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Learning by ear vs learning from notation


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28 minutes ago, Peter Laban said:

 

 

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.

That's how I do it.  The filling in of the gaps is the context and/or "flavor" I wish to impart.  I can't imagine a written score conveying the subtleties and embedded variations in a Quebecois reel for example.

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Learning by ear and playing by ear require some different skills. Performing a tune learned by ear might be better called playing from memory. Playing by ear is more a case of being able to play a tune (alone or with others) that you have not learned/practiced in advance. One way to get better at that skill is to (slowly and patiently) practice playing all the various intervals in a key up and down and making those actions second nature for your ears and fingers.

 

Playing by ear is a lot like talking—you want to hear certain sounds and you do whatever you need to do to make those sounds (choosing the words, whispering, shouting, emphasizing certain words, etc.). You can do that automatically and instantaneously while talking because you have spent years and years trying your hardest to successfully progress from the "goo, goo, ma, ma stage" to the "dad, I need to borrow the car stage."

 

Obviously, learning to play as well as you can talk is much, much easier said than done. Luckily, there are only 12 notes and relationships you need to learn and practice. And only 7-ish in simple music.

 

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3 hours ago, David Barnert said:

So where does improvisation in performance fit in?

I suppose that anything improvised during a performance could be called playing by ear. But there is some grey area. For example, I am learning an old song (by ear). I have "composed" variations for some of the measures (again by ear) that I mix and match as I play the repeats. Since it is a little different each time, you could say that I am improvising and playing by ear. But I have practiced the variations in advance. So am I improvising or playing from memory? I think it is a little bit of both.  

Edited by Jim2010
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I don't think you would ever regret knowing how to read music. But the notation only tells you a fraction of the story about how a tune could be played. There is so much more to the rhythm and dynamics (especially with a bellowed instrument) that you will never learn from notation.

 

When I'm learning a new tune, I will usually start with notation if available, but with the understanding that it is just the skeleton of the tune. Then I will listen very closely to a favorite recording of the tune. And for any given part of the tune, I might imitate that aspect of the recording or experiment with my own ideas. By the time I have practiced a tune enough to say I have learned it, I will have memorized it and won't need the sheet music anymore.

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To add to this very chatty topic; as someone who does a bit of both, writing music, and reading to a degree as well.. My outsider approach is maybe different to most; as I enjoy improvising [without any music in front of me] and find it easy.  Yet also I can create new melodies which I then write down [on paper with pen] frequently too. There always seems to be something to put down; a new melody unheard even in my previous memory, until I stand there and create it.  Then once it is there [if on paper] as I work by hand.. I may go back to it weeks later and hopefully be surprised or maybe satisfied with the tune created!  Like meeting up with an old friend again!  

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Simon , I agree with what you're saying.  Improvisation leads to composition and the realization that music isn't about imposing one's will upon an instrument.  We have limits as they do.  A concertina will tell you what it wants to play.  Last week my F above middle C stuck open both directions and all of a sudden I/we are playing these hauntingly beautiful melodies !

 

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Father Christmas bought me a concertina when I was quite young but he neglected to include any instructions, so, in a process that must have been quite painful to hear, I had to find the tunes for myself. That is the only instrument I learned that way. I have played many instruments since, but they have all been from notation. The concertina was the only instrument I played, where I could just hear or think of a tune and play it right off. Then I got married, my wife hated the concertina, she prefered my harp, so my squeezebox had to go. Now 60 years later, she has gone and I am getting a new instrument, somewhat better than my original. I shall be approaching it both ways, just sitting, conceiving and playing, as well as working through written tunes.

I am new here by the way, so, hi to all and much love from me <3

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Welcome to concertina.net from me, at least.. I hope you will enjoy getting back to playing your own concertina, and share that experience with others here? I know I have found great to share that similar interest with others ( since I joined in December 2021..) So carry on playing!

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There's a guy called Mark Morley-Fletcher (Play in the Zone) who does a lot of videos (YouTube) on this sort of stuff. I also get emails from him. Here's an extract from one on learning to play from memory:

 

Most of the approaches that have been scientifically verified to improve learning actually reduce performance in the short-term. They only start to deliver the goods over periods of days and weeks 

So if you judge progress by whether your ability to play from memory improves during a practice session, then you’re holding yourself back.

Don’t feel bad about this! It’s just part of being human.

A study by Robert Bjork and Nate Kornell had students try two different practice strategies – one designed for short-term results, and the other optimised for long-term progress.

Measurements confirmed that the students actually did better with the long-term strategy. But 80% of them (incorrectly) rated it as feeling less effective.

 

Elsewhere he states (if my memory serves me correctly) that the very process of learning by ear helps to embed the music better in your brain.

 

LJ

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Of course, the faster you have to play, basically the more intuitive the playing has to become; there's no time to think at the usual level. Yet when learning, on the other hand, you can take passage slowly firstly, and become more familiar with the notes, accidentals, etc.. used. So both approaches are necessary in the long term.

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  • 2 months later...

The opening question of this thread is interesting.  Is it easier to learn, and does it remain in the memory longer, if you learn by ear, or learn from the dots?  The original poster referred specifically to Anglo, and I think this is important when considering a response.

 

Learning by ear can mean a range of things.  Some lucky few can hear an arrangement once or twice and reproduce it faithfully without apparent effort.  At the other end of the spectrum are those who have to hear each phrase played in isolation, several times, and copy it repeatedly until it enters the muscle memory.

 

Learning from the dots can also cover a range of levels of ability.  Some people can sight read in multiple parts; others can slowly decipher a simple melody in a familiar key, and take many repetitions to learn the tune.

 

Specifically for the Anglo, I suspect that learning by ear and by trial and error is the default option for most of us.  There are many reasons for this:

 

The Anglo is often played as a transposing instrument.  I own CG and GD concertinas.  If I want to play the same tune in a different key, I can swap instruments and retain the fingering.  If I find a piece of music in F major, I will probably learn it in one of the two home keys of my instrument.  This means that I have never developed an absolute one-to-one link between notes on the stave, and keys on the instrument, or sounds in my ear.  A violinist would not have this problem.

 

The Anglo offers multiple fingering options.  On a 20 button, almost every note can be found twice.  On a 30 button, some notes appear three times.  The dots may tell me what note to play, but they won’t tell me which button to press, or which bellows direction is better.  Only my ear, and experience will tell me that.  An English concertina player would probably not have this problem.

 

Even specialised Anglo notation is only one person’s solution to a problem.  If I play in G major on my 30 button GD, or on my 30 button CG, or on a 20 button GD, I will need at least 2 and possibly 3 different sets of fingering for the same tune.  A guitarist with 2 instruments in different tunings might understand this problem!

 

Many (but not all) Anglo players play mainly folk and traditional tunes.  Traditional tunes often have numerous local variants.  If you are lucky, it may only be a matter of decoration or emphasis, but sometimes there are harmonic differences which make two versions incompatible.  Many times, I have learned a tune off the Session dot org only to find that the musicians I know play a different dialect of the same tune.

 

Another issue with learning folk tunes from sheet music is that every arrangement is only one arranger’s opinion.  If they have bothered to include chords at all, these will vary depending on their preferred instrument and their level of technical understanding – and even how good they are with notation.

 

The “right” chords for someone used to crunching out tunes on a DG melodeon may not be the same “right chords” for a piano accordionist.   Someone who is new to transcribing tunes may reduce everything to the “three chord trick” whereas another person with a little too much enthusiasm may include all sorts of clever chord progressions that would never work in a session, and may even be objectively wrong.

 

Of course, for someone who plays only the melody, and sticks faithfully to one of the professionally taught “proprietary” approaches to fingering, some of these considerations may not apply.  I have never played in that style, so I cannot say.

 

Finally, if you play from the dots, you are likely to play exactly what the dots say.  If you play from memory, I feel that it is easier to be more spontaneous about decorations, the style of accompaniment, and variations in the melody line.

 

So, I am convinced that learning tunes for Anglo by relying on sheet music is full of pitfalls.  That does not mean that learning by ear is the obvious alternative.

 

I have never been able to learn a tune by ear “on the fly” in a session.  People tend to play faster than I can listen, they often streamline the tricky bits, they change to the next tune before I have picked up this one, and I am often struggling to hear my Anglo over the general clamour.

 

If I try to learn a tune from a recording, I have to play the recording several times, and then learn the tune phrase by phrase, working out the best fingering as I go.  It is a slow process, and might be exaggerating to dignify it with the description of “learning by ear”.

 

What I tend to do is find a tune that I have hear enough times to have an idea how it goes, then find the dots.  If there are several versions, I usually have enough memory of the tune to work out which setting is the most like the one I am aiming for.

 

I then use the dots while I’m learning the tune.  I work out the best fingering for each phrase until I’m confident playing the tune from memory.  Then I start adding the accompaniment.  Sometimes as I’m working out the accompaniment, I find that I need to change the fingering of the melody.  There is seldom a final finished product, because when I have been playing a tune for months or years, I will try different ways of playing the accompaniment, usually sticking to the same chords, but breaking them up in different ways.

 

If I have not played a tune for a few weeks or months, I may need to revert to the dots to remind myself how it goes.  Sometimes I surprise myself when a tune that I had forgotten existed comes out of the box half way through a practice session.

 

So on my method, the dots are a starting point, but the ear is what turns it from a melody to an arrangement.

 

Back to the original question, I feel that if you rely on the dots, the tune will never embed deeply in your memory.  Only familiarity and repetition will do that.  The dots can help but they should not dominate.  There is a huge difference between glancing down occasionally to check what comes next, and reading a tune note by note as you play it.

 

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A method I find useful for learning a tune "on the Fly" is to play the melody as an outgrowth of the chord or harmonic structure.  I started doing this from a sense of panic when stepping in on fiddle with a bluegrass band.  At the onset of an unfamiliar tune I would (and still do) play a soft 2 note chug or pulse on the back beat (or "pah").  I try to keep it just below the range of notes in the melody and gradually invade until I'm confidant I can blast the banjo player off the stage, then let 'er rip!  A parallel might be moving from a flat pick bass/brush guitar accompaniment to a lead.  When I become frustrated with lack of progress with melodies on concertina I shift to a similar mode using 2 or 3 fingers (flexible 3 chord trick) to root the tune.  This produces a different fingering approach to any tune for a pleasing effect....🙂

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I don't think there is a simple answer to this, since it depends on each individual's approach to learning.  It also depends on what you mean by 'learning' a tune, especially when playing from dots.  Is your ultimate aim to put the music aside, or is it to be able to play fluently and with expression while reading from music?   For me, I don't feel I've learned a tune until I am able to focus on bringing some life to the tune, rather than on what notes to play and how to play them.

 

Learning from the music has the advantage that it tells you what notes should be played, but it doesn't tell you everything. An anglo is not like a piano, a note may appear in several places on the keyboard and there may be multiple ways to play a phrase, and you will still have to work out for yourself which is best.  It may be hard to break away from reliance on having the music in front of you.

 

Learning by ear may take longer to work out what the notes are, but the process of trial and error together with the need for focussed listening may help to consolidate your mental map of the tune - if it doesn't leave you totally confused.  If your aim is to play without music in front of you, learning by ear puts you ahead. However it can be hard to shake off the influence of the original source and make the tune your own.

 

Both have their place, but which works best for me many not be what works for you.

 

 

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18 hours ago, hjcjones said:

Learning by ear may take longer to work out what the notes are, but the process of trial and error together with the need for focussed listening may help to consolidate your mental map of the tune ...

 

 

"Mental map of the tune."  Yes, I like that description.

 

When I learn a tune, it starts off as a series of shapes on the keyboard, very much a "map" with a "route through the maze".    This is a development of habit I learned in my early days on harmonica when I had no background at all in folk music, and when each tune I learned in my small repertoire was "unique".

 

I really know a tune on my Anglo (I am confident with the sound map, rather than just the buttons map) only when I can spontaneously deviate from one set of fingering or chords because it sounds better in the moment.

 

The first time that happened to me was the first time I felt like a "real musician" and I nearly burst into tears.

 

Another sure sign that I am really confident with a tune is when I can translate it confidently to the 20 button, adjusting "on the fly" for the absence of the "bonus row".

 

And another sure sign is when I can transpose it on the fly from one of the home keys to the other, complete with an interesting accompaniment.

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On 7/25/2022 at 11:25 AM, wunks said:

A method I find useful for learning a tune "on the Fly" is to play the melody as an outgrowth of the chord or harmonic structure.  I started doing this from a sense of panic when stepping in on fiddle with a bluegrass band.  At the onset of an unfamiliar tune I would (and still do) play a soft 2 note chug or pulse on the back beat (or "pah").  I try to keep it just below the range of notes in the melody and gradually invade until I'm confidant I can blast the banjo player off the stage, then let 'er rip!  A parallel might be moving from a flat pick bass/brush guitar accompaniment to a lead.  When I become frustrated with lack of progress with melodies on concertina I shift to a similar mode using 2 or 3 fingers (flexible 3 chord trick) to root the tune.  This produces a different fingering approach to any tune for a pleasing effect....🙂

 

Why only on the off beats?

 

 

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