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Tips & Tricks: Learning by Ear vs. Reading Sheet Music – Which is the Better Way to Learn the Fiddle?

small__5653690833For several years I ran a fiddle camp and hired many other instructors.  It was interested to hear what their opinions were when it comes to learning by ear vs. learning from sheet music.  It is a very divisive topic among fiddlers!

As with everything, there are pros and cons with both methods!

Reading Sheet Music:


  1. You can learn music that you have never heard.
  2. Sheet music shows you both the notes you need to play and the rhythms.


  1. You have to have the sheet music in order to be able to play a fiddle tune.
  2. Learning to read sheet music can be a slow process and it can take longer before you are able to play a recognizable tune.

Learning by Ear:


  1. If you hear a great tune that you want to play, you can learn it, even if you can’t find the sheet music.
  2. You can start playing fiddle tunes quicker than if you learn from sheet music.


  1. Tablature does not show you the rhythm of the music, so you have to know what the piece is supposed to sound like.

So, what is my opinion?  I think that the best musicians can learn both by ear and from sheet music.  I started playing classical music, so was well versed in learning from sheet music and learned how to sigh read really well.  When I went to live in Ireland I was introduced to learning by ear, and it was terrifying at first.  It is now liberating to be able to go to jam sessions and sometimes being able to pick up new pieces from hearing them played.

With my own students, especially my young students, I like to teach by ear first and then after about a term introduce sheet music.  This allows my students to become familiar with the violin without having to think about reading music too.  Having said that, I do use tablature with some of my older students who have no interest in learning how to read music.  It is all depending on the student’s needs.

Leave a comment below to tell me how you started off learning the fiddle.

photo credit: teawithlizzie via photopin cc

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