Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Hello everyone, I’m in search of a bit of help.

I find it challenging remembering tunes. I don’t mean remembering as in "I can pull out of my memory the tune" I mean more like, "hearing the tunes in my head and being able to play back the notes without an instrument, either in my head or in another way like singing."

This manifests more with tunes that I assigned myself for learning purposes vs. ones that I pick up because they resonate. So for example:

-Dawning of the Day is a tune I’m learning but didn’t know it before and I struggle
-John Walsh’s polka is a tune that immediately resonated with me

John Walsh’s polka I can hear in my head, where Dawning of the Day seems elusive.

This is a pretty consistent problem, and it also means that I can’t sing or vocalize the tune, and I think this is a key challenge I need to figure out, but I’m sort of stymied. Anyone else have this and overcame it? Any suggestions?

I’m learning fiddle, but I don’t think that matters to the question.

Thanks everyone.

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Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Hi Vechey,

This sounds for me personally very common.. I also experience troubles remembering some songs/tunes. I usually give the blame to the fact that i just don’t "feel" the song even though it sounds not to hard..

I try to listen to the tunes enough just to get feeling with the tunes, sometimes at 0.5 speed.


Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Vechey, I checked your bio and as I expected, you’re fairly new to all this. The key is that your mind is not yet attuned to the melodies and structure of Irish trad. It’s not like remembering Hey Jude or Mary Had A Little Lamb. I can hum entire symphonies let alone Drowsie Maggie. I’ve been listening to both for longer than you have been breathing. To play this music well, it needs to become something of an obsession. With time and experience, you will likely find you can’t get the buggers OUT of your head. Keep listening and keep playing. If doing that is a pleasure, not a chore, all will be sorted in due course.

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Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

>Bastiaan: great to know I’m not alone. Knowing it’s not a necessarily a me thing is good

> Ailin: that’s helpful. I am new to all this. I’ve never even really been a "music person" and am 42, so even things referenced like Mary Had a Little Lamb, I sincerely doubt I know what the (relative) pitch of the notes are. I guess the good news is it’s an obsession and it never feels like a chore and I just keep listening and playing every day!

Do you think there would be an approach I could take to accelerate this aspect? With many of the hurdles, it seems that there’s a "put in the time" aspect which is required, but sometimes some different angles can help.

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Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Like learning most skills, "putting in the time" with regard to music is a necessary requirement, in my opinion.

An angle, though, might be to do some analytical listening. Listen for melodic patterns, rhythmic patterns, repeated phrases, high notes, low notes. Then do it all again, and again. Perhaps read up on some theory, but try to understand it in a listening context rather than just by intellect.

Funnily enough, the more you listen (properly), the better you get. The journey is part of the fun and adventure. Every discovery can be a eureka moment.

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Hi Vechey

Here are some suggestions based on my (actually modest) experience.

1. Get familiar with the scales of the major, mixolydian, dorian and aeolian modes (this means familiarizing with the intervals between the notes of these scales)

2. Find the tonal center and the mode of the tune. If you are familiar with modal scales, then based on the tonal center and the intervals you should be able to ‘place’ in the scale the motifs that you hear in the tune

3. Figure our the tune structure in terms of parts, phrases and sub-phrases, learn phrase by phrase and then focus on linking the phrases.

For a concise explanation of some of the above concepts, have look at this excerpt from a unparalleled book by Grey Larsen:


Hope this helps,

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

when you say you’re learning/memorising tunes, are you doing this visually or aurally?

Are you trying to learn/memorise by looking at sheet music or by listening?

Different people memorise different ways. For me, I have a "sightreading brain" and an "ear-learning brain".

I can sightread a tune over and over and it still won’t go into memory.

The tunes I memorise the quickest are the ones that I’ve never seen sheet music for; from the get-go they are acquired purely by ear. As I’m figuring out how the tune goes I’m simultaneously committing it to memory, there’s no dichotomy between learning and memorising.

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Hi Vechey,

To make things easier right away: You might try putting any one tune you want to learn on repeat, and leaving it playing in the background or via earphones while you do mundane chores (wash dishes? mop the floor? weed the garden?). Don’t even think about trying to memorize it as you listen, and definitely don’t try to play it. Just listen idly and/or ignore it as you go about your business, and make sure it’s set to repeat so you don’t have to think about it at ALL… no rewinding/restarting the track, etc.

By the time you’re thoroughly sick of hearing that one tune you’ll probably be able to hum the whole thing, or at least a good chunk of it, even if you need the first few notes as a prompt to get you started.

It helps to use an app, such as the Amazing Slow Downer, that lets you isolate that single tune from a set, and/or loop smaller parts of the tune that you’re struggling to get in your head.

Another nice thing about ASD (and I’m sure other apps) is that it lets you slow the tune down without altering the pitch, so you can get a better feel for it as Bastiaan mentioned above.

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Hi, Vechey,

In terms of shortcuts, what worked for me was recognizing patterns common to various types of tunes. To elaborate that point, a common issue those with a large repertoire experience is playing the A part of a tune and going into the B part of anotber tune. You’ll find there are categories within categories that will allow you to memorize a tune that follows patterns or a general sound that you recognize from a tune you know.

Another trick you can try is to learn tunes phrase by phrase. Think of it as the sentences that make up a paragraph. Don’t go on to the next phrase until you can play a tune you know and still remember the phrases you’ve just learned. Phrase by phrase, you will build up to the whole tune. The more you do it, the easier it gets, not only because you are becoming familiar with Irish music, but also because the technique itself becomes a part of what your brain responds to. As actor, I use the same technique to memorize lines.

Cheers, my friend. Keep us posted on your progress.

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Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

First suggestion is concentrate on tunes you like - or tunes that get played regularly in sessions you can attend - or put it another way - why bother playing tunes that you don’t like and that nobody you know plays. There are plenty of tunes around so you should be able to home in on the right ones for you. If you like a tune try listen to several different playings of it - YouTube can be useful here

Next - for me - I need to have the whole tune in my head to the point I can hum it. Other people seem to cope better than me with the workshop style of learning a tune by adding phrases gradually. I find this similar to sight reading in the sense that I can play it at the time but don’t necessarily retain it. We all learn in our own way

Find recordings of people who excel at your chosen instrument- I am a great fan of Kevin Burke but I also like Eileen Ivers. Pick a couple of tracks and listen to them over and over. Then listen again harder

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Vechey, when you’re getting "Dawning of the Day" in your head is it as a 4/4 march?
That’s how I first learnt it. I also learned "Raglan Road" (the song) around the same time. They are similar but not the same. I think it might be difficult to get one tune into your head if you’re thinking at all about the other.
Similar theme but different shape/structure.

It’s been the subject of some lively comments on the Discussion pages & in the Tunes’ database.

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Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

After 30 years of classical training it has been a pure joy to feel my mind and body wrap itself around these tunes. Every day I make myself learn one by ear and play a dozen more with the music. Everything is different without the notes and my confidence is growing every day but it’s slow. For the real magic I spend 30 to 60 minutes improvising off of slow airs and melodies. This has been a huge way to accelerate the exact thing you are talking about. When you can project the next note you want in your mind and then know with certainty when your fingers go down you will land on that note then you are becoming one with your instrument and with the relative pitches of the tune. Some classical musicians certainly have that relationship with sound but it is not a given and I have never developed that until now. A great gift from the folk tradition.

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Thanks everyone! Every single person has helped a lot here.

Some specific questions or followups:

Sergio, you said "Get familiar with the scales of the major, mixolydian, dorian and aeolian modes"

Would something like playing G in all of these and listen to the differences be a good exercise? Or listening to the different scales of the different modes?

Richard Cook: I usually start with a recording, then use ABC or classical notation (which I don’t read that well but better), pluck it (I’m playing fiddle) until I can play it where I can catch mistakes. I then add in the bow (and often this brings back the notation for a bit). I get it away from written as soon as I can. To answer your question, I think what kicks in first for me is muscle memory but my ear can "catch" when things are wrong.

Ailin: that seems great. I haven’t tried to piece out the memory part to just a phrase where I practice singing / humming / lilting the pitch changes but in very short amounts.

AB: It’s from Matt Cranitch’s book, so a 4/4 March. I haven’t heard Raglin Road in a long time, so I think I’m safe on these counts.

Eric: Do you have any suggestions or tips on how to start this? I love slow airs (Eistigh Seal is probably my favorite album), and I love "exploring" the sounds and making space to play around. It could just be as easy as "play slowly, have intention in what sounds to play next, play it, and see if the intention lined up with what was played (and if it sounded like you thought it would if it was).

Thanks again everyone. I’m spending about two hours a day listening to music, so now with all these suggestions in my brain, I’m going to listen to Tommy Potts, which I just rediscovered from when I listened to him my first week of listening.

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Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

"Sergio, you said "Get familiar with the scales of the major, mixolydian, dorian and aeolian modes"

Would something like playing G in all of these and listen to the differences be a good exercise? Or listening to the different scales of the different modes?"

At some point you may need to be able to play tunes in those scales (G, Gmix, Gdor and Gm), but first things first. Just from a G scale alone, you’ll get Ador, Dmix and Em (or E Aeolian). There are enough easy and really REALLY common tunes which can help you build a strong repertoire as well as a "musical memory".

(My really short answer is simply to learn more tunes. It may sound counterintuitive, but it will pay off in the long run.)

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

Hi Vechey

That would be an option, but I would suggest this other way:

Most of the tunes (my direct knowledge here is actually still limited but that’s what I’ve been reading about) reflect the capabilities (and limitations) of the pipes, which also the flute and the whistle share. As you surely know, unlike the fiddle on these instruments not all notes can be straightforwardly played. On a keyless flute (the instrument I play), for instance, basically you have available the notes of the scale of D major (D E F# G A B c# d e f# g a b etc., with lowercase letters being the upper octave) plus the c natural.

Focusing on the above notes:

- if you play from D to d, you get the scale of D major;
- if you play the same scale using c natural instead of c#, you get D mixolydian;
- if you play from E to e, you get E dorian;
- if you play from E to e using c natural instead of c#, you get E aeolian;
- if you play from G to g using c natural instead of c#, you get G major;
- if you play from A to a using c natural instead of c#, you get A dorian.

Lots of tunes fall into one of these modal scales: Dmaj, Dmix, Edor, Eaeo, Gmaj, Ador, and that’s what I would start with. A good exercise could be trying to listen to several tunes in the same mode and catch the "mood" of the mode.

Hope I was clear enough

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

I found it easiest to start with pentatonic tunes. There are no small intervals. Then on to major then, I think, dorian.

For getting a tune to where I remember it I often leave it playing when doing something mundane, as Lisa M suggested. Sometimes thinking about whatever else I am doing but, when that is not needed, following the phrasing of the melody until I can anticipate what comes next - dance tunes with a question-answer structure are good for that.

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes


I have also been practicing with a boss looper and you could do the same thing with any recorder but I play the tune Into the microphone and then with my foot pedal I hit it and immediately it plays back exactly what I’m playing on a loop and I can stop it and start it again. So I’ll play the tune in to looper stop it do an improvisation based on the two have the looper play the tune again so I’ll improvise 16 bars looper play the original again back-and-forth so I’m always hearing the original and my improvisations very closely on the original sounds of the melody.into the microphone and then with my foot pedal I hit it and immediately it plays back exactly what I’m playing on a loop and I can stop it and start it again. So I’ll play the tune in to looper stop it do an improvisation based on the two have the looper play the tune again so I’ll improvise 16 bars looper play the original again back-and-forth so I’m always hearing original can base my improvisations very closely on the original sounds of the melody. Then for added enjoyment I can improvise a harmony accompaniment or just some cord tones to accompany the melody.

Re: Having trouble "remembering" and "hearing" tunes

…and I have trouble keeping them out of my head. Sometimes I cant sleep. I had two thoughts about this.

1. Try to learn everything by ear. If you go to a session, get with one of the better players and ask them if they would show you some of their tunes, privately. Take things one at a time. Learn to play from playing, not reading. Eventually, learning a tune by sight and recalling it on the fiddle will be natural. But now it’s important to associate how you play it with what you hear. And dont think you have to play everything they do at the session, if it doesn’t grab your attention and enthusiasm. Use those those moments to listen, or maybe go get a round. Play the ones you know and like.

2. Do not stop playing your instrument, and listening to the music that you want to play. Hum them in your head, constantly. Hum them out loud. Think of where you might put your fingers. Keep the fiddle next to the couch. Noodle constantly. This is playing by ear. Before you can play anything, you have to know how it goes.

More importantly, if you can continue *wanting* to play your instrument, even when you cant play it, and especially when you cannot play it, you’ll start remembering those melodies in your head, sort of like playing hooky. This business of playing music is an affliction. Like when I am at work, I cant play music. That’s a crime. But my heart says, "Thought you would keep me from playing music, did you Brain? Bring me to work where I have to sit all day and do spreadsheets. Ha, ha! But I’ll show you!" And it starts playing all the tunes I love, right there on its own. If I close my eyes I swear I can hear them.

On that note, get back to us in 10 or 15 years. Never give up, if you love it you won’t. It will happen, trust me. It happens to anyone who cant help it.