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Learning by ear vs learning from notation


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I'm coming to Anglo concertina from a few years of Irish traditional music on mandolin and tenor banjo, where I learned almost exclusively by ear.  I have heard from a number of players and instructors that I really respect, that people retain music better if learned by ear when it comes time to play without notation.  Is anyone aware of any research on this?  I can learn from notation, and with enough repetition, I can play without referring to the music, and I do seem to retain it over time as long as I keep the tunes in rotation. At least while I'm still new at the concertina, I spend a lot of time trying to find the notes, made more complicated by the push or pull factor...…time that could be spent playing from notation and getting the tune sorted.  When learning by ear, I spend a lot of time listening to the tune before trying to play it.  Then I use looping software, which is very helpful.  So I can do this either way, but I'm interested in the most efficient, or maybe effective, way to learn for long-term retention.  I appreciate advise from personal experience, and I would also be interested in any academic research along these lines.

 

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The reason I learnt to play by ear was that I started playing the concertina to play Morris Dancing music and realised that the music in a strong wind outside a pub would blow away. I have never regretted my decision, or the freedom to be able to play any style that comes into my head

Al

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This is a fascinating topic.  I do not know if I have the answer, as I believe retention of knowledge versus skills learned by 'wrote'.. could be different for each individual.  Example ( from my own family background).. I had a great aunt who, apparently, could not read music, but could hear a tune only once, and play it perfectly thereafter. My own mother, could not, by her own admission, read music, but did best she could.

Myself, I can keep a tune inside my mind, maybe a favourite recording, one so clearly, from LP disc, years ago since I had it, that I can recall the clicks or jumps on it. And I found my way into reading sheet music too. When writing my own melodies..there again, another process comes in in retaining the tune inside your head, and then putting it down on paper ( in my case)!

I believe that the best guide to learning is enjoyment of the process itself, because if one sees  it as a burden to learn, then instantly a psychological barrier is created, and the mind can close development in developing a new found skill.

My own late father ( a very academic and clever charge nurse whom dealt with the mind in his profession ) would have found the debate very interesting.

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I agree with Alan and would add that playing by ear ( and with dancers ) leads to a direct and smooth brain/body connection.  About 4 years in I'm beginning to be able to play anything that comes into my head at a reasonable speed including improvisation.  I think using the dots as an aid and not a crutch is helpful though.

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3 hours ago, SIMON GABRIELOW said:

 I do not know if I have the answer, as I believe retention of knowledge versus skills learned by 'wrote'..

 

They sound the same, but I believe the word here with this meaning is 'rote', from the same root as 'rota'.

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9 hours ago, Parker135 said:

I appreciate advise from personal experience, and I would also be interested in any academic research along these lines.

 

I can’t give you any academic research (except from the “School of Hard Knocks”), but you may find my personal experience interesting.

 

I play several instruments. My first was the cello, at a young age, and I learned to read music quite proficiently (more than once I have heard someone say “You read like the wind” when sight-reading chamber music). Later in life (but still decades ago), I started picking up “folkie” instruments (banjo, hammered dulcimer, penny whistle) and learned to play them by ear (and with absolutely no fluency reading music on them). Many of the people I played them with were fiddlers, and many of those were actually violinists who could not play by ear (I started hearing the expression, “paper-trained”). I was tempted to be critical of these violinists who couldn’t play “off book” until it occurred to me that “I can’t do that on the cello, either.” So I made an attempt to learn, both to play the cello by ear and to play from music on the others, with varying degrees of success.

 

By the time I started on the concertina (much later than all the other instruments mentioned, but now more than 30 years ago), I recognized the importance  of both approaches and made sure that I could tackle them both, successfully, I might add. But it really is two different mind sets, two different skill sets.

 

BTW, once I found the concertina, all the other folkie instruments (with the exception of the recorder) went on the back burner. The concertina was what I had been looking for all along.

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2 hours ago, David Barnert said:

 

I can’t give you any academic research (except from the “School of Hard Knocks”), but you may find my personal experience interesting.

 

I play several instruments. My first was the cello, at a young age, and I learned to read music quite proficiently (more than once I have heard someone say “You read like the wind” when sight-reading chamber music). Later in life (but still decades ago), I started picking up “folkie” instruments (banjo, hammered dulcimer, penny whistle) and learned to play them by ear (and with absolutely no fluency reading music on them). Many of the people I played them with were fiddlers, and many of those were actually violinists who could not play by ear (I started hearing the expression, “paper-trained”). I was tempted to be critical of these violinists who couldn’t play “off book” until it occurred to me that “I can’t do that on the cello, either.” So I made an attempt to learn, both to play the cello by ear and to play from music on the others, with varying degrees of success.

 

By the time I started on the concertina (much later than all the other instruments mentioned, but now more than 30 years ago), I recognized the importance  of both approaches and made sure that I could tackle them both, successfully, I might add. But it really is two different mind sets, two different skill sets.

 

BTW, once I found the concertina, all the other folkie instruments (with the exception of the recorder) went on the back burner. The concertina was what I had been looking for all along.

More and more, I'm thinking a combination of the two methods makes sense, especially while I'm still working on muscle memory on the concertina.  When learning a tune by ear on the mandolin or tenor banjo, I can pretty well go from hearing the note to fretting it. I don't have that yet on the concertina, which I think will take some time as a result of the less linear layout and push/pull factor.  Thanks for your reply and for those of the others.  Very interesting.

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Just to add my two cents - I can whistle any tune by ear, but I can hardly whistle from notation. I can play from notation, but I can hardly play by ear. And one other thing - "playing from notation" has two completely separate modes in my case. If I learn to play by following notation in real time/focussing on it, I can't play that tune without notation. But If I only decipher phrases and then the entire learning process is notation-free, I can play it from memory, but I can't follow notation.

Now, a fact that some may find interesting. I'm an epileptic, and as such I'm anticonvulsants, but on different in different periods of my life. Since I picked up concertina, I've been on 5 different ones. On each one, my musical sense and ability to play music is vastly different in character and extent. The two border cases are pretty much opposites - on one medication I have absolute musical memory and I hear structure, but playing the tune is mechanical and I can not resume from mid phrase after mistake, I must start from the beginning. I can also play in long sessions, as mistakes do not accumulate. On the other one though, I don't hear structure, but my playing is deeply expressive and emotional, I can continue after a mistake, but each mistake makes me more and more angry and at some point I can't play a single, coherent phrase anymore and I must stop the session.

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On 4/20/2022 at 8:32 AM, Alan Day said:

The reason I learnt to play by ear was that I started playing the concertina to play Morris Dancing music and realised that the music in a strong wind outside a pub would blow away. I have never regretted my decision, or the freedom to be able to play any style that comes into my head

Al

I think this is a very practical reason; and quite amusing!  Maybe you could have invested in a paperweight or paper clip? Then how different things could have been then? [music may not have blown away]?😊

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I can barely read music, and certainly can't sight-read, but sometimes use the dots to give me a starting place for a complicated tune that I don't know well.  Especially if it's in an unusual key or contains accidentals.  However, with the Anglo one often has several choices of where to find the note that's written down, and one's choice will greatly effect ease of play, character of the tune, etc.

I always end up doing a lot of experimentation to find the best combination of button choice and push/pull after I've glanced at the dots. 

Edited by Bill N
clarification
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On 4/20/2022 at 3:32 AM, Alan Day said:

The reason I learnt to play by ear was that I started playing the concertina to play Morris Dancing music and realised that the music in a strong wind outside a pub would blow away. I have never regretted my decision, or the freedom to be able to play any style that comes into my head

Al

Alan made a series of recordings on how he teaches folks to play by ear, you can download a copy of these recordings from here.

 

David Barnert has transcribed these recordings to standard notation and these scores are included in the download.

 

Edited by Don Taylor
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I sing bass with a mixed professional and volunteer church choir. I have no trouble sight reading standard musical notation with the professionals. 

 

I play concertina, melodeon and mandolin by ear, but I often learn a piece by singing the melody to myself several times from musical notation and then setting the music aside and working out the melody with "my" chord progressions on the instruments. 

Edited by Doug Anderson
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If you play music for Morris, or even Country dance music it is not necessarily strict tempo as it is for Ballroom Dancing. Many players for Morris /Country Dancing will tell you that it is important to watch the dancers whilst you are playing. Old Spot Morris Men for example dance with huge leaps and to accommodate that the musicians play the music slower than other sides. By exaggerating certain notes it is possible to create lift in your playing to coincide with the dancer leaping into the air. This can only be done if the musician is watching the dancers.

Many years ago I played base drum in the Boys Brigade and made an interesting observation when asked to speed up as we were late for the Church Service. When the music is speeded up the marchers take smaller steps. This is the case for Country Dancers who reduce the step length if the music is too fast. This is easily demonstrated by watching French Dancers doing Waltzes ,where the steps are so tiny as to be almost non existent. 

Al

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To circle back to my original question, I'm not not getting the impression from the folks here that if the intention is to play by ear, that one retains the tune in memory better if learned by ear vs learned off notation.  I do understand the importance of listening enough to be able to lilt or hum the tune before picking up an instrument, but no-one seems to be saying that I'm doing myself a disservice by using notation when it helps to learn the tune.

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In my own experience tunes learned by ear 'stick' better than the ones I picked up from notation. But I do realise the ones learned by ear have often  been embedded, assimilated or whatever you want to call it for some time before actually taking them up myself. Similarly Isometimes  lift a tune I from  a written collection and find  immediarely have it, only to find I have been listening to it for some time on recordings without realising it.

 

My experience with (Irish) traditional musicians who only learn by ear suggest the way they retain tunes is different from those who learn from notation: ear learners tend to appraoch a tune as a structure, singling out the important notes and 'hanging' the phrases off them, filling the gaps as it were  while sight learners often tend to see a string of notes they have to memorise.

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45 minutes ago, Parker135 said:

I do understand the importance of listening enough to be able to lilt or hum the tune before picking up an instrument, but no-one seems to be saying that I'm doing myself a disservice by using notation when it helps to learn the tune.

 

If I learn a tune by ear, I don’t consider it “mine” until I’ve seen the notation and made sure I heard it correctly, didn’t leave anything out, etc. It’s one thing to learn a tune on the fly at a session and pay along, another to know that you know a standard version.

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18 minutes ago, David Barnert said:

 

If I learn a tune by ear, I don’t consider it “mine” until I’ve seen the notation and made sure I heard it correctly, didn’t leave anything out, etc. It’s one thing to learn a tune on the fly at a session and pay along, another to know that you know a standard version.

I've definitely had that happen, playing mandolin in a local session.  I've picked up tunes there that I play along with, but I certainly wouldn't say I really know the tune outside the session.

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