How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

I’m asking this apparently simple question because i’m back on the learning curve after 22 years of slackness. My eldest child is 22 , so that might explain my situation. If you don’t have children, don’ worry, you won’t understand, though you may think you do. I notice a few things… first, I have forgotten more tunes than I remember. When I hear a tune I used ot know, I often realise about half way through the second Bs. By then its too late. Also, it seems harder to learn now than before. Is this age or lack of practice. So here are my questions for anyone with the time to answer.
1. How do you learn (by ear, by notation).
2. How long does it take to learn a standard sized tune?
3. How many tunes can you learn in, say, a month?
4. How many can you fit in your head before they start popping out the other end (FILO buffer?) and does it matter if they do?
5 Is it getting harder with age? (Forget this question if you are under 50)
6 Do you have trouble working out if you know the tune when you hear it in a session if you haven;t played it for a while?

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

1. A bit of both
2. Depends on the tune, and depends on what you mean by “learn”. If you mean being able to play it - anything from a couple of minutes to half and hour. If you mean knowing it and feeling at home with it, longer - days, weeks, months…
3. Again it depends on what you mean by learn. I don’t learn as many as I *can*. I’m probably capable of learning many tunes a day but on average I don’t do so because I don’t have time. I probably learn about 10 tunes a week, but then it can vary. Some weeks I go without learning any. Other weeks I go crazy and learn maybe over 20 tunes.
4. I passed that stage long ago. I keep having to go back and relearn tunes I supposedly learnt last year or the year before. But then you can do that at sessions by listening to the tune a couple of times through and then picking it up last time through and reminding your fingers where they’re supposed to go.
5. What was that now, I’ve forgotten the question.
6. I’ve had that sometimes when I’ve only realised I’d learnt the tune after a couple of times through. It’s a bit embarrassing, but it shows one of 3 things: either a) you didn’t learn the tune well enough, or b) it’s being played in a vastly different setting or key, in which case it can be almost unrecognisable, or c) the musicians in the session aren’t showcasing the tune well enough for you to be able to immediately recognise it. I find the latter happens quite a lot, especially when someone’s rhythm’s all over the place.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

If I can make a suggestion: why don’t you record some sessions and listen to what you’ve recorded while you’re doing something mundane like washing dishes or driving to work? That way you’ll get the tunes you need by osmosis all in one big dollop, and it won’t be necessary to actually sit down and commit the tunes to memory. You’ll simply be able to pick them out on your instrument after a while, and then if you need to you can sit down and give individual tunes your attention by checking the odd bar or two that hasn’t sunk in. Bear in mind that although the people in your session might know more tunes than you - I dunno maybe they don’t, but if they do, don’t let it worry you because in practice these people are going to have their current favourite tunes that they’ll play in sessions, and it won’t be too difficult for you to pick them up if you make a few recordings.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

See how many split infinitives you can spot in my posts above.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

IMHO
1. Both. Learning by ear from an accomplished player gives you more than a tune itself - the bonus you get is his personal attitude, unique performance, the way he feels about it. Notation saves time, especially if you are qute accomplished player yourself, and may be helpful if it isn’t taken too seriusly. It’s good to treat the notes as just a guide to the tune, like visit card you get when you meet somebody for the first time. OK, now you have the name, phone number, address but can you tell that you already know the person? Sure not…
2… you’ll have to spend some time being with, talking to this person, learning his ways, both nice and difficult features of his character i different situations. If you’re not discouraged by that time you two will probably make good friends and then it will be your time to leave your personal mark on your new friend. Likewise, the tune will be becoming more and more “yours” with time.
3. Depends on the tune, though I don’t think it’s really vital. The quality is much more important than the quantity here. Personally, I try as many new tunes as possible whenever I come across them, but focus on only two or three a week, sometimes none if I feel more like maintaing my good relationship with “good old friends-tunes” that I met before, or studying them even deeper.
4. Another analogy to making friends, I suppose. If the tune is your close friend, you’ll be coming back to it often and you won’t forget it. If you just meet it once or twice and it didn’t get to you, you’ll forget it quickly, probably with no regret.
5. Following the instruction I forgot the question ;)
6. It’s like being reunited with a friend. You’ll never forget him completely, probably you will be even more willing to learn what’s new, recalling what has been. The tune will be probably not quite the same you used to know, changed with time and people you’ll hear it from, but still closer to you that a new one.

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Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

Neil - I’m at a similar stage in life to you. My youngest is 20. I mostly learn by ear - I ask someone to play the tune through at a gentle pace 6/7/8 times till I’ve got it.

Just learn one tune at a time. When you get to the end of 3 months you’ll have learned enough tunes to be feeling pleased with yourself.

Why beat yourself up? Your glass might not be full - but it is still half full. In your dotage learn what you can and play what you know. The remainder of your life’s too short to be fretting about how many tunes you don’t know. Rejoice in the ones you do, and add to them at a pace that you enjoy.


Dow
- the reasons for clever people saying that it is wrong to ever split an infinitive are actually less sound than anyone’s claim to know the right or original or authentic version of any traditional tune. It comes originally from the notion that just because the “classical” languages don’t do it, therefore we must not do it in english. This fails to notice that in the classical languages the verbs have only one part, so it is not actually possible to ever, at any time, split the infinitive.

So it’s just a load of pretentious carp, it’s just one of the ways the establishment use to keep you in the gutter, like people who say “an hotel” with the h aspirated. Just ridiculous. You only harden the indefinite article when the next word starts with a vowel sound. An ’otel - that’s ok, but an Hotel is as stupid as saying “an tune”. And as for the idea that a preposition is not right for ending a clause or a sentence with . . .

Remember - we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars, and some of us are having a session in our bit of gutter.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

I’m no kind of musician, but I feel as if I’m in a similar kind of position to Neil Barr.
1. I learn by ear, but notation helps enormously. Sometimes my ear is wrong. Sometimes I get into the habit of playing a phrase sloppily and referring to the dots helps me fix it. A few months past somebody mentioned the practice of carrying a list of your repertoire, with the first two or three bars of ABC against the title - plus the key and time signature. This has helped enormously in keeping track of what I know - and what I’ve forgotten. I’ve also found it useful to keep a list of the dots of tunes I mean to learn. This tend to be about a dozen. Just having them in my pocket means I can mull over them on the train, so I can get a tune into my head without even playing it.
I shrink the font down on ABC so I can paste all dozen tunes on one side of A4 paper.
2. How long does it take to learn a tune? Some tunes seem to flow from the ends of my fingers, others take ages to settle in. Morrison’s lodged quickly - The Fourpenny Bit took ages, but I’ve finally got the hang of it. The Mad Magician - almost instantly - Queen of the Rushes : ages - confounded by thinking that the variation was part of the original tune.
3. How many tunes can you learn in a month? Depends what else is happening. Probably half a dozen in a quiet month, but then I’m no kind of musician. In a busy month, none at all.
4. How many can you fit in your head? I don’t know, it’s not full yet. Currently I’ve got about forty, but I’m due to add a few from my pending list, because I really do know more. I don’t take tunes off the repertoire list, and maybe I should.
5. Is it getting harder with age? On the contrary, it’s pretty well soft all the time now. I’m glad I have the music to cheer me up.
6. Do you have trouble recognising a tune …? Yes, of course! That’s why I’ve got the ABC on a list in my pocket.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

I’m with our original poster in worrying about a slower learning curve with age - my SO is 9 years younger than me, and definitely picks up tunes quicker,but maybe she has no option being only a melody-instrument player while I can always strum if I can’t pick, or maybe it’s just her ability compared to mine. Also, eldest is now 21, and I only got back into playing for fun about 3 & 1/2 years ago, so I’m with you on that point too.
I find that tunes I already know by ear seem to come quite easily to the fingers, otherwise I hear a tune I like, get it’s name and look it up here and elsewhere, and it’s always a help if the soundfile is on site too, otherwise it can be a struggle sometimes. But my sight-reading is slowly improving. It’s still a lot quicker to download a tune than learn it. And who said you can’t start a sentence with a preposition, the, eh ?

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

1. Dots mostly, because as soon as I start playing I can’t hear the recording. However once I have a tune the dits go away,, and the tune starts to evolve.

2. On the fiddle, anyhting from a couple of plays through to several consecutive evenings. On Melodeon, about ten hours of slowly pickign out the basses in conjunction with the tune.

3. depends how hard I’m trying, maybe five to ten badly, or three or four well.

4. Hmm, I think they’re all in there still, somewhere, if I learnt them properly in the first place.

5. I’m ignoring this question.

6. Hasn’t happened yet, but I only attend one regular sessionb, and it’s with friends who all share the same tunes mostly.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

I learn mostly by ear, supplemented by sheet music for tricky bits. I have been adding to my tune book on the Session so it includes everything I know, but am finding that some of the settings contained here are only “mostly” the same as the tune I know and play--that is confirming that the ear came first. I define “knowing” a tune as being able to play it up to session speed solo, not just bobbing along in someone elses wake, and this can take anywhere from a week to a month, once I set my mind to it. I try to limit myself to learning one or two tunes at a time, otherwise I get confused. Being over 50, I have found that the memory is the second thing to go (now if only I could remember what that first thing was…). Sometimes in a session, I will play along with a tune without really knowing what it is--like Guernsey Pete, my fingers remember even when my concious brain is lacking. I find that tunes may get rusty, but once I learn them, they are lurking somewhere in the far reaches of my nervous system….

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

Hmmm. The tunes that stick around the longest are the ones I learned by hearing them at sessions until I picked them up out of sheer self-defense. But if I’m setting out to shoehorn one into the aging memory, then I’ll listen to as many recordings of it as I can find to find a version/setting that I really like, then cast around for sheet music for more versions/settings, play through it a few times, and then listen to the recording(s) until the thing is set in my head. Sometimes this takes hours over several days if it’s a tune I’ve never heard before that.

Some tunes just don’t want to stick. Those I set aside and come back to later (sometimes after years) and discover that now I can play them.

And yes, there’s been lots of times when I’ve heard a tune and thought, what IS that? and not been able to play it until someone told me what it was. (Which is why I sometimes annoy people with a “quick, what tune is this?” in the middle of a set.) On the other hand, there’s lots of times when I hear a tune, play it, and afterwards wonder if I ever learned it or if I just played a tune that I’d only heard a million times before.

I might learn up to 4 a month if I’m really trying to learn tunes, or even 4 in a week if I’m already familiar with them. That’s pushing it if I really really want to *know* those tunes, though.

Perhaps it has something to do with how many tunes you know. After a while, it’s just impossible to keep track without a list, and I can’t be bothered with all that. Too many other things to do!

Thing is, though, everyone learns at different rates, so don’t worry if it takes longer for you to learn than someone else. Just enjoy the ride. 🙂

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

I find there’s a big difference between knowing a tune and being able to play a basic version of the tune. I’ve been playing Irish music for nearly four years now, and I feel like I’m just beginning to really find my way around some tunes. On the other hand, I play maybe 100 tunes well enough to start or join in at a session, but I’m far from knowing them intimately.
I like Jack Coen’s advice:
‘On learning tunes: “Any more than two new tunes a week is too many -- you won’t learn them fully.” Jack noted that many people appear to know a lot of tunes, “but they only know them halfway.” Jack gave us 13 tunes during the week we were with him, but said we would probably have to work on them for “years” before we really knew them and played them well.’
--quoted from http://www.firescribble.net/flute/coen.html

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

1. Exclusively by ear (can’t read dots faster than about 4 dots per minute, ABC is a bit easier - maybe 6 notes per minute)
2. Depends on how familiar I am with the tune. If I have heard it a number of times, then it takes about 5 minutes to learn a tune. If I’m completely new to it, then maybe 15-20 minutes. (This is excluding difficult tunes, of course…)
3. I go through spurts. I added 4 tunes to my “learned” list last week. But commonly, I only learn about 1 tune per week or fewer.
4. Hmmm, my tune count is currently 127. And I have actually forgotten maybe 5 or 6 of them. (It nags at me that I have forgotten those tunes, but not enough to make me go re-learn them, apparently) 😉
5. I figured it would be the people OVER 50 that would “forget” questions. Heh. I don’t qualify, I’m only 40
6. Yes. Different settings and different styles both make that more of a problem. Sometimes people start something in a session, and I don’t realize that it’s something that I play until Zina picks it up and starts playing it.

I learn tunes way faster than I used to (of course), but that is a double edged sword, because I don’t remember them as well the quicker I learn them.

I have recently forced myself to get a lot better at going with the flow of a tune and not caring whether I can remember what the heck the thing is called, though. That used to drive me crazy that I couldn’t play a tune if I couldn’t remember what it was.

I will also say that I am starting to get to the point where my mnemonic devices for remembering how tunes start can’t keep up with all the tunes I learn. Gotta work on that 🙂

Pete

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

I think it was Micho Russell who once said that you can only learn two tunes a week, and any more than that and you won’t get them properly.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

1. Mainly by ear, sometimes by dots.
2. Time to learn varies a lot – much quicker on my most familiar instrument (guitar), slower on fiddle. Occasionally in a session I’m playing a new tune by the third time through, but I won’t remember it the next day. Sometimes, I’ll learn a tune from the dots in a few minutes, but remember only half of it the next day. My favorite way to learn a tune is to listen until it’s in my head and I can whistle or hum it. Then it might take only five minutes to transfer it to an instrument. So, maybe five minutes plus five hours of listening.
3. I have no idea how many tunes I could learn in a month if I concentrated on it. I’ve never gone on a tune learning spree. I like to get really comfortable with two or three new tunes before I add any more. I do very little session playing, so I don’t feel the urge to learn lots of tunes. Until I go to the next session.
4. Wouldn’t that be a FIFO buffer? I think the practical answer to this is that the tunes you don’t reinforce will gradually fade away. If you learn ten thousand tunes, will you play all of them enough to remember?
5. It does get harder with age, but it’s more accurate to say it gets *slower* with age. I get frustrated when I can’t instantly recall something like I could ten years ago, but it usually comes to me eventually.
6. I haven’t noticed this. Yet.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

Learning tunes gets easier as time goes by and with the more tunes you know, but certain complications emerge as well. I’ve realized long ago that learning by ear is faster because you bypass one stage of memorization. You submit it directly to memory rather than learning it first from the dots and then submitting it to memory. Also, you learn it more the way it will sound rather than having to figure out how it sounds from the dots.

The other problem is that you’re dealing with many levels of your subconscious. The obvious place to start is to listen until you hear the tune clearly in your head -- this is the foundation that you build on. Then it’s a matter of training your muscle memory; which takes considerable time with all the necessary repetition. How many tunes can you learn in a week? If you use the process I just described – not many.

I don’t measure how many tunes I learn a week because my process involves a lot of listening before I even start. I usually have about a dozen tunes in cue inside my head at any given time waiting to be learned. I can say that I work out the training of my muscle memory on one, or maybe two tunes a week. If I try to do any more than that I won’t be able to start them at a session very well. A true test of whether I know them is to be able to produce them out of my head during a session when I’m hearing and playing a lot of other tunes.

Often I will discover that a certain passage in a tune will seem hard for no apparent reason. I discovered that it’s usually because it’s similar to a passage in another tune already in my catalog of memorized tunes. I end up subconsciously overwriting that part of the tune in my mental database when I learn the new tune, but I don’t realize it until the next time I play it and suddenly either get lost or find myself suddenly playing the new tune I just learned.

So to answer your questions… it seems that we’re dealing with lots of brain and nervous system factors as well as muscle agility when we learn tunes, and everyone is going to be slightly different depending on their ability and the health of their memory. For myself, I don’t worry about how many tunes I can learn because at this stage a lot of effort goes into maintaining how many I have already memorized. Sometimes I’ll spend the week playing through all of those A minor reels that have similar B-parts just to untangle them from one another. Or I’ll just play through tunes that haven’t come up in a long time to see if they’re still there.

Having said all that, I’m always amazed how many tunes do live in my head and how they come out and surprise me from time to time. Other times I’m completely frustrated when they seem to have atrophied for lack of use, but then on another occasion the same tune will pop out in perfect shape… go figure.

But I think the important thing is to not be in any hurry to learn a lot of tunes and just learn them at a pace that works for you. After a while you’ll have plenty of tunes in your head and have loads of fun at sessions. But even when you do – it’s never going to be enough. But that’s the good news.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

Good stuff there, Jack, but I have to disagree with your premise that learning from the dots is a two-stage process. It’s possible to hear the music in your head straight from the dots, even without an instrument in your hands, and so memorize the tune without any intermediary step.

Posted .

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

Addendum to #4: I’ve forgotten more tunes (and songs) than I remember. Life circumstances kept me away from serious tune playing for a dozen years and lots of tunes slipped away. But I suspect that some of it is a matter of forgetting that I know the tune, rather than actually forgetting the tune completely. That’s a good argument for maintaining a list of your tunes. Of course, then you have to remember which tune goes with which name. Sigh…

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

It’s possible, true -- but I prefer to hear the tune as it’s played rather than how the written note represents it when approaching ITM. There’s a lot of style that the written notes can’t convey. If I have no other source other than the written notes then it’s up to my understanding of the style for interpretation, but I would never attempt it in the early days when I was still learning the style. (not that I’m still not learning) But even with the understanding I have now I still prefer to hear it played and get it in my head from that source when preparing to learn a tune.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

I can relate to one of Jack’s comments. Out on the Ocean is a simple tune, right? Twenty-five or so years ago, I learned the Boys of the Lough version (more like a very similar tune with the same name). A few weeks ago, I decided to learn the more common version. I got it in my head and found it on the fiddle pretty quickly, but I’m having a hard time making it stick. I’m not thinking of the Boys’ version while I’m playing, but I think it’s interfering at a subconscious level. I’ve learned more difficult tunes much more quickly.

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

How do I learn tunes? by listening to them.
How fast? None question. Because you NEVER really learn a tune.
How stabe the memory? Thank christ it is unstable. Heaven forbid that I merely reproduce. Tell me anyone? Stuck record?

Posted .

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

1. Ear or eye
2. Some tunes are immediately imprinted, others become imprinted after playing in sets for a few weeks.
3. Tunes go into my jotter and are compiled into a set when I have a page of tunes that fit together well. Probably one or two sets a month.
4. I certainly have discarded tunes out of the buffer if I didn’t find them catchy enough or they didn’t stand the test of time.
5. I have stopped playing some tunes, just because there are so many new tunes to play. I have no problem in fishing out tunes that I haven’t played for 25 years, so it goes to show if you learn them properly, you don’t forget them.
6. No, I have instant recall (not bad for an over 50) - again it’s down to learning tunes properly - and having a filing system in your head

Re: How do you learn tunes? How fast, how stable the memory?

I use the sheet music from this website, coupled with listening to recordings on my phone while walking to work. A visual mnemonic to link the name helps too!