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Hi folks.

This is a marvelous discussion.... I really like that distinction between "ear learning" and "playing by ear." Thanks Ganon for starting the group.

So, many of my opinions here are based on my own rather recent realization of how I learn tunes, which was dramatically revealed to me when, about 5 years ago, I started studying a new genre (Irish) which, while related to the folk and bluegrass I was more familiar with, was different in many ways. In particular, the repertoire of tunes is vast (while there is singing in the genre, the trad side of that house is much more tune-oriented).

So I started becoming familiar with the forms. But more importantly I started learning the tunes. I listened a lot but it was a couple of years before the tunes started coming into my head (and therefore easier to learn to play, as the remembering "how it goes" is then not an issue). And what I mean by this is that I've listened and heard a tune enough times that at some random moment it springs fully (mostly) formed into my head and I can hum it at least most of the way through... note for note. (warning: at this juncture it's easy for me to mix the A part of one tune with the B part of another... still work to be done!)

Ok, the other thing I did was to go to audio and written sources for the tunes.

And here's the meat of it, to learn a new tune, here are my steps:

1. First, you have to figure out how the tune goes. What is the melody? Just the melody, no fancy licks, tricks or ornaments (thesession.org is fantastic for this in the Irish genre). What is the basic melody? Well that's up to you decide. Here's how I decide:

-some tunes have an author; use them for the definitive version.

-some tunes have an "earliest" source. Compare that to more-recent versions.. what's the same, what's different (e.g., my recent FGM column on Big Scioty).

-finally, you can listen to many versions and listen for similarities and differences. Try to distinguish between what is common to all or most of the versions, and what is someone's interpretation.

Of course, you can play someone else's version, which is cool, but you'll always sound like someone playing someone else's version. And don't get me wrong, this is a valuable exercise, playing someone else's version... you'll learn a lot, stuff you can use later in other contexts. There are classic solos to learn!

2. Once you've decided what "the" melody is (your interpretation), find those notes on the guitar, and learn to play it. This will go slow (good). You probably will find numerous ways to play a passage (good). And, you might mess around in 2 different registers before you decide on one for immediate focus (good, you'll learn a lot that way). Finally, you might try it in different keys to see which works best for you (e.g., open D vs. capo @2 and play in C).

So step 2 takes me anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 years, depending on my limitations, how difficult the tune, how similar/different this tune is from other stuff I know, how much time I have to devote to it, yada yada. Use a slowdowner if you have to.

3. Now, once you really know the melody, you have a safe haven from which you can fly away and come back. Pick one part of the tune and focus there. Play the tune for 10 minutes and try to play something different there.

Now sometimes I can do this in time, as I'm playing (playing slowly of course).... and sometimes I stop and figure something out, and learn how to put it in and get back out. No matter, all good.  Or maybe I learn a lick from FGM and find a way to stick that in there somewhere.

Over time you will get so good at this that you will be "out" the entire time! But in fact you have a "baseline," which is "the melody." For me it's both a reference point and a safety net.

Oh, and you do this by learning one tune, then another, then another, rinse and repeat. After a while you will hear and see the moving parts and how they can be used.

So in the simplest terms, it's this:

1. learn to play a basic expression of the melody very well

2. get fancy

Before I close, I'll circle back to my own revelation. I'm learning lots of new (Irish) tunes, and I think I have them down, but until recently I could NOT improvise on them (in fact, I could do that nicely when introduced to the tune and tried it on the fly--though I was aiming at the tune and not really playing all the notes--but once I LEARNED it it then took a very long time to get back to being able to improvise. A topic for another post, probably).

So I thought about and realized, oh, I can improvise on Salt Creek for hours and not play it the same way twice BECAUSE I'VE KNOWN IT FOR 30 YEARS. Really, I think it's just about really KNOWING something.

So, another long-winded post, but helpful I hope.

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Replies to This Discussion

And here are some online sources for researching tunes:




This site: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/reed is an authoritative source, as it contains sound files from Henry reed, who was a primary source for many of the tunes in the American repertoire.

This site has written notation only: www.abbamoses.com/fiddledo/fiddlepage but you can get a program like Barfly (free) and copy this stuff into a midi player (I think). There's also a nice discussion on "sources and authenticity" here.

Another strategy, I used to have "Rhapsody," which for a fairly small monthly fee allows you to search for tunes and listen to them in their entirety. I listened to 15 versions of Carroll County Blues on it before I decided to go with my original source (Nashville Bluegrass Band). Anyway this approach can be a bit more efficient. But both work, that is, you search out a bunch of versions (preferably from fiddlers, if it's a fiddle tune) and compare them... you get to decide your own interpretation.



Thanks for the wonderful discussion and guidelines. I'd like to make a quick comment about the terminology: Those that followed closely may have noticed that the group name changed a couple of times early on - this was not happenstance - I was trying to catch the essence, so to speak. I believe that the two processes we are comparing are conventionally called 'ear TRAINING' and 'playing by ear'. I quite specifically, with intent and forethought, came up the the descriptor 'ear learning' to encompassing them both, and all the gray shades in between. IMHO, ear training involves physical vibrations (sounded tones) that are compared (in any variety of ways). And similarly (IMHO) 'playing by ear' involves 'playing back' something without that (near) real-time physical reference, rather just from 'tonal ideas' that are only in your head. The latter could range anywhere from the (up to) several year process that you describe to the 'wizards,' such as Wynton Marsalis or John Miller, who can play back a piece, fully articulated, after one listen.

Th-th-that's all.

Excellent post, Kathy. Thank you for talking the time to post all of this information.  Every time I put on the iPod these days I hear a new tune I want to nail. At the moment I'm just letting all of this music sink in, but I know I'm already listening and focusing better as a result of all the great information in this group.



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