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The more I think about this, the more I believe that one of the keys to this ear learning is memory.


To immediately digress, I'm pretty good (these days) at figuring stuff out by ear. By that I mean I can sit down with guitar in hand, use modern software to loop and even slow down licks and runs, and pretty much always be in with a shout of figuring stuff out. By ear. No Tab. In fact, using Transcribe! I can figure stuff out that I'll never be able to play - I simply slow things down to a speed where I can both hear and play it (usually arond 50%!). Sure it takes a bit of patience and sure there are times when I'm still flummoxed, but compared to the old days (yep, I'm one of those old-timers who literally wore out vinyl albums by keep lifting and replacing the needle, and I broke more than a few cassette players by constantly hitting rewind-play) these modern tools make life so much easier. So there I am, listening to a loop, and relatively quickly replicating it on the guitar.


But, for me, that's something different to where I want to get be and what I think we're discussing in this group. I want to be able to do what I've just described but without the need for the digital looping. I want to be able to hear - and loop - that music inside my head (and surely, once there, slowing it down must be easy) and from that source figure it out on my instrument. I know it can be done. I've seen it done. Hell, I've even done it myself on simple tunes. But what seems to happen with me is that if I listen to something enough times with enough focus I can get that loop inside my head... however:


a) It's only ever a short loop and it's only ever simple stuff.

b) It's as fragile as a soap bubble. The slightest outside influence - usually me playing a wrong note as I try and achieve this aim - pops that bubble in a second.


So I reckon the key is to improve the musical memory. Not the left-side of the brain stuff, not the chords or the dots or remembering that a particular song has a 1-IV-V patterm, but the actual sound. I know it's possible to train the memory. I've learned a few methods over the years that allow me to remember, say, a twenty item list. And they really work. So there must be techniques that allow one to remember sounds, to somehow get those sounds much more deeply ingrained into the short-term and long-term parts of the brain. I think possible it's this storing of the memory - rather than the retrieving of it - that might be the issue.


That said, the retrieving is likely to be just as important. There are very rare moments, usually when I'm dozing, that I hear within my head fragments of a song that I haven't listened to in years, but it's not just the tune, it's everything, the whole band or orchestra, all the textures, the ambience - for those split seconds it's like the CD is playing inside my head, but the moment I recognize such a thing is happening and then consciously focus on it... the bubble bursts and there's no way to get it back. So retrieval may be as important.


Perhaps I'm thinking of the musical equivalent of a photographic memory and perhaps only a blessed few are lucky enough to possess such a thing?


Just something I thought I'd put down before I forgot it...


Kind regards,



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Replies to This Discussion

Derek, thanks for the wonderfully thoughtful post - it describes almost to a T the problem I am having - that extremely fragile soap bubble that seems to be stabilized only by  'getting under the fingers.' I.e., motor memory is stronger and 'leading' the auditory/(vocal too?) memory. Clearly we'd like it the other way around.
I was also surprised to find that your musical learning experience is very similar to that which Jamey Pittman describes (you've been doing it long enough that you've actually dropped needles, possible longer than Jamey, and with wider range of interests, but probably not as focused), with shockingly different results. And, clearly patience is not enough. I am encouraged, depressed, and again encouraged by what you describe. I am encouraged that there are real musicians out there that suffer from this, not that I wish it on you, but that I am not alone in the world of people that deeply care about music. Depressing in that it is fairly clear that there is a stong genetic component (or perhaps lack of early childhood  development), I just hope it is not like 'perfect' pitch where, apparently either you have it or you don't. [I know that I'll never have perfect pitch,  but I hope to someday be able to have absolute pitch good to a semitone - adavantages are obvious, and it seems quite do-able, given time, even for me - I digress]. Encouraging again: to start understanding the problem, is starting to solve it - and recognizing that you may be on the lowerer end of the genetic/developmental spectrum - well, you just have to work harder, and perhaps develop special remedial strategies. Develop special remedial strategies - that's what I'm here for. Have any experienced music teachers run in this problem, and developed such strategies? I'm pretty inventive and can come up with a number of 'experiments,' but each would take a long time to test. I'd like to be able to find strategies that have already been tested and shown to help in dealing with the problem.

In the absence of 'known' approaches, this seems like a great place to discuss, analyze, and report on things tried. I have few ideas, but I'll hold them until we see if any 'proven' methods show up.

Last thought - fragile as the tiny (small phrases) soap bubbles are, they are a quantum leap beyond not being able to blow bubbles, and perhaps with proper nurturing they can be turned into large (whole tune) weather balloons that will survive any storm.

Cheers, ganon

P.S. - Credit where credit is due: Kathy is the one who got me to listen and sing/scat/hum/chord along a WHOLE LOT, before trying to play. It has helped a tremendously, but still only gets me to the point of being 'damn familiar' I.e. if a series of notes from the tune is played, I can immediately tell if the next is right or wrong, but without hearing it, I couldn't tell you what it should be. I think it has also gotten me to the point where I can at least 'blow a few soap bubbles,' before - probably not. This may correlate well with the fact that I can sing *ok* given backup that includes the melody (chords are not enough), but if that backup is taken away, people will run from the room covering their ears. Similarly - all those childhood tunes - I could probably give and excellent monotone rendition of all the words in perfect meter. Given the guitar, I could even make up a reasonable melody for them - it might (or might not) have the the same 'approximate' flow as the original, but certainly not correct.

A note for the tabbies: if I do the intensive listening/singing, I can learn tab material in 2-3 minutes that would have taken 2-3 hours from a cold start. If all else fails, this is not a bad place to be - there is still a lot of ear training/learning going on (but very localized in pitch and on the fretboard) going on while 'getting it under the fingers' (tab is put away after getting through the material the first time in those 2-3 minutes), and it does not seem to develop that detrimental dependence on visual cues as to where to put fingers, that happens with prolonged TAB use.

An update.


I found about 30 seconds of a tune that I fancied learning and in Transcribe! I highlighted those 30 seconds and clicked Export. Up came a message saying "Whole tune or just selected area?" and "How many repeats?". I clicked selected area and 10 repeats, and lo and behold I had a ear-training track to drop onto my iPod that went over and over the same section again and again.


I then listened to that track over and over, and sure enough, it wasn't long before I had that music ringing through my head irrespective of whether I had the iPod on or not. In fact, if I choose to, I can still hear it clearly now. Some times I listened actively - actually thinking things like "that note's higher than that one", "that sounds like a chromatic run down three notes" and other times I simply let the music play whilst I did other things.


However, when I sat down to transcribe the music from my head I still struggled. I didn't burst the bubble, to continue that metaphor, but there was some kind of barrier between the sounds in my brains and the sound I was playing - i.e. I couldn't quite get that 'matching of sounds' that is right there when you're transcribing from the actual source.


That said, I got the whole shape of the piece - the timing, especially - under my fingers, I got some of the right phases, and where I'd actively listened and thought about those descending chromatic notes I nailed them.


So it seems I was re-acting to the work I'd done during the listening, rather than anything that happened when I tried to transcribe directly from the memory.


On the plus side, when I went back to Transcribe! and played the section and transcribed it the old fashioned way(i.e. by playing along) I got the whole section in less than a minute. So there was massive benefit to what I'd done - all that active and passive listening had clearly paid off and it was just a question of fine-tuning.


What I didn't do was successfully be able to sing the piece. I think that may be the key. I tried, but I just couldn't get the notes - they were simply too fast for me to sing. So I think next time I'll choose a shorter (and simpler) piece, maybe just ten seconds, I'll do the same thing with a listening track, but I'll also do the singing bit better (have to learn how to improve my singing to be able to sing rapid lines  - like some o f these fiddle tunes).


Huge improvement on the old way of transcribing, but I'm not sure of how useful it'll be when working on longer pieces. Time will tell.




Sounds like great progress in developing an approach. The dramatic improvement in transcribing is similar to what I found for TAB - whether you are doing real playing by ear or not, the intense 'pre-prepartion' does wonders. Couple of thoughts/questions:

(1) In you 10x iPod loops - do you leave quiet spaces between the repeats? That way you get a chance to (a) sing on your own, immediately after singing along, (b) a chance to ponder things that you observe during focused listening, (c) simply a chance to rest you ear before 'going' again - with the quiet space, I am almost jarred to attention when it comes back on.

(2) If you still 'don't quite get it - the fragile bubble, or interference between what is in your head and what comes from the guitar before it is 'under fingers'. Well, just try again (with the same material). Second time around (and 3rd, 4th . . .) things should be more in phase with less destructive interference - someday maybe constructive interference.

(3) Slow the loop material, but not a lot (not molasses or Quaaludes) - I find that slowing a fast fiddle tune to say 80% (e.g. 226 bbm down to 180) helps enormously with hearing the details and being able sing. Probably not coincidentally, this would be near the upper end of my comfortable playing range.

(4) For sure it is not going to all 'come together' in a few days or even weeks. Rather, ask yourself "where is this likely to go in six months or a year if I continue to work at it diligently, slowly ween away from the technological helpers, and continue sharpen the approach to find what works best.




well this is awesome, Derek. A couple of thoughts, first, singing the notes isn't important (though it can help when trying to match notes on the guitar).... KNOWing how the melody goes is....

I can't really respond to all your points because they're all good and you're making greaprogress. I'll just say this: getting this stuff in your head takes time, with many repetitions. For me, it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to weeks/months, depending on how like or unlike the piece is to things I'm familiar with.


And you're finding it's working, that's wonderful! I truly believe that most folks significantly underestimate how long it takes to really know how something goes (and I'm not only talking conscious listening time, also, the time your brain takes to find a spot for it... you know, they say that sleep is important for learning... that kind of stuff).

Really, once you know how something goes, in your own head/ear, they finding it on the guitar is the easy part... kind of....

Remember my motto: improvisation is God's way of keeping you from having to remember too much stuff. Ok, we're not talking about improvisation here, but in my experience, remembering how a tune GOES is the important (and sometimes difficult) thing. The rest follows.... 

ok, enough for now. 

Hi Kathy,


Thanks for the reply. I like your motto a lot. One of the great joys of music for me is improvisation - both hearing a great improvisor creating wonderful music 'on the fly', and trying (in my own simple way) to do a little bit of it myself. It's an added bonus that being a fan of improvisation means we don't have to remember so much!


Kind regards,



Using the tried and trusted technique of going from one extreme to another in an attempt to quickly focus in on finding the right 'starting point' for my ear training journey my second attempt was just a four second clip, slowed down slightly, of the intro to a fiddle tune picked at random from an old FGM CD.


(To recap, my first attempt was a 30 second clip, not slowed down, that featured both melody and improvisation)


I did the same thing - created a track of 10 repetitions of the music and played it via the IPOD. This time, the melody was both slow, simple enough and within the range that I could sing (although I don't think my performance would have seen me through to the X Factor finals).


Anyway, within two listens of the track (i.e 20 reps) I picked up the guitar, found the correct opening note (based on my singing) and proceeded to find the rest of the notes immediately without further recourse to the recording. Job done. Well chuffed  :-)


So next step is to again swing the range-finder back in the other direction and try a longer phrase, a more complex phrase, or maybe a faster phrase. Eventually I should find a challenging but do-able true starting point.


Kind regards,


The Miracle of Derek - you validate the existence of the group.
Kathy, I would respectfully disagree about one point - the singing - perhaps it is not important if you are able to get the melody into your head without it. However, if not, I find that it helps tremendously. It does not have it be way out loud singing (although probably best), light humming, or even subvocalizing such that you still stretch and activate the vocal chords seems to help me a lot.


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