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Learning Fiddle Tunes By Ear

By Deborah Clark Colón

“Hasn’t anybody written this tune down so I can learn it?”

How many times have you searched for a transcription of music you heard and just had to play? Even if you find the written music, it might not lead you to the sound you loved. So many violinists, eager to play fiddle music, load up on books and learn tune after tune, only to conclude in disappointment, “it doesn’t sound like fiddling!” As with any musical style, fiddle styles are best understood by listening. In this article, you will discover step by step how to learn a fiddle tune by ear. Picking up tunes from listening to fiddle music is one way to take a lesson from your favorite fiddle player.

Let Your Ear Do the Work

Let your ear begin the work long before you pick up your instrument. Make the fiddle recording you want to learn be your week’s soundtrack. Even if you’re not concentrating on listening, your ear will be learning the shapes of the tunes. When your attention is available, you can also zero in with more focused listening.

Analytical listening can help break down the task of learning a tune. The following questions sharpen the ear’s focus. You may come up with more questions yourself. Practice asking them any time you listen to music, and your awareness will become more detailed over time.

  • Are there several voices in the arrangement? Which part would you like to learn?
  • Is that part played on your own instrument? Listen for open strings to orient your ear and perhaps help locate the key note.
  • Can you feel the beats? How many do you hear in a measure or phrase? Are they in twos, threes, fours or some other groupings?
  • How are beats subdivided? Try to feel the rhythm or identify the time signature.
  • Do you hear recurring note combinations? Are there similar phrases which appear in different places?
  • How is the tune structured? Does it have a repeating A part and B part, like many fiddle tunes?
  • Is the tune part of a medley? If so, where does it begin and end? Are some of the notes ornamented with quick extra notes? Try to distinguish the tune notes from any ornamentation, and if the melody is heavily embellished, consider what level of detail you’d like to copy.

After all this listening, you may suddenly notice yourself humming the melody. If so, you’ve already learned the tune, which will make it easier to find on your instrument. Even without the whole tune in your head, your listening time will help your ear to judge which notes are correct as you experiment.

Find the Bones

When you have listened long enough for the tune to feel familiar, it’s time to pick up your instrument. If you think you have identified the key, run a scale to alert your fingers to the notes you’ll be using. Tunes in familiar keys will be easiest to find. Modal keys, neither major nor minor, are especially common in Celtic music. And remember, even if you know the key, that hard-to-find note might be an accident.

As you listen to the tune, pluck or play softly on your violin, trying different notes until you start to identify the prominent ones: downbeats, phrase ends, long or dramatically accented notes. Don’t get distracted by quick runs of short notes at this point. You are seeking the bones of the tune on your instrument, finding the hooks on which you’ll hang the rest of the melody.

Don’t worry or be discouraged if you find only one note; play that note as it comes around in the tune, notice when you hear it, and in time you’ll find others before, after, above, and below it. If you can’t find even one note, consider trying these techniques on a slower tune. Various machines and software exist to slow tunes down, so you can work at a comfortable speed. As with any skill, ease will come with practice and experience.

Fiddle Tune-Finding Methods

Two general styles of tune-finding might be termed the “bite by bite” method and the “grappling hook and skateboard” method. Both are good tools; use whichever seems appealing for a given tune and moment.

The 'Bite-by-Bite' Method

To find a tune bite by bite, begin at the beginning and listen to a very short phrase (perhaps a measure or half-measure) over and over, trying to duplicate it on the fiddle, replaying the recording as often as is needed to refresh the ears. Once you find the sequence of notes, play it a few times so the fingers and ear start to learn it. Each time you complete a phrase, link it with what came before and repeat until it feels familiar. If you like, note down the sequence.

Finding the notes and learning them are two separate steps. Many a fiddler has sailed through a tune, finding a phrase at a time, only to realize at the end that none of the phrases remain in memory. If that happens, just repeat the process to find the tune again. Practice each phrase a little longer before going on to the next. The tune will come more quickly the second time, building on your previous work.

The 'Grappling Hook & Skateboard' Method

The “grappling hook and skateboard” method of tune-finding involves listening to the whole tune over and over, catching notes and phrases here and there as they fly by, and trying to be swept along with the melody. This is how it feels to seek a tune by ear at a jam session with other musicians. A sense of breathless adventure leads to exhilaration (as a phrase leaps entirely from your fingers) or despair (as you catch the first or last note every time but repeatedly miss the rest).

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

Regardless of how you approach a tune, a few basic guidelines will ease your way. Most importantly, it doesn’t matter how many wrong notes you try in the process of finding the right ones. Do try to notice what didn’t work, especially if you’re stuck, so you won’t keep trying the same sequence over and over. If you repeat the same wrong guess several times in a row, your fingers will learn it and want to use it the next time. But remember: guessing wrong a lot is part of finding the tune. It’s like finding the invisible man with a can of spray paint. You’ll get paint all over the walls and floor, but you’ll also find what you’re looking for.

You’ll get stuck plenty, trying to find what comes next. Keep in mind, you only need one note at a time. If you keep finding the next note, and the next, eventually you’ll have the whole tune. Narrowing your focus to just one note will keep the number of incorrect options limited to the number of notes on your instrument (minus one). Even a two-note combination exponentially increases the number of wrong choices available.

To find the next note when you’re stuck, first make sure you know where you’re coming from. Find your launch note: the last note you’re sure is right. Play that note along with the music to double check; if you’re coming from the wrong place, even the right note will sound incorrect. When you know your launching place, listen to the phrase, stopping the music one note after the launch note. That’s your target note. As the most recent note you’ve heard, its echo in your ear may help you to find it on your instrument.

Was the target note below or above the launch note, or was it the same? If you’re not sure, listen again. Take a guess. Start playing two-note pairs, going in whichever direction feels right. Play the earlier part of the phrase if it seems helpful, or just start with the launch note. Always include the launch note, pairing it with successive notes in the direction you chose. Be thorough: don’t forget the half steps, even if they’re not in the key. Your goal is to duplicate the interval you heard between the launch and target notes, so return to listen to the song frequently to refresh your ears. Without that interval echoing in your mind, it’s much harder to tell whether you’ve matched it.

No prize will be offered for finding the tune with as little listening or as few wrong notes as possible. Listen a lot and experiment a lot. If necessary, try every possible note combination, in hopes that your ears will recognize the one you’re looking for. You may not be sure when you’ve found the right one, but if there’s only one that doesn’t actually sound wrong, it’s a good possibility.

When you hit the right interval, notice what the target note was before playing on. Otherwise a wrong note farther along may fool your ear into rejecting the target note with it.

When You’re Utterly Stuck

If you have tried pairing the launch note with all the notes in your direction of choice and none sounded right, try the other direction, even if you’re sure the tune doesn’t go that way. Try repeating the target note. Listen to the notes’ rhythm on the recording and make sure you’re duplicating it as you experiment, especially placing the beats on the correct notes. Question your assumptions; go back a few notes and check whether they’re truly what you thought they were. If after all this you’re still stuck, listen to the phrase a few times without trying to play it. Your ears will mull it over as you go on to other things. Lay the tune aside or go to a different section. Come back to it tomorrow with fresh ears. If you’re lucky, your brain may even sort it out for you while you sleep.

Keep at it

Learning a tune by ear requires just as much skill as reading music. If you’re new to the process, remember that it will come with practice, just as reading music does. Don’t punish yourself for incorrect guesses; they’re just part of the process. When you find the right note or phrase, take a moment to congratulate yourself! One note at a time, you’re learning a skill that will unlock the melodies on every recording you’ve ever heard and hungered to play.