#16 -Learning Irish Flute Tunes By Ear

Hi Everybody!

Here are some of my thoughts on how to learn tunes by ear.

To me, there are a few different aspects involved in learning a tune by ear. First, tone recognition. Then follows rhythm recognition and the tune itself.

Tone Recognition:
This is the ability to tell that the note you hear is a G note or a D note or an F# note, and being able to hear an A note played on a fiddle or concertina and still recognize it as an A note you play on the flute.

This is the most basic and essential requirement for learning tunes by ear. Spend time training yourself on your own flute to hear the difference between the notes. You can also play notes into a tape recorder and play them back to help recognize notes as they're being played. Listening to slower tunes (airs and waltzes) is a good place to start.

Rhythm Recognition:
This simply means being able to tell if the tune is counted in 2 (2/4 or
4/4) or counted in three (3/4, 6/8, or 9/8).

The Tune Itself:
This is the ability to listen to an unknown group of notes, tell what time signature they're in, figure out what key they're in, and begin to hear and remember the melody of the tune itself.

These are all attainable skills through a bit of dedicated ear training.
First try to recognize the predominant note in a particular tune. For example, hearing a G note played repetitively is a good indicator that the tune is in G major. If it's in G major, you know it has C naturals. Listen for the last note at the end of a line. In many cases, this is also a good indicator of the tune's key.

Try to feel the rhythm of the tune itself. Learn to tell the difference between jigs and reels as well as hornpipes and marches. If you're having trouble feeling the beat, look around you at the various musicians. Pick out the one you think is playing the best and watch them for any obvious physical manifestations regarding the beat. Foot tapping, head bobbing, the shoulder sway, etc. Each twitch has its own story...but that's another lesson.

Next, try to recognize the highest note in the tune and the lowest note. With time and practice, you will know the key, the meter, and the range of the particular tune.

As your listening skills develop, you'll also notice a few things about how tunes are written (remembering that most tunes are written in 8 measure lines that repeat). Many older tunes use short, four measure phrases that repeat themselves. In these tunes, there's less tune to remember. More recent compositions tend to use a continuous flow of notes. You will find that some tunes are difficult while others fit your flute quite nicely. That's by there are so many tunes to choose from...

I find that good tunes, like good conversations, have higher points and lower points with passing thoughts forming the connections. This is also how I hear tunes. I hear low notes going to high notes, being joined together by the passing notes in-between. Many flute-friendly tunes move note to note while many fiddle tunes move in intervals. Learn to hear the difference between the two by practicing them on your own flute enough to be able to recognize one from the other.

Now that you have mastered the basics skills needed to learn tunes by ear, here comes the hard part. You have to learn how to relax, let these new notes come into your ears, and flow right to your hands. Remove your conscious thought as much as possible from the process. I know it sounds kind of Zen, but here's my reasoning.

While trying to learn Swiss German (Basel Deutsche), I found that if you stop to mentally translate the words you're hearing...you're screwed. You have to remain "in" the language that you're speaking. It's the same with the tunes. If you stop to intellectualize the notes, then you've removed yourself from the flow of the rest of the tune.

In a session, many people close their eyes when trying to learn a tune by ear. The thought here is that by removing the sense of vision, the sense of hearing is heightened. I prefer to use vision as an advantage by looking at the hands of the player as the tune is played. I find that also keeps me more connected to the tune I'm learning. In time, you will also be able to recognize the notes and see the rhythm that people play on other instruments. Obviously, these techniques work best when there are other musicians in the room with you at the time. I don't mean to infer that you should stare blankly at the CD player while at home...

And don't limit yourself to just trying to play trad tunes by ear. Try to figure out your favorite tunes on the radio or other sources of music. It's all about being able to recognize and recreate tones at will. "Don't worry about the tunes you don't know. You have time to learn them." This was told to me by my dear old friend, Phil Moloughney (RIP) years ago in his old cottage in Golden, Co. Tipperary.

He was right.