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Use Your Ear, Not Your Eye
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Author:  WhistlingGypsy [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 11:29 am ]
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I am attaching a quote from Alan Ng's page on 'Tips for Learning Irish Traditional Music' and was wondering what others felt about this comment.

Personally, I learned everything 'by ear' and know a few hundred tunes at this point. Only recently I have started to teach myself how to read music, which I find really beneficial at this point. However I don't know what the other point of view would be i.e. if one learns by reading first....Any comments,


Tip 1: Use Your Ear, Not Your Eye

"Amazingly enough – as I know from my own youth – school and mainstream music pedagogy emphasizes visual reading skills, even though the art form we are trying to master is aural, not visual. Therefore most newcomers to Irish (or any other culture's) traditional music must first overcome this fundamental misconception about how music can be learned. I cannot urge you strongly enough to never, ever, learn a tune from notation, whether sheet music or abc. It means that you won't "learn tunes fast enough" to satisfy your otherwise healthy eagerness, but you will finally learn them right. "

<font size=-1>[ This Message was edited by: WhistlingGypsy on 2001-07-13 13:30 ]</font>

Author:  bruce_b [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 11:39 am ]
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I believe this is true. I started learning by ear only about 6 months ago and it's the best musical decision I've ever made. The biggest mistake I made was trying to learn Irish Trad from a book. Once you've learned to play pretty well by ear, using books to learn tunes might be fine, but learn by ear for the first year or two!
I'm so glad I found a teacher who forced me to put away the books! Thanks Siobhan! (she's the advanced flute teacher at Isish Arts Week in East Durham, NY)

Author:  DrGiggles [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 12:12 pm ]
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That really sounds extreme to me on two points: 1. NEVER EVER Learn from Sheet Music and 2. Learning the Tune "Right".

1. Whenever you put an absolute in a statement (NEVER, ALWAYS, Without EXCEPTION), there had better be a good reason for it. What good is having the ability to record music on paper if you're not gonna read it? I would say listening to other artist is always a plus, but this is taking it to an extreme.

2. Okay, what is "Right"? Can I really play any song Wrong?? Most of these Irish tunes were played hundreds of years ago, and were passed down the generations by ear...during those generations, the songs get changed by the artists who play them. Using a modern hypothetical situation, if Joanie Madden decides to play Vivaldi's four seasons on the whistle, is she playing it "wrong" because Vivaldi wrote it for Violin? There are certain rules that most musicians abide by, but even these can be broken... There is traditional, there is modern, there is preferred, there is disliked... there is no wrong.

Such is the way of the Force, :smile:

Author:  FairEmma [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 12:30 pm ]
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I find it much easier to remember a tune if I pick it out aurally, and much easier to incorporate ornamentations as well. On top of that, learning by ear means you are more likely to pick up the rhythms, cadences, movement and spirit of the music.

Chewing on thoughts discussed in the "Clarification" thread, I have to admit there is truth to saying, "Just cause you can play the notes don't make it Irish." Notation alone will never be able to communicate completely a tune's personality - and may well limit the improvisational impulse.

That said, I do refer to notation a lot, particularly when I have a tune I've never heard before and I want to evaluate whether I'd like to learn it. But it is *always* a longer learning process for me that way!

At the end of the day, I figure it's a "your mileage may vary" issue. Either way, I'd decline using "musts" and "nevers."


Author:  Blaine McArthur [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 1:56 pm ]
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Tip 1: Use Your Ear, Not Your Eye

"Amazingly enough – as I know from my own youth – school and mainstream music pedagogy emphasizes visual reading skills, even though the art form we are trying to master is aural, not visual. Therefore most newcomers to Irish (or any other culture's) traditional music must first overcome this fundamental misconception about how music can be learned. I cannot urge you strongly enough to never, ever, learn a tune from notation, whether sheet music or abc. It means that you won't "learn tunes fast enough" to satisfy your otherwise healthy eagerness, but you will finally learn them right. "

First of all I would like to ask Mr. Ng if he is familiar with a gentleman named O'Carolon? Seems this gentleman was really into Irish music and had the audacity to actually write a bunch of it down using notes and all that. I believe there are still a few copies of his book around somewere. He musthave had a good reason to go to all that trouble.

Some people go on about there not being a "right" way to play any particular song, but we all have to admit that at some point unless we all play a fairly prescribed set of notes in a particular order, who is going to know just what the heck we are playing. And songbooks are a great way of providing a standard reference point for that.

A novice "note-reader" WILL probably learn faster by ear as they struggle with making snse of all those dots and lines. But I am confident that an accomplished reader will have no problem at all picking up the tune. The "feel" of the tune will come as the artist begins to play and put his own unique style on the tune as he plays it.

I After my wife and I got married we literally had some of the silliest quarrels over this same issue. My wife is a classiclly trained pianist, and I can not read a lick o music. She was pretty rigid about playing the right notes the right way at the right time, etc. I am a self taught guitarist with strong tendencies toward improvision. Needless to say we butted heads quite frequently and didn't make much music together.

As for music education, my daughter is also learning the piano and French Horn, and from the beginning there has been an emphasis on both note reading AND improvisation and ear training.

(Sorry Gerry, I have some pretty strong opinions about this issue. I will end by saying that I am a strong proponent ear training, but have no patience for "note-reading bashers." I hope I haven't bruised any feelings, but this is an issue I have come across before, on some of the irish music e-lists, and the "purists" have always struck me as somewhat narrow-minded. How pure do we have to be - do we regress all the way to beating on a hollow log with a rock?)

Author:  StevieJ [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 1:59 pm ]
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First of all I would like to ask Mr. Ng if he is familiar with a gentleman named O'Carolon? Seems this gentleman was really into Irish music and had the audacity to actually write a bunch of it down using notes and all that.

Blaine, Carolan was blind, so I don't think he had much use for notes.

Author:  crubeen [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 2:10 pm ]
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I'm firmly in favour of the learning by ear, and there are several reasons:

1. You have a model in your head of what the tune is supposed to sound like, against which you can judge your own efforts

2. You pick up all sorts of information about rhythm and emphasis (and even breathing) that just doesn't seem to get into a written out version

3. You might notice more obviously that different players have different versions of the same tune. A written version might obscure that fact. I sometimes play in a session with some good friends who have learnt their tunes from one of the well-known books of session tunes. Whenever my version differs from theirs I notice them look across thinking "was that a mistake there?"

4. The whole idea of playing along with other people seems an integral part of the music. It's good to learn by playing along, using your ears to keep to the beat rather than your eyes.

One other thing about learning from the dots: There are some people I know who have awful trouble in keeping the rhythm of an Irish tune. I'd hesitate to call this an incurable problem, but it can go on for years. In particular, they seem to try to fit in a full complement of rolls, triplets and grace notes and this seems to foul up their timing. I wonder if they have learnt from a fully-marked-up transcription that shows all the possible ornamentation. That could be the reason that they have never established the underlying rhythm.

Author:  Blaine McArthur [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 2:23 pm ]
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Ahhh, ignorant me. I knew that, (he was about 18 years old when he went blind) but I didn't think of it whie I was ranting. And I confess to ranting. As for O'Carolan, I confused him with those who followed in his footsteps, it was they who made the effort to write down those old harp tunes.

My point is these songbooks exist and have for a long time. And Irish music is all the richer for it.

Consider the following from this website:

"In 1958 Donal O'Sullivan's biography Carolan - The Life, Times, and Music of an Irish Harper was published. In this work, the standard reference on Carolan, O'Sullivan collected and edited all of his tunes, bringing them together for the first time.

This led to a revival of Carolan's music in the early 70s, when the Chieftains began recording his tunes."

In a nutshell I have to say again, I myself am restricted to learning by ear, and I think it is a good method, but have little patience for "note-reading bashers."


Author:  StevieJ [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 2:56 pm ]
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Blaine, the book of Carolan's life and times you mentioned has just been republished by Ossian Publications, putting the two volumes (biography and music) into one, and also adding some new material. It's available from Ossian USA.

Regarding the extreme positions taken by "note bashers", well, extreme positions are sometimes taken to try to get a valid point across.

There are lots of very good reasons for making the leap, abandoning music and learning to learn by ear, including the ones well stated by Crubeen above.

I would add that over a number of years of teaching Irish music, on both fiddle and whistle, I've come across a number of students who simply refuse to abandon learning from written music. I'm trying to think of one of them who has turned into a decent player, and I can't.

It's probably experience with people like this that causes the ear-only proponents to wind up making extreme statements.

This is not to deny that collections of tunes are very useful. But I strongly believe that learning tunes from written music is best left until you really know what you're doing, that is, until you have developed a good traditional style. Then you will know how to interpret the notes on the page.

OTOH, if you only learn tunes from music, I feel quite safe in saying that you'll never, yes never, develop a good traditional style.

Author:  Blaine McArthur [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 3:16 pm ]
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I understand your points.

I am personally acquainted with one of those people who just can't give up the sheet music-my wife; she insists she can't play any other way, and I give her the benefit of the doubt. She has played that way for years and wil probably never change.

I, OTOH, have little choice but to learn by ear. And many times have lamented that I never learned to read music.

My personal ire results from an encounter had some time ago with a person who called themself a "purist" and that "real" Irish muscians only learn by ear, and that sheet music was the scourge of Irish music. The overall gist of her position was that ear learning/playing (and players) was superior. This Left a bad taste in my mouth.

But I do not want to continue beating a dead horse. My final word on the subject: ear training is good, but I wish I read music :smile:

have a good one, and thanks for The tip about the O'Carolan book.


Author:  Jon-M [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 3:38 pm ]
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You "ear only" folks are way too puristic for me. I find learning from notes to be a quick and easy way to learn a lot of tunes in a relatively short period of time; it's easy enough then to adjust the timing and phrasing once you actually encounter the tune in a session. I tried to learn Miss Johnson off Mary Bergin's tape and had most of it but there was one bit I couldn't get no matter how hard I tried until I finally found a version on JC's abc tune finder that matched hers. If I hadn't found that, I would be struggling with it still. Reading is a tool; why throw it away?

Author:  TonyHiggins [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 5:25 pm ]
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I learned my first few tunes directly from a tutor for tin whistle, which was, obviously, printed music. It gave examples of cuts, rolls, etc. and then a tune that used that particular ornament on a particular note. After I learned the basics and practiced them, I started listening with a better ear to recordings, especially the early Chieftains albums, and memorized their tunes by repeated listening and worked on playing along with the recordings. Some tunes I couldn't figure out. When I found a printed version, I was delighted, learned it, then went back to playing along with the recording. Using printed music in those circumstances was invaluable.

In a similar vein, I've listened to fast, intricate tunes by Kevin Burke on cd, slowed them down on the computer to transcribe them, then learned the melodies from my quasi-abc notation, and got up to speed to go with the recording.

I could go on with many more examples of using printed music along with listening to learn and practice tunes and argue for its place in learning. A couple of recognized professional players have produced book/cd combinations both as tutors and collections of tunes. I've found a great way of learning tunes from L.E.McCullough's "121 Favorite Irish Session Tunes" is to listen to the cd a handful of times, partially memorize the tune, then try to play along with the cd while looking at the printed notes. It's easier than using either the cd or the sheet music alone.

I would argue strongly that one could never learn to play in the traditional style without hearing what it sounds like. But, that is not to say that learning a new tune has to come from how you hear someone else play it. I think I've gathered a clear sense of the style from listening to countless hours of many accomplished trad musicians. But, that has allowed me to pick up a tune from an abc file and make it sound right after I memorized the basic melody from the mechanical midi rendition, sans ornamentation.

Author:  DaveAuty [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 5:58 pm ]
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This debate appears quite frequently and there is obviously no clear right or wrong.

The way I see it is that me, being English and not able to have Irish traditional musical upbringing, have to make the best of it by using notation and trying to make some musical sense out of the tunes. The advantage is that my own style can come into being…the disadvantage is that I can never play in an Irish traditional manner, but I can live with that.
Even when reading notes there can be plenty of ways and means of putting across a personal slant. I think if you like the music enough, then reading notation, listening to players and playing with other people will always bring out a musical personality. I mean there is no law to say that everyone must play Irish music in a traditional style or any music in any style for that matter (Listen to John Coltrane playing “My Favourite Things” or hear Jacques Loussier play Bach… and he only had notation!!) maybe extreme examples but musicians have always changed things to suit their own playing and style, with notation or without.
Maybe the most important things are to be enthusiastic, open minded and willing to listen and learn. In the end everyone does exactly as they please anyway.


Author:  Tom_Gaul [ Fri Jul 13, 2001 7:23 pm ]
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Tony has pretty much said what I was going to say. Let me just add that I learned to read music many years ago and so I enjoy reading through tune books and sort of playing the music in my head to see which ones I like and what kind of ornamentation might sound good. For the more difficult music (Chieftains, Bergen, Madden et al.) I have to go back to the ear method and slow the music down until I figure it out. While doing this I start transcribing the music using a music notation program (Melody Assistant). If I didn't write out the music I probably would forget some of the variations that these great players throw into their playing. I like to make exact transcriptions of every note and ornament even if I end up playing it a little differently later on. (I will definitely play it slower!). So for me there is no problem choosing to play from music or by ear. The two methods simply complement each other.

Best wishes, Tom

Author:  Dale [ Sat Jul 14, 2001 6:48 am ]
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As usual, on this issue I have both feet planted in mid-air.

I learn by ear. That's not entirely by choice, unless you consider the choice of never having learned to read music. (Actually, I could read music as a child, but I've "lost" it). I do think ear-learning has real advantages, and these have been suggested. On the other hand, I do wish that I could take time to learn to read music again, because it would certainly be helpful in building my tune-bank.


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