When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Is there ever any need at all?

I had been making a point to only learn Geraldine Cotter’s book by ear. I had been doing fine learning the tunes (I thought) however last night I was in the other room and couldnt be bothered to keep going back and forth to the computer to reply the bit I was learning so I took a look in the book.

I realised that I had made quit a few errors. Is that normal though? I read/heard that that is all part of the tradition. People remember incorrectly and/or make minor tweaks as they go.

So is it no problem that I was remembering the tune slightly differently or should I be aiming for perfect memory of the notes?

I ask cos I am wondering whether I would pick up the lost notes as I heard the tune more or if playing the ‘wrong’ notes is forming bad habit or is it like miles davis says that there are no wrong notes?

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Arthur, I can only say what I would do if I were in the same situation. But ultimately it’s your decision about how you want to learn and when and in what order you choose which sources for reference.

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

The police aren’t going to knock on your door and take you away for it Arthur.
Re-Miles Davis, what he meant when he said there were no wrong notes is that a good jazz musician will make a ‘wrong’ note right by following it up with notes that make it right. But that’s Jazz, not ITM, where there are plenty of wrong notes. If there weren’t, then you wouldn’t be needing to ask your question.

One last general grumble…. I’m just about to have my breakfast, but as is my habit, I read the latest posts first. It felt so bloody disheartening to see yet another potential notes versus ears thread. When will we ever learn that this whole topic is a false dichotomy?

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

ok with who?

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

I’d like to know what the difference is between learning by ear, and learning by reading notation.
Diehard purists turn their noses up at notation. There seems to me to be a notion that if you learn from notation (I’m not going to call it "dots") that you’re going to be infected with a deadly plague that prevents you from ever varying from how you originally learned the tune. As if!
I’ve heard people strike up a tune that I reckon I know, then I realise they’re playing in a different key to what I would go for. Look for the tune online, and even in here, find 4 or 5 different versions and none of’em the same as the one ye recorded in your phone. Strewth!! Gimme the notation for your version that I just recorded on my phone please! I’m slow, I’m hard of hearing, and like I’ve published elsewhere - "Every note hard won!"
Let’s hope to never ever again hear any controversy about notes versus ear.

(Don’t go holding yer breath now, ye hear?"

Alex.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Sometimes it feels like Ground-hog day all over again!

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

I did not know you observe Groundhog Day is Australia.
It’s good to learn on even the most, **potentially dangerous** threads.
;)

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

No Ben. We don’t! I was referring to the movie and to Bill Murray’s experience of waking up each day to the same horrible experience;- in this instance my waking up to see another posting of same old dot’s versus ear ear debate.

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Gobby, I think (hope) it’s safe to consider Arthur’s question as a new post and not fall into any potential quagmires which may have opened up in past discussions. It may be difficult to forget the past but it may be worth the effort to keep an open mind and respond the best you know how.

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Yep,… Sorry Arthur… I’m just having a light hearted moan to myself! What actually annoys me most is that I always feel compelled to keep reading.

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Is it okay to put the notes under my pillow and learn by osmosis?

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"Once more into the breach…" By now I can barely see anything over the sides of this rut.

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"Is it okay to put the notes under my pillow and learn by osmosis?" Well I reckon that question leads to my answer to the whole on-going debate Callison, i.e.,- "Whatever get’s you through the night".

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Sheet music isn’t inherently bad or evil. You just don’t want to depend on it to be able to play a tune. If you understand how The Music is suppose to sound, learning a tune by sheet music isn’t going to hurt you and magically damage your playing.

It seems the main problem with learning music by sheet, for Irish music, is that learning music by sheet is *associated with* "not memorizing" the music; whereas "memorizing" a tune in Irish music only means memorizing the basic melodic pattern, rather than committing to a non-varying setting written in stone. It’s a mess I know.

There is literally nothing wrong with learning a tune by sheet, if you know how the music is supposed to sound. Now, if you don’t know how the music is supposed to sound, all kinds of problems can crop up when learning by sheet, because Irish music isn’t notated in the standard/traditional way. That’s why it’s so important for a classical musician learning Irish music to understand how the music is supposed to sound. The sheet will give them the wrong information, concerning rhythm and emphasis. And that’s a big deal.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

These replies are the worst I have ever seen posted on this forum.
What is going on? I cannot see how the drift of this thread has anything to do with Arthur Gondolor’s question.

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Re: …

Thank you, Jerone. Your light is shining bright; as always.

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

The point of the replies is a valid one Ben. Why doesn’t Arthur just research the hundreds of previous posts on the same subject? What’s your new advice to Arthur, by the way?

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

"I realised that I had made quit a few errors. Is that normal though? I read/heard that that is all part of the tradition. People remember incorrectly and/or make minor tweaks as they go.

So is it no problem that I was remembering the tune slightly differently or should I be aiming for perfect memory of the notes?"

There is a chance that you didn’t hear the notes wrong at all. The only way to know if you heard the notes correctly is to learn the tune well enough to play along with the recording. I say that there is a chance that you didn’t hear the notes wrong because the player very well could’ve intentionally played the recording with variation from the setting written in the book.

A great exercise you can do, is learn the tune by ear perfectly(you know that you are playing the same notes as the recording), and then double check to see if those notes match the setting that’s transcribed in the book. I do this all the time on piano because sometimes I have to find the right recordings of sheet music that I’ve purchased.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Gobby, please don’t ask me what Arthur should do on his thread. That’s exactly why I posted my opinion above about the first handful of replies.

To answer your question I will say this. Arthur, if you want to learn from Geraldine Cotter’s book and cd;
use them both. She has a great introduction to tin whistle even before she gets to the tunes.
I recommend it as you are new to the instrument. Every single instrument you learn has certain distinct features. If you give it time I think you’ll find that despite it’s simplicity and limitations the whistle can be a wonderful way to play Irish music. But you may need to spend some time focused on her tutorials, progressively in order to become familiar with how the music sounds and how it’s played on tin whistle (as opposed to how you played the music before). I’m not saying you need to follow her lessons strictly before jumping into the tunes.
But I do think her tutorial is one of the best and it may help to learn as much as you can there and
then progress to the tunes she has included.

Having said that, if you find you’re learning the tunes by ear differently then what you’re reading
on the sheet music I’d say go over both of them and determine where the differences are in your playing
& when it’s in the sheet music. If it’s variation that is part of playing the music.
If it’s wrong notes or something off that’s different.

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

" Gobby, please don’t ask me what Arthur should do on his thread" …
I was merely pointing out that your own comment (i.e., These replies are the worst I have ever seen posted on this forum.What is going on? I cannot see how the drift of this thread has anything to do with Arthur Gondolor’s question) , contributed nothing more towards answering Arthur’s question as any of the comments you were objecting to. And I still maintain that the rather jocular protests are valid in that this dead horse has been flogged back to life so many times that it gets beyond being merely tedious. fair enough, if Arthur was a new poster, but he’s been around long enough to have kept up with all the previous discussions on the topic (or he could re-visit them). And like I said, my own response was just a light hearted moan. The worst replies you’ve ever seen posted on this forum?… Oh come on Ben… I don’t think so…… I mean your one of the old boys on this site.

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

eh?

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

I agree!

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Gobby, what is your advice for the OP?

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

To research all the previous discussions on ears versus note reading. But fair enough Ben, he has the right to post, and nobody but my mad self forces me to read it ( I read all of them).

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Fair enough, Gobby. While it may be difficult to separate this from previous discussions I feel it may be most helpful to do just that. Arthur, there are discussions on this subject worth searching for, though at this time I think one of the best responses to your query was posted right here. I would be hard pressed to find a better answer than the one posted above by Jerone Williams ~ https://thesession.org/discussions/40698#comment818710

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Agreed!

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Firstly, Arthur, well done for taking on the challenge of learning by ear. You can expect there to be errors at first, but you are learning a very valuable skill. As for your opening question, it’s one of those questions like "How long does it take to learn the piano?". It would have been ‘OK’ to look at the sheet music after the first note, if you’d wanted to - although that wouldn’t have done much for your ear skills. But I can think of two sensible answers to the question:
i. When you come upon a phrase that you can’t figure out or are very unsure of, refer to the dots rather than ‘fudge’ it;
ii. When you have learned a complete tune (or just a section) by ear, compare what you have learned with what is written. Note the discrepancies, then listen back to the recording to hear how it differs from what you were playing.

It is relatively rare to have a recording with an exact transcription accompanying it, so make the most of it.

"… that is all part of the tradition. People remember incorrectly and/or make minor tweaks as they go."

Yes, mishearing, misremembering and creative interpretation are all legitimate factors in the ‘folk process’. But what is your primary aim here, Arthur? To fuel the folk process or to learn tunes? I would say that it would be far more advantageous to you as a musician to hone your ear skills and learn the tunes as accurately as you can; the folk process can take care of itself.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Arthur - here’s what I think.

There are two separate skills here - reading ability and the ability to pick up a tune by ear. It’s good to enforce discipline and play *exactly* what’s written on the page, then play it from memory. Once you can do that, then you can decide if you want to change any notes, phrasing etc.

Assuming the audio matches the notation, then you can develop your ear/memory so you can play the tune from repeated listenings. If you can’t remember certain notes or phrases, listen to the audio again, rather than look at the notation, otherwise you will not be training you ear/memory properly.

You can make the choice of learning mainly be ear, and in this music I think that’s the best way to learn tunes (although possibly not the easiest or quickest way). By and large they are all pretty simple, short, use common repeating patterns and don’t require huge feats of memory.

You’ll still need your reading skills if notation is the only source of the tune.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Learning "by ear" can be just as restrictive and rigid experience as depending on the dots especially if you continually do so in the " phrase by phrase"/"parrot fashion" style.
Many people never seem to get away from this.

I’m all for learning by ear but prefer to listen to the tune a few times. Then it’s much easier to transfer what is in my head to the instrument….With or without the aid of "the dots".
This seems like a a far more natural and relaxed way of doing things…to me anyway.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Johnny Jay, I’m right with you. Some time ago I went to a workshop and the instructor threw out each tune in it’s entirety, maybe at a modest tempo at first, each one over and over again. It encouraged the notion of "learning the whole tune ", rhythm, lift, ornamentation, the feel of the tune, as opposed to memorizing the notes and where to put the fingers. Sadly, that method wasn’t very well received because it wasn’t what everybody else did. I’ve been to several workshops now and can say that every tune taught phrase by phrase has long since left me, yet her few are still there. Funny how that works. I think ( my opinion here) tunes are learned best with the instrument in your lap for a good long while.

As an aside, my choice for learning tunes phrase by phrase if I must, is to learn it "back to front" instead of "front to back". that way I’m never guessing where the tune is going. I’ll already know.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Thanks Ross, the phrase by phrase approach is arguably good for beginners especially those who haven’t really listened to much traditional music before. However, you really need to move beyond that while still learning by ear.
There is a risk too, I believe, that a particular version or setting(right or wrong) can get fixed in your memory and can be hard to shake off. Also, there’s a danger that you may continue to play the tune in the same stilted and exaggerated style in which you first picked it up.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

THanks for replies.

Yes Im aware of older notes vs ears debates but I think saying mine is just like those is an oversimplification. Well maybe not but it just didn’t dawn on me that that is what I was asking at the time.

Good replies from jim, creador (howeer you spell that welsh name) and Jerome and maybe some others I forgot.

Like others have said, I was tending toward the idea of it being a muscle you train so it is spoiling that training if you immediately jump to the book. That was until I realised I had been playing different. And btw Jerone or whoever said it, it wasn’t that she was also playing different notes to the book because when I also played those written notes I also realised they better fit the sound I recalled her playing.

If you don’t play it exactly as it was recorded/heard you can use the excuse it is your own ‘variation’ can you not? and indeed it is isn’t it?

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I like Paul Cranfords Publications. Great to play through note for note. For example, Chris Langan’s publication of how he played his Uilleann pipe tunes note for note. Also Willy Clancy’s book note for note. Gee, I guess I don’t count cause I read music. But seriously, it can correct a lot of mistakes in timing and notes. The embellishments belong to the musician but I think the tune remains written down as a guide . No music should be played exactly as written unless you want to sound like elevator music or a machine.

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The learning by ear then trying to play with the recording seems like the best suggestion because it checks for errors and also is how it would be done ‘naturally’ in the wild at sessions wouldnt it, so you arent adding any artificial element to learning as you would be with notes, which would no longer be there if you were at a session.

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[*If you don’t play it exactly as it was recorded/heard you can use the excuse it is your own ‘variation’ can you not? and indeed it is isn’t it?*]

Of course - but it needs to be something you’re personally happy with. You can fool others, but you can’t fool yourself 🙂

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"By and large they are all pretty simple, short, use common repeating patterns and don’t require huge feats of memory."

That’s good to know. My feet are only average.

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Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Except polkas in 47/3.

Sorry, I forgot aboot them ones.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

It is OK to look at sheet music as long as you don’t inhale…

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

I learn some tunes by ear, and rather more from sheet music which I then get used to. I could learn everything by ear, except that at my back I hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near…

I quite often find that I’ve changed the way the tune is played on the sheet music. Sometimes it’s because I know the tune from hearing it on an old LP or from dancing to it. If that’s the case, there is certainly nothing wrong with playing it differently from the sheet music.

But even where I don’t know the tune in another context, but have changed the notes, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s usually just a note or two and if I think, I can find an explanation - my way is easier to play, flows more, or uses a more ‘customary’ transitional note. In other words, from playing lots of folk tunes, I’ve got a sense of how they go and sometimes Brain suggests that the tune I’m learning is untypical and so I reinstate a more traditional pattern.

To answer your question, it’s okay to check your version against the sheet music every so often, but don’t be too bothered about minor changes, only changes that alter the essential spirit of the tune.

I sometimes have to check the sheet music to start me off - I know the tune ‘like the back of my hand’ but the mental fog is such that I can’t remember the opening notes. Once I’ve checked the first two bars, I’m away. It’s a Codger Thing. 🙂

It’s fab to learn by ear. It’s fab to learn from sheet music. It is fab to learn whatever way suits you. What matters is that you can join in playing and you don’t, or don’t always, have to tote along a music stand.

I have a good ear and if I know the tune, I can play it, more or less first go, and okay by the third go. My husband needs sheet music at present - he’s learning the concertina - and when he is good enough to join our session, he’ll need to have *memorised* the tunes.

We both love the music, and we are both doing our best. What can we do more?

Live long & prosper! 🙂

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

Use sheet music when you want - but learn tunes in your head because it’s not that hard - intact it’s a natural function of the brain - it’s hard to not learn them.

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"I had been making a point to only learn Geraldine Cotter’s book by ear."
Have to make the obvious point - throw away the book and see how you get on. This will give you part of the answer to the question.
Then try and play a tune which you can barely remember except for the title and can’t find a recording of.

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"… throw away the book and see how you get on."

No, that’s a bad idea. It’s written by an excellent musician who is also an excellent teacher, so there’s a lot of good information in there. Even if you learn the tunes (any of the 100 selected tunes at the back of the book) entirely by ear, it is worth working through the parts of the book that deal with breathing, articulation and ornamentation.

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" I think ( my opinion here) tunes are learned best with the instrument in your lap for a good long while."

What I used to do when I was taking fiddle lessons (old-timey, not ITM, but the same principal) was to record the tune I was learning at the end of the lesson and then make a CD of it when I got home with about 10 to 20 copies of the tune on the Cd so it would play the tune over and over for about 30 to 45 minutes. Then I would listen to it driving back and forth to work (about a 45 minute drive each way) for about 2 to 3 days before I would start working on it with the fiddle.

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"It seems the main problem with learning music by sheet, for Irish music, is that learning music by sheet is *associated with* "not memorizing" the music; "

Personally, the reason I recommend learning by ear (and teach that way) is because all too often learning music by sheet is associated with not hearing much of what’s going on in the music. It isn’t about memorization, after all *theoretically* if you learn a tune by ear note for note, you could be stuck just mechanically reproducing it (although I’ve never heard this happen, as it takes a tremendous amount more skill to mechanically reproduce Willie Clancy than a sheet music), rather it’s that urging people to learn by ear will hopefully help them hear the nuances of rhythm, lift, ornaments, breathing, and the basic notes of course, which is the whole package, and not something you get in sheet music / ABCs / midi.

Another way of putting it is that when you’re first learning Irish traditional music, you’ve got three distinct but interrelated things you’re learning: the Music, the Tune, and your instrument. I’d say in general it’s ok to learn a Tune from notation, but you’re not likely to get the Music that way.

Arthur, feedback of when you heard a note wrong is exactly the sort of thing you’d get from a teacher. Since you’re still a beginner, then I’d say that as long as you’re not using the notation as a crutch to avoid learning by ear (and hence not developing your ability to hear the details), then it’s probably alright to use it to correct yourself - but if at the end of the book you haven’t gotten a single tune by ear without that crutch, you may want to reconsider. And possibly get yourself to a teacher.

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Yes since learning by ear its alot easier to play it like she does with the swing etc. since all that nuance is fresh in my mind or ready to hand as Heidegger would have said.

Re ‘throw away the book’ I would never be so wasteful but I actually havent bothered reading almost any of it, only focusing on the cd. But I will it is just I havent gotten round to it, too busy learning by ear.

To Jimmy’s comment about the notes being satisfactory to oneself; yes they sound fine. It is only cases of if the notes were something like going down b a g g, i would instead play b a a g, something like that.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

The point in the opening post that is the most important is that written music can make easier the job of getting the basic tune down. Fiddle sheet music is quite simple to read, but the huge amount of nuance that can also be notated on the staff tends to make the job of learning to read music seem daunting.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

The answer to the question is that you look at the written music some time between starting to learn the tune and never.

I used to learn tunes by ear in sessions and then search tune books to identify the tunes I knew in order to discover the titles. I still do that sometimes but now I usually search for the notes in online tunefinders to identify the name of the tune - but I still have to know the tune well enough to be able to type in the notes. Then I write down the title and enough of the notes to remind me which one it is, because it is hard to remember titles. You will notice in sessions that some people ask the names of the same tunes every week and then they have forgotten again by the next week. I did not want to do that.

I also now learn from written music but I couldn’t do that when I was first playing because I got the rhythm wrong and made the tune into a dog’s breakfast.

It makes a big difference what instrument you play. I can play every instrument I play by ear or from written music but many melodeon players, for instance, can read music perfectly well EXCEPT when they play the melodeon. The notes and the pushes and pulls on a melodeon make sense to the player (somehow) but they don’t match written music at all well so such people play entirely by ear and only use written music (or strange scrawls no-one else understands) as a vague indication of which tune they are trying to start. The same player might be able to play the piano from written music - but perhaps be completely unable to learn tunes on the piano by ear.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

I had a cracking practice session today learning apples in winter.

I have found a way to loop parts of the recording easily using the audio player and it really streamlines things with a couple of key presses.

Apples in winter is the first tune so far from the cotter book that I can say I really like. The other ones were more just going through the motions but this was has been great fun to learn this evening. I imagine there will be other intersting tunes as I go further into the course.

A big plus I am finding with the whistle is it is so much easier to squeeze in 5 minute practices between work. I do programming so when a script is running I just pick up the whistle while I watch the screen. I could do that with fiddle and I did but it was as easy.

Learning by ear is becoming preferable now, I don’t think it is slower than learning by notes either.

Re: When is it ok to look at the notes if you’ve been learning by ear?

It’s not a genetic gift - it’s a skill that takes work to master, just like learning to read notation. 🙂