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!

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