Memorizing by Ear!

Memorizing by Ear!

Full confession: I am classically trained. I still play classical. I can’t learn tunes by ear.
I can get the "gist" of them, but I have to see the dots before the tune is mine for keeps. For instance, my mom loves Amelia’s Waltz and I have probably heard it a conservative 250 times…but I can’t play it. I can hum it, but I can’t play it. I put my fingers on my fiddle and…gone.
Part of it is that I’m a visual learner, but I blame some of it on my classical background, too. My question is, can anyone give me some ideas for remembering the tunes I learn without seeing the printed sheet music before getting it perfect?
I feel I should also say that in a session I pick up tunes quickly and can play along after only a couple times through, but once we move on to the next song, it’s gone.
Help!?!

Re: Memorizing by Ear!

What I’d suggest is pick some tunes that you can hum all the way through, and learn those. It’s difficult to memorize tunes that you dont already "know" in the sense that you can hum/lilt/sing them, and that you have an idea of the style from your listening.

The more you do this the more you will be able to notice patterns of notes/rhythms in the music and the easier it will be to learn more tunes by ear.

Feel free to PM me if you want to discuss further.

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You can obviously sing by ear (Amelia’s Waltz). Playing your instrument by ear is just the same - it’s transferring a sound you hear in your head on to your instrument without any intervening thought (as in that’s a C#, or whatever). If you can truly play by ear then you should be able to play any tune, say "Happy Birthday", starting on any random note on your instrument.
It takes practice. A lot of practice. It’s a skill that a lot of classically trained players have never practised because they haven’t needed to. And it can be demoralising to suddenly be so deskilled.

When you say you "can play along after only a couple times through" do you mean you can play the tune or just harmonise along? If you are playing the tune then it is going to be gone once you move on to the next tune if you’ve only played it once or twice. Learning a tune solely by ear takes a lot more repetitions to stick. But it does stick eventually, whereas with the dots in front of you your brain says "I don’t need to learn this" and it never sticks.

Re: Memorizing by Ear!

Wesley got in while I was writing this and he says a lot of what I was going to say very succinctly. But having typed it all out, I might as well post it 🙂 PS Donald too, with some of the same ideas. Ah well.

The thing about playing from music is that the tune can go in through your eyes and out through your fingers without any mental effort on your part. Your brain is half or three-quarters asleep. The tune whizzes by in a blur and then you’ll turn the page and play another.

I think you have to find some other way of visualising the tunes - or of internalising them. And to go completely cold turkey on printed music for a good while.

Learning to learn by ear takes practice. You have to coopt a bit more of your brain into helping you - eyes and fingers is no longer enough. You actually have to set about the task. It will be painful at first, but it gets easier and easier. And you’ll be so happy you took the time to master it 🙂

I suspect everybody has their own way of constructing a mental roadmap of a tune, but that’s what (I would imagine) most of us do.

One way might be to start with a tune that you know well enough to hum or sing, or one of which you have a recording handy. Learn the tune by ear, by which I mean, find it on your instrument, and make a conscious effort to commit it to memory, phrase by phrase, in smallish sections. Break it down into short musical statements. Listen to the sound you make with each little phrase. Play it lots of times. Use any mental tricks you can to help you map it out - the feeling of your hand or fingertip in a particular position on the fingerboard, the sound of an open string, the shape of a turn in the melody, or even the colour (tonal or visual) of a particular note. Have the tune tell you a story that you can retell - what is it trying to say with each figure or phrase? Find a musical hook that you can hang the tune on…

Another factor that comes into play is pattern recognition. Tunes from a particular tradition use the same building blocks. So the more tunes you learn, the faster you will cotton on to a new tune, because you’ll be reusing chunks that are stored in memory.

Now, you say you can pick up tunes quickly in a session, which implies that you can in fact play by ear (as opposed to learning by ear). So recruit this ability to help you. If you really do know a tune in your head, you will be able to play it. Try playing any tune you know well, not necessarily trad (Happy Birthday or Hark the Herald Angels Sing or the National Anthem or some pop hit or other), focusing on the intervals between notes and learning to recognise them. Then play it again in two or three different keys. No effort will be wasted.

And stay away from sheet music for a good while!

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Re: Memorizing by Ear!

It’s a skill like any other, and if you’re able to pick tunes up in a session, you’re well on your way! Classical training doesn’t impede ability to learn by ear — it just means you’ve gotten really good at another way of learning. And it will be harder to learn a whole new way—not quite like learning to read was the first time, but close!

Here’s a practice method:
1. Find a good recording of a tune you like, played by someone who doesn’t vary the tune too much. Listen to the whole thing with fiddle in hand.
2. After listening to the whole track, go back to the start, and play along for a bar or two, then pause.
3. Play the section again on your instrument.
4. Go back to the start and listen again to make sure what you heard matched what you played.
5. Rinse and repeat with sections of the tune.
6. Connect the sections together, and eventually you’ll have the whole tune.
7. Play along with the recording some more, on repeat, until you feel like you’ve really got it. Then play it without the recording. Still good? Awesome! No? Keep practicing.

Then later, perhaps the next day, try to play it on your own and see if what you worked out stuck in your memory. If not, rinse and repeat!

With each tune you work on, you’ll take fewer repetitions to get it down.

Re: Memorizing by Ear!

Oops, a lot of folks cross-posted similar ideas. Take from it what you will! 🙂

Re: Memorizing by Ear!

> Part of it is that I’m a visual learner

It might help you to know modern psychology has proved that "learning preferences" or "learning styles" do not really exist - we’re just better practised at some than others.

I often recommend functional ear training and learning to sing (relative) solfa, but it sounds like that’s not an issue.

As for memorising stuff on the fly, my instinct is to not worry about it. Those tunes will come back at the next session, and after a few times they will seep into your head.

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Re: Memorizing by Ear!

Re: your trouble with Amelia’s Waltz. Sometimes I will find that I will have trouble playing a tune that’s in my head because I’ll start out in a different key on the fiddle than I was hearing it in my head, and that can throw me off. Maybe cheat a little: find out, or figure out, what the correct key is, then hum it (or whatever) in that key before trying to transfer it to your fiddle.

If you’re so far along that you can pick up tunes on the fly in a session, it is understandable that you’re a bit distressed at having so much trouble with something which "shouldn’t" be such a challenge for you. I think you just need to accept that it’s going to take you more time and effort than you expected, and keep working at it. It will come.

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Re: Memorizing by Ear!

(Emily said)
"in a session I pick up tunes quickly and can play along after only a couple times through"

(my response)
Sounds to me like you can learn tunes by ear just fine! For me (also a visual person by nature) the best thing is to watch somebody, so the visual is reinforcing what my ear hears.

(Emily said)
"once we move on to the next song, it’s gone."

(my response)
Seems to me the crux of the matter is the mode of memory. Obviously to be able to play along after a couple times through means you’re remembering how the tune goes, in that moment.

Many years ago, back when I was fairly new to ITM, I was at an ITM summer camp where there were massive sessions every night. One morning, at breakfast, I happened to meet a guy who was playing the most beautiful tune at the session the night before. I asked him about it, and he said

"I couldn’t play it now. I couldn’t play a single note. I only remember things at the sessions."

(Emily said)
"can anyone give me some ideas for remembering the tunes I learn without seeing the printed sheet music before getting it perfect?"

(my response)
If I were in your shoes I would address two issues you mention in that one sentence "seeing the printed sheet music" and "getting it perfect".

I would set sheet music entirely aside, and try to stay in the ear-learning mode you’re so good at, while in a session.

And I would set aside any illusions about "getting it perfect". No tune is ever perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect version of a tune. Instead, allow yourself the freedom to vary a tune as the whim strikes you and never worry about slavishly copying a specific version you heard somewhere.

A tune is more like a stew: there are many ingredients sloshing around in there, and you can add a bit more salt this time, put in fewer potatoes the next time. Every time you make it, it’s a little different, but it’s still always the same basic stew.

Anyhow about memorizing strategies, I don’t know if you really need any, besides NOT looking at any written versions of the tune you’re memorizing. And remember, if session playing is your goal, the only time you need to know how to play it is when everyone is playing it at the session. Let the hive-mind, or The Force, or whatever it is flow through you and play along. Don’t give a thought to whether or not you will know how to play the tune an hour from now, or the next day.

I’m convinced that if you never look at any sheet music the memory will come. Why? Because that’s exactly how my brain works! I have two distinct brains: the ear-learning brain and the sightreading brain.

If I have sheet music in front of me my sightreading brain takes over, saying "you don’t need to remember this! Just read and play. See? The sheet music is right there! No need to memorise!"

But if I have NO sheetmusic, and I’m just listening to a recording, or watching a video, my sightreading brain gets shut down and my ear-learning brain takes over. I start listening far more intensely, with far more detail, and everything I hear I remember.

(I’m still getting strange errors on my posts here. Sometimes entire sentences or even entire paragraphs disappear, sometimes leaving a letter or two here or there as a fossil.)

Re: Memorizing by Ear!

I’d say try breaking the tune into musical phrases. In the third setting of the tune on The Session, for instance, you might consider the first four measures the first phrase and the second four the second phrase.

I like to think of phrases as questions and answers. And they don’t all have to be four measures long. But in this case that seems to work.

A question phrase has an answer phrase. Yet the question/answer phrase then becomes a larger question phrase for a larger answer phrase. And so on.

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Re: Memorizing by Ear!

Several, including Wesley have hit on one important point. Try this. Forget about memorizing anything. That’s a waste of time. Learn the tune. Learn it by listening over and over, hum it, sing it, if you read, see it. Live with it. However you do it learn the tune. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that you didn’t set out to memorize "Happy Birthday". Sing me your favorite song you hear on the radio. See, you can do it! You learned to "see" and play. You can to "hear " and play. You even tell me you can. I have played more than 700 tunes. I can remember a few dozen off the top, a couple hundred if somebody else starts them. The rest, well, I hope they come back. I’ll bet We’ll be just alike that way after a while.

By the way there is no harm in reading music. Very useful skill wish, daily that I could. That said reading is no substitute for listening and learning. My observation is that many (not all) classically trained musicians don’t really hear what they play. Don’t be one of them. I’m puzzled by the notion that you can hum a tune but not play it. Seems to me that there’s a better connection between your eyes and your hands, than your ear to instrument. That’s pretty easily fixable I think if you work at it. Another thing I picked up on it the notion of "perfect". You don’t have to make it perfect start to finish from the get go. Try a phrase at a time. Capture the "groove" and add "perfection" from there. Oh, and except for the visually impaired, everybody is a visual learner. My two cents (tuppence?) anyway. Good luck.

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I went through this myself about 25 years ago. I was convinced I could not learn by ear. But I can tell you is that it absolutely is possible. I also was a classically trained musician (flute) from the age of six, could read nearly anything you’d put in front of me the first time perfectly.

The very first time I came to a session I brought a music stand and a huge book of music with the tunes. It was one of the most embarrassing nights of my life. It took me about 2 or 3 years to completely switch from learning tunes from sheet music to entirely learning by ear.

I may still use sheet music to remind me how a tune starts, but when I learn a new tune I do it from a recording not from the sheet music.

Just be patient and listen to the suggestions everyone has given you. It may take several years to gain the confidence in your ability to learn by ear but, it is completely worth doing the work.

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If you can hum a tune but not play it, and pick a tune up in a session, I would suggest that learning the tunes isn’t the problem. The problem is maybe more about the connection to your fingers. You’ve built a pathway from your eyes (on the sheet music) through the musical part of your brain to your fingers, and that’s how your fingers are used to taking their instructions. Now you need to build a new pathway, from the bit of your brain that hums a tune to itself through to your fingers. There’s already a pathway from the tune-humming bit to your voice, so you need to build a parallel one.
You could try picking up the fiddle and spending a few minutes every day thinking of a simple musical phrase and playing it, in whatever key falls easily under your fingers. Over time, extend this to a longer session of improvisation, letting musical ideas pop into your head and playing them spontaneously as they emerge. I reckon that in due course the tunes will start just coming out of the fiddle.

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I learnt classical piano for years. Starting late on the violin (and now having no piano) I play tunes I learned in Orkney by memory. I learn tunes from the page (or the.session) and play again and again. Then I try without music. The more you play from memory, the better you know how the notes fall on the strings. Soon I could play lots of tunes eg "The Bluetail Fly" or "House of the Rising Sun" without looking at music - since the tunes are in my head. I am a rather solitary musician; of course you can pick up and memorize music playing with others in sessions, or with friends.

Good luck.

Re: Memorizing by Ear!

Thank you all for your amazing suggestions! I’ll clarify just a couple things about my situation, though:
1. I don’t get to play in sessions that often. Where I live, there are *cough* NO ITM SESSIONS! *much weeping and lamenting*. (There’s bluegrass, though!) However, I go to a HUGE fiddle convention in Westford, MA every year (Fiddle Hell) and also just recently went to NY for Ashokan Music and Dance Camp’s New Year’s Celebration. I learn so many tunes there: for example, at Fiddle Hell I took a class from Sean Heely on strathspeys, and we learned two really good ones I wanted to take home and play. I had them perfect (more on my use of that word in a sec) by the end of the class, but two hours later I tried to play them again but couldn’t even remember their names.
2. My use of perfect = able to make it through the tune without messing up so badly I have to stop/having my fingers tangle themselves hopelessly.
3. I can play by ear fine, Happy Birthday in whatever key presents no challenge. Amelia’s Waltz, and other tunes, however, I often begin them, then get lost (first or second ending? Does it go up or down?). I suppose I just have to go listen more!
4. When I say visual learner, it’s because I do honestly remember things I see better than things I hear. If I’m telling you something I read, chances are I could describe to you the page on which I read it and where in the book the page was…I was so frustrated in chemistry until I found a website that allows me to see how different molecules are formed… I’m not trying to say that’s the only way I learn (good point Calum), but it so helps.

In fact, weird thing… When I’m memorizing music off the sheet (ha! I can do it!), I play it through a gazillion times, then turn and read something else (my book of choice is Stalky and Co. by Rudyard Kipling) to see if my brain can "autopilot" the tune.

One last thing: I’m so keen on memorizing these tunes because my chances of playing them again with people regularly are slim to none. I busk a lot, and I’ve gotten gigs playing solo, so I’m trying to broaden my repertoire so that at least I’M not bored playing the same twenty tunes…again.

Re: Memorizing by Ear!

Problem solved. You can play by ear. Do it regularly.

If/when it comes to sessions, you don’t want to be the person who can’t join at all (nor start a set of your own) because you haven’t got the music in front of you. You probably don’t want to be a person who starts the same tune/s every time (because you don’t remember more). Expand your base repertoire. It doesn’t have to be huge (say, in the three digits), just more than the last time.

Re: Memorizing by Ear!

excerpts from How to Completely Learn a Melody in 30 Minutes
by Eric from jazzadvice.com

Everybody talks about learning tunes. I mean everybody. It’s the one common thread that you hear about at jam sessions, in music schools, and conversations with great players. So much emphasis is placed upon the need for more tunes it’s not surprising that most players have this burgeoning mental complex about knowing and learning tunes that hangs over their heads day after day like a black cloud.
With this ominous mindset, the simple act of learning a tune becomes a painful, long, drawn-out process that we try to avoid at all costs.
When you are learning in a situation like this, building a solid repertoire can seem like an impossible task. Even when you do manage to learn a tune, are you sure that you truly know it and will remember it?
Getting to the root of the problem
The players that have trouble learning, memorizing, and retaining tunes are the same ones that go into the practice room with a page and try to commit those visual images to memory.
You might be able to get the notes and fingerings into your short-term memory and perform them once, but you’re not going to remember them for very long. What’s worse, is that you have no connection to the tune; it’s not a melody that you know by heart, it’s a string of memorized fingerings and hazy mental recollections.
So does it all come down to a problem with memorization that everyone seems to be having? No, not at all. Your memory is fine, it’s the way that you’re inputting the information that is causing the problem. The melodies we’re trying to learn never get completely ingrained in the first place, we don’t even give our memories a chance to grasp this musical information.
This is the problem with the way a lot of musicians are learning tunes: they are treating the music as information, not an art form to connect with. When you memorize tunes from a page, there is no connection or emotional aspect to the process, it’s just information. It might as well be a tax form or the names and numbers in a phone book, just plain old, impersonal, dry information. Coming from this approach, where’s the personal motivation to learn these tunes?
When you think about it, the act of learning a melody is actually very simple. Take away all the mental clutter, get rid of those external pressures and just focus on the music. Make a mental, aural, and physical connection to the tunes you’re learning and you’ll immediately see a huge difference.
If you approach it like this, you can learn a tune in a short amount of time. Below I’ve outlined the process you should be using to learn melodies if you want to get them down for good, and even better it will take 30 minutes or less:
I. Pre-listening
5 focused minutes at the start of your practice – (and as much as possible outside of the practice room)
Pre-listening simply means some focused listening to the melody you’re trying to learn prior to your practice session. The overall goal is to make sure that the tune is in your ear before you start trying to figure out the notes and rhythms.
I recommend doing this process before you get into the practice room and the more that you pre-listen, the easier this whole process is going to be. However, if you’re limited for time, at least spend 5 minutes repeatedly listening to and focusing in on the melody at the start of your session to quickly ingrain it.
Listen to this recording when you wake up in the morning, on your way to work, during your free time, and even before you go to bed.
Keep in mind that this is not mindless listening or throwing on the recording every now and then as background music. This is focused super-concentrated listening. Your goal is to have an intimate familiarity with the melody, that way when you go to learn the tune it will be infinitely easier than starting from scratch.
II. Singing then playing
15- 20 minutes alternating between listening, singing, and playing
Once you’ve pre-listened to the tune, it’s time to take it to the next level; forging a physical connection to these notes and rhythms that you’ve been hearing all week. This is where the bulk of your time should be spent as you learn a tune. Start by taking that melody apart one phrase at a time.
a. Listening
The first step I would take would be to slow down the melody and accurately hear each interval and phrase. Once you’ve done that, highlight the first phrase of the melody (first 5 notes), slow it down to a comfortable speed, and listen to it about ten times in a row:
*b. Singing
As this melodic phrase slowly makes its way into your ears, start to sing along with the recording as it continuously repeats those 5 notes. Concentrate on locking in the pitch of each note as you sing and focus on the content of each interval. When you start to match the recording exactly, press stop.
Now sing that phrase by yourself with no accompaniment. This is the first test. If you can’t sing it without the help of the recording then you don’t have it ingrained yet. Pay close attention to this part. It’s easy to sing the right notes with the recording backing you up, but when you turn it off, you’ll know right away whether you have each pitch and interval or you’re guessing – you can’t fake it.
When you’re singing the phrase by yourself, sing it very slowly. Isolate each interval and lock into each pitch, close doesn’t count here. If you don’t quite have it yet, simply go back to the recording and get it right.
It’s perfectly alright if you can’t hear some of the intervals at first. Make it your goal to improve this part of your musicianship. Simply by singing them slowly, they will become apparent.
*c. Playing
After this you’re ready to play the phrase on your instrument (finally!). With that phrase in your ears, play those intervals that you’re hearing in your head. Focus intently on the sound and recreate this with your instrument. Remember, if you could sing it, you’re playing a phrase that’s already internalized, now it should just be a matter of instrumental technique and aural connection to get those notes to come out.
Continue to break the melody up into different sections of your own choosing. Depending on your experience and skill level it could be an entire phrase or even just two notes. The other nice thing about melodies is that the same stuff is repeated, the A sections comes back again, phrases repeat themselves, and the same intervallic material comes back again and again.
For each section, you’re going to alternate between these three areas of learning and be sure to repeat each section a few times once you’ve figured it out. This may seem like a ton to do, but I’ve just described it in a very detailed manner. In reality you might spend 30 seconds listening to a phrase, another 20 singing it with the recording and alone, and a minute playing those notes on your instrument.
After some practice you’ll be able to combine all three of these areas and constantly go back and forth between them. You’ll be able to hear a melody and be able to sing it right away, then transferring this right to your instrument. This is the ultimate goal – to go from your ear to your instrument as if they were physically connected.
Learning vs. Guessing
Before we go any further, there is an important distinction that we must make, that between learning and guessing. When it comes to picking up melodies by ear, there is a subtle yet stark difference between hearing, singing, and learning each pitch and interval from the recording and the method of randomly guessing notes until you come up with the right one by chance.
This seems obvious and simple to do when you read it, but when you sit down with a recording and get to work, it’s a completely different story. You’re going to want to start playing with the recording right away. You’re going to try to guess the notes rather than hear the actual pitches and intervals.
Believe me, this is the hard part that you have to contend with every time.
When you see this starting to happen, take a second, stop, and re-focus. Do your best to stay on track. Force yourself to hear each note and interval and then sing it. Once you have the melody in your ear and you can sing it exactly note for note, then you can translate this to your instrument.
A lot of players get stuck in this cycle and think they’re learning a tune by ear when in reality, they are just hitting random notes until they make a lucky guess. This process will actually take you a lot longer 30 minutes, it’s even easy to waste hours this way! Not only are you going to forget the melody because it hasn’t been ingrained properly, but you’re not picking up any useful skills in the process.
When you can sing the melody perfectly by yourself, you’re starting with the melody already internalized. You have a mental map of the melody, an aural model, and you’re going to forge a physical connection between your ear and your instrument. With the guess method, you never get that melody inside of you, it’s just note names and memorized fingerings going in one ear and out the other.
III. Repeat and review
5 – 10 minutes at the end of your session
The simple act of repeating a piece of information multiple times imbeds it into our memory. We use this process when we memorize facts for a test or to remember directions when we’re driving in an unfamiliar place. And, it’s the same with music.
The difference with music however, is that we have a physical and aural connection to the information as well as a mental one. Because of this simple fact, it is much easier to commit these musical lines to memory than those other random facts and figures that we encounter on a daily basis with our minds alone.
You must now play these phrases over and over again to commit them to memory. This is the part of learning a tune that will permanently ingrain these lines and intervals into your ear and mind.
Take the A section to the melody that you just figured out. Play it three times in a row with the recording and three times without the recording. Now go to the bridge. Play that section three times in a row. Next, combine the first A sections with the bridge and play them together three times in a row. I know it seems like overkill, but this is what it takes if you want to have this tune down permanently. Finally, play the entire tune, a few times with the record and a few times without it.
OK, now after 30 focused minutes, you have completely learned a melody. Good work! This melody is yours, it’s been forged into your ears and your muscle memory. Sure, every now and then you mind need a quick review, but the core of the tune is in you for good.
Next steps…
Take note that the step by step process above is for completely learning a melody. Notice how I include the word “completely.” With this process you’re engaging your ears, your mind, your voice, and your physical musicianship to learn that musical information. You are not just skimming the surface of the melody, you’re diving in head first, absorbing the sound with every aspect of yourself, and coming out with this melody ingrained into your musical being.
But wait, you’re not done after you do this. Once you have it learned and ingrained in one key, moving those lines to other keys will be easier than you think. After you get a few tunes under your belt in this fashion, the entire process gets much easier and much faster.
Learning tunes like this is a skill, if you don’t do it for a while, you’re going to get rusty. Ideally you want to learn something by ear everyday. It doesn’t have to be an entire solo or even an entire tune, it can just be a short line that caught your ear or a melodic fragment that you heard on the radio that day. Whatever it may be, absorb it aurally and try to reproduce both vocally and instrumentally.
When you first start out, this process might take you longer than 30 minutes. There are a lot of factors to contend with: the length of the tune, the complexity of the melody, the level of your ears, your experience with learning melodies by ear, your focus that day in the practice room, and so on.
However, the more you follow this process to learn tunes, the faster it will take to ingrain them. After a while, you might even find yourself hearing a melody on a recording, singing along with it, and knowing exactly what it is, without even having to get your instrument out.
This is the goal, to understand and connect with music on an organic emotional level. After all, those pianos, guitars, basses, drums, and horns that we play are really just tools – metal, wooden, and plastic tools that we’ve constructed to amplify the true instrument inside all of us.

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Just a thought that someone hinted at early in this discussion. Do you have a strong sense of absolute pitch? (Or what’s often called "Perfect Pitch")
I’ve heard that for some people who do have that sense of absolute pitch, the "same tune" played in a different key can sound like a different tune.

ie, are you trying to play the tune in a different key from which you heard it?

I don’t think this is "your answer" but might it be a factor?

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Good point Tom, and something I ought to keep in mind. I do have a very strong sense of relative pitch—that is (*dons classical cap and gown*) if I hear a note I can typically place it correctly after some thought, typically using my internalized A-440 as a reference. This is not technically perfect pitch since I can’t immediately place the note without reference, and also since I can’t place random sounds like glasses clinking or helicopter passing overhead.
But I can most certainly hear when the banjos are out of tune. >(o_0)< <— That doesn’t look at all like someone plugging their ears, does it?
Interesting anecdote that makes me feel that I OUGHT to be able to remember tunes…someone (in the middle of summer) asked me to guess what pitch bell the Salvation Army collectors ring outside stores during the holidays. After a minute’s thought, I gave them the correct answer: g. I have good pitch memory, but tunes just slip away somehow…
@ Sunnybear - I shall take that advice.

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Based on your profile, you’re only 40min to New Haven, where there are Irish sessions…. That’s not very far for a session!

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I think the conversation is over, sunnybear has pretty much cut and pasted anything you need to know, it’s all there.

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@Nico, Yes, but 10 - around 1 is a little late for me at 40 minutes away! Also, I’m engaged on Tuesday nights from 7-9 in Old Saybrook. :( Otherwise, I’d be there. (I honestly can’t do late nights. My entire life suffers. Afternoons, anyone?)

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Since nobody else had nothing to add, I’m adding it now.

Re: Memorizing by Ear!

Lots of great advice above, so not sure how much I really have to add. But I have some questions and some observations for you:

When you say you can memorize a tune from sheet music, can you read and play through it a number of times (maybe over multiple sessions), and then it’s in you brain forever? If it is, then don’t worry so much about needing to be able to retain things you learn by ear (assuming that you can make it sound like Irish music), but if it still requires you to have the page in front of you every time you play it, then it’s not really "memorized".

A followup question — when you learn something from sheet music, is what you remember the sheet music or the tune? Meaning, if you can play it without the sheet in front of you, is it that you remember the tune, or that you can visualize the sheet, and play from that? Just curious.

A couple of observations. First off, I think the reason that you are a "visual learner" is because that’s how you learned how to learn. You have lots and lots of practice with it, so it’s comfortable for you. (Much in the same way that I am an aural learner, because that’s how I learned to learn, and it’s comfortable. And learning from sheet doesn’t work very well for me - partially because I don’t read music very well, because I haven’t ever really felt the need to practice it).

The problem is that once you have a learning style ingrained in you, it’s hard to practice learning a different way, because it feels foreign, or like a waste of time, because you could learn it faster another way… And so it’s hard to put in the necessary amount of time to get good at a different way of learning… But it can be done if you want it bad enough…

Another point I would like to bring up is about "memorization". I consider the concept of memorization to be a bit foreign to playing Irish traditional music. Memorization brings to mind cramming static information into your brain in a rote fashion, like memorizing the first 10 Presidents of the U.S., so that you can regurgitate them on demand. With classical music, you’re encouraged to play the music exactly as written, and memorization can be useful for that. In Irish music, you’re encouraged to NOT play the tune the same way each time, and put some different expression into it with some variations, like moving ornaments around, playing with the timing and emphasis of different notes, and even adding little melodic variations. To be able to do that, you need to have a different relationship with the tune, to the point that instead of regurgitating the notes, it’s more like telling a good story, and you’re embellishing it as you tell it (just like you would when telling a story to a friend).

So what you’re really looking for with a tune (no matter HOW you learned it) is to internalize it. Get it to the point where it’s like you can’t get it out of your head. And then when you’re playing it, it’s like interacting with an old friend, swapping stories and having a laugh. And you can then exert more control over it, instead of just regurgitating notes from a page or relying on kinesthetic memory (or so-called "muscle memory") to let your fingers just play it.

The best way to internalize tunes is the same way that you’ve internalized most of the other melodies that are in there, like Happy Birthday, Hey Jude, and the Oscar Meyer Weiner song (depending on your age, for that one), and that is by repeated listening. When you listen to melodies, don’t just let them wash over you as a passive listener, instead, be an active participant in the listening. If you don’t have an instrument in your hand, then use your other instrument, your voice, and lilt along with the melody, paying attention to what parts you don’t have quite right, so that you can try to correct them the next time they come around… Listening to, learning, and playing a ton of this music also helps build your vocabulary for Irish music — to the point that you can start to predict where tunes are going, and then it’s easier to discover the interesting parts of tunes that do the unexpected.

So ultimately, instead of trying to "memorize" 128 notes and what order they come in, you’re really only having the remember one thing, and that is "how the tune goes"… Sounds like magic, but it’s real 😉 Best of luck!

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^The best post I’ve read this year.

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Ha, thanks jeff! (But the year is awful young, still) 😉

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Thank you Reverend!
Yes, a tune is in my brain forever once I memorize it off the sheet music. Sometimes it takes a bit of mental fishing, but I can get it.
I remember the tune: that’s why I force myself to read something else while I play the tune. That gets the tune out of the visual part of my mind and out of my short term memory (by filling my short term memory and my eyes.)
Good point about the visual learning. I do find it "time wasting" to learn by ear.
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Adams, Monroe… 🙂 No, I can ornament the tunes and change notes if I want. I’m not just spitting up the notes. I find that by memorizing the tune, I can better find the best way to play it/ornament it, etc. It gets ingrained in me, rather than just surfacing when I hear someone else play it.
Hmm, a little young for the wiener song, maybe, but I get what you mean. Internalized tunes automatically start playing in my head when I think of them.

I’m starting to think that I’m really just stressing out too much over learning exactly "how it goes" and that I should just relax and let the tunes happen. Maybe being a solo musician has made me stress out more because it really is, for me, a one-(wo)man-band.

Thank you all for your wonderful suggestions!

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Theobald Boehm, the inventor of the modern silver flute, was himself a master player, composer and teacher. He would compose a piece for his students and have them sight read it. He would then flip the music upside down and ask the student to play the piece again.

Don’t blame your dilemma on being classically trained. What you seek is an acquired skill and comes with practice. Nothing to it but to do it.

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"read something else while I play the tune" - You might want to be careful with this - the Classical guitarist Liona Boyd says that she developed some weird kind of neurological condition doing this sort of thing - in her case, watching TV while practising. The brain to hand signalling somehow got sidetracked, and her fingers stopped getting the message. She had to stop performing .. okay, from Wikipedia: "Following a diagnosis of musician’s focal dystonia after the release of Camino Latino, Boyd was compelled to change how she plays guitar. She reinvented herself by developing her songwriting and singing skills and playing less demanding guitar arrangements.[10]".

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"Yes, a tune is in my brain forever once I memorize it off the sheet music. Sometimes it takes a bit of mental fishing, but I can get it." Does someone else starting the tune trigger the recall? If that’s the case, then I would say that the *easiest* way forward is to ask the name of tunes that you’ve "learned on the fly (soon to forget)", write them down, and then go look them up in the archive here and learn them with the sheet music.

But what I think you maybe should do instead is use a recording device (usually a cell phone these days), and record things that you’re picking up on the fly by ear in sessions. Instead of going home and looking up the sheet music, go home and pull out the recording, and "re-learn" it (as many times as it takes to get it internalized). That way, you’re doing continual work on your ear, but getting the repetition needed to really internalize the tune…

This is another kind of silly statement, but it’s true: The best time to recall a tune is *right before you forget it*, because the act of recalling it from memory is what strengthens the memory, and the harder you have to work to recall it, the more it strengthens the neural pathways. So re-learn the tune by ear an hour after the session, and then again the next morning, and then again a few hours later, until you can recall it without the aid of the recording. And voila! No sheet music!

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^The second best post I’ve read this year. ;)

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Hi @meslef, I have never heard of focal dystonia being caused by watching television while practising. That may be the view of that musician, but it’s just anecdotal, with no evidence. Musician’s dystonia is a neurological problem caused by cortical maps of muscle areas starting to overlap, generally as they enlarge in people such as musicians and surgeons who develop refined fine muscle movements through intensive practice . This makes it difficult to treat. Interestingly it mostly affects guitarists, in the left hand. Pianists can also develop it.

Focal dystonia is not weird. It’s very well understood neurologically.

The point is, that I don’t think focal dystonia has anything to do with memorization techniques. I would not regard one guitarist’s speculative view of the cause as being definitive. Go ahead and multitask!

Interestingly, sometimes focal dystonia just goes away completely after some time, with no treatment. This is possibly due to neuroplasticity of the brain rewiring the cortical muscle maps and fixing them up again. That’s a new topic of research.

As to memorisation, on a personal note, I have long training as a classical musician, and play organ and harpsichord, since very young. I am unable to memorise a single bar of anything, yet I can sight read very well. But since I have taken up flute, I find it effortless to memorise tunes. It’s interesting, and I have no idea at all why this is. And that skill does not transfer back to keyboard. Our mental processing is very fascinating.

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Just a point about songs and singing. A lot of the tunes I play by ear are songs. Having sung songs and got the words into my head, playing the tune is easier as the words come with the tune. Example, "Skibbereen", I think of the words as I sang them and the tune follows, even causing variations trying to fit different words of verses 1, 2 and 3. "The Queen’s 4 Marys" - a similar story, the tune I vary to take account of the words in each verse (as sung).. Does this make sense (it’s 12.40 am!).

Anyhow, nice to give each verse a fresh tune (of sorts) - fun.

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Andrew, is the difference due to the type of music? I would think that the harpsichord involves playing multiple notes at the same time at at given beat, whereas the flute is only one at a time, if I understand the instrument. I play mandolin and, almost like you, find it almost effortless to learn tunes. But these Irish traditional tunes are basically a linear series of notes - one at a time.

Recently, I learned on the mandolin part of Bach Sonata II fuga in Am - it had multiple notes on the same beat at many places. I have found this piece very difficult to memorize. Is the issue the combinations of multiple notes at a particular beat versus a single note?

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Well, Bach is so complex. Counterpoint ie playing a tune on keyboard and another tune in the left hand which could stand alone but blends beautifully - that takes brainwork and isn’t easy. But that’s Bach’s genius - he makes it work so brilliantly. I found Bach’s Preludes and Fugues really daunting on piano.

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Ahhh, Bach…I was so thrilled when I found the second and third movements to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto…but back to ITM! 🙂
I don’t think I’m in danger of focal dystonia. The only thing I ‘m in danger of is playing Black Nag and having the pages of Stalky and Co. loop endlessly through my brain… 🙂
Reverend, often I have to play around with the beginning notes to get the right tune lined up in my brain: for instance, how many tunes do you know that start with a D? Also, I often play certain tunes in a set, and if I play that set enough, it takes me a minute to "fast forward" in my mind to the right tune in the set. I’ve found myself "mixing and matching," for instance, the A part of Swallowtail’s Jig with the B part of Contentment is Wealth. I play the two as a set. But if someone starts the tune, I’m off to the races no problem. Often I haven’t even figured out what the tune name is until three times through…goes to show you what a mess my brain is…it puts the name separate from the tune!
Susan, I remember Arkansas Traveler by the song my mom started singing to it when I played it…it’s so dumb it sticks more than the tune…something about bringing home bumblebees and smashing them up…what songs do they teach kids these days? I much prefer the *actual* words of the guy fiddling in the rainstorm.
Wonderful thing, counterpoint…if you can play the piano and keep track of two hands doing completely different things at the same time and manage a pedal too…you have a very special gift.
Andrew, maybe it’s the different instrument? I can memorize classical on my violin fine using a similar method as I use for my fiddle tunes.

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Andrew Bernard: I thought the wording of my post would make it quite clear that I claim no authority on the subject of ‘focal dystonia’, and that I was relaying an anecdote rather than defending a medical hypothesis. I repeated what Liona Boyd related; she may well be delusional for all I know. Focal dystonia remains ‘weird’ to me, despite your no doubt logical explanation. Carry on.

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"Focal dystonia" sounds like an invention of the Devil.

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It is strange, and thank you for the info. Personally, I think tv has a lot more mental input than a book, but *if* I find myself having odd neurological symptoms I shall know to stop my multitasking!

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@ Susan- My brain started thinking of distorted dystopias hyper-focused on tritones and a kaleidoscope of greens and reds. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s my synesthesia?

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Emily, a tritone’s the Devil’s chord. Lots in B. Britten’s War Requiem.

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Hi @meself, no criticism of you intended! I just wanted to point out the anecdotal nature, in case everybody turned off their TV. 🙂

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I know the tritone part, it’s the colors that threw me.
I don’t even have tv! 🙂

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" [focal dystonia]… mostly affects guitarists, in the left hand. Pianists can also develop it."

I know three fiddle players who have it, two (one of them being me) in the bowing arm, and one in the left hand (two if you count Siobhan Peoples, because I would guess that is what she has). And a flute player who has it in the neck. Other wind players lose their embouchure and pro golfers lose control over their putting. Have heard of classical violinists who get it in the bow arm also.

I’m glad to know it is "well understood neurologically" because it certainly didn’t seem to be understood when I got my diagnosis 15 years ago (10 years after symptoms developed). And mine shows no signs of spontaneously retreating. (And no Botox for me, thank you.)

From what I do know about it I also would be very surprised if watching TV had anything to do with the case mentioned. Now isn’t that reassuring? So I’d say you can carry on practising in front of the box, lads and lasses.

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If you can learn by ear on the fly but you forget it instantly, maybe what you should do is make recordings and then just remind yourself how it goes with a short listen before you play. You can probably practice at home the process of reminding yourself how it goes and then playing it.

I used to not be able to learn by ear and now I can do it, at least with American old-time music. For Irish music I am still working on it. It seems the process is different for each genre, at least for me. With old-time, I start with an outline that follows the chord changes, and then I fill in the little notes over time. With Irish music it’s more like I start with little phrases and try to fill in more little phrases and eventually hopefully connect them all into a coherent tune.

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"in case everybody turned off their TV." So - that would be a bad thing?

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(Emily said)
"When I say visual learner, it’s because I do honestly remember things I see better than things I hear."

(my response)
Yes, me too.

I think you should try the experiment of not looking at any sheet music for the next tune you are working on. Find a YouTube video of a fiddler playing it, and WATCH and play. Watch her bow, watch her fingers, and play along.

I’m a piper/fluter/whistler and I pick up a new tune far faster if I can watch the fingers of a piper/fluter/whistler. (I can do pretty well watching a fiddler too, I know where the notes are.)

(Emily said)
"If I’m telling you something I read, chances are I could describe to you the page on which I read it and where in the book the page was."

(my response)
I was talking to a musician who has a photographic memory and she memorises tunes simply by taking one look at the sheet music. She said when she’s playing anything she closes her eyes and sightreads it off the memorized page. Quite amazing- a musician with zero aural memory!

(Emily said)
"When I’m memorizing music off the sheet I play it through a gazillion times…"

(my response)
But in your original post you said that you can immediately pick up a tune by ear! That should tell you something: you pick up tunes by ear a gazillion times faster than you do from sheet music.

Clearly the stumbling block to memorizing is the sheet music itself. Lock all your sheet music away somewhere, turn on YouTube, watch and listen, and start learning tunes!

You can’t change the fact that you’re a visual learner. What you CAN do is change what it is you’re looking at.

Instead of looking at the left-brain symbols for music, shut off the left brain and look at the right-brain real-world shapes and motions of a fiddler playing.

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Hi @Stiamh, A lot of the neurological research on FD is more recent than 15 years ago. Here’s a pretty good page summarizing what we know:

https://focaldystoniacure.com/neurological-causes-musicians-focal-dystonia/

Mentions the cortical overlapping I alluded to, and also mentions Embouchure FD, something I was previously unaware of.

By now I suppose I have hijacked this thread. Perhaps we start a separate one.

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@ Richard, I can pick up a tune by ear, but I can’t seem to memorize it by ear. But maybe I just haven’t done it enough. Good connection with the visual shapes and motions—I now realize that I do pick up a tune faster if I can see the fiddler (as opposed to playing off a recording).
@ sbhikes, Yes, I find I have the same "formula" I use for old time too. For instance, I still play basically just chords to the B part of Blackberry Blossom. The great part about it is, old time doesn’t require the clarity and purity of ITM—you can fudge it completely and everyone cheers. In ITM you at least have to get the gist of the tune. 🙂

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You focal dystonians, new thread started.

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Memorizing a thing is mostly a waste of time. It’s transient, hard to do, and woefully inaccurate. It needs constant repetition. "Learning" a thing is a lot more than memorizing, it’s "bigger" and fortunately not harder. To memorize means working at the bits and pieces in detail and in order to "get it right. When was this thing we do meant to be work? Learning means (more or less) planting a seed and letting it grow, living with it, not worrying about it. It means making and correcting errors with a laugh. Memorizing is a task and quickly fades. Learning is like hanging out with an old friend who you can call anytime. My suggestion…relax, the universe will be OK.

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The problem of not being able to remember tunes without the music is really about not listening enough or the inability to listen properly. It seems to me that most problems that arise in traditional music are as a direct result of simply not listening.

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If you have mainly a visual memory, then it’s all about repetition: back in the days when I played classical piano, I played from sheet music: but then it was expected that if I played for a concert, I would NOT have the music in front of me: so you repeat it again and again and again until it sinks in, even if you do have to have the sheet music in your "mind’s eye" to do it.
Same thing for learning your words in a play, a poem, or lyrics of a song: just keep at it until it sinks in! Not quite the same as learning by ear, but when I did am-dram and had to learn lines, or wanted to learn songs, I would learn from from tapes played in the car over and over again: maybe other drivers would think I was mad, muttering away to myself, but it worked and did not cause any road accidents!

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There are, of course, occasions when you need to "memorise" whether you are learning a tune "by ear" or from the dots. Usually, if you are required to perform at a concert, recital or similar at relatively short notice.

However, it’s better to take things more slowly and absorb the tune naturally. So, eventually the tune will "sink in" and things won’t feel as forced. You’ll probably remember it better in the long run too. It’s much the same as "cramming" for an exam. Yes, you can pass the exam this way but the chances are that you (I) will forget most of it not long afterwards.

Unlike some here, I don’t think it matters whether or not you learn the basics of a tune from the dots or by ear as long as you have the skills to do both. However, I really believe that it’s important to have a "good ear" so that you can distinguish between different settings of tunes as they are being played and be able to adapt accordingly. Sometimes at very short notice or even on the spot.

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For me the key to memorising a tune is repetition. This doesn’t have to be with the instrument, I often learn tunes by playing recordings in the car, after a while they become embedded. Once the tune is embedded I can then usually play it, although it will of course take practice to get it right and build muscle-memory, especially for any tricky bits.

However I often have difficulty recalling tunes I know well. The title isn’t enough for me, I don’t seem to be able to make the connection between the title and the tune. You mentioned Black Nag, a tune I’ve played innumerable times and even recorded, but I can’t at the moment recall how it goes. I need a prompt - usually once I have the first few bars the rest come flooding back. Some tunes have nonsense words which can provide such a prompt.

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Haha, late to the party as usual …but …

In addition to everything aforementioned, what helps me is visualising the actual notes (where the fingers go) on the fiddle fingerboard.

It’s not really difficult, as the larger part of the vast majority of tunes fall within a single octave, and only on two adjacent strings. Of course you can’t really watch your fingers if your eyes are following musical notes on paper, but let’s say I’m learning a tune from audio only.

I would record the new or unfamiliar tune using Audacity software (or similar, then slow it down by about 30%). It’s not really wise to try to learn something from Frankie Gavin when he is going full pelt!

Sat at the computer, I’d select about 4 bars of the tune with the mouse, and that creates a 4-bar loop. I then just listen repeatedly, using the space bar, and I visualise where my fingers go on the fingerboard. When I’m happy with that, I move on to the next 4 bars, and so on.

Once I’m happy with the whole tune, I pick up the fiddle and actually play the tune. If I forget any of the phrases, or something doesn’t sound quite right, I can just go back to the tune in Audacity and verify / correct it.

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There is a session at the Irish American Home in Glastonbury 1st and 3rd Sunday’s 4-6. The one on the 3rd Sunday starts with a slow session at 3.They have a website with all the tunes they play with audio, video and notation. There is also a session on some Wednesday nights at La Bocca in Middletown. A new session on the 4th Saturday of the month started in East Hartford.
The Connecticut Academy of Irish Music starts up again on Sundays in Wethersfield. There is a slow session from 1-2 as well as many other classes. There is also a gentleman that has a session in his home in Portland occasionally.

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Being Classically trained can help you. Think in intervals to learn a tune. use the music theory you learned in school for form, repeats, key relationships, etc. it is so much shorter to learn than an even a concerto or sonata.

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Yes, I do that too (think in intervals, etc.)

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As DonaldK said, it’s a skill. Skills are learned, and not by referring to sheet music. My teacher never referred me to sheet music. I brought a tape recorder to every lesson. She would play a new tune twice: one time through slowly and then at session tempo. I would learn the tune by ear in time for the next lesson - or completely miss the mark as the case may be. If I had missed the mark, that would be the focus of our lesson.

The skill is taught and learned. Emily, do you have a teacher? I remember when I lived in eastern Connecticut, no one had a teacher. I practiced for three years on my own until I moved to NYC and found a teacher.

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@ Barry, Depends on what you mean. I have a classical teacher, who I recently pulled down the rabbit hole of trad. (five years ago fiddle was anathema to her, now she’s as enthusiastic as I), but I’m in a way actually teaching her. We’re both stuck in the sheet music rut.
@ Harbo, Thank you for the information. All those places are great for every once in a while, but are too far away for a regular commitment. Thank you! 🙂
@ Jim Dorans, I have Audacity, so I think I’ll try that! 🙂

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@Emily May, just a meddling suggestion or keep it for future reference: Rose (Conway) Flanagan (Brian Conway’s sister), who lives in Pearl River, NY, teaches both in person and online. So you could take lessons online, and once in a while actually make the drive to Pearl River and combine a lesson with a Pearl River or Westchester session, which tend to include her and Brian’s students who share a lot of common tunes. Pearl River is where all the boomer & gen X Irish American kids moved to from the Bronx when they started their own families.

Rose’s profile picture at the following link is a few years old. ;)

https://www.fiddlehangout.com/teacher/Musicmomrose

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My heart leapt when I saw there was an Irish session in Glastonbury, then I googled it and realised it’s in Connecticut, USA.
I agree with all the posts above that I managed to read - learn it in your head first and don’t pick the instrument up until you know every note inside your head.
I was classically trained and still found it hard at first, but the more you do it (even with simple tunes like Happy Birthday) the easier it gets. I can now pick up a new Irish tune in a session by the third time round- as long as it’s not TOO fast.

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As you may have gathered from my previous posts, I was classically trained too, and very much chained to sheet music when I first started playing trad on melody instruments. We were taught tunes by ear, but then given the sheet music, so some people just reverted to the sheets while others continued by ear. Without putting too fine a point on it, it’s a matter of willing yourself to do without the sheets, really WANTING to do it, and persevering! It doesn’t come overnight: maybe took me up to 10 years to be able to go off to a session with no sheets in tow: and that’s not to say that I know or can pick up everything going.
Now I have hearing problems, I do sometimes have to go back to the sheets, as playing by ear is tricky when you’re not hearing entirely in tune! Those who say ear is the only way, (a bit facile!), could maybe swap ears with me and get a taste of what it’s like!

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"I feel I should also say that in a session I pick up tunes quickly and can play along after only a couple times through, but once we move on to the next song, it’s gone."

This says volumes about how most of us play in sessions. Fullstop!

Next time you want to learn & remember a tune when someone starts playing a good one in session my suggestion is to stop playing & instead make a recording. Your mastery of the tune, of your ear, of learning to remember a tune begins when you put down your instrument, press record on a recording device, take it home and learn the tune from the recording. That’s right; I said use the recording to learn the tune. But it is process which takes time, discipline, practise, repetition, necessary rest, and perseverance. It is rewarding & will open up a world of tunes for you which before seemed very elusive. Tunes are slippery animals until you exercise your ears and make them happy & healthy listening organs.

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Start a session at Penny Lane…..I am in Rocky Hill just a chip shot down rt.9!!!

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Being that I was trained as, and worked as, a teacher and that we were required by law to equally address Aural, Visual, and Kinesthetic learning modalities, when Emily says that she is a visual learner I’m not going to tell her that her solution is to transform into a different sort of learner. It doesn’t work like that; there are plenty of studies that prove it.

Rather, I suggested that she use her strength, learning tunes while watching other fiddlers (rather than looking at sheet music). I suspect the visual aspect is one reason she picks up tunes quickly at sessions.

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Phew, one complex topic this - we could go on and on about it, rather a favourite discussion topic on this site… looking back over the years.