Thursday, January 12, 2012

Learning Irish and Oldtime Fiddle Tunes by Ear

When I first started playing traditional music I went right down the path of learning from tablature and that's where I've stayed. I'm comfortable as long as I have a page in front of me, but get anxious when it's taken away. So, this year I have a goal of weaning myself off of lead sheets. Until recently I had no idea how to do that. But, I've been doing some research and experimenting and would like to share a little bit of the information I've gathered.

Wise Dog by Thunderpanda
The best way to learn a tune is constant exposure to it. Listen repeatedly until you know the sound of it by heart. If you can hum it you can play it. When you have listened so much that you can't get the tune out of your head, it's time to pick up your instrument.

Most fiddle tunes are in the keys of D, G or A, with D being the most common.  Start by plucking a D note in time with the tune. If D doesn't match up, try G. If G doesn't fit try an A note. Chances are, one of those three drone notes is going to be the home note or tonal center of the tune, and therefore the key. Most tunes end on this home note. So, if it sounds like the tune is ending on a D, that's probably the key.

Once you think you know the key, play around with the notes in that key to familiarize yourself with the ones you'll be using. For D tune the notes to be used tend to be D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#.  For a tune in G, you would use the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F#. For A try the notes A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#.
As you listen to the tune, pluck these notes until you start to identify the prominent ones. Listen for phrases which repeat in different places and certain note combinations you might recognize from other tunes.

Fiddle tunes usually have an 8 bar A part and an 8 bar B part, both of which are played twice before going on to the next one. As in, A, A, B, B.  The 8 bars can often be broken down into four distinct 2-bar phrases.  Phrase 1 states the theme and may resolve on the I or IV chord.  Phrase 2 "answers" that theme and may end on the V chord.  Phrase 3 basically echoes or repeats Phrase 1.  Phrase 4 is an ending that may or may not be similar to Phrase 2 but will almost always resolve to a I chord after the usual V chord.  It is common for the B part to have the same "Phrase 4" as the A part - meaning both parts usually end the same way.

Don't worry or be discouraged if you can only find one note - you only need one note at a time. Play that note each time it comes around in the tune. Try to determine if the next note is below, above, or if it was the same.   Listen as many times as needed. Take a guess. Start playing two-note pairs, going in whichever direction feels right. Include half steps and accidentals. Return to the recording frequently to refresh your ears. With that interval echoing in your mind it's easier to tell when you've matched it.  Boil the melody down to the bones of the tune. Edit out the unnecessary fills and ornaments.  Once you have a sequence of notes, play that sequence a few times so the fingers and ear start to learn it. Each time you complete a phrase, link it with what came before and repeat until it feels familiar.  It's OK to make mistakes - guessing wrong a lot is part of finding the tune.

If you're unsure as to whether you've come up with a reasonable sequence or version of the tune then take a break or work on something else. Come back to it tomorrow with fresh ears. You may have to relearn the same thing on day two that you struggled so hard to find on day one. That's part of the fun.  On day three, it will be easier. On day four, it will be easier still and you may find yourself playing slightly different notes that sound more correct than the ones that seemed OK a day or two before.

Learning by ear is an aural and physical process. The idea is to learn the essence of the tune rather than memorizing which note follows which, so that even if you goof up and have to noodle to recover, it's likely that you'll noodle in the right key and in the right way to continue to convey the tune until you can get back on track.  Of course, there is the matter of learning your instrument well enough to know where to instinctively find the notes you're hearing.  Memorizing scales and playing them in an even tempo will help get you there.  It also helps to practice playing simple tunes you can sing in your head: nursery rhymes, advertising jingles, or songs you heard growing up. What's important is that you figure out how to play them on your instrument.

Don't get discouraged.  It can take a month or more to pick out your first tune. Keep at it. Learning a tune by ear will get easier with practice and eventually you'll be able to concentrate on technique -adding back in all those fills, triplets, and other accoutrements - rather than simply trying to remember the tune.

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