Methods for Learning Tunes - Printable Version
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Methods for Learning Tunes - Eric Renshaw - 14-01-2009 05:57 PM
I have gradually become aware that folks seem to learn how to play tunes in quite different ways. In Nigel’s lessons, for example, we gradually progress through a tune by playing a phrase of say 3 or 4 bars over and over, before moving on to the next phrase, which seems to suit students' needs. Whilst some of my friends just immerse themselves in pub sessions and presumably acquire tunes by osmosis (and alcohol). Whilst my only really successful method of attack is to get the music via tune books such as Nigel’s and SMG, or go online and convert ABC files etc., sight-read it to get the tune in my head and fingers, and then work on developing it. So for me, initially having the staff music around is paramount: though I believe that ‘Folk Music Tradition’ purists abhor this! So what methods do Gatherers actually employ?
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - alistair - 18-01-2009 09:55 PM
(14-01-2009 05:57 PM)Eric Renshaw Wrote: I have gradually become aware that folks seem to learn how to play tunes in quite different ways. In Nigel’s lessons, for example, we gradually progress through a tune by playing a phrase of say 3 or 4 bars over and over, before moving on to the next phrase, which seems to suit students' needs. Whilst some of my friends just immerse themselves in pub sessions and presumably acquire tunes by osmosis (and alcohol). Whilst my only really successful method of attack is to get the music via tune books such as Nigel’s and SMG, or go online and convert ABC files etc., sight-read it to get the tune in my head and fingers, and then work on developing it. So for me, initially having the staff music around is paramount: though I believe that ‘Folk Music Tradition’ purists abhor this! So what methods do Gatherers actually employ?
Until a few years ago I only ever learned tunes by ear. I found (and still find to some extent) musical notation baffling and deeply mysterious, in the way that many people find mathematical notation completely inscrutable. (There ought to be word for this: dysmusica, perhaps?.) Since getting hold of the SMG Session Books and other printed music handed out in classes I have been able to work backwards from seeing how tunes that I know are represented in the notation. But I still am nowhere near being able to sight read and play a new tune straight off the music.
I think an acid test (and Nigel sometimes has fun with this in the pub) is to ask people to play a well-known tune in a different key. For those who primarily learn by ear, that's really just a test of facility with your chosen instrument, how familiar you are with the target key, and how easy or otherwise the key is to play. A tune is a tune is a tune, as Gertrude Stein might have put it: they key is basically irrelevant (although I know different keys have different tonal qualities on many instruments). I have seen some classically trained players though go quite pale when faced with this challenge, but maybe it's a false distinction, and anyone who knows a tune well and knows their instrument would, at least given time, be able to play it in any common key.
Before coming to ALP and SMG classes I used to play tunes I knew in the "wrong" key. I guess the key thing when playing in a group is that everyone agrees on the key.
I am interested in how others feel about this. In Oliver Sacks' fascinating book "Musicophilia" he talks about musicians with perfect pitch who feel uncomfortable, or in extreme cases physically sick, if they hear a familiar piece played in the wrong key, even if it is in all other ways played correctly.
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - Trish Santer - 19-01-2009 01:05 AM
I come from the opposite end of the spectrum from you, Alistair, having been taught to read music at an early age, and done a lot of theory over the years. In those days, if I had to do anything without music in front of me, it would involve endless repetition, as in learning the words of a poem or song.
However, when I first came to SMG, I had very limited ability to learn by ear, and I have gradually developed this skill: in the early stage I had to do what I call a "double translation", i.e. I would hear notes, then convert them into "dots on a page" inside my head before anything would come out at the playing end. Hopefully now, I can partly miss out the middle stage of the "dot conversion".
Nigel mentions playing in other keys: there is a fantastic fiddler who comes to a festival I go to, whose party trick is to play the same tune (usually a reel at breakneck speed) in keys successively going up the scale a semi-tone at a time (i.e. 12 different keys!) As you would expect, guitar capos run riot and most other players can't keep up!
It's not just facility with your instrument that helps, but knowing all your scales and therefore which sharps or flats you need in any key helps. My button box is a B/C so has all the notes in it (some melodeons in other tunings do not), and on a recent trip to France, I found they seemed to like playing in F, so I suddenly had to find the B flat, then I was asked to accompany someone in Emaj - not so familiar - 4 sharps! You can't capo a button box.
Also the ability to read music means it opens doors as far as going into other tune books goes. I feel there is a place for both sight-reading and learning by ear: they are BOTH important skills, and should not be seen (as they are by some) as mutually exclusive: having struggled to learn by ear, I get a bit annoyed with the non-readers who just won't even try or listen when you try to explain some simple piece of music theory, in words of one syllable, to them: they do get awfu' crotchety, and dismiss you out of hand before you've had a chance to take it back to even more basic explanation! (This obviously does not include you Alistair, as you are making the effort, and Nigel's basic theory in mandolin classes I'm sure is very useful to those who are non-readers!)
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - alistair - 19-01-2009 02:56 PM
(19-01-2009 01:05 AM)Trish Santer Wrote: < snip >
Thanks for this Trish: I agree we need a middle ground to accommodate people coming from both ends of the spectrum. Your example of the fiddler is impressive, although I guess there had been some practice done in private before the first public demonstration. What I find most interesting is what happens inside your head when you are asked spontaneously to play a familiar tune in a key in which you have never played it before? Come to think of it, that's not very different from playing a tune you know for the very first time. That kind of assumes that there are tunes that you "know" (e.g. to whistle or hum) but have never actually played before. This will be true of most people at least of my generation brought up in Scotland.
We learned lots of songs at school, mostly Scottish, but including English, Irish and Welsh, though most children did not learn to play an instrument at school. So we all "know" tunes, yet among friends and relations who have had a classical musical education,I know very few who can sit down and play a familiar tune like Annie Laurie or Bluebells of Scotland (to name but two) without the music. Indeed they often seem to regard the ability to do so as a rare and somehow threatening gift, which I am sure it isn't, or shouldn't be.
I guess what I am trying to get at is the idea of a tune as an abstraction, quite independent of the notation used to represent it. Tunes you know are stored in your memory, but, at least for those coming from the aural learning side, not as a transcript or eidetic memory of the written notation. Indeed, although I now have and can read the music for many of the tunes I can play, there are still a large number of tunes I can play for which I have never seen a written score. (Of course if I start to "forget" some of these tunes I may need to find the score to remind me how they go.)
(19-01-2009 01:05 AM)Trish Santer Wrote: It's not just facility with your instrument that helps, but knowing all your scales and therefore which sharps or flats you need in any key helps. My button box is a B/C so has all the notes in it (some melodeons in other tunings do not), and on a recent trip to France, I found they seemed to like playing in F, so I suddenly had to find the B flat, then I was asked to accompany someone in Emaj - not so familiar - 4 sharps! You can't capo a button box.
Yes to map a tune onto your chosen instrument in a particular key you need to be familiar with that key, and practising scales and arpeggios in the key is an essential prerequisite. [I found recently on the web the original music and words for "The Lament of Flora MacDonald", arranged by Neil Gow Jnr, which is in a key with 4 flats: A flat I guess? I have never encountered A flat before:I am sure it's possible on the recorder, and I aim to master it some day, but meantime just play the tune in A, which is a lot easier.]
But when playing a tune I don't think "oh this is in A so that G must be a G#" (and of course in pipe tunes, often it isn't). Indeed I don't think about sharps and flats at all. Somehow you just know, from your "memory" of the tune, what sound is required, and you hope you will be able to recall quickly enough how to produce that sound on your instrument. And of course it's not just about individual notes, but phrases and sequences, which tend to recur in a range of different tunes, and so may not be entirely new. I practice every now and then playing a familiar tune in a new key, and sometime even find myself doing this be accident: it's only half way through I think: there's something strange about this …
(19-01-2009 01:05 AM)Trish Santer Wrote: Also the ability to read music means it opens doors as far as going into other tune books goes. I feel there is a place for both sight-reading and learning by ear: they are BOTH important skills, and should not be seen (as they are by some) as mutually exclusive: having struggled to learn by ear, I get a bit annoyed with the non-readers who just won't even try or listen when you try to explain some simple piece of music theory, in words of one syllable, to them: they do get awfu' crotchety, and dismiss you out of hand before you've had a chance to take it back to even more basic explanation! (This obviously does not include you Alistair, as you are making the effort, and Nigel's basic theory in mandolin classes I'm sure is very useful to those who are non-readers!)
I have found Sarah Northcott's little book "Beginning to Read Music for Traditional Musicians" extremely helpful, and would recommend it to anyone in a similar position to me. (Being a book for beginners, it does not stretch to A flat though.)
When I was in Nigel's mixed instrument class he used to discourage me from looking at the music when learning a tune. He never explicitly said why, and I may be doing him an injustice, but I think perhaps he felt that for those who can pick up a tune by ear, focussing on the written music just gets in the way, and may over time diminish your ability to learn by ear. Certainly I do not find it as easy as I used to to pick up a new tune, but I put that down more to increasing age than to any change in the learning process.
In Oliver Sachs' book (Musicophilia) which I referred to earlier, he mentions a psychologist who believes that every child born with normal hearing also has perfect pitch, and but that in cultures whose language is not tonal most children lose this by the age of three, unless they are introduced to musical training at an early age. Be that as it may, it might also be the case that all children with normal hearing have the ability to learn tunes by ear, but that that ability may be lost or at least seriously disrupted by too early an introduction to formal musical notation. Certainly our oldest son could sing before he could speak (or understand the words he was singing). His favourite was "I'm a Rover, Seldom Sober" learned from a Robin Hall and Jimmie McGregor LP, which was somehow quite prescient …
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - Trish Santer - 20-01-2009 01:53 AM
Thanks for your comprehensive reply, Alistair. I am also fascinated by the subject of how the brain works in a musical sense: obviously differently for different people! I haven't yet read Oliver Sachs "Musicophilia", but saw the Alan Yentob programme "Imagine" on BBC TV which made extensive reference to this.
My son also could sing in tune at the age of 18 months (notably the East Enders signature tune!) and has gone on to study music to degree and postgrad level.
I would also say I think in terms of intervals, having had to do all those aural test where you have to say if it's a 4th, 5th, augmented or diminished or not! Again this knowledge of theory helps to map out where a tune is going - for me, at any rate!
Oh, and finally, has anyone else tried the Delosis test? This is available on the Newcastle University website as a test of your musical listening skills: I won't boast about my scores, except to say that I was fair chuffed with the results! I'll post the link as a separate thread.
Oh. and you're right about this new forum taking up far too much time and burning midnight oil! Good night all!
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - alistair - 21-01-2009 10:18 AM
Yes this discussion has veered a bit from how people learn tunes.
Just two more thoughts: the first is about relative versus absolute pitch. Apart from the rhythm, which is of course a vital and defining component, a tune is defined by the relative pitch of its notes, which is why a tune if independent of the key it is written in or usually played in. Although I tend to feel quite uncomfortable at mention of augmented or diminished fourths or fifths, I nevertheless have a deep fascination for the mathematics (and physics) of music, which is to a large extent about ratios. [I got a wonderful book a couple of Christmases ago called "Music and Mathematics", edited by John Favel, Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson, which I would recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in this area, which could and maybe should be the basis for another thread.] I guess it would be simplistic to divide the world of players into "relativists" and "absolutists", but in this area I am among the relativists, and I wondered if this would be true of most people who learn tunes principally by ear. I still find it hard to decide when I hear a tune for the first time what key it is being played in. Watching the fingers of someone playing the whistle, or holding the final note in my head and trying to play it I can usually work it out, but not from the sound alone.
The second thought is about singing. Most people can sing a tune they know without thinking too much about how they produce the right notes. If you know your instrument well enough (and I agree it's a big if), then it should I feel be just as easy to play a tune as to sing it: and in principle in any key, though obviously after you have played it a few time muscular memory comes into play.
Anyway, no more for now. Maybe others will pick up the themes and explore them further, or maybe pracitce will suddenly begin to seem much more alluring …
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - Eric Renshaw - 25-01-2009 12:18 PM
(21-01-2009 10:18 AM)alistair Wrote: Although I tend to feel quite uncomfortable at mention of augmented or diminished fourths or fifths, I nevertheless have a deep fascination for the mathematics (and physics) of music, which is to a large extent about ratios. [I got a wonderful book a couple of Christmases ago called "Music and Mathematics", edited by John Favel, Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson, which I would recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in this area
Thanks for these contributions. Fascinating - when I started this thread off I didn't realise how deeply it would go. Your book recommendation, Alistair, looks particularly promising. I must take a look at it.
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - alistair - 26-01-2009 04:52 PM
I would be happy to lend you the book Eric.
Ian Stewart's chapter "Faggot's Fretful Fiasco" is a wonderful contribution (chapter 4 in the book) which any guitar player would enjoy reading even if they didn't follow the mathematics. The article describes a highly practical and accurate way of spacing the frets on a guitar, discovered by a Swedish craftsman Dan Strahle in 1743, but overlooked for more than 200 years because of a mistake made by a Swedish mathematician at the time (the Faggot of the title) in analysing its accuracy mathematically. The mistake was only laid bare only in 1957 when an American mathematician redit the calculation and showed that the maximum error in Strahle's method (a simple geometric construction) is 0.15%.
It's a great story rehabilitating a highly practical method, and Ian Stewart manages to hang some very elegant mathematics on the discussion. The book's worth the price for this chapter alone.
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - Eric Renshaw - 26-01-2009 06:36 PM
Is that the Ian Stewart of Warwick University? For if so, he has a very deep insight into mathematical structures and it would be well worth my reading what he has to say. It is a pity that mechanical devices such as pianos and fretted instruments are unable to exploit the true and beautiful nature of scales, since their 'compromise build' causes most notes to be played at the wrong frequencies. Something that fiddlers (at least in theory!) shouldn't fall foul of.
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - alistair - 26-01-2009 08:48 PM
Yes it is the same Ian Stewart of Warwick University. (I also got his "Cabinet of Mathematical Curioisities" for Christmas last year, but have not dared yet to do more than flip through it, for fear of jeopardising all other activities.)
I had vowed not to get drawn into this, but can you really tell the difference, aurally that is, with what you call "compromise build" instruments? The wonderful irony of the underlying mathematics is that if you want to be able to play a chromatic instrument in any key (and be equally "wrong" in all), you have to give up any attempt to produce exactly those beautiful Pythagorean rational frequency ratios, like 3/2 or 4/3, and try instead to get as close as possible to an irrational semitone frequency ratio of the 12th root of 2 (roughly 1.0595). [That's what Ian Stewart shows in his article the Strahle method achieves extremely well.] If you do that well enough you get still pretty close to the magic ratios: at least close enough that most people (I am told) can't tell the difference. But I guess you know all that.
Maybe we should go back to using instruments which are correct only in a few compatible keys (or to using a separate instrument for each different required key, as moothie and whistle players to some extent already do).
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - nigelgatherer - 26-01-2009 09:07 PM
The fascinating subject of music, mathematics and compromise is a large one, and I have no objection to become more enlightened here. I have dealt with mandolins which were sufficiently deformed that they required a measure of compromise: in order for it to be nearly in tune on, say, the fifth fret, it was necessary to tune the string slightly sharp in open. I didn't like it, but it meant that an unplayable mandolin became playable, almost, sort of, like. I would imagine someone with true perfect pitch would prefer fiddles to mandolins or pianos.
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - Eric Renshaw - 26-01-2009 09:30 PM
I guess it's because a lot of the mathematics I have worked with over the years has involved using the frequency rather than the space domain that I have picked up bits and pieces of fascinating theory that relate to musical scales en route. However, I really must read Ian's book and get a far better and wider picture. So many thanks for all your contributions which are most helpful. Alistair asks whether anyone might detect the difference between a pure and a compromise note? If anyone is interested in this, or indeed the more physical aspects of musicology, you might like to note that Edinburgh University runs a highly active Acoustic Research Group (e.g. http://www.ph.ed.ac.uk/acoustics/research.html). When I first started there as a young (yes, I was once!) lecturer in 1969 I seem to remember that there was just one person involved. Now there is a whole team.
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - Trish Santer - 27-01-2009 01:04 AM
Takes me back to school physics days and messing about on the Wheatstone bridge! Sure there are things fiddles and some other stringed instruments can do in the way of wonderful "glissandos" by virtue of being unfretted, as well as trombones can slide to great effect.
But there's also this thing about accordions being "wet-tuned " (when to me they sound ever so slightly off-key or "Paris Metro" - and "dry-tuned" when (again to me) it sounds a much purer on-key note.
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - Calum Galleitch - 27-01-2009 05:39 PM
Speaking as a piper, it's very obvious to me that a scale played on a piano is not exactly the same as a scale on a set of pipes. Try striking a major third on a well tuned piano sometime - the discord is actually very obvious. However, that said, it's not really something to worry about until everyone you're playing with is within those rather small limits - which will be quite a while for me and my fiddle!
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - alistair - 27-01-2009 10:02 PM
As you may know there is a German maker of mouth organs who sells a model tuned to the bagpipe scale. I once phoned Scales to enquire about it and the guy I spoke to said, "Oh you mean the mixolydian model, sir". To which my only answer was "Do I?". Anyway I looked up the word in Wikipedia (which is how I found out how to spell it) and it was quite fascinating though it did not specifically mention the Highland or any other bagpipe. However I also found a US web site about tuning bagpipes (at http://www.hotpipes.com/tuning.html ) which uses the term extensively.
There is also a demonstration on UTube (at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rI-sOJfa744 ) of how to tune a guitar to a mixolydian mode.
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - Calum Galleitch - 28-01-2009 09:34 PM
Isn't mixolydian occasionally used in blues? I wouldn't really call what the bagpipe does a mixolydian scale, although it is the notes of the mixolydian scale that are present. It's more just a clever twist on a standard major scale that lets you get away with an awful lot more in terms of choice of key and possible chord sequences. There are not many pipe tunes that really exploit an actual mixolydian scale.
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - alistair - 29-01-2009 01:04 PM
Well you could argue that all use the G mixolydian mode. At least, this would be the conclusion from the web page referred to earlier ( http://www.hotpipes.com/tuning.html ), which is the source of what little understanding I have gleaned. To quote:
'A final dollop of confusion is tossed in the stew by the way the notes of the Great Highland Bagpipe are labeled. The piper simply ticks off whole letters, in sequence, starting with the lowest note, G, then A, B, C, D, E, F, G and finally the highest note, again A. This is very convenient and makes the written music easy to read for the piper, but it again deviates widely from standard musical practice. When one plunks out this series of notes on a piano the sequence doesn't sound anything like the scale of the bagpipe, even when ignoring the already explained overall higher pitch and the lack of "equal tempering." It's a whole different set of intervals than the conventional musician would expect. This is because the wily piper, having only one C available, simply discards part of that note's conventional label, which is C-Sharp (written C#). The same applies to the F - it's "really" F#. Within the tight confines of the GHB and its music, it's just more convenient to call (in speech and written music) these tones by their first names only - but it can drive a non-piping musician nuts. So, in conventional musical language and notation (and again ignoring overall pitch and tempering) the scale of the GHB would read G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A. If the G were sharp, this would be an A-Major scale, but as it is, it's called a Mixolydian Mode. (Don't worry, I'm not going to attempt to explain "Mixolydian" except to mention that it's a neat word (pronounced mix-o-lid'-ian) that will impress your musical friends when you utter it.) What's important here is to understand that there is a gap between the GHB and the rest of the world in the way music is described in words and in notation. So, as a piper you cannot play even the most simple tunes as written in your kid's third-grade music book, and likewise you won't hear anything recognizable when you hand your pipe music to a guitarist.'
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - Eric Renshaw - 29-01-2009 09:46 PM
If anyone wants a brief and quick introduction to the huge field of 'scales' then the Wikipedia entries are fairly transparent, e.g.
whilst a basic description of other Renaissance scales to the Mixolydian is given in
RE: Methods for Learning Tunes - nigelgatherer - 21-03-2009 09:56 AM
I have obtained a copy of the book Music and Mathematics, and while it is daunting in scope, depth and erudition, I will be dipping into it every so often, and regurgitating snippets in the middle of conversations and classes to impress people with my scope, depth and erudition.