Tune learning observation

Tune learning observation

I find that the best music for learning tunes by ear is solo banjo, or banjo + stealthy backing. Why?

Cos with banjo— unlike more “droney” instruments like fiddles or winds— there are clearer breaks between notes. Even at speed, the sounds feel easier to process. What do yall think?

Chris

Re: Tune learning observation

I think you have a point there and that the clear note separation helps. Not just banjo though, concertina recordings for instance are great for learning tunes too. But a solo fiddle recording is great as well (I play fiddle myself). All in all for me a solo recording or duet makes it easier to learn the tune than a recording by a band.

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It kind of depends of what you want to learn. If it’s the melody then any instrument goes, if it’s a singular note sequence then a Banjo is good (I prefer concertina or accordion) but heck even abc midi will do.

I mostly listen to accordions and concertinas when learning as I’m mostly interested in variations that other musicians make that I can potentially also do on my own instrument.

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I’ve heard that Jame Morrison liked to teach his fiddle students by playing the banjo, probably for the reasons you mention Chris.

I play fiddle and like to learn from listening to the pipes. Sometimes the techniques don’t quite transfer over, but I like it when I can make my playing sound pipey.

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I find the very quick decay of notes on the banjo can sometimes make it hard to pick up what notes are being played in a session setting but, as you say, in solo settings or with minimal accompaniment on a recording it’s not a problem.
The attack certainly helps with understanding the melodic rhythm.

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I like the fiddle as there are some hints as to open string notes. 🙂

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I’d agree that banjo or piano is good for simply learning the notes of the tune, but as a fiddle player, learning those same notes from listening to a fiddler, captures all the nuances of phrasing and dynamics that are absent from a banjo or piano (although those do have their own, of course).

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Funny: I’m the opposite, and I’m a banjo player. I only recently started being able to learn tunes from banjo recordings. For the longest time when I listened to banjo all I heard was plunk plunk plunk. I preferred fiddle or accordion or…anything else.

It wasn’t until I started trying to make my own banjo playing more pleasant that I started being able to “hear” the banjo.

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I agree. the banjo player hasnt got any choice but to play every single note with and up or down stroke. in a band or session recording I find i can usually follow them. For some reason I also find concertina (which I cant play at all) good to learn from. I find flute the hardest to learn from.

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I played a lot of banjo for 10 years but learned most of my tunes by listening to other instruments. Some banjo players I discovered later tend to hide the melody/skeleton/bare bones behind ornamentation and other pyrotechnics. (I have a certain player in mind.)

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I have never really favoured any particular instrument for learning from - if I hear a tune I like, I learn it, whatever it is played on. If anything, the hardest to pick up tunes from for me is a flute player that does a lot of octave-switching and/or takes a lot of breaths. Also, I have heard some banjo players that strip the tune down beyond its essential melodic elements - which may sound good in context, but does not necessarily translate to other instruments without a bit of reconstruction. Conversely, there are those players (of any instrument) that play in a ‘stream of consciousness’ style, whose playing consists of a ceaseless torrent of melodic variations, so it can be difficult to ‘catch’ the tune.

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Ideally, the best instrument to learn a tune is the one on which you intend to play it.
You also have to learn all the nuances and subtleties of the tune which is specific to the instrument and it will also help you to progress further on that instrument better if you can learn directly on it.

That’s not to say I’ve never been guilty of picking out a tune on the mandolin sometimes just to the basic notes in my head but that can only take you so far. You usually have to approach the tunes differently depending on which instrument you play them. So, it’s arguably better to start as you mean to go on.

Some tunes are quite transferable, of course, but others need subtle changes, ornaments etc. Left hand parts/accomp too on the harp, accordion and so on.

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JJMP: “Ideally, the best instrument to learn a tune is the one on which you intend to play it.”

I would respectfully disagree with that – in part, at least. There are certainly advantages to hearing how another player of the same instrument interprets a particular tune, but it can also limiting. It depends, of course, on your stage of learning – a beginning player will want to build up a toolbox of techniques specific to their instrument and learning tunes from experienced players will help to do this. But when I hear a new tune I like played on concertina, pipes, flute etc., and I am learning in on mandolin, I want to get as close as I can to the version that inspired me to learn it, using the techniques I have available to capture as much as possible of the nuance of the source version.

Perhaps it is a personal quirk of mine, but when I am playing a tune I have learned from a specific recording, I sometimes hear a little of the source version in my head as I play and, I’d like to think, play what is in my head. Perhaps this is not entirely a good thing, as I am not listening as closely as I should be to my own playing. (What a thought! Perhaps I am no better than the person singing tunelessly along to whatever song is playing in their earbuds, convinced that they sound just like Whitney or Sinatra). But it feels great when your mandolin is kind of an organic midi controller for an imaginary set of pipes…

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I’m not disagreeing with you but that wasn’t really what I was saying.

I may have misunderstood the idea behind this thread and if we are talking about learning by “listening” to other instruments then, of course, that’s different. I too like to make my mandolin playing sound “pipey” (As far as possible) at times or use some of my fiddle techniques too although such subtleties can often be lost in a session. So, it usually works better when I’m playing solo.

However, if I’m learning a fiddle tune specifically to play on the fiddle..perhaps with other fiddlers etc, it makes sense to do it on that instrument as opposed to the banjo or mandolin.
Maybe, just picking a tune out of a book, I might play it on mandolin first or maybe not. I haven’t decided what to do with it at that point.

However, I agree with you that it’s good to try and transfer techniques etc too wherever possible but that wasn’t what I thought was meant. Sorry for the confusion.

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I prefer to learn from a recording of a different instrument or even a somewhat ‘blurry’ recording of a session to get the basic tune. Then progress to playing along with that recording as I would ‘live’ and add in finer detail - as suites my instrument - as I get comfortable with it.

I may then seek out recordings on my instrument to see what they do with it technique-wise, but if I was drawn to the tune by a different instrument I may try (maybe unintentionally) to copy the ‘feel’ of it on that.

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Of course, let’s remember it’s not a case of either/or; it’s usually a good idea to listen to as many sources as you can lay your ears on when learning a tune. Even if there’s a specific performance you want to mimic it can help to be aware of other ways with the tune on diverse instruments, to serve as inspiration as you personalize and internalize.

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@JJMP – So, just to clarify, are you talking about the instrument you learn a tune *on* or the instrument you learn it *from*? Obviously, these are two very different things. That said, learning a tune on one instrument before transferring it to another can also have its benefits (as has been discussed before at length in threads on the merits of playing multiple instruments).

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Ha! By all means, everyone should learn their tunes from banjo players! 😉

Actually, I know what you’re saying. I will learn tunes from any instrument, but it’s often easier when there is some fairly solid definition of the notes. Banjos tend to provide that well. As others have mentioned, though, there are other instruments that do it well, like concertina. I do like learning from solo fiddle if the player is clean and not too flashy. Paddy Glackin, for instance, often plays quite cleanly and you can hear every note he’s playing with good definition (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fGVJQnuGRQ)


But honestly, as a banjo player, I tend to like to learn from instruments that are contrasting the banjo, like the wind instruments. It gives me different ideas about phrasing. For instance, I will often pop a note hard and cut it off, as if I were a flute player taking a breath, as part of my expression of a tune. Many banjo players tend to get into a sewing machine rhythm that can become relentless after a while…

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I agree except for those triplets which some players overdo and which quickly become cloying. Chet

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Reverend: “… as a banjo player, I tend to like to learn from instruments that are contrasting the banjo, like the wind instruments. It gives me different ideas about phrasing. For instance, I will often pop a note hard and cut it off, as if I were a flute player taking a breath, as part of my expression of a tune.”

This is what I am talking about.

cac: “I agree except for those triplets which some players overdo and which quickly become cloying.”

…which brings us back to the idea that it is more about the player than the instrument (I assume you are talking about banjo, as referred to by the OP). Yes, a banjo player’s overuse of triplets, apart from becoming cloying, can obscure the finer contours of the tune. But the same is true of, say, a piper or flute player that overuses rolls – and many banjo players pay very keen attention to melodic detail.

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CMO…

On reading the OP, I think Chris is talking about “learning from” and some others seem to agree that the banjo is good for this purpose as the notes are apparently clearer and “separate”.

This is possibly true but I’m as happy listening to the fiddle, pipes, or whatever instrument and learning from these. It’s more likely to be the accompaniment and/or other things going on which are likely to distract me. Otherwise, I’m quite happy learning the tune from the pipes, fiddle, or whatever. I can always slow it down too, if need be.

As for learning the tune “on the instrument”, as I said, I prefer to do so on the instrument I intend to play it on. Many tunes will be transferable, of course.
Ideally, I’d listen to a fiddle recording or other recordings if I wanted to play it on the fiddle. Of course, I’m not a piper but I wouldn’t be put off listening to pipers in order to learn tunes either.

As regards the mandolin, there are fewer sources in comparison to that of fiddle/pipes etc albeit there are many recordings too. However, I wouldn’t let the fact that I learned the tune from one instrument stop me from playing it on another. It’s whatever I think suits or takes my fancy at the time.

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I agree with the OP and have done something like this for many years, without really knowing why. I’m a fiddle player, but I learn all new tunes on Bouzouki. One aspect is just the ease with which I can pick the zouk up - often throughout the day I’ll grab it for a couple of runs through new tunes, which seems to work better than long tune learning sessions.

But also I like to get knowing the notes out of the way, so that when it goes over to the fiddle my brain is in phrasing / ornamentation mode and the fingers are just falling naturally. But as to why I find it easier to learn the notes on a plucked vs bowed instrument, I don’t entirely know why, I just do

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After reading the “mandolin v tenor banjo” thread, I picked up my banjo and learned a new reel.

It was actually composed by a fiddler but sounds good on the banjo too.
I’ve not been playing TB much lately and it felt a bit strange at first but once I got the tune down, everything came back to me.
So, I guess another good reason for learning tunes on different instruments is to “keep your hand in”, so to speak.

BTW, the tune in question was “Stan’s Reel” by Marie Fielding. I’ll maybe post it here sometime but it’s available in a new collection “The 25+2” which is comprised of mostly new tunes by composers/artists who have appeared at Scots Fiddle Festival over the years.

https://www.scotsfiddlefestival.com/the-25plus2-collection-book

https://www.scotsfiddlefestival.com/the-25plus2-collection-cd

It’s a very nice thing to have and I am reluctant to post any of the tunes here until they sell enough copies of the book. 😉

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One thing that fiddles, accordions, concertinas, woodwind, etc have got over plucked stringed instruments is the ability to play sustained notes: not so much required if, say, learning a jig or a reel, but more relevant when it comes to tunes like waltzes or slow airs if you want to learn the tune with all of its full note values.
I can understand the liking for crisp well-separated notes, as you might get with tenor banjo or mandolin, but fiddles, accordions, concertinas, flutes, whistles can do that too, can produce anything from short staccato notes to long sustained ones spanning a bar or more.
I do some recordings for a blind friend who plays piano accordion: I play melody only on my button box which he finds nice and clear for learning - far better than trying to learn from a multi-instrument commercial recording. (Chords come later!)

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the other day, I wanted to learn to play the Flower of Mandragore, a popular f-c session and contra dance tune. one of those tunes where the dots are useless for figuring out “how do *I* make this tune *go* on *my* instrument”. downloaded the usual 20 videos of people playing it, mix of instruments, including banjo videos. main inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYCsNhUK9Gc.


but how do I get from point A to point B? “the best” video is too fast, too busy, too full of distractions. luckily Miranda Arana recorded the tune on flute: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrAI-hbpTmY.


now, this is something I can work with. relaxed playing, clean, not busy. each note clearly enunciated. clear phrasing. plenty of space. light, fluttery feeling. i listen and i say, “aha, this is how this tune works”.

good luck finding banjo recordings like this, always too fast, too busy with ornamentations, too notey. forest hidden behind trees.

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Because the tin whistle was the first instrument I played what I hear in my head whatever the instrument playing and translate for other instruments I play is the tin whistle.Perhaps hard to understand for those who sight read musical score but this is how my playing by ear works for me.
Although I could sight read as a teenager playing the piano it is a skill that I have almost lost.