABde fdd2||

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

This is the way I hear it

probably not right though

| FAA2 BAFA | dcde fdBd |

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

I should have seen this coming. ~ Posts about comparing notes.

Carry on.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

OK, the second A was another kind of ornament (though still a plucked treble):
FA B/B/A BAFB|ABde fddc||

You know you can slow down Youtube videos to 0.5 and even 0.25?

Anyway, you can play FA~A2 or FA A/A/A/ (tongued triplet) or FA B/B/A FAAA or F3A or something else that fits the tune, no problem (and in my world it’s perfectly OK to zone in and out of these micro-variations whenever you want - it’s still the same tune).

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

There’s a big difference between learning by ear from a person and learning by ear from a recording. It’s easiest to start out learning from a person, because the teacher can also react to you. They can help by knowing when you’ve missed a note and making sure that you get the right note, etc. That can help build the skill set that you need for learning by ear on your own.

There are a few things that I always tell people:

1. Listening is a practicable skill. Don’t just let music wash over you, actively participate in your listening by paying attention, and even singing along when you don’t have your instrument.
2. Your voice is an instrument that you’ve "mastered" (doesn’t matter whether you can sing well or not… practicing tunes by lilting them can be very beneficial.)
3. Each time you learn a tune by ear, the next one becomes a bit easier.
4. You CAN get good enough at learning by ear that you can pick up some tunes on the fly at full speed in sessions (it’s really a combination of being good at learning by ear, being well versed in the style of music, and being intimately familiar with your instrument). When you’re first starting out, you’re working on all 3 of those at the same time, and that’s part of why it seems really hard.

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When people learn tunes entirely by ear they often play them slightly different from the original but in a way which fits in with it. It’s not the same as getting it wrong when learning from written music. In sessions you can get a lot of these slightly different versions which all fit together and the effect can be interesting.

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So it’s ok to hear and play it differently than other people in sessions? I thought I had to find a common version all the time.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Ross, my work ethic is if I have to or want to get something done it will get done. Sometimes it’s hard to stick to that (I get easily side tracked) If I have a goal in mind though I will accomplish it.

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"… it’s ok to hear and play it differently than other people in sessions?

No. A fluter may hear certain things differently than a fiddler but the tune and the version should be the same.
In a session learn from what players have in common first. Over time learn how to hear, learn from and play very minor differences.

"I thought I had to find a common version all the time."

Yes, in a session everyone should be listening to themselves and everyone else and striving to play a common version. If everyone is not playing a common version then someone is either not listening well or someone does not correctly hear what is being played by the group or someone isn’t playing the tune well enough to join in.

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Same Version of the tune sure! But surely not exactly and wholly the same note for note? I often hear recordings where (e.g) the whistle or flute vary slightly from the fiddle with notes and ornamentations, yet it still fits, and in many cases, further enhances the tune.

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And correct me if I’m wrong, because I’m not really a whistle player, but it sounds to me like the whistle (or flute) often just leave out some notes that the fiddle can handle easier than they can.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

I can’t find an ancient discussion where I was asking a similar question. The closest I can find to the most helpful advice I got (from Will Harmon) is this post https://thesession.org/discussions/16145#comment334895

So far as "hear and play it differently than other people in sessions" is concerned I think you have to hear it the same way. But if you regard ‘the ornaments as part of the tune’ then bear in mind that the ornaments that are part of the tune when a banjo is playing it may not be the same as the ones that are part of the tune when a whistle is playing it and achieving a matching rhythm, or when you are lilting it.

(crossing with Gobby and AB !)

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

In my experience in a session, people play the same contours of a tune but almost never exactly the same note for note version. Unless they happen to have been in a band together, or learned it from the same sheet music and never stray from it.

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Yes, I think that what David identifies is a separate thing from simply playing different versions. I think it was in this thread that somebody, perhaps yourself Kellie, mentioned the popularity of :The Cliffs of Moher" in sessions (I’m too lazy to re-read the thread). Well I always play Sorcha Costelloe’s version cos i love the B part http://comhaltas.ie/music/detail/comhaltaslive_265_5_sorcha_costelloe
And this just wouldn’t fit with what I imagine would be the more commonly played version of most sessions. You couldn’t get away with it because these are clearly two separate versions. All the same I feel pretty sure I could adapt adequately to a more common version, maybe not instantly note for note, but without stuffing it up. It just all comes down to listening, practice, time and experience.

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"So it’s ok to hear and play it differently than other people in sessions? I thought I had to find a common version all the time."

Funny, I’d say Yes to the first question and No to the second - both are opposite to AB’s answer.

OK, we want to blend in, be part of the crowd and so on, but imagine you’re playing in a session with people you don’t know. Who is going to (or has to) adapt to whom? Who’s going to know? If you can learn tunes by ear, you can also adapt to what seems to be the common ground (if there is any). It’s not that uncommon to find that whoever starts a tune plays it somewhat differently than you - it can be as little as FA~A2 vs FA A/A/A or as much as the different Mrs McLeod turns.

If you have a look at say, Henrik Norbeck’s list of session tunes, I’d say that those are pretty common settings (and definitely work whereever you are, as long as you’re ready to adapt when necessary).

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Jeff in your first description the vital bit of information is whoever starts the tune. It’s always important to listen to and be prepared to adapt to whoever starts the tune.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Not always. In my experience if you start a familiar tune in an unfamiliar session they are most likely going to play it the way they play it, and it’s up to you to adapt.

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This line of thought is about using your ears, obviously. But is it basic to learning music by ear? It may not be paying attention to the OP’s immediate needs.

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You are probably right Ben, but then it was Kellie who asked the question. And I think that the overall answer remains the same in that, yes, it’s normal to have difficulty learning to play by ear, but like everything else, it just keeps getting easier with practice (well for most of us, that is, some people, to my bewilderment, can just never do it). You have nothing to worry about Kellie. Obviously you have the ability to play by ear, and you will no doubt continue to hone your skill. I can remember a time when in some parts of a tune i had to keep playing it over and over just to be able to identify one note. Nowadays I can usually pick up a phrase in one or two listens. Or better still I just keep listening to a new tune till it’s clearly in my head, and only then do I pick up my fiddle and play it. These are all skills that you will just continually develop. I’m sure that many of us oldies feel a bit frustrated about wanting to keep reminding you that you are ONLY 16. I realise that you see this differently, but seriously mate, you are doing well.

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Kellie ( the only name I have for you) please don’t think I was criticizing your work ethic, I wasn’t at all. My mind wanders also…often. It might help you to understand that the human brain can only hold on to one thought for a very short time (90 seconds or so) before it wanders too much. I think you’re aware enough to make that work for you. I’ve learned to focus intently for a couple of minutes at most on anything specific, move on to something else, and come back as often as needed. Whatever works for you will come out soon enough.

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I understand Ross no need to apologize I never took it as a judgment on my work ethic (I will admit it can be shaky sometimes).

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Wesley I would love to have lessons more often, but it mainly relies on both me and my teacher to have clear schedules and my teacher is a busy guy. That’s not the only thing though, we can’t really afford lessons every week anyway. Plus there are some good things about not having lessons every week, for one it gives me time to practice and learn new tunes as well as any of the techniques I have learned from him.

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If you can’t quite make out a run of notes in a tune in the version you’re listening to, just listen to someone else playing it. Easy in today’s YouTube culture. You often find that people play the passage differently anyway, so you’ll be broadening your horizons. You could also look it up in a tune book. I lent all my tune books to someone years ago and never bothered asking for them back. They are impediments to playing this music well.

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Quote "In my experience in a session, people play the same contours of a tune but almost never exactly the same note for note version. Unless they happen to have been in a band together…"

That’s what I’ve observed too.

Sessions, seems to me, tend to iron out the various players’ idiosyncrasies through listening to each other (if the players had come in already knowing a tune). For sure I’d learned many tunes in versions so different from the local session version that they’re incompatible and I had to learn the session version like a totally new tune. Best, I think, to learn the tunes the session plays the way the session plays them. Though "famous player" versions are great to listen to, for my own playing I prefer learning session versions.

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Can you whistle Kellie? I mean whistle in the sense of using tongue, lips and teeth?

If some passage of a tune is too tricky on a given instrument, then leave it. Keep listening to it and whistle (or hum it or whatever). Sooner or later you’ll then be able to play it on your whistle or fiddle or whatever.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Depends to some extent on how you came up through music. I learned to read music at a very early age (classical stuff mainly on piano): so when I came to playing more traditional music on a different melody instrument some 15 years ago, playing by ear was, to a fairly large extent, alien to me. However, having had to do "aural tests" and music theory in the past while learning piano, when I did start to try to learn by ear, I tended to think of things in terms of intervals or scales or arpeggios - amazing how many tunes are actually based on scales and arpeggios! In the meantime, I had also learned a bit of guitar, and knowing more about chords certainly helped my "ear playing".
I also did what I call "a double translation" of having to see in my mind’s eye what I had just heard, as notes on a score. Well after persevering with it, I can now eliminate this middle step of the "mind’s eye score" and play by ear: this is also in part due to being a wee bit better/more familiar with said melody instrument. And the pleasing spin-off is that I can now play more by ear on the piano.
BUT, Kellie, it has taken me 15 years or so! You are much younger, so your brain should work faster than mine, but just don’t be too impatient!

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I’m not sure if this has been mentioned yet as I’ve been skimming through the thread.
However, even if you are a good "ear player", an unusual or different style of playing can still throw you.

So, yes, we can all have difficulties from time to time. As has been often said here before, listening is very important. Familiarise yourself with the style of music and the player. While the actual melody may be easy enough to pick up by ear, ornaments, triplets, rolls and so on may not be. It all takes time and practice.

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Agreed Johnny Jay: and also no need to slavishly follow all the ornaments, triplets and rolls! Some of them don’t work on other instruments anyway.
If I dare say it, some of my ear playing has been helped along by going to mixed sessions where songs feature as well: playing along with a well-known song is sometimes easier than trying to ear-play a breakneck speed reel or jig! And it also helps me play in other keys: the singer sets that!
And yes, Gonzo, I’ve probably said much the same as above on other threads too!

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Sorry

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Having read most of those old threads in the past I don’t see the harm in Kellie asking the question and getting suggestions from people who he has got used to discussing things with.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Johnny Jay says above : "As has been often said here before, listening is very important". Doesn’t go nearly far enough. Listening is absolutely essential. You won’t get anywhere without it.

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I think there may be more than one approach depending perhaps, as trish santer says, on how you came up through music.

I didn’t learn an instrument when young but I did learn songs by ear, initially tunes for singing in unison and, later, harmony parts. In a lot of community singing music theory (scales, intervals, chords, arpeggios etc) never gets a mention; I think it’s to avoid intimidating people. So I am well practiced at hearing a phrase and singing it without really thinking much about what the successive notes are. My fingers are now well on their way to doing what my voice does.

At festivals I have been to mixed instrument/ability/background tunes workshops. Some people clearly do find it helpful to be given, say, the hint that a phrase uses this or that arpeggio, some (inc. me) find that a distraction from absorbing the phrase, and others claim to not know what an arpeggio is.

In reading those old threads I find that the advice often has a bias one way or the other.

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"There’ve been numerous threads on this subject before - https://thesession.org/discussions/search?q=learning+by+ear. The OP might have searched for these and read them before starting yet another new thread."

I am never a fan of this sort of response to a question. Very unwelcoming. Is this area a discussion forum, or is it merely a repository for information? Part of the appeal of this place is the interaction between people.

As was mentioned above, there is no harm in Kellie asking the question. However, there *is* harm in telling him to perform a search instead of asking the question.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Yes, it’s quite common to have trouble learning by ear. And it’s absolutely normal to expect improvement.

I have a good ear & can pick out any tune that I already know, and learn tunes that I don’t from recordings etc. But I used to have trouble ‘locating’ the key of a tune when I was playing with others - however, after having a course of lessons from my fiddle teacher where I had to pick up a tune from his playing, and then going to Beauly where we were all learning by ear, I find myself improved and now much more easily able to join in playing with others.
I enjoy learning & playing my fiddle, whether from sheet music or by ear, and I do what seems best in the circumstances.

My husband has great difficulty learning by ear. But over several years of taking up the piano again, and recently learning the concertina, he is getting much better. It’s probably true to say that he will always prefer to learn from sheet music and then memorise the tune, but he enjoys his music.

Don’t beat yourself up. Use whichever method helps you. If you love playing, you will improve at every aspect of it - in time.

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Can’t believe I forgot to mention this before, but here’s an idea that helps me enormously.

I once heard Alastair Fraser say to learn a tune not by "notes", not by "ear", but by "groove". Yeah. Each figure, phrase, turn, whatever you choose to call it, isn’t just a string of notes, but a statement, a definitive feel, a lift. It starts someplace and goes somewhere else. That’s the essence of a tune. The notes, the timing, the phrasing, the tempo, the volume, the swing, all serve to express the feeling.

Others above have expressed the idea of singing, lilting, whistling, humming the tune (phrase). Put that together with the idea of a "groove". When you can sing the notes you hear the way you want to feel them, you know the tune. Maybe you want to swing it, maybe bang it out, speak sweet and soft, or loud and raucous, just make it yours. When you hear it first, really hear it, then it’s a matter of knowing where those notes are on your instrument. It’s not easy at first, nothing is, but when you get it…you got it! In the interest of full disclosure here I have to say that I don’t always practice what I preach, when I do the difference is remarkable.

Personally I can barely keep up with the simplest of bass (my first instrument) lines until I can sing what I want first, so for me this approach is a life saver. Give it a try. Don’t try to memorize, feel the groove, then play it. And hey, if it doesn’t make anything better for you, dump it like a flat, stale Coke. No harm done. Good luck.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Ross, you’ve touched on aomething that is lost on beginners, and often more advanced players as well. Every tune is different, and they have different things that make them interesting and that should be emphasized in each tune. A cookie cutter approach to tunes leads them to be quite boring.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble searching the site for *learning by ear?*?

Teagan, I do (session archive) searches on subjects and questions often. The resources on this site need not be limited to what is added at the present. The archives are a resource for anyone willing to look through them.
And a review of what members have contributed, past and present, can give a broader base of insight on
subjects and questions in which one is interested. Or at least that has been my experience.

ps ~ I catch your drift about cold responses. When I see them I tend to think they are probably not helpful in the least.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

So is it wrong to start a new discussion when old discussions exist on the same subject?

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

No, they need not be limited to that. I don’t disagree with anything you said.

The problem is that the response given above was curt and unwelcoming, if you scroll up and read it… it is pretty clear from the wording of the above response "… before starting yet another new thread…. " (key word being "yet") that the commenter wasn’t trying to be helpful, he was expressing annoyance at the thread. That’s a problem.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

That’s a Gonzo.
I hear you!

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

"So is it wrong to start a new discussion when old discussions exist on the same subject?"
No. But the question of what to post in the discussions section probably should not be reduced to something as mundane as a yes or no criteria. Any & (most) all questions are acceptable. But an occasional ‘twist’ on the classics may stimulate more thoughtful responses than routine calls for (urgent) assistance.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Fair enough.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

If we barred discussions on topics we’d had before then surely this section would eventually expire. I mean, we’ve just about covered everything under the sun. But in fairness, anybody is entitled to re-ask a question and actively participate in new dialogue. The archives are there for reference but the discussions are here for ongoing participation. If certain individuals dislike and/or tire of certain topics, then it’s easy enough for them to just ignore it. Anyhow, how many times do you all go over and over the same tunes? You don’t stop revisiting them because you’ve done it before. It’s all about learning, sharing knowledge, and at the same time socialising.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Gobby, the archives are not passive from my perspective. Are you saying I should ignore a vast resource because it’s not part of your experience in the present?

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

No, I’m definitely not saying that. The archives are incredibly valuable. But I know from the experience of somebody that constantly read the achieved discussions before I ever joined this site, that they raised things that I would have liked to further discuss. It would be pretty chaotic if people such as Kellie, wrote their questions to 12 year old threads instead of starting a new one. I’m not at all underestimating the value of researching achieved discussions;- I’m just suggesting that if people need advice or explanation that it’s best for them to participate in fresh contemporary debate.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

That’s just it, Gobby. Use both! Can you dig it?

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

wouldn’t you need a shovel for that? :-P

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

I’ll take that as a "no you wouldn’t need a shovel for that."

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Kellie, do you want to talk about improving your ear training or just Tweet random comments?

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

well improving my ear training is the focus/goal.

Sorry I’ll be serious now.

Re: Is it normal?

Sorry, we cross posted.
Twice…

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

I like to joke around every now and then though. Sorry.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

A shovel can uncover things or bury them. It depends on how you choose to use it.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Indeed. Thanks for the reference to the old thread Jerone really broke it down and explained it well.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Jerone is a good musician, a good mentor and not a bad dude. :-)

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

I know. Such knowledge and talent. :)

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Yeah, we all agree on that! And a good joke there Kellie!

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Picking up on several of the comments since my last one, especially Fiddle Aunt, Ross Faison and David50.
Yes, everyone has their own way of doing it: just because I think in intervals, scales and arpeggios does not mean that I expect others to think this way or understand it: but it works for me.
And singing through a tune: a technique often used by our tutor: having first taught us a tune in short phrases by ear, we then sing or hum it through a few times before trying to play it: certainly helps!
And as for "groove": I can think of several tunes that look hopelessly complicated in standard notation, mainly because they are syncopated and cluttered with tied notes here, there and everywhere: but played by ear, feeling the groove, do not pose such a great problem to play. (Conversely, if, like me, you like to transcribe tunes you like into notation, you’ll know the problem of getting the right note lengths and tied notes!)

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

My wife and I play in a Celtic band, learn lots of tunes and songs. Here is what we do. She is a fiddler, I play bouzouki and hammered dulcimer.

1. Make a CD, we call it tunes to learn. Put all the tunes/songs on it that you want to learn and play it in the car when driving around. Listen to it a lot. (great for learning lyrics)
2. Put the tune in a program called Capo (http://supermegaultragroovy.com/) This is the one I use, there are a few others out there.
3. Put the A part on a loop, slow it down quite a bit and just start playing along. Slowly things fall into place.
4. After you have the basics of it down, check fingering before you build in muscle memory that could be incorrect, look for alternatives.
5. Start speeding up the tune in Capo.
6. If there is a tricky part or you are learning some Scottish tune (think Alasdair Fraser) that has a lot of embellishments, I slow it waaaay down, and loop a short section. This has really improved my embellishments, at the slow pace you can hear them, exactly what they are doing. This has helped turn a fiddle embellishment into a hammered dulcimer pattern or bouzouki picking pattern.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Without over-complicating the question, but perhaps stating the obvious: being able to decipher tunes on-the-fly is a learned skill. The one serious barrier to learning I have observed is when a musician who is very comfortable playing from sheet music gets frustrated trying to figure out a piece by listening, and consequently falls back on sheet music as a crutch.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Scales and arpeggios yes but it goes beyond that, these "motif families" as I call them, a family of melodic fragments that are musically equivalent, and any member of the family can be substituted at will.

So when ear-learning a tune I don’t necessarily identify the exact sequence of notes in a particular spot, but rather the motif-family that appears there. Any family member will serve when I go to play the tune.

An extremely simple example, one beat of a jig

BAG
BG,G
‘B,BG
B ’ B (take a breath in the middle)
BDD
BGD
B’B,B
BAB
BGB
BdB
BDB
Bdd

and on infinitely.

It’s how people can pick up tunes on the fly so easily; they don’t have to know every exact note, just the shapes.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Do we really want to open yet again the beat to death, opinionated, mostly unsupported ( on both sides) arguments for ear learning versus reading? Learn how you will, there’s no compelling evidence for one over the other, just a lot of anecdotal stories and personal notions.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

I don’t agree with that at all. It is extremely easy to spot people in sessions who have learned tunes from notation. It’s a formula for inflexibility and the lack of ability to adapt. Sticks out like a sore thumb.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Steve, are you referring to players who learn exclusively from notation and never learn a single tune by ear or players who learn some tunes by ear and some with notation?

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Yes Steve I agree with you. It is easy to spot players who have learned a tune from a score…and left it there, without what I call an Irish sensibility. Same is true with those who learn any tune in any genre from score without "learning the tune" and learning the genre. I can also spot some players who learn only by ear. They’re the ones who only approximated the tune…and left it there. I’d sum it up by saying that of course you can learn a tune from notes and you best learn to play it by ear. I suspect you know just what I mean.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

some of us don’t have a choice but to learn by ear- I take no pride in having failed
to learn notation over 50 and more years since I started playing
but there it is - other things just got in the way. I’m now having a go at learning ABC but
as some members might have noticed its not going too well…………….

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Kellie, do you have software like the Amazing Slow Downer? Many musicians use software to help them loop and slow down music to make learning by ear easier.

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Or as Llig used to say, an "Amazing Speed Upper" if you are listening to Martin Hayes. ;-P

Mind you, Martin can play at a fair old lick too when it suits.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

However, Llig and a few others argued against this type of software as it wasn’t quite the same thing as playing slowly in that the rhythm and beat (of the foot) differed.

Not sure of the technicalities there but I’ve still found such aids to be useful as long as I can build up to regular speed very quickly thereafter. Also, there’s usually no need to slow things down too much. Between 10% and 25% is usually enough.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

There was none of that fancy slow down software when I was a lad learning! But I think it’s a great tool . Get the ear trained up slowly then it’s easier to get the tunes at pace. Good luck.

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

I think I am in the exact same position as you. Having played from sheet music I would like to be able to play by ear. As many have stated, and I completely agree with them, it does not come natural and is hard but gets easier with practice and this is really the key - practice. Here are some resources I found on the web from a simple google search that you might find useful.

https://www.earmaster.com/
I ended up buying this software and do not regret it. It covers a lot of things a music major would need and has a good section on what it calls “melody dictation” which is what we are looking to do. You can download it free for a week to try it out.

https://www.reddit.com/r/musictheory/comments/1mde7c/the_ear_training_resource_guide/
This is an article on various other ear training tools which I though was interesting.

I ended up trying the two sites below before finally purchasing Earmaster.

https://www.iwasdoingallright.com/tools/ear_training/online/

http://musictrainingclub.com/relative-pitch-trining-level-1/

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Thanks Tony! :)

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

I wish Kevin Bourke had one of those amazing speed-uppers on his you-tube fiddle lessons (…yawn!).

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Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

Under Tools (in the Youtube window), you can change the speed to 0.25, 0.5, 1, 1.25, 1.5 and 2 (in fact, x2 makes Kevin Burke’s teaching speed sound like a normal tune).

Re: Is it normal to have trouble learning by ear?

It’s his speaking that needs speeding up!

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