Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

Using the extra time available in lockdown, I’ve learned quite a few new tunes, and I wanted to see how it felt for others like myself who basically learn by ear.

Full disclosure: as an eleven-year old, I did have the notes in the CCE class, but never was fluent enough to read at speed, so they were always just a back-up for the ear-learning. Even now, I can use the dots to clear up a bit of a tune that is obscure, but I can’t play to a speed where you’d recognise the tune. So from the beginning I have just learned tunes by listening, copying and getting them up to speed in sessions.

Jump forward to 2022 and there is all this wonderful tech: TheSession, Tunepal, Youtube. There’s never been a better time to be a learner-by-ear. But I wanted to ask others about how it *feels* for them when learning by ear.

These seem to my steps:
1. Hear a tune in a session or on the internet or on a CD and like the sound of it:
2. Find out the name by asking, or by the title on a recording, or putting it into Tunepal
3. Listen to a slow version of it on Tunepal (about 80 bpm). If there are two transcriptions, find the one I like best
4. Play along a few times to get the general ‘shape’ of the tune in my head
5. Listen out for the ‘hook’ lines, the phrases that seem to give the tune its distinctive ‘nyah’
6. Go onto Youtube to find a few different people playing it, to see how it can sound on different instruments and in different hands (maybe see if it has a Scottish or Nova Scotia or Country version)
7. Choose someone’s version (or a combination of versions) as a model and then play it a lot of times till it comes naturally
8. Annoy my session mates no end by promoting the tune and trying to get them to play it

The key question is: what does it feel like when the thing comes together in your head? To me it feels like it’s about the rhythm and hook lines which have become embedded. Maybe my brain has got a ‘skeleton’ of the tune rather than all the notes in detail. Or maybe that is the wrong way round and the tune is there in complete detail and you are just remembering its highlights. There always comes a point where you start to unconsciously whistle it while driving (Ask my wife!) and the tune is quite at home in your head. It’s also at that point that it suddenly becomes easier to add in small variations while playing it.

So it you principally learn by ear, how does it feel for you?

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

Hi there Rudall Cart

Well, it seems from your post that you already know what’s required.

As long as the skeletons aren’t in the cupboard you’ll be alright.

I can’t give any advice about your wife as I’m not qualified!

Have a great day, have some wonderful music.

Keep safe and well everyone
All the best
Brian x

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

I have done all these things too, Rudall.
Even although my dot playing has improved, I’ll seek out recordings and so on. Also, I learn by ear from my own playing while I look at the dots!

However, I think there is a distinction between actively learning by ear and doing it subconciously. Or just taking your time and slowly absorbing a tune over a period of time.
It’s actually a great feeling when it all comes together and the tune comes into your head “fully formed”.
Of course, you have to learn to play the instrument too. 😉 However, many of us will have many “oven ready”(As Boris once said) tunes before we even start.

Of course, there are times we need to learn tunes more quickly.. e.g for concerts, practices, or just because we like them. So all the above “aids/tricks” are useful. I will employ most of these along with “the dots” or whatever else is available.
However, I think I still prefer the more gradual long term route.

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?


For simple/easy tunes:
1. Play along with the source material until the melody can be played without the source material.
2. Figure out everything else after having learned the melody.
3. Have fun.

For more complex tunes:
1. Get acquainted with the melody internally.
2. If the melody is too complex, or unintelligible due to quality, play along with the source material to develop an interpretation of the melody.
3. Check your work by playing along with the source material until 100% melodic confidence is reached.
4. After determining the melody line, experiment with fingerings to learn the best patterns to maintain the rhythmic and dynamic flow of the melody.
5. Begin the never ending process of developing articulations and variations.
6. Have fun.

For subjectively difficult tunes:
1. Develop a deep understanding of the melody, so much so that you have already determined the melody line by either singing it or playing it on an instrument that you are more proficient at.
2. Learn the phrases incrementally and practice the phrases slowly in sets. Do this for all parts.
3. Experiment with fingerings to learn the best patterns to maintain the rhythmic and dynamic flow of the melody.
4. Practice the melody slowly without the source material until you can play along with source material.
5. Begin the never ending process of developing articulations and variations.
6. Have fun.

As for how it feels? It can be an anxious process when learning tunes in unfamiliar keys or on instruments that you’re still learning. It’s like, no matter how much music you’ve learned; new music is still new and will require some form of work/effort to acquire. It can be thrilling, and deeply satisfying when a tune feels as good to play as it sounds. Sometimes it feels like magic, how one minute your fingers are stumbling around and tripping over each other, and then the next minute they’re rhythmically marching in sync. It can feel uneventful when a tune was too easy and it just fell under the fingers. It can feel bitter and discouraging when a tune gives you so much trouble, that you’ve played it for weeks and months, and continue practicing it, but something seems to be holding back your total acquisition of it. Ah, but most of the time, it simply feels good :D

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

For dance tunes I usually get the rhythm, melodic hooks and some phrasing in my head by repeated listening before I pick up the instrument. Some tunes I’ve heard a lot are already in that state. (does that answer the main question?)

Usually the difficult parts to get (aside from instrument technique) are fragments of melody between the hooks. For those I will repeat that section of a recording singing along then try what I am singing on the instrument (or maybe look at the dots). Sometimes when I finally get to playing along with the recording I find what I have for those bits is something less interesting that doesn’t clash.

For the ‘need to learn quickly’ situations that Johnny Jay mentions I find the fastest, after a few listens, is to load the recording into Audacity and step through phrase by phrase listening and trying to repeat. With the dots if I have them.

The ones where I have the melody down while still battling with the rhythm have rhythms that are less familiar to me - 3/2 hornpipes, 5/4 waltzes, 3/4 waltzes with syncopation etc.

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

It feels good, it feels natural - but it’s all I have ever known. I accepted many years ago that there was some part of my brain that just would not process ‘the dots’ and I might as well be trying to interpret ancient Babylonian so I gave up on it. It’s worked well enough over the years and I realize that a lot of times I absorb tunes by osmosis without being aware that I’m doing it - for example last year I found myself playing a slide that I had never consciously learnt and had no idea where I’d heard it, and after some research I discovered it was Eileen O’ Riordan’s and I’d heard it some months previously on a Seamus Begley/Steve Cooney program on TG4 . That’s how it works for me.

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

I also only learn tunes by ear. I will occasionally reference a written source to figure out a particular note, but I can’t read dots worth a damn, and I can’t read ABC fast enough to play from it. Anyway, what it feels like to me has changed over the years. Originally, it felt like a memorization process -- learn one phrase at a time and stitch them together in my mind with sheer repetition. But that process has evolved over the years, and now it’s more a matter of internalizing what the tune does.

I think I compartmentalize it a bit, between the “obvious” bits of the tune, and then the “unique” bits of the tune, where I put more mental energy into internalizing the little twists and turns that make a tune stand out from others. And then I just trust my ability to play what I have in my head on my instrument. (That’s not to say that I’m perfect at it, by any stretch).

The thing is, I am processing tunes like that whether I am playing or not. So there are times where there’s a tune that I have heard a lot, and when it comes up in a session, I will just assume that I can play it because I recognize it, whether I’ve ever played it before or not. So this actually feels like a lot more precarious situation than when I would sit and force a tune into my head and fingers.

The moment that a tune goes from “trying to learn” to “learned” is a bit of a grey area for me, but in general, it just feels both more comfortable to play and more permanent in my mind. So more like an old friend than a new acquaintance…

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

I like Jerone’s notion of different contexts for learning a tune. I can think of

1. Some I learn by osmosis, having heard them so many times (often through passive listening) that they eventually fall under the fingers and are just there.

2. Some I learn on the fly at a session. These may also be tunes that I’ve heard many times before, but not always. Sometimes an unfamiliar tune strikes my fancy and I learn it on the spot.

3. Sometimes I learn a tune from a friend, where they play it repeatedly, maybe slowing down any tricky spots, and then we play it together till it sticks.

4. Sometimes I learn a tune from a recording, much like 2 and 3 above.

5. Sometimes I set out to learn every nuance of a particular recording. In this case, I’ll start by transcribing it in detail. Having done that, I can usually then play along with the recording without looking at the transcription, and I’ll play along until it feels more or less familiar. Then I’ll play it on my own, sometimes playing the source variations and nuances and sometimes inserting my own.

In every context, I move pretty quickly (maybe instantaneously) into making the tune my own—incorporating my own variations, changing where I put rolls, triplets, etc.,. That’s based on nearly 50 years of playing this music. I’m very aware, however, of when a tune—and a given musician—has something new to teach me, and so I’m careful to pay attention to that and internalize it rather than just impose my own sensibilities.

Learning tunes is a bit like traveling to other countries. It’s all too easy to check the destination off your list and return home the same person. “Wherever you go, there YOU are.” I’m happiest when a new tune teaches me something, changes how I think about this music and my own music-making, and makes me a better musician. Sometimes that lesson is obvious right from our first meeting, sometimes it takes time to reveal itself. Either way, it helps to be mindful—you’re not just learning a melody. Every tune is an opportunity to grow.

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Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

Oops, in my opening line, I meant to say, “I can think of five broad contexts for how I learn tunes.”

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Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

Learning tunes is about the effort we put in. So, all that is a process & how it feels varies depending on which stage I’m at. If you’re asking how does it feel when I’m playing by ear, in a session with my mates & we are all listening to each other; when we’re making it our tune. It feels brilliant!
Absolutely, the best.

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Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

People try to teach me “phrase by phrase”, and it seems that’s the way most fiddlers learn - but I’m pretty bad and slow at learning that way.

The way I learn best is kind of “top down”… I just sit there with my brain drifting, listening to the whole tune…after a few times through, I pick up my fiddle and I’ll be able to play along with the “Main Pieces”. Then a few more times through, and what I think of as the “connector notes” or “bridging notes” between the Main Pieces fall into place. Sometimes when the “connector notes” are twisty and turny, like going up and down, I’ll have to come here to peek at written music and clear it up.

But when I learn a tune this way, it’s very solid and won’t be forgotten. When I try to learn by assembling the notes/phrases together from beginning to end, I will still have blank spots where I get stuck. I guess everybody has a different way to learn.

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

Cancion, the point that you and some other players made about ‘connector notes’ does feel right. Some phrases are self-evident (and can still be very lovely, but are self evident). Other connector bits can be hard to get until you look at them carefully. It reminds me of two other things I’ve noticed while ear-learning.

1.There are some tunes that have some phrase that looks wrong if you study the dots - until you get up to speed and then suddenly it clicks. For example, there is a phrase in the second half of the Earl’s Chair where the phrasing seems to reverse, but when you get it up to speed it makes perfect sense (and is lovely!)

2. I am very aware that certain instruments favour certain ways of playing a tune over others. It might be avoiding difficult string-crossings on the fiddle or for my instrument, the flute, it might involve using a roll instead of a dotted triplet of the same note, or avoiding one of the notes below low D. These accomodations can improve the tune or weaken it and you need to listen carefully to why different ornamentations are used. There is a lovely Tommy Peoples recording of Farrel O’Gara’s and I’ve consciously altered the way I play the second half because his fiddle version sounds so good when you get your tongue around it (if you’ll pardon the expression).

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

To the original poster, Rudall Cart- your description, minus the session part, id dead on for me. So often I feel like I get the gist, or bones in place but then I somehow over simplify it and realize later that I’m missing quite a bit. I have only just now gotten back into playing flute and whistle, so while I’m trying to play tunes more “properly” I am also re learning the instrument too. Ive always been a learner by ear as well- but now that I know about Tunepal- thanks to you- I feel like I have a much better set of tools now, so thanks!

Re: Learning tunes by ear - what does it feel like for you?

For me the process works something along the following lines:
1. Hearing a tune and liking it (obviously) -- that might be by buying a CD or listening to some of my heroes on YouTube or other channels.
2. Putting all the tunes I wanna learn in a playlist -- I mostly listen to ITM flute tunes (some classical flute music as well, mainly Bach or Mozart). My wife thinks it’s boring (she plays accordion but doesn’t listen to accordion music -- it kind of baffles me but to each their own -- she often plays tunes on the accordion that were originally played on other instruments but she can read the dots, so …) -- that’s why headphones were invented.
3. Now I listen to the tunes (not all the time but quite often) until I “soaked them up”
4. When I start learning a new one I often can already play it slowly in a basic version or sometimes a tune just “falls under the fingers” that I had listend to a lot.
5. For complicated or faster tunes that I cannot learn that way I use an app to slow them down to pick up the parts that I am unsure of. (I used to do that much more when starting out.)
6. When working on the tunes, I focus on the breathing, phrasing, tone, etc, less than the melody itself.
7. Play them until they play themselves. I read once (maybe here, maybe on a forum): “The beginner practices until he can play a tune without making mistakes, the master practices until it becomes impossible for him to make a mistake.” I’m not quite there yet.

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