How one learns and how one plays

How one learns and how one plays

I know the question of learning by standard notation, or ‘dots’, versus learning by ear has been discussed to death, and it’s not my intent to revive those discussions. However, something did occur to me as a kind of thought experiment:

Person A learns using standard notation, but also listens diligently to the music they are playing

Person B learns only by ear, and, obviously, would have to also listen diligently to the music they’re playing

Would there be any difference between the two persons in how they interpret (play) the music on their instruments?

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Re: How one learns and how one plays

Always!… I hope.

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Re: How one learns and how one plays

There may be endless permutations to the way each of us learns, and puts that learning into practice. So far in all of the past discussions I have seen endless opinion and not a shred of evidence that one way is in any way superior. Lots of anecdotes, lots of examples, all of which conveniently ignore the anecdotes and examples to the contrary. So…no, no more than the differences that would exist between any two players learning and playing in their own ways.

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Reading gives you access to more stuff than you could ever hope to hear, still less learn.
It is possible to get by without reading but it’s no advantage, any more than not reading the written word gives you an advantage in the literary world. A handicap in fact, unless you are happy with a tiny repertoire.
But - it’s really important to be able to get the tunes already in your head out to your instrument - so practicing these freely from memory should be first priority.
I first realised this when a group of learners I was with were unable to play "Happy Birthday" without looking at the notes. It struck me that if you can’t play Baa Baa Black sheep etc. from memory, and all the other stuff you’ve had planted in your brain, then you haven’t really begun, even if you are quick reading from a score.

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I agree with Ross. But when will we ever stop flogging this horse. Surely it’s dead by now?

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Statements like "Reading gives you access to more stuff than you could ever hope to hear, still less learn." that shows that the horse could still use a good walloping. ;-)

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Ha, ha, Yes!

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I think the question the OP is asking might be better worded as "would an experienced musician be able to tell, on hearing another musician, whether s/he falls into category A or category B?" I would think the answer to that question would be "no". It should be noted, since the OP clearly stated that person A would be diligently listening to the music, that this is a different question than "would an experienced musician be able to tell whether another musician learned 1) only by dots, without diligent listening, or 2) exclusively by ear?" The answer to that question, I think, is obviously "yes", but it poses a false dilemma in that it leaves out the possibility of the musician who listens diligently and also uses dots.

It’s important to know which question you’re actually arguing about.

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Speaking as somebody who was taught to read music as a child (about 150 years ago) my perception is that it can be restricting. I can remember mechanically following the notes on the page, slowing down when it becomes harder. It also produces a psychological dependency on the paperwork being present, even when the tune is committed to memory.

I also have the experience of learning tunes without music. This can be good and bad. The bad is is some "workshop" methods where a "teacher" reveals the tune is short snippets disconnected from the whole of how the tune actually sounds. The good is where I have a recording of a tune I like and I work out how to play it without using notation. Having said that, a quick look at notation can provide a kick start and I am comfortable with this providing the notation is jettisoned early in the process. I have noticed that now even if I am playing a tune with notation available, I am not actually playing the exact notes as set out

Until recently I would have said that reading music allows access to a wealth of music that would not otherwise be possible. These days many examples can be found on YouTube (ranging from the brilliant to the shockingly bad) . I like to listen to as many different versions of a tune as possible home in on a version or style that I like.

Sadly I will never play as well as Kevin Burke even if I do listen obsessively to all his recordings

The other aspect of this much discussed topic, which I have also experienced, is the disdain in which people who use sheet music are often held in sessions. This has little to do with how we actually learn music or even with our ability to learn by ear.

I have been to sessions where people who maybe learn by ear certainly don’t play by ear as they can ignore what those around them are actually playing and simply belt out there own learned version even if it is in conflict

So I don’t see this as an us and them with right and wrong ways of doing thins - we learn from combinations of methods and influences. It’s really nice to be able to play without music - but we shouldn’t be damned if we do.

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For me reading is an added complication.

Like learning a new launguage. You can get it into your head by talking to people but written launguage is a whole other ball game with it’s own rules.

Irish tuned aren’t complicated which helps AABB etc… rather than Mozart.

If u can read and it helps then id use it in full but if u cant or dont read well then why complicate things.

There’s so much more to sounding good than getting the notes in right order, that can’t be written down.

Ps i can read just choose not to

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Learning music from sheet music implies that it’s not memorized. Learning music by ear implies that it is memorized.

This doesn’t mean you can’t memorize music you learn from sheet. And it also doesn’t mean you automically memorize music you learn by ear. You can learn the notes from a sheet and abandon it. You can learn a tune by ear, but not learn it thoroughly enough to have a clear understanding of it.

You can also memorize music but can’t delivery it on the instrument. I could lilt plenty of tunes to you, but not play them on any of my instruments. The point is, music deserves time to be learned thoroughly. When you take shortcuts(keeping sheet music on hand because you haven’t committed the tune to memory), you lose music.

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If your "Person A" is listening to the music as diligently as your "Person B", then why does "Person A" need the notation ?

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I think the answer depends entirely on where you are on the learning curve. In the early stages, if you learn a tune by ear you will pick up stylistic clues from the person you are listening to. Whereas if you learn that tune from dots you don’t get those clues and just play what is on the page, so your rendition is likely to be a bit flat and lifeless. But later on, once you are proficient in the music, it doesn’t matter which way you learn a tune, you’ll impose your own style on it and play it the same way whether you got it from dots or ears.

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I share the reservations about "methods where a ‘teacher’ reveals the tune is short snippets disconnected from the whole". Workshops reveal that is it not at all obvious that all Persons B " listen diligently to the music".

That sort of tune learning may, however, be good mental exercise for those like me who haven’t the patience for "ear training" exercises using snippets that don’t come together to make a tune.

I need to get to a state like Jerone describes of having the whole tune stored so that even if I can only ‘hear’ the next phrase or so in my head I know where the whole tune is going. I still haven’t cracked finding the first few notes though.

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In theory, no difference. In practice, maybe a difference!

I learn 99% of tunes mostly from books, but I always listen to how other players play it via Spotify and YouTube – for speed, swing, rhythm and also to see if there’s a general common denominator of notes between different players’ versions (I don’t want to be learning a highly unusual setting of a tune – or, at least, if I decide I prefer that unusual setting, I want to know that it differs from what most people play.)

The good side of learning from dots is that I often get an insight into a tune that I simply would not have got from just listening to other players playing it. The bad side is that I tend to play them quite non-idiomatically (at too slow a tempo, with too much double-stopping and probably a little too much ‘lyricism’ for want of a better word). I have to tweak how I play them to meet consensus half-way.

A good example: I learned the reel ‘Johnny When You Die’ from the dots recently, and I assumed it was a gorgeous, lyrical, modal tune to be played at a slow-to-medium tempo the way Martin Hayes would or Kevin Burke might. I was quite shocked when I realised that I actually must have heard Padraig, Dennis and Julia playing it on ‘Kerry Fiddles’ hundreds of times, one of my fave albums, but I hadn’t even clocked it as the same tune, as they play it at a fast tempo in a quite ‘hoedowny’ style.

Swings and roundabouts.

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An oft underrepresented aspect of learning Irish music is learning to translate a piece into whatever style you play simply by playing it, rather than taking it wholesale from the source, be that sheet music or a recording. I’m frequently baffled by people playing sets of tunes that they learned from different recordings in wildly different styles, and that strikes me as just as inherently wrong as those players who learn tunes straight off the page and add nothing to them.

Ultimately these discussions come down to whether a player has a handle on the style that he or she plays, and if you modify your original example a little bit it shows what players A and B do differently.

Player A is able to articulate the elements that make up his or her style, i.e. nearly always cut on the beat, breath only on the second half of a beat, use pats to emphasize the off beat in reels, so on and so forth.

Player B is inherently able to reproduce the rhythmic and melodic elements that comprise his or her style, but not necessarily articulate them in plain terms.

I find that the world of accomplished players is divided fairly straight along those lines.

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Do I have to have my own style? If I get chance to play with better players I will usually be ‘following’ their style. Maybe just one person whose way with that tune catches my ear.

If I start a tune it just comes out the way I play it at the time, probably influenced by who I have just been listening to or playing with.

When playing with my not-so-experienced fellows I try to follow the style of person who started the tune, or whoever takes over if that person needs help, or just get on with it if seems to be me who has the best grip on it.

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That’s the difference between us then David. I work on all of my tunes individually and pay a great deal of attention to what I’m doing. I don’t find it acceptable to play in a generic flute style.

Not to say I advocate playing over others or trying to stick out, but I work hard to maintain an individual voice on my instrument. Sessions are musical conversations, and it does a disservice to other musicians not to bring your own voice.

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Who said anything about generic? If I drive all day listening to John McKenna then go to a session my playing will probably be more McKenna influenced than before.

I have come to realise I have a top-down approach. Picking up on what Jerone says, if I can lilt a tune but not play it on my instrument then when I work on it the technical parts (e.g. whether I cut into the beat) come from an attempt to render what is in my head. What’s in my head may change with time or the circumstance of the moment.

I don’t get this bottom up ‘lego brick’ approach to tunes and variation. Follow the dots (or whatever) to pick a red or a green block then use a blue one instead next time round as a variation to make a wall with a pretty pattern.

Not to say I won’t transcribe a tune (more likely edit some dots from the web) so that I can sit back and look at it to think about how it works.

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The question got asked: "If your "Person A" is listening to the music as diligently as your "Person B", then why does "Person A" need the notation?" I can’t speak for every "Person A", but this Person A learns tunes more quickly, efficiently, and permanently from dots on a page than from a recording. (Better than either, for me, is for somebody to teach me the tune.) I can say this definitively, having learned numerous tunes both ways (recording and dots. I can’t always get somebody to sit down and teach me a tune).

I wish people would get out of their heads the idea that this music is uniquely unsuited for musical notation. The sheet music doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to play Brahms effectively, either, by a long shot.

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Based on the original post and premise
as stated, nothing precludes person A and B from being the same person. A specific tune was not referred to. A and B learn and they play the music. Is there a need for the dots in this instance? Obviously not. Can one tell the difference? Probably not. Did learning by dots imply anything other than learnt by dots? Probably not. Does learning by ear imply anything other than learnt by ear? Probably not. Who might A ( and, in this instance B) be - probably some of the greatest individuals to play the music and who have stated that they have found old tunes in manuscript form which they learned, among other tunes learned in multiple ways, I would venture.

Brian

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I think experienced musicians can tell when someone hasn’t listened diligently, and all too often beginning or inexperienced musicians think that they *are* listening diligently even when they’re not, and this especially happens with those who typically learn from sheet music.

I think that experienced musicians who advocate for learning by ear do so because they’re trying to force people who aren’t listening well to develop their listening ability. It takes a lot of training and/or repetitions to hear everything that’s going on in a recording (or from the musician next to you at a session), and many people who learn from sheet music miss that training by using sheet music. But many people miss that training even when learning by ear.

The key is the diligent listening - I think having feedback through lessons (or informal criticism) is necessary to help learn how to listen better. Most experienced musicians are nice enough not to provide public criticism, which is why lessons are usually the best solution!

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I was about to post on this thread as an ardent supporter of traditional notation(dots) being perfected to the extent of being able to confidently sight read at performance speed and having thousands of pieces to enjoy playing. If all you "memory/little bit of notation" players are happy being able to enjoy playing a few dozen tunes only, then that is the end of the discussion. I then saw the comment by tdrury that says it all:

"I wish people would get out of their heads the idea that this music is uniquely unsuited for musical notation. The sheet music doesn’t tell you everything you need to know to play Brahms effectively, either, by a long shot".

John

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I think you’d have been arguing against a strawman, had you done that, Namder.

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If you can learn the tune by "diligent listening", there’s nothing extra you’ll learn from any sheet music. That was my point, or at least, my sincerely held opinion. Anyone is perfectly at liberty to disagree.
As for this - "I wish people would get out of their heads the idea that this music is uniquely unsuited for musical notation". I don’t recall anyone on this website ever making any such statement , so it’s completely irrelevant. If I’ve missed such a statement, please show me where.
And I know, and can play far more than " a few dozen tunes", without any recourse to sheet music.

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The term "diligent listening", whether you learn/play from notation or by ear, is the operative here, at least I think so. Still we have to be aware that none of us "hears’ the same thing at the same time. (Maybe that’s one of the reasons that the guy who gets paid the most in the orchestra is the one who shakes a stick). "Dots" can be limiting, but only if we let them. So, by the way, can ear learning. Please don’t tell me that you don’t know somebody who can’t break away from slavish repetition of the way he "heard" a tune played and learned it that way. I’ll say again, no one way has a greater advantage, or limitation over another other than the limits the player brings to it. I do think, although I could be wrong, that there is a significant difference between the concepts of memorization and learning. One leads to playing the notes and the other to playing, and playing with, the tune. My take on it anyway.

In any event, I agree that listening is imperative to playing well. The two most important players to listen to would be anybody who isn’t you, and yourself. When you can’t tell the difference maybe you’ve finally arrived!

Oh and man this horse is starting to smell!

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Dfost, does player A play what is written on her/his notation, as written?

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[*Person A learns using standard notation, but also listens diligently to the music they are playing*]

dfost, did you mean that Person A learns the tune from standard notation, never actally having heard the tune before? Or, has heard the tune at least once, has a rough idea of how if goes, then completes the learning from notation only?

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In response to some inquires about what I meant in the OP…

I learn tunes both ways, but usually just by ear, and wondered if the way I eventually played the tune would have been favorably influenced by getting my first ‘take’ on the tune from a purely aural experience. I have a vague sense that when I learn the basic structure of the tune from written music, I’m not really getting the nuance and subtlety that differentiates written music from played music, and will need to listen carefully to some good players to get that. My assumption, which may be incorrect, is that once a tune is learned from the dots, a conscientious player would then listen carefully to more advanced players to to learn the more stylistic aspects of the tune that are not conveyed by written music. Maybe it’s better to get that expressive sense of the tune early on, rather than after learning the basic notes and timing of the tune.

Many of these comments have been interesting and informative to me. Though this subject has been much discussed, there may still be some useful insights gained from listening to the experiences and opinions of others learning the same kind of music. Thanks very much everyone.

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Everyone’s brain is different, these kind of discussions are interesting, but it’s useless to make generalizations. Developing the ability to learn quickly by ear, even if you’re wired up to primarily learn visually, is a useful and practical skill to have if you’re a session player with several hundred tunes under your belt. Often times it is possible to play a previously unknown tune spot-on by the second time around in a session based on patterns you already have in your fingers.

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I just don’t let myself get hung up on any of this any more. I can sight-read notation and use that a lot to learn new tunes, then listen to various versions of that tune to kind of flesh it out to my liking. And other times I hear a tune that I love and just figure it out by ear — and again tweak it based on various versions I hear. I firmly believe that the beauty of this genre of music — as well as with bluegrass, old time, jazz and other genres — is that it reflects an individual’s feeling and touch. And as a result it really frees me to enjoy and explore the music so much more. I don’t feel like there is a standard for any tune to which I must adhere.

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As long as one listens to The Music in addition to reading sheet music in the learning process, the resulting playing should be indistinguishable. And a player who knows the idiom well can play something from sheet music that sounds quite acceptable to the ear. It is the person who reads from sheet music and applies the sensibilities of a different tradition that misses the mark.

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I learn from the sheet music without embellishments, then add my own (sometimes piping embellishments as I am also a piper). I also sometimes will change note lengths to suit my preference. In Sessions I prefer to have the music handy, but seldom look at it - I need the psychological effect of having it there - I have had no adverse comments.
My wife plays strictly according to the sheet music and often comments "that is not what is written", but as a man I do not pay attention!
I can learn by ear if necessary though.

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Who is the author of the sheet music? I have never, I repeat, never seen a copy of an Irish tune notated with all the articulations necessary to make it sound Irish. Most authors just notate the notes without any indication of how they are to be played. Don’t condemn the tool; condemn he who does not know how to use it.

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I heard from a friend of a classical musician ( violinist) who was presented with the sheet music of a traditional tune- he then sight- read the piece not only with accuracy but with real feeling and personal interpretation. A good musician makes use of whatever presents itself - the rest of struggle which ever way we do it!!!

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The difference not really touched upon in this thread is memory.
Tunes I learn acoustically – either in a workshop or by picking them up in a session – stay in my memory far better than tunes I heard somewhere, found on The Session and then learned from dots (supplemented by further listening).
I believe the difference is the channel: learning acoustically or visually. If you learn by sheet music you’ll often have a visual memory of the tune, e.g. the beginning.
Somebody once mentioned different parts of the brain might be involved, i.e. acoustic learning going straight into the right, more intuitive side, whereas intellectual learning = processing from written scores, is left-brained, analytical.
I would assume that more intuitive learning would also show up in a more intuitive playing style …