Remembering Fiddle Tunes

Learning how to play fiddle tunes is one thing; remembering how to play them is another.

Now that I am approaching the completion of my first year, I have learned how to play a number of tunes. Some I play better than others, but one thing is common, if I don’t play a particular song for a while, I have a difficult time remembering how to play it. This is a source of frustration, and I have been doing a lot of reading lately about how others cope with this and how they remember their repertoire of tunes.

One advantage I have is that any tune I have attempted to learn is right on this site in the Fiddle Tune Tabs section in the menu above. I can always refer back there. I can always take a peak to jog my memory about how a tune starts off, but I don’t want to be dependent on the tabs to play the whole song through. I want to be able to play my repertoire from memory.

So, from what I have read the past few days, here are the steps I put together for working on memorizing my repertoire. And, it is summed up by…

Don’t practice until I can get it right; practice until I can’t get it wrong.

  • On my computer, I am going to create a chart of tunes I already know, or know fairly well, plus whatever tune(s) I am working on now. Under the name of each tune, I am going to write the first few notes, in my case tabs, in case I don’t remember how the tune begins. I will also list anything else I need to remember like key and tempo. That should help to jog my memory if I forget. Since my tune list is not real long yet, I will just list the tunes in alphabetical order. As my tune list grows, I may create separate tune lists for Old Time, early American, Folk, Patriotic, Waltzes, etc.
  • Next, I am going to take some time and play through each tune. As I do this, I will split my chart into two groups. The first group will be “A” list or tunes I know pretty well and can get all the way through even if I don’t play them up to tempo yet. The second group will be the “B” list or tunes where I may go off track, not know some of the notes to get through completely, or lack some of the skill to and technique to play accurately.
  • My “A” list I will play several times a week, even daily if I have time. This shouldn’t take too long. As this list grows, I can divide it up further where I only play half the list every other day, or a third of the list every third day. I can also work on tempo and introduce additional bowing techniques to improve the quality of my playing.
  • From my “B” list, I will choose a tune and work on it every day until I can move it over to my “A” list. When that is done, I will start working on another “B” list tune until I can move that one over to my “A” list, and so on.

So, my “A” list will be the songs I know well. I will play through them on a regular basis so I don’t forget them, and my “B” list will be the songs I don’t know as well and the new songs I am starting to learn. Each practice session will consist of warm-ups followed by playing through my “A” list, or a portion of my “A” list as it grows followed by the current “B” list song I am still working on, but not quite ready to move to my “A” list.

I know this sounds rather simple, and it is! The trick here is to not just learn song after song, forgetting how to play songs I learned six months ago but haven’t played in a while. The goal is to firmly fix and establish a list of tunes and how to play them into my memory while learning new songs. For this, I need an organized system that works my brain towards this end. Some folks can remember dozens, if not hundreds of tunes, even if they don’t know the names and the words to many of them, but I am not like that, nor are most folks I know. I need a systematic approach to building my repertoire and be competent at playing all these tunes. I’ll let you know how I make out.

I’d be interested in your feedback and how you ingrain songs into your memory. Do you do something similar to this, or do you have another method, or are you one of those few lucky folks who was born with a great memory and never forget?

  14 comments for “Remembering Fiddle Tunes

  1. MoonShadows
    January 21, 2020 at 7:16 am

    @old cowboy

    Yes, I have heard of this. Lately, I have been closing my eyes while practicing songs I already know. It keeps me from looking at the mechanics and forces me to feel the mechanics, but I have also noticed that it helps me put more emotion into the playing as well, like you said, “what parts to emphasize with various things like extra pressure on the bow, soft strokes, long bows, short bows or whatever.”

  2. old cowboy
    January 20, 2020 at 2:27 pm

    I started out learning to play from a dvd I got from amazon. The first two songs I learned from it were Old Joe Clark and Cotton Eyed Joe. Even tho I was familiar with the tunes to these songs, I never knew the lyrics. I did learn to play them but it never sounded right. I made a concerted effort to learn the lyrics and to listen to people singing them in stead of just playing the tune. Then I tried singing with them in my mind as I played them. I was surprised at the difference this made. You learn what parts to emphasize with various things like extra pressure on the bow, soft strokes, long bows, short bows or whatever. The songs just sound better when you get into them with heart and soul.

  3. old cowboy
    January 3, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    I learned to play guitar and French harp over 60 yrs. ago. Learned by ear. Can still play the same tunes. Some times I need to stop and think for a few moments, but they do come back to me. I have learned a few tunes on my fiddle by ear and have no problem remembering them. The ones I learn by tabs don’t seem to have that kind of staying power. Maybe it is just I’m older now.. I keep my fiddle tunes in a small note book with a few starter tabs to get me going.

    • MoonShadows
      January 4, 2020 at 7:27 am


      I had to look up the French harp. I never knew it was another name for the harmonica. Interesting that you remember the tunes you learned by ear better than those you learned by tabs. A lot of people keep their tune list with the first few notes to jog their memory. Thanks for the feedback.

  4. MoonShadows
    December 29, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    We’re similar Rick  in that I need to be familiar with the song or tune first. I will use tabs as a guide unless I am sounding it out by ear (because I can’t find tabs), then I will write out the tabs later so I have them.

    In addition to my A list and B list, I do have a list of songs that I have tried, but they are on the back burner for now…just too tough for me at this stage. And, finally, my dream list…ones I hope to be able to play some day.


  5. Rick M
    December 29, 2019 at 12:26 pm

    Interesting topic. Mostly I find that I need to know the song or tune pretty well before even making the attempt. To me it really helps if there are lyrics. I do use sheet music as a guide to begin with.What I started right from the beginning of learning is a binder of sheet music. It changes as I go along but right now I use sections;- first are the tunes that I have learned and can play from memory, not flawlessly but okay.- the next section is the songs that I’m actively learning, I’ve been through them  I’m getting the tune and rhythm down but still have to check certain sections as I play. Once I get the tune down, where I can play it without checking the music it gets moved into the first section – third are tunes that I want to learn. I’ve played through a few times but are very rough. There might be tough string changes or passages that just won’t compute. Usually when I’m having a particularly good session I’ll attempt one or two of these.- finally there’s the ones that are “aspirational” that’s the “someday I’d like to be able to play this” list. Again, every once in a while I’ll try one out and sometimes will do well enough that it gets moved up a notch.if there are tunes that I can’t or haven’t found the music for yet, I’ll print out the lyrics or just include a page with notes to remind myself. There’s a few that I have figured out on my own by listening to recordings and trying to pick out the tune and having the lyrics there seems to help cement it in the head.

  6. William Shull
    December 28, 2019 at 9:23 pm

    We have technology at hand to stabilize our repertoire (recordings, tab, scores, slow-down software) that the old guys didn’t. I remember typing out a tune list for an older fiddler forty years ago who only had scraps of paper with tune names. And I recollect reading that Charlie Higgins (see “The Field Recorders’ Collective”) only liked playing ‘Blackberry Blossom’ at the end; and that Manco Sneed only had a few favorite tunes left. Also, I’m certain that learning a tune by ear creates a more indelible “finger memory” than learning from a score or tab.

    • December 28, 2019 at 9:34 pm

      William, I agree with you about learning a tune by ear. That is how my teacher teaches, and I remember those tunes best.

  7. December 28, 2019 at 3:00 pm

    Seems like a good approach, you’ll have to let us know how well it works in a few months!
    I play through my repertoire in a random rotation based on what I feel like playing. I rarely forget how to play tunes, and if I did I’d have also forgotten that I used to play it….

    • December 28, 2019 at 9:36 pm

      Gunnar, from what I have learned about you since we met, you seem to have a natural mind for music. I’m not sure I do. Some times I feel like I’m trying to fit a square peg in a round hole when it comes to me and music, but I’m not giving up. 🙂

      • December 31, 2019 at 3:25 am

        I do, and it’s been very helpful for myself, but really frustrating if I try to teach someone who doesn’t get it naturally, lol.
        Keep at it! Over time your square peg will round off some

        • December 31, 2019 at 6:37 am

          Yeah, I guess it is something you can’t teach. Thanks for the encouragement, Gunnar.

  8. December 28, 2019 at 2:06 pm

    Sounds like a very logical – and enjoyable – way to approach learning and memorizing tunes. I’m one of those people who memorized thousands of songs when I was young, and I say “songs” intentionally instead of tunes. I learn a tune faster and remember it longer if I’ve learned it by singing it. Now that I’m in my sixties, and in my second year of playing the fiddle/violin, I definitely lean toward playing songs, and not just “tunes.” I can RECOGNIZE tunes like Arkansas Traveler, Devil’s Dream and Turkey in the Straw – but it takes me forever to dredge the full tune out of my memory, just because I don’t have words to hang the pitches on. I’ts a phenomenon I’ve noticed all my life. I can sing literally hundreds of folk songs and hymns at the drop of a hat – but I get all of Strauss’s waltzed confused. Not to mention Sousa’s marches! I’ve been known to make long searches for lyrics to Irish and Scottish tunes I want to learn – and to make up lyrics (in secret) when I can’t find any. I’m curious if this is a common phenomenon, or just one of the tricks of my own mind.

    • December 28, 2019 at 9:31 pm

      Sue, I tend to use “songs” and “tunes” interchangeably, even though they are not the same. Songs are probably easier to remember for most folks because there is the “double reinforcement” of the melody and the words. I also make up lyrics to tunes; it helps. 🙂

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