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7 Steps for Learning Tunes by Ear

I started playing the violin when I was 6 years old and used the Suzuki books throughout my initial years.

During the first year of lessons we learned music by ear, but soon after started learning to read sheet music.  It wasn’t until I moved to Ireland that I got back into learning by ear.

I went to camps and workshops where no sheet music was offered.  I took my digital recorder everywhere with me and recorded many sessions.  I was slow at learning by ear because it is nothing that I had ever really done in any concerted way before.

The teachers at these workshops would play a phrase over and over again, and everyone would try to pick out a few notes here and there and get to the point where they could play the melody.  Many of the other attendees had years of learning by ear under their belts and did not take as much time as me.

With that said, here are some of the things I have picked up about learning by ear through the years.

Listen to the tune until you can hum it

I find that if you start trying to play the tune too early, you really don’t have it in your head yet.  I use this same trick for memorizing even if I have learned a tune with notes.

Know what key the piece is in

By knowing the key of the tune you cut down the number of notes you should be trying.  It is possible to have notes outside of the key in a tune, but by knowing the key, you have a solid idea of where to start!

Listen for the form of the piece

In fiddle tunes (and music in general) there are sections that come back several times.  Knowing where the sections are repeated cuts down how many notes you have to figure out!

Listen to whether the notes are in a scale or jumping

If you can hear that the next four notes of the pieces are all in order like a scale, once you figure out what the first note is, you have four notes!  If you can hear that the notes are jumping, start with the arpeggio, and see if those notes fit!

Listen to whether the notes go down or up

Listen to whether the note you are looking for is higher or lower than the note that you already know.  This will help you narrow your options.

Listen for notes that come back over and over again

Sometimes in a passage, the same note will keep coming back.  If you can hear that one, again, it cuts down on how many you have to figure out!

Listen for open strings

The open strings ring in a different way than notes do when you have your finger on the string.  There are only four open strings, so this limits your options.  This only works if you are learning the tune from another fiddler.

Through the years I have heard arguments from both sides…  I have classically trained musician friends who think that fiddlers are not to be taken seriously because some don’t read sheet music well, or possibly at all.  I have fiddler friends who think that classical musicians are incredibly limited because they learn from sheet music.

In the end, I believe that both skills are really important!  I am a better player for being able to learn tunes both from sheet music and from a recording.

Now try applying these tips and good luck with your fiddling journey!

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