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What Music Type Are You?


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Hi there,

a recent session has brought back the not-so-novel insight to me that people are different and thus are their respective approaches to music.

I've always envied the seasoned sight readers. At Sidmouth last year, I was (again) flabbergasted how some people can decipher a score at first glance and translate them onto their instruments with seemlessly no effort, no matter what speed and no matter what distraction by others around them.

I have a fairly good memory and can thus memorize a tune (as long as it resonates with me and is technically not too difficult) after playing it several times on my own, and after about a week or so have it lying under my fingers so well that I can at least find my way back into it after getting lost when playing with others. But it'll take at least a few months of recurring practice until I could lead/carry the tune in a session. Having a guitarist's backgound, I can at least fake my way through unknown or too-difficult-as-of-yet tunes by playing some harmonic backing while I'm still mentally too far behind the melody to play along...

Having neglected to practice ensemble playing for most of my active music life, I can do almost anything at home without disturbances, but everything that qualifies as a distraction (be it a metronome, listeners, a karaoke track to play against, a change in speed let alone other musicians to play together with or dancers) will blow a few fuses in my mind, allowing at best only the minimum rendition (which is the barebone melody). Anyways, no whining, it's just a matter of practice; the more ensemble practice one gets, the better it'll become. Pretty simple math it is.

Last weekend on a session I came across somebody who doesn't read music at all and can not identify any tune by name, but he gets into every tune (familiar or unfamiliar) by listening to it once or twice and can then play along both handed. His huge repertoire is all in his head without attachment to scores, abcs, names or styles, sometimes stories. Enviable just the same! I for myself find that being able to read music is helpful for several reasons (for example, by looking at a score, I can build a fuzzy idea in my head how the tune would sound), but I have the highest respect for those whose ear guides them instead of the brain.

Others (for example Alan if I understand an earlier statement of his correctly) find their way into music through dancing, mapping the dancing steps onto the tunes. And so on. I'm sure there are myriads of other ways to become proficient and fun-to-listen-to musicians.

Just out of curiosity, what type would you consider yourself, and what is your personal key to unlock the world of music? For preventive purposes, let's just make sure that this is NOT for judgemental purposes. There's nothing "better" or "worse" in being able to read music (or understand music theory, or...) or not, and I'd be unhappy if this turned into some kind of discussion between dogmatists. At the end of the day, all that counts is the music, and we all need to find a road to it that suits our individual way of thinking, no? Of course, a number of things are non-negotiable (such as keeping rhythm, harmonic structure, the value of good face-to-face instruction, the ability to listen and being able to subordinate oneself to the musical experience), but other than that, I believe there isn't a one-size-fits-all road to music, and we all need to find ours that fits our shoes.

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My step father was a man that could hear a piece of music and then play along within minutes on has piano accordian. I have vivd memories of playing him the latest Stevie wonder album in the 70's and then him playing along to it! :-) I, on the other hand, have no such talent. I slavishly practice on my own every day and take opportunities to play with others when i can ( i work shifts) The tunes i know, i can play fairly well and I try to learn a new tune at least one a month. i can read written music just about but once a tune is in my head I would probably never look at the sheet music again. I liken it to an actor learning a script.

I'm sure there are probably better and more efficient ways of learning but the repitition seems to work for me. Having said that, I try to spend as much time playing stuff I know well as I do learning new stuff.

What interests me, as well, is how many tunes can i hold in my head. I'm in my mid 50's and assuming that my mental faculties are well in decline by now :-)

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I often play for contra dancers at my gigs (lots of distractions there) and I know hundreds of tunes. Despite my success at this for decades, the only tune I can remember is the one I'm currently playing. That's why I like to play with musicians who are smarter than me. I let the fiddler start the tune and by the third note I'm on it.

 

There are a few strategies I've figured out to help me with this mental disability. The best one is to play with my buddy Michael. He has the uncanny ability to be playing fiddle in the band and on request, pick the exact right tune, out of the air, to play next. I'll say, "Michael, what's next" ? Michael will say "D" and off we go without a pause or a stumble. I'll never learn to do that.

Edited by Jody Kruskal
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I'm an ear player. I can just about pick out a tune from dots on the recorder, but I'm not good at complex rhythms. On the concertina (and other instruments), which I've learned to play by ear, I've never really managed to map the notes to the buttons, and as the same button plays different notes on other instruments (which are in different keys), I fear severe brain-strain if I were to try.

 

In a familiar genre, which for me is the relatively recent tunes (C19th onwards) from the British Isles traditions, i find it quite easy to pick up a tune and play along in a session. These tunes follow a familiar structure and use familiar note patterns so it's just a question of stringing them together. The trick to doing this convincingly is to listen out for where the tune deviates from what you might expect, and to discreetly fudge any complicated bits you can't work out on the fly. However I probably couldn't play the tune again even a few minutes later without support from someone who actually knows it.

 

I find it more difficult with other genres where I am less familiar with the conventions, including both earlier British music and foreign traditions. I can't guess so well where the tune is likely to be heading, and I don't have the 'library' of stock musical phrases under my fingers.

 

I also share Jody's problem of knowing hundreds of tunes but being unable to recall any of them. I also know lots of tune names, but can't always associate them with a tune. Like him, I find it helpful to play alongside someone who is better at this than me, and who is a better sight-reader.

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I play by ear as I have no mental connection between the dots on the page and my fingers. I can read music to sing from, however, so there is obviously some other process taking place there.

I do not always remember the names of tunes, some I never hear in the first place.

I tend to think in chord sequences, not that I know the name of the chords, and perhaps this is another connection to my singing as I sing bass when in a choir and it is very rare for me to have difficulty inventing a harmony line.

As I play Anglo, if I want to play in a different key my easiest option is to pick up another instrument.

Over the years I have come to realise that most tunes can be broken down into parts from other tunes once you have enough in your memory!

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I read music and, when I write a transcription, I use publishing software to typeset it so I have hard copies of everything for my own use. Once I have the file on the computer, I can transpose it into different keys to suit. Even pieces I've played hundreds of times may fall out of memory if I haven't played them in a while, but I have the sheet music to bring me up to speed in that case. The only time my "ear" playing comes in is when I'm composing the arrangement.

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My first instrument was (and is) the cello. For many years, early in my life, making music meant nothing more than turning dots printed on a page into sounds emanating from my cello. And I got pretty good at it. A teacher in college once said "you read like the wind!"

 

Years later, I started playing folkie instruments like 5-string banjo and hammered dulcimer. I learned the tunes mostly by ear, and never played a tune exactly the same way twice. Playing with others was a lot of fun, but I found myself being critical of violinists trying to be fiddlers who couldn't play anything that wasn't written down ("paper trained," we called it). You've got to be able to have fun with the music, I thought. Play what you hear, ornaments and all.

 

Then I realized I couldn't do that on the cello, either. It was a whole different kind of playing. I had no facility with reading music on the folk instruments, and no ability to extemporize on the cello. I have since learned to "cross over" in both directions. I've taken the cello to fiddle & dance camps and played Bach and Satie on the concertina.

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I am a bit of a hybrid. Like David, my first instrument was cello and as a teenager I struggled to read dots (base clef). I did learn tunes by ear, but slowly. I then did no music for 20 years and took up English concertina at 40. Again I struggled either to read dots or to pick up tunes by ear. The turning point was going to a slow session which provided dots, and played tunes slowly, then speeded them up. The discipline of playing along with others (so hearing the tune), and having the dots in front of me to follow, taught me which dot sounded where. I've been doing that mix now for 20 years, and am now a competent sight reader.

 

I therefore accumulated lots of bits of paper with dots on, and transcribed others myself, which, being a computer person, led to the genesis of Paul Hardy's Session Tunebook. Preparing and enhancing that over the last ten years has improved my knowledge of tunes, and my understanding of the logic of music.

 

However, to play a tune really well, I have to take my eyes off the dots and play by ear - if I'm reading the dots, too much of my brain power goes into transcribing, and doesn't leave enough for maximum expressiveness.

 

A couple of years ago, I started going along to Anahata and Mary Humphreys English tunes sessions near Cambridge, which are very good discipline - no dots, and although the repertoire is large, tunes keep reappearing so I can learn them.

 

So (a) people don't have to be pure dots or pure by ear - you can use a mix of skills, and ( B) it's never too late to learn the other skill!

 

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I was the kid who was sent to the back of the choir and told to mouth the words without making a sound. I heeded that advice all of my life but I loved to listen to music, mostly English folk music but a wide range of other music too.

 

Learning to play the concertina is a retirement project for me. I am absolutely useless at it but I do get a lot of pleasure out of trying and I see no reason to give it up. My wife and the cat are very tolerant of my squawking. Well, the cat not so much, but I occasionally remind her that I could be learning the fiddle and needing new strings.

 

After messing about with both EC and Anglo I seem to have settled on the Hayden duet system. My only concern is the scarcity (as in hen's teeth scarcity) of a concertina reeded upgrade from my CC Peacock.

 

I have a math and computer science background and I am finding myself increasingly interested in music theory; not that it really helps me in getting my fingers in the right place at the right time, but I am getting a better understanding of why my playing sounds bad.

 

I also get a great deal of pleasure out of contemplating the beauty and ingenuity of the mechanisms inside a concertina. Our Victorian forebears knew a thing or two about mechanics that we have forgotten. We don't seem to be able to make quality concertinas in volume anymore. I would love to see a guy like Lachenal around today using modern materials and techniques. Maybe Elon Musk could be persuaded to take up the concertina...

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Interesting question, to me. I am "all ears," unless you consider some minor residual recollection of the dots from singing in church and school choir until about 12 (so 40+ years ago.) I mean, I know the flags going uphill mean higher notes, and down, lower. And somehow, "busier" flags mean shorter notes, but that's about it.

 

I can whistle, hum, sing pretty much on pitch, so the harmonica came easily many years ago, but only "along the row" and straight harp; no blues chromosome to speak of.

 

Now, Anglo and button accordion the same way. I am facing (if not embracing, actually) the notion that my brain and ear are not really interested in cross-row (seems like hard work to me, and I guess I prefer fun to hard work) but still feel sort of guilty. OTOH, I play out about 6 times a month with Irish, Quebecois and Old Timey circles, and get a huge thrill from participating. Also, most of the musicians at these sessions seem to appreciate (at least, uncomplainingly tolerate) my efforts, and it has led to other possible outlets (like church, nursing home sessions, coffee-house, and even a studio session where I played for a CD coming out.

 

I am a high school teacher, about ready to retire, so I will ramp up my practice time (about 5 hours a week, now, plus the sessions) and can't wait to see if I can get better faster.

 

As far as instruments go, I have a nice old Bastari 40 button Anglo in my Irish and singing keys (G/D) and a nice old Bastari 30 b C/G (surprisingly pleasant to play, with a bit of a "honk" and reasonable action, my more experienced colleagues say) but am ready (past due) for an upgrade to Morse or similar, mostly so I can play faster. I also have an absolute treasure of an old Irish/American Baldoni-Bartoli, so I can pretend some day I will sound like Joe Derrane.

 

And finally, I have a CC Elise Hayden, which I love and am getting pretty fluent (at least right hand) with, and like the sound and the amazing logic. If it could only play in A! Somehow, it doesn't clash a bit with the in/out Anglo, box, or harmonica logic. About ten seconds is all it takes when I switch.

 

So, ears only, straight up and down, simple (although faster and faster) tunes from Americana, roots, and various ethnicities/cultures, major keys, singable/whistlable/hummable. I feel like the Grandma Moses of free reeds; late to it, primitive, but finding a niche. THANKS to ALL in this wonderful online community.

 

Regards,

 

David

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I missed out on any kind of formal instruction in music, and very much wish I hadn't. When I was ten I found my father's old mandolin in the garage, consulted an encyclopedia on how to set it up, and started teaching myself tunes.

 

And I've basically been teaching myself tunes ever since. I ditched mandolin early on for guitar, only picking it up again thirty years later. Added a pawnshop five-string banjo around the time I finished high school, and--after falling hard for the Irish music revival in the '70s--whistle and then flute several years after that. Squeezeboxes didn't come into the picture until the '90s.

 

What little I know about theory came late and laboriously; I still have big gaps to fill. I can learn either quickly by ear or slowly by eye. The older I get the more determined I seem to be to move out of my trad comfort zone (witness all those WWI-era songs). My biggest musical regret is my handlessness around keyboards; the musicians I most envy are probably jazz pianists. At this point I suspect I'll be deferring that aspiration until my next lifetime.

 

Bob Michel

Near Philly

Edited by Bob Michel
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What music type am I? I'd say I'm pretty much a plodder.

 

In the music strata I'm a level below the top, those that have music in their bones, who can just feel it and consequently express it in their playing. There are lots of 'em in these forums and a few I know in the posts above. In the level below we second tier ones, well speaking of myself, have to work hard at it. Yes we have the music in us to a degree but for me it takes a fair bit of effort and a lot of practice to work up a song with an accompaniment more complex than a simple melody line or simple chording. It's not uncommon for me to work on a new song for two or three months before I consider I'm ready to perform it. And I practice a lot. In fact due to fairly recent health issues I'm driven, totally besotted with the concertina, and driven in aspiration of perhaps one day squeaking over into the lower part of that upper strata of musos who have it in their bones.

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Have only ever wished to play the Anglo solo, purely for my own amusement. In the first instance I have always relied upon a combination of ear, exploration, trial and error. I have never referred to published tutors. I have never been interested in the ' theory ' of music. ( The only exception to this being having to acquire the ability to read the dots on paper that were an essential requirement of surviving two reluctant years as a military bandsman ). Since then, over a period of thirty seven years, my fingers have inevitably acquired an uncanny ability to translate most of the melodies, chords and harmonies in my head onto the Anglo. ( An aptitude common to all experienced operators of keyboard devices, I would imagine ?). I have never wasted time struggling with tunes that prove incompatible, or inappropriate for the instrument.

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I can pick up familiar tunes by ear and I am slowly expanding my repertoire with lessons from a very experienced player who lives locally.

 

I can decipher music in the same way as I can read simple French: there is an element of conscious translation that makes it laborious and slow.

 

Strangely, although my first love in music was rockabilly, which is essentially a very simple kind of music, I struggle to pick out the simplest and most familiar tunes from that genre by ear on my Anglo keyboard. However, for most of my life I have been a Morris dancer and I can usually find all or most of a new Morris tune fairly easily.

 

I have limited theory - many years ago, I learned to write simple 2 and 3 part harmony, so I know what "ought to be happening". However, I confess to a lack of confidence about which chords are right to accompany any new tune I learn. If there are two or three theoretical options, I will get it right about half the time. I don't think I have a good ear for harmony, but when my teacher shows me a better way, I can immediately hear why it is better.

 

I play almost exclusively solo, and have never really enjoyed the hell for leather pace of a pub session.

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Both my parents played the recorder a little bit when I was young, but I wasn't particularly encouraged by them to learn to play an instrument of any sort. It was only when I was in my early teens, after becoming interested in traditional folk music, that I bought a harmonica and learned to play some simple melodies on it by ear. This became the foundation for my liking for free-reed instruments but I didn't feel confident enough to upgrade to something bigger, like a melodeon or concertina, until I was in my forties. I then plucked up courage and bought an English concertina. When I first started to learn to play the concertina, I knew very little about the theory of music and couldn't sight read, so I began learning tunes by ear, as I had done with the harmonica. Over time, by training my ear, this ability improved considerably, and when I felt confident enough to go to local tunes sessions, I discovered that virtually no one else brought music dots along; everyone seemed to learn and play by ear. Since then, I have taught myself basic music theory and basic sight reading, which has helped me gain a better understanding of western music in general but I still prefer and find it easier to learn by ear. I see the dots of a tune as a starting point from which to make my own interpretation of the tune. My method is to get the dots for a tune I want to learn, score it up using Noteworthy Composer and then I can play it back to myself as many times as I like while learning it by ear but I also have the dots to refer to as a reference if necessary. Most traditional folk music tunes are 32 bars long with often repeated phrases, some of which are common to many tunes and thus not too difficult to memorise, compared to the long scores solo classical pianists have to learn to play without the dots, for example. Like learning any skill, it takes time, patience, determination and regular practice to master an instrument and make progress on it. Twenty years on and I am still learning and always will, as long as I keep playing!

 

Chris

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There are tunes in my head, but I didn't even know they were there. Up early this morning to join the coltswold morris side dance in the May. After the rumpy pumpy of the Border Morris I usually play for it was a delight to join in with the Fieldtown tunes which I must have heard somewhere but two notes in and I was playing like I have known them forever.

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