Sunday, August 18, 2013

More Vacation Stuff: Learning by Ear

My last class at Irishfest Summerschool was given by Martin Howley on learning tunes by ear.  I was not there for the class initially, Martin had to give me something to take home, but I stayed anyway and glad I did.

I have been learning tunes by ear for over fifty years.  There was a period in school when I learned notation (for the trumpet) but I preferred to learn by ear mostly because I enjoyed the music more.  Over that period I have gotten better at learning a tune on the fly, but I still struggle at times when a tune doesn't fit my idea of what should come next.  Some Irish music such as Paddy Fahey or Ed Reavey tunes have that quality and I have to really listen to them for a long time before I get them.

Martin's class was small - the festival had already started so most students had moved on - but it was clearly a highlight of the term.  He began by talking about the difference between learning by notation (which most of the class did) and by ear.  Interestingly his first thought was about ear training which is a classical skill all music majors learn.  But instead of focusing on how to "sing" notes on the paper, he started by having us recognize intervals and naming them.  The purpose of this exercise was to point out a crucial aspect of ear training, learning to listen to the tune.

I know that sounds odd, after all learning by ear is supposed to be about the tune, but Martin pointed out the many musicians from this tradition stop listening to the tune after the first six bars.  Most trad music is patterned and predictable so once you hear a few thousand tunes, a new one is not that different.  The main differences occur in the last few bars of each part of the tune.Since that is where the most original parts occur, they often vary depending on whether it is the first iteration or the second of each part.

The most common way Irish tunes are taught is by sections and by rote.  In other words you learn a clump of notes, usually a bar or  two at a time and then repeat and repeat.  Eventually the tune takes form in your head and you learn it.  I have a hard time learning a tune this way since I prefer to hear the tune in its entirety and absorb it over a period of time.  When I learn a tune in a workshop the traditional way, I may or may not retain it so I find that it is very important to record everything.

Another aspect of learning by rote is that the use of notation is frowned upon for some reason.  Possibly this is a continuation of an older method from a time when neither teachers or students had notation skills.  I know that a number of the famous older teachers often used their own letter notation  similar to the ABC system.  Martin handed out the score of his tunes in his mandolin class but wanted us to only use it for reference.

The reasons for this is complex, learning by ear is a skill that should be learned by all trad musicians.  Trad music can't be quantified on paper very well.  It is music meant to be heard or danced to so there are aspects such as whether or not it is played on the beat that would make precise notation incomprehensible.  Besides, no trad musician plays the tune exactly the same each time.

Instead, learning by ear allows you to  learn the music, not just the notes.  Classical music allows for interpretation too, but most of the time it is the purview of the conductor, not the musician.  So classical training is all about discipline and perfection to the page while trad music is less concerned about exact tune and more about the individual interpretation.

This is not to say that you can do anything you want with the music.  One of the purposes of learning by ear is to learn the cultural and stylistic aspects of the music.  I watched an interesting experiment a few years ago at a folk festival in Madison, Wisconsin in which fiddlers of different styles played the one tune they all had in common, Miss McLeods Reel (Hop High Ladies, etc.)  They had very different stylistic interpretations of the same notes.  They also had a great time playing it together.

That last aspect is very important.   A good tune can be played an a lot of different ways and the reason for this is that music is not a logical and linear  endeavor.  Music is clearly an emotional experience.  You can learn the tune and play it back note for note and in the process lose the value of the music.  Every piece of music was composed at some time by an individual and then passed on by others.  Every time it was played it was also heard and it affected the listener in some way.  If that listener was you, it probably affected the way you played it the next time. 

A tune heard indifferently will be played indifferently the next time possibly with notes wrong and timing off or just plain dull.  On the other hand if a tune  evokes an emotion, it can be learned in a way that makes it music when played again.

For me and a lot of other musicians, learning a tune by ear involves a series of steps.  First I have to hear the tune and sometimes it takes a long time and many repetitions to get it into my head.  One of my favorite ways to do this is to start singing the tune (silently or out loud) and just get the feel for the tune.  Martin likes to do this and he doesn't mind making mistakes in the tune as eventually the tune will find itself after a few thousand repetitions. 

Those repetitions are important.  A lot of musicians can hear a tune and play it on the fly and then not know the tune a day later.  If you like a tune but forget it, you can find it on line or have recorded it for later.  Once you "get" that tune and start lilting or singing it, you will find that you'll probably become obsessed with the  tune and you can't get it out of your head.  Don't worry, this is part of the assimilation process.  After a while you will  find that the emotions engendered by the music will help you play it better and will allow you to automatically interpret the tune with ornaments, dynamics, timing and "feel."

Learning by ear is a process that can take days.  Nowadays we have a lot of technology that will help us with the process.  In the past you had to be exposed to the music over and over by hearing others play it in  person.  Now we have youtube, mp3, Skype, the Amazing Slowdowner, smart phones and a host of other gadgets and software/apps that let us record, dissect, and communicate the music to one another.  It has never been easier to find and learn tunes or to find out if we know the tune as well as we should.

Still, it comes down to memory, assimilation, and loving the tune if you want to learn by ear.  Notation is very helpful if you use it as a resource and reminder but notation is not the  tune, your playing and interpretation is where the tune really lives and in order to make sure you have the tune you have to listen and love it.

Mike Keyes

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