Learning a Fiddle Tune by Ear

In some of my recent posts, I’ve been writing about learning a tune using tabs versus being able to read traditional music notation. Today, I want to write about learning a fiddle tune by ear, because that is my ultimate goal.

I wrote about learning music theory only because so many fiddle tunes I find on the internet are posted using traditional music notation. As a non-reader, I prefer tabs. But, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to learn tunes by ear? After all, the genre of fiddle music I am most interested in has a long and rich history and tradition of being taught and handed down from fiddler to fiddler, generation to generation, this way.

Since learning to learn a tune by ear is rather a gray area for me, I started reading more about learning tunes by ear. I never really thought about it much, kind of just thinking eventually it happens. What I found out is like any skill, there are some basic steps, and these steps need to be followed and practiced over and over in order to become proficient in learning tunes by ear. In addition to many good articles and some videos, I found a short series of six videos produced by Katie Glassman who runs a website called FiddleSchool.com. So, what does Katie recommend? I’m all ears….(pun intended!)

1. Listen to the Tune

The first step to learning a tune by ear is LISTEN. Listen to the tune over and over and over again until you know it inside out and up and down. Internalize the melody until it is stuck in your head and you know every note by heart. If you can, listen to people who you would like to sound like.

2. Sing the Tune

Sing the tune in your head and out loud. Don’t worry if it doesn’t have words; you can just sing da, da, da. Singing the tune in your head and out loud further helps to solidify and internalize the tune in your brain. If you stumble in any area when singing the tune, go back and listen again until you can sing that area and the tune as a whole. Now, do it some more!

At this point, you have done the hard part – you have memorized the melody.

3. Break the Tune Down

Now you are ready to pick up your fiddle. Begin by taking the fist section of the tune, finding and matching the notes to the pitches on your fiddle. If you are having a problem sounding out a whole phrase of the tune, start with just the first 1, 2 or 3 notes of the tune. Go slowly! If you need more help, there are plenty of software aids that will slow the tune down even slower. Use one of them. I like to use Audacity. It’s free and you can adjust the tempo as needed. Remember, playing up to tempo is not important here; learning the tune is. You’ll have plenty of time to play up to tempo once you’ve learned the entire tune.

4. Let What You’ve Learned Sink In

After learning a section or part of a tune, take a break and allow what you have learned sink in. When you return, try to play what you’ve learned so far from memory. You may or may not have to relearn some. Don’t let self-doubt or discouragement set in. This is normal and part of the learning process. Once you are satisfied, move on to the next phrase or part of the tune. Before you know it, you’ll learn the entire tune.

5. Think the Tune

While taking your break, think about the tune. Play it in your mind; think about fingering it with one hand and bowing it with the other. This will further reinforces the tune for you.

6. Bring the Tune to Life!

If you have repeated the previous steps for each phrase, section and part of the tune, you have learned the notes and can play the tune all the way through from beginning to end. You own it! Now, you can begin to work on tempo, phrasing, timing, bowing and whatever else tickles your fancy. Relax and enjoy your new fiddle tune!

I find these 6 steps to learning how to play a fiddle tune by ear helpful and now have a structured guideline to learning a tune by ear. What do you think? Would you add anything?

For easy future reference, I have added this post to the Practice Resources section which can be found in the menu at the top of this page.

Just saw this video from a friend on another forum. A little more involved, but I thought it was also good!

  8 comments for “Learning a Fiddle Tune by Ear

  1. November 14, 2019 at 12:51 pm

    Great post, great comments and really good advice. For the first six month of my self-taught fiddling, I did nothing but play by ear. I can read music – but when I picked up the violin, there was ZERO connection in my mind between the notes on the staff and my fingers on the strings. I guess, being 65 years old (last year, when I started) and having sung all my life, I know hundreds if not thousands of tunes “inside out” as you say. And, I didn’t just know them as tunes, I could hear full harmonization and chord progressions in my head. I also had the advantage of already thinking in terms of “do, re, mi, fa, sol,” etc. as I hear/sing tunes.

    So, I started with Twinkle, Twinkle, and figured out how to play it starting from any open string, That gave me a pattern of “do, do, sol, sol, la, la, sol; fa, fa, mi, mi, re, re, do.” And when you know that much, it’s not far from there to figure out where “ti” is. 🙂 So I began playing scales on every string, and memorizing the finger patterns for those scales.

    May I say that “Boil Them Cabbage Down” is an EXCELLENT first song to figure out how to play by ear. It starts on “mi” and it ends on a nice, strong “mi, re, do.” That’s a pattern you will play over and over as long as you fiddle.

    GOOD LUCK, guys, and keep up the practice! It’s really fun to be able to pick up a tune and jam along with long-time players, as it sounds like you want to do!

    Oh- one more thing: I found that it was Christmas Carols – really familiar songs I’d been singing and playing on the piano all my life – that helped me make the transition to being able to read violin music. I took a song I could already play by ear, and “watched” the printed music as I played. Soon, I was reading the notes, and they began to mean “put your fingers here, when you see this.”

    • November 14, 2019 at 5:26 pm

      Thanks Sue. A lot of food for thought in your comment, and I appreciate it.

  2. November 13, 2019 at 9:05 am

    Good info here! The AFM that I’ve been using offers standard notation for all songs, but focuses on learning by ear. So all of the tunes I’ve worked on the past three months have been memorize in a similar way. I’m actually pretty good at the memorization part, so much that I was worried I’d have trouble learning notation since I eventually end up just playing songs from memory rather than looking at the sheet music (for simple songs, of course).

    I’m not to a point where I can hear something a few times and then echo or recreate it on the instrument yet. That would be awesome, though!

    I still want to set a goal to be able to read standard notation and tabs for when I need to. I feel like having all those skills, along with memorizing by ear, will be a huge benefit!

    • November 13, 2019 at 10:10 am

      I guess if we keep working at it, eventually we will be able hear something a few times and be able to play it more quickly. You are right…having all three, memorization, tabs and notation is probably the best way to go. I just bought a book called “How to Read Music in 30 Days”. I got it on Amazon for able $11 bucks. Click this link to see it.

  3. Cervus-Venator
    November 12, 2019 at 10:05 pm

    Thanks, it sounds like your goals are the same as mine. I too want to learn by ear and being that my interest is in old time fiddle music I want to learn the traditional way as well. However, having become frustrated I felt that getting professional help to build a foundation to learn from would help. So I’m still taking lessons and accepting the guidance given and my instructor knows that learning by rote is part of my goal so she works with me on this with each tune. One of the first tunes I worked on was from this video where the instructor is teaching it so that you learn it by rote. Rote learning is a memorization technique based on repetition.(Wikipedia)

    • November 13, 2019 at 4:07 am

      I’ve watched his videos before; I like them. It is good to hear you have an instructor who meets you where you are at. My teacher is the same. Rote learning…so much of our grade school experience so many years ago, but it works!

  4. Waffles
    November 12, 2019 at 9:55 am

    Thanks ! That is great advice !

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