The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I had a brief conversation with a musician friend of mine last night at the session table. She remarked that she found it easier to find her way around a tune on the piano than on her flute, since the experience of playing the keyboard is more “visual.” Playing the flute, comparatively, is more “intellectual.” I pushed into that last comment, asking her what that intellectual experience really felt, sounded, or looked like. Did she visualize the melody? Did she think of the physical layout of the flute, and where the notes “live” on it? She explained that she experienced aural synesthesia, where all sounds, including voices, took a visual form, and for that reason she didn’t think her perception was typical of other musicians. I’m not so sure of that.
I imagine my banjo neck as a map or grid in space, the notes as flashes of light and phrases as swirls and zigzags. This is probably based on my early bad habit of staring at the neck when I played. I would enjoy hearing others’ descriptions of this process. I don’t think it’s by any means instrument-specific. I do think learning by ear and playing from memory are wholly different experiences than sight reading. At the risk of getting too hand-wavy, could you please describe if you can what goes on in your head when you hear, learn, and play a tune?

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

* When I hear a tune - I hear the tune (not the notes) - and if it seems to be straightforward enough (especially if it’s played on an instrument I play, or “know how it works”), I might even get an idea of what is going on on the fingerboard/whatever. If it happens, it happens.
* When I learn a tune - see above. If it’s straightforward enough, I might even get a mental image of the notes (on the instrument - not as written music, never ever!). Like “So, this is an Em arpeggio…”.
* When I play a tune - I just play it. What comes out is a snapshot if what I have in my mind at the moment. I don’t “read” the sheet music in my head.

In my opinion, learning by ear has very little to do with memorization. And playing by ear is more about “telling a story” (in your own words!) than anything else.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I agree with Jeff, except that for me, learning by ear has everything to do with memorization. I can’t really play a tune until I have it memorized. I don’t necessarily think of the notes (e.g., A or B or F#). Rather, I visualize where my fingers will land to get the sound of the tune at a given point.

The flute is the least intellectually demanding because the notes in the first and second octave are always in the same place and I seldom have to change the position of my hands. I have a clear map in my brain of the relation between finger holes (notes), and fingers.

The fiddle requires the most physical coordination. Fingers, arms, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck… are all in play. Again, though, for my simple skill set the notes are always in the same place.

The most intellectually demanding for me is the Anglo concertina, since the notes are doubled and tripled in various places on the keyboard and there are several determining factors that have little to do with learning just one default system. The Anglo is all about knowing where alternative choices of buttons and notes lie. It is a Rubik’s Cube of an instrument.

Are we taking about music? Who was it who said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture?”

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I have always believed there is a significant difference between learning and memorizing. “Learning” means living with a “thing”, making that thing a part of being. To me memorizing is temporal, transient. Over the years I’ve forgotten, probably, everything I’ve memorized, even to the point of forgetting I ever knew it. At least for all those things … ideas, music, words, mental imagery … that did not go on to be “learned”. I believe, at least I hope, that it’s just a matter of semantics to most, but maybe it explains why I’ve forgotten most of the R & R songs I’ve ever played. Most of the blues, jazz, classical … gone. Bear with me. I feel the need to give an example.

I once got to play Macbeth, hours even days of memorizing. I was in my thirties. All gone now. Yet for some reason I still think of this simple poem, almost every day, a poem I first heard when I was 14.

Jenny kiss’d me when we met.
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time you thief who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad.
Say health and wealth have missed me.
Say I’m growing old but add
Jenny kiss’d me.

No one ever asked me to memorize that, but over time I learned it. And that is my inner perception of learning.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

“…please describe if you can what goes on in your head when you hear, learn, and play a tune?”

That’s a big question! Can a brief answer be helpful? Doubt it, so this may become a ramble.

It’s worth mentioning up front that “what goes on in my head” has evolved over the decades of making music—how I hear now is more intuitive, inclusive, and nuanced than 30 or 40 years ago. Yet it’s also more richly informed and cross-referenced by many different facets of the music and ways of thinking about it, understanding it, based on decades of playing. Those information bytes and associations mostly happen subliminally, not as conscious thought in the moment. (If need be, I *can* call them up and use them to solve any puzzles posed by the music, or to explain the music to someone else.)

As a fiddler, I hear the melody line as a sequence of intervals, and I usually hear these in clear relationship to a “home note” or tonic. Again, this is subliminal—I don’t think, “Ah, Edor,” but my fingers land in the right places. It feels like pure association—the sound I’m hearing matches to the sound in my head, and bow hand and fingers know what to do. I’d say that this is purely aural—no other senses involved. But it is strongly tied to the emotional quality of the music, and that comes out through a sixth sense: proprioperception, the sense of knowing where my bow hand and left fingers are and how to move them to get the sound I’m after. This is about both playing the notes and expressing the feeling of the music.

That’s my most direct experience of music. But sometimes I transcribe a tune or find dots that I don’t have an aural source for, so visual info comes to play. The dots are abstract enough that it’s easy to just sing the sounds in my head, without thinking of note names, etc. I’ve heard singers refer to this as sight singing. I’ve learned to do this with ABCs as well, basically bypassing the note names (alphabet) and instead simply hearing the tones the letters represent. Weirdly, I can read a tune in ABC and transpose it on the fly into another key (and not just up or down a fifth/string) as I sight read, at speed, playing the tune on fiddle. This suggests that the visual input is subservient to my brain’s aural focus. Somehow I’m seeing and hearing the intervals, not specific pitches in a particular key. Honestly, it’s bewildering, but it feels natural.

Ages ago, I did go through a phase where I could call up a visual snapshot of dots or ABCs as a prompt for how a tune goes. But that visual memory aid has mostly faded now, perhaps because I rarely look at written notation these days.

When playing any given tune I learned years ago from friends, I’m flooded with sensory memories—the sounds but also the smells, the tang of stout on my tongue, even the heat and humidity of the room, the weather outside, and I can picture the scene, hear the laughter. Tunes carry memories.

As for memorization, I prefer to acquire tunes through osmosis. Tunes learned more intentionally never quite feel like “mine” until they’ve been played so many times that the deliberate learning of them has faded away and they just are. Sometimes such tunes lapse from memory and then years later someone launches into one of them in a session and the tune comes back, in fits and starts, and it feels like learning the tune on the fly, through rapid osmosis, and then it’s not memorized but internalized. I like Jeff’s notion of playing a tune as telling a story, not from rote or a script, but as ad libbing something you’ve told before, each telling varying a bit to suit the listeners, the circumstances, your own shifting sense of the story.

Hope I’m not to wide of the mark and this provides some nibble for thought.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I relate to the world in terms of spatial relationships and movement, so that tends to be how I relate to the music as well. That relationship isn’t trapped in a linear continuum: my experience with a given piece of music varies depending on the tune, how well I know it (or don’t), the tone of the room/space, and I’m pretty sure that whether or not I’m wearing socks factors in there somewhere, too.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

Amen to Lisa’s comment. The soundscape of where you’re playing is a key piece for me as well.

And socks! Never underestimate the importance of socks. I hate it when the toe seam is bunched up in my shoe in the midst of an otherwise smooth set of slip jigs! Or my feet are cold because I forgot to wear socks. 🙂

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I don’t consider what I do “memorizing” tunes and yet I can play them.

I honestly have no idea how my brain works other than understanding that feeding it the right stimulus with properly timed periodic reinforcement over several days always leads to me being able to play a tune I’d like to add to my repertoire.

I treat it as a purely mechanical process of repetition and reinforcement, playing along in segments, and always by ear.

Inner perception is essentially one of meditation, doing this process quiets my mind.

I’m not “thinking about the tune”, I’m not thinking of anything, I’m just doing the process. Listening for every detail, recreating what I’m hearing precisely. Straight from the ears to the fingers. If I feel like I’m missing details, I slow things down until I can pick them up. I don’t allow myself to get sloppy.

When playing tunes I learn this way, it doesn’t feel like “remembering a phone number”, it’s more like recalling the emotional contours of an experience or a familiar smell from my childhood.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

Octave mandolin.
Most of the time for me it’s one dance move for each measure. I’m a very fretboard thinker and often need TAB to prevent my fingers from getting into bad-move ruts.
For tunes that I don’t know very well (most of them) then I’m looking at the tune and thinking in my head about the scale, patterns of movement, anchor points, and repetitions. I basically go through the tune saying to the rest of my body for example: ‘Next four measures are a repeat in some ways plus that inversion, with a different ending like part A’.
The head is trying to summarise the tune into chunks that the other more physical parts of the body can handle on their own. That way I can relax and leave everything to work itself out. Lot of hands-off management as it were.
I also like a strong foot-tapping rhythm so the memory in my feet is important. For example, my timing gets sloppy if I’m trying to play on sloping or soft ground because I’m not getting feedback. Shoulders are kept in touch with the complexities, and the melodic phrases in the tune by occasional signals from the head.
If I’m physically tired then it seems like there’s an awful to-and-fro conversation between my overloaded head and my micro-managed, confused fret fingers.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

For me, playing flute is like whistling or singing. If I can hum it, I can play it.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

Ailin, yes, that’s the beauty of it, right enough. We play music in our heads, and it comes out on whatever instrument we have our mitts on, provided we are intimately at home on the instrument.

Our brains are enigmatic, wondrous organs. Really, all brains are, regardless of species. And music-making is especially curious in that it seems both innate (yet undeveloped in some people) and highly complex and sophisticated. So it can feel at turns effortless and murderously challenging.

Neuroscience and music have long been an intersection of interests for me. During the pandemic, skimming old threads here, I found recommendations for two books that I would second, having now read them myself:

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitan

Coming at the subject from somewhat different angles, both are rife with compelling stories and anecdotes, and both make the science readily accessible to the lay reader.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I am a slow learner. When first learning a tune I usually have on ‘training wheels’ which is to say I use position references or key notes as a mental reference while I’m learning and exploring the tune.

For example I will put some cues in my brain like “open eAA then up the scale” for a key phrase in Mist Covered Mountains. That helps me get through the trickier bits of the tune so I can work on it. Eventually the training wheels aren’t needed and they fall off.

And like Ailin said, when eventually I can lilt the tune, I can play it.

But I often need to keep a mnemonic clue to the incipit in my head so it’s easier to start a tune out of the blue. That’s often the hardest part!

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Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

My wife learns by reading music and I learn by ear. After listening to Cathy play a tune again and again it eventually gets cemented into my brain. Once it’s there, I can play the tune, or most of it. Of course, it needs work to get it presentable. She often helps me find any notes that I’m unsure of, which is where written music is especially useful. Once the melody is there, that’s what counts. I believe this is how tunes were passed on before they were ever written down.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

The Greeks were great students of memory. They gifted us the word Mnemonics. They had a variety of techniques that enabled them to perform prodigious feats of memory. The most successful technique I have employed to learn and retain tunes in the modern era is called ´chunkification´. This will sound familiar: breaking the tune down into discrete phrases, then linking the phrases into ´tune´ and ´turn´.
Sometimes the entire melody is striking enough to allow me to absorb it complete. More often there are natural phrases that break into smaller ´chunks´ and here I use linking to complete the musical thought.
Like most trad musicians I then associate the entire tune to a vividly memorable person or place. The fun thing about playing in Sessions is that you then can get a little insight into how others associate some tunes to other tunes. Often in a session, a tune will trigger the memory of another memorable session, and then an especially apropriate following tune will suggest itself.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I know what the OP means by visual - if I’m playing mandolin or guitar I can ‘see’ the notes on the fretboard - 1st string 2nd fret f#, 3rd fret g, etc. If I’m playing melodeon or harmonica the notes are hidden inside the instrument and I’m pushing/pulling or blowing /sucking without knowing what notes I’m playing half the time. I really have no idea how I remember tunes - I guess its our old friend ‘muscle memory’!

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

To play a tune, I have to both learn it and memorize it.

To learn the tune (“this is how it goes”), I listen to every recording of the tune, play it by ear with session mates, decipher the dots, etc. Except for trivial tunes (like “music for the found harmonium”) this is not enough.

Invariably I discover that I learned the tune incorrectly, with beats in the wrong places, wrong number of beats, truncated bars, etc. Often at transitions between phrases and parts.

To fix this, I have to memorize the correct playing. I use the standard memorization techniques mentioned by others.

As other noted, I also find it that tunes I have memorized without learning them tend to slip away pretty quickly.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I get something that’s sort-of related but I haven’t worked out how to use it for learning. I often get a sense of a colour and/or texture from certain parts of music when I’m learning / playing. So for example there’s a section in one of the tunes I’ve written which is black glass enamel with gold inlay. Another tune might have the colour and texture of cigarette ash in an ashtray. Or an extreme close-up of a natural sponge. I can’t really explain it. Maybe it is a sort of musical synesthesia. I don’t get it with every tune and I don’t usually get it with an entire tune, just a section or phrase.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I can pick up a lot of tunes on the fly. My fingers know where to go before my brain can tell you what note it is. And so I slowly teach myself the tune by getting my hands to find bits and pieces of it.

A friend of mine used to say that the way to learn tunes is first through your ear bones into your head bone and out your finger bones. I find that works for me, especially if my fingers have found at least some of the notes already through on-the-fly attempts at it. Once a tune is really rattling around inside my head, I can usually get the rest of it.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

A lot of you have talked about your strategies for learning tunes, parsing definitions of “memorizing” versus “internalizing”, and this is all very interesting, but I’m particularly intrigued by Andy’s description of the colors and textures that he perceives as he plays. That’s more, I think, of what I’m after: the sort of internal “virtual reality” that you inhabit as you coordinate mind, ears, and fingers (breath, body, feet) to make music.
I attended a house concert once with a certain notable concertina player. When she played her eyes rolled partially back in their sockets and her body twitched as if she was having a mild seizure, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “what’s it look like from in there?”
So, what’s it look like in there?

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I danced around this in my earlier post, but I can say it more directly. For me, it doesn’t “look” like anything, but it sounds wonderful! It’s purely all sound. If anything, learning and playing music can be a relief from all the other sensory input, especially verbal. So it’s a joy to focus just on sound and all its nuances and qualities.

For all I know, my eyes roll back in my head, too, but the lids are closed so as not to alarm small children. 😉

The occasional exception to this is when my somewhat photographic memory posts a picture of notation on my mental screen and I can “see” the tune in question. But this only happens when I call it up, and only if I have a visual reference (that is, I’ve actually looked at the sheet music or ABCs at some point in the past). The visual image doesn’t come unbidden.

I’m sure some people will chime in who hear in colors, textures, smells, and such. Synesthesia is rare but not extremely so: 1 in 2,000 report some form of it (see

My own experience of music represents the other end of the spectrum.

This site has some interesting reading on synesthesias related to music:

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

We’ve had conversations about this sort of thing before.

When you are learning your instrument at the early stages and/or reading music, you might well think about “fingering” when you hear or see a note. Depending on whether you are learning by ear and/or the dots.

If you are confident enough with finding your way around, I think your mind and fingers tend to work automatically. I don’t visualise notes in my head nor the positions on the instrument as such although I believe many do. Certainly not with tunes I know.

If I’m playing the harp or accordion, I do still sometimes have to think about the starting notes and their positions even with more familiar tunes but once I get going I’m usually fine albeit not particularly proficient in other ways.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

Coming late to this interesting discussion, I find that the comment that resonates most with me is this one by David Levine: ‘ I don’t necessarily think of the notes (e.g., A or B or F#). Rather, I visualize where my fingers will land to get the sound of the tune at a given point.’ This is exactly what I experience as a flute player playing the flute. In addition I find the flute not very different from the piano in that it is basically a single line of notes except that the notes are folded over twice (for the 2nd and 3rd octaves). For the guitar this is not true (the ‘folds’ are too many), but if one plays it long enough, all the notes in all the positions are just there. One just ‘knows’ what note will sound if one plays a certain string at a certain fret. For example the sound d is at the third fret on the B string, at the 7th fret (with a different timbre, assuming one is playing with one’s fingers) on the G string and at the 12th fret on the D string. There is a logic here. I am struggling, not at all successfully, to learn the concertina and the multiple ways of playing the same note have no apparent logic on this instrument yet are necessary to avoid having to play two successive note on different buttons with the same finger. And the push/pull dimension also makes it impossible to visualize the notes as lying in any kind of straight line. I think that gradually one just, somehow, comes to know where the sound are and whether they are pushes or pulls, but I am far from reaching that state.

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Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I’m still a beginner but just switched to learning tunes only by ear. It’s a big difference from learning by ABCs.

I try as hard as I can to learn the melody in my head when learning, sometimes lilting or humming when learning parts. If I’m struggling with something this is especially important to help me find it. There’s such a huge correlation between being able to sing the tune somewhat and playing it.

I also try to not focus on the fingering but just the tune. If I find myself thinking of the fingering I’m usually going down the wrong mental path. With the tunes I’ve been learning by ear, it would take some mental calculation to figure out the notes, and probably some amount of visualization for the fingers.

If I know I made a mistake when learning I try to think of the tune before the fingering. Like almost a concerted effort to make the music be the primary thing.

When learning a tune, I get to the point where I can play it, but the next phase is key for me to internalize it.

I get a metronome out at 50 bps and play it while connecting my whole body to the tune, trying to sync my feet up. It’s usually a rhythmic shit show. I then spend a lot of time playing it with a metronome at this slow bps, really focusing on expression, with multiple play throughs with metronome where I’m playing with different bowing expression.

What I’ve found is mentally when I can do that the tune has locked in my head. I can then lilt it, it’s in there.

What’s interesting is that if I’m learning a new tune type it’s harder (like I just learned Ger the Rigger, which was much harder than I expected, even though I felt like I had a good sense for it). This leads me to believe that for me there’s a huge amount of internalizing the rhythm that’s as important as the melody.

One of the reasons I switched to learning by ear was after reading the book The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten. That book changed my internal and external approach to the music as he spends a lot of time highlighting the fact that the notes is but one of the many pieces of music. Previously it felt like “learning the notes” was everything.

This has resulted in a much deeper internalization and almost a “whole body” internalization for me.

Like I was just working on The Tenpenny Bit and I can play it in my head or lilt and really move body to it, but my whole body struggles a bit with the beginning of the B part, which is where I struggle with the tune.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I think that cac gets to the heart of it: “…gradually one just, somehow, comes to know where the sounds are…”

“What does it take to become an expert or master performer in a given field? 10,000 hours of practice. It’s a common rule of thumb, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller ”Outliers: The Story of Success.“ It’s catchy, easy to remember, and more or less completely false.” --- Michael Miller says that quality of time spent playing/practicing is more important than quantity of time.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

This is an interesting discussion! For me, there is basically no visual component to it. I don’t read music, so I don’t ever picture sheet music, and I generally don’t look at my hands. (I used to not be able to play very well when I was looking at my hands. I don’t have that problem any more, but I just don’t really look at my hands anyway). So what’s actually going on in my head is hard to describe. It’s definitely more about feeling the contour than it is about notes or finger positions. When I am picking a tune up ‘on the fly’, what actually seems to work best for me is to quiet my mind and *not* think about what the tune is doing, instead, I just let it exist and when it comes around a second time, it actually seems familiar to me, so *then* I start paying attention to it directly. Since it seems familiar, I will try to play it quietly, which helps me figure out which parts I have and which ones I don’t. Then I just fill in the blanks.

I do get some synethesia. Different keys “feel” like different colors to me. They don’t “look” like colors, though. That helps me figure out a key sometimes, but I often just instinctively know the key and I don’t know how, exactly…

I recently posted a thread about mental “flow state” and how it relates to my music. For me, when I’m in the flow state, I feel like I expend a lot less energy to play, especially in tunes that I am familiar with but never tried playing. The flow state feels like the whole process is smoothed out, and everything I try seems to work. So it feels like brain lubrication, time becomes less relentless, and the music just flows much more fluidly.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I sometimes have names for things or common phrases that tunes have in them. “Pillows” or “Peppermint”, for example. The sound feels or sounds like word to me. I also think some keys have colors although I don’t literally see the color. They just give a sense of the color.

There’s not just learning by ear or memorizing, but there’s also something about playing the same tunes for decades. I can sometimes hear things in there I didn’t notice before and learn the tune anew. I’m not that great of a musician so maybe I’m just really really slow at learning.

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If sit in a session and hear a tune I sense I haven’t played before I sit and listen - and soak the tune in one or two times through. At some point I (usually) get the feeling that the puzzle is solved, and I can go ahead and play the tune. This, of course, is only true if the tune itself is carved on traditional patterns and has an appeal which moves you and motivates you to join in. And if there’s a risk that joining in is not a good contribution then it is a good choice to let it be.

This is the point where, as Ailin said above, if you can hum it - you can play it. I think music is a lot of patterns - and if you have been exposed to a lot of music over many years within a specific genre you have also been exposed to most patterns - your brain appreciates to recognize and organize and lay these patterns out for you.

The more you get familiar with the specific pattern and the “feel” of the tune - the more you can play around and also help create the flow, groove and “craic” once you have the taste, confidence and experience needed.

Starting the tune is another story, though - I am still searching for techniques to remember both names of tunes and how to start them - this is a memory process that - for me -is tenfold much harder than learning to play along or master the tune itself…

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

Learning a tune and learning how to play it are different processes for me. Knowing a tune means being able to hold the melody in my mind so I can replay it almost like an audio recording. If I have learned a tune from a record that might be a memory of the actual recording. This is not necessarily instrument dependent. I acquire this from repeated listenings.

Once the melody is ingrained in most cases I can then pick up any of my instruments and start to play it. In most cases this is because I have an instinctive rather than intellectual awareness of the intervals between notes (I don’t consciously think “this is a third” but I know from long experience where to find the notes). Certainly with simple tunes I am simply playing along to the mental recording in my head without really thinking about the notes I am playing and only thinking about expression. Sometimes this backfires - I sometimes find it difficult to play tunes from my band’s repertoire solo since the sound I am creating is so different from the full band sound in my head. I almost have to create separate mental versions so I can play along to the right one.

Some tunes have tricky sections where I do have to think about fingering, and that becomes a more conscious learning process of trying out alternative fingerings and then repeatedly practicing them until they become embedded. Even then for most of the tune I can be on autopilot and only have to consciously think about a few sections where the fingering isn’t obvious.

I don’t visualise a score, and it wouldn’t mean anything to me if I did. I don’t have synaesthesia, although I know several musicians who do. I can become quite detached - playing guitar in particular I can sit there and watch my fingers moving as if they have nothing to do with me and I am simply an observer.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I am in the ‘if I can hum it I can make a start at playing it’ group. I know my instrument well enough that a for a simple song-like tune my fingers usually find their way once I have a starting note that works.

I can usually tell quickly if notes or the rhythm are wrong and give my fingers another chance, maybe humming the problem phrase first. However, notes that ‘sort of fit’ often slip through until I have my fingers round it well enough to play along with a source.

My fingers are out of sight when playing flute. If I need to think about the notes the proprioception is good enough that, like going up a ladder in the dark, I can ‘see’ where my fingers are in relation to the holes.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

Getting us to sing a tune that we were learning was a technique used by our tutor in our local trad music classes, and I do find it helpful in trying to embed that tune into the brain.
I came up through classical piano, so was pretty much tied to sheet music when I first started learning a trad melody instrument, but had also done a lot of music theory, which helped in moving to learning by ear, as we were encouraged to do. I know it won’t mean much to some of you, but I did think of where tunes were going in terms of intervals, scales, arpeggios, musical sequences, etc, and I did convert what I was hearing to standard notation in my “mind’s eye”. I can now omit that middle phase and go straight from hearing to playing. It may sound very mechanical, but it worked for me to get the basic melody. Other stuff such as phrasing, ornamentation, musicality, follows later.
I don’t look at my fingers a lot when playing, relying more on proprioception.
I would still tend to learn tunes from sheet music, but then try to leave it aside when going out to a session.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

I find that if a tune has a big range and I cannot therefore easily sing it, it is far more difficult to memorise it accurately.

Re: The inner perception of learning and playing by ear

That’s when my dear old Dad’s old trick of jumping the octaves comes in: if a tune got too high for him, he’d just drop an octave, or if it went too low, he’d jump up an octave! This was however in the context of singing hymns in church, not learning ITM tunes!