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August 2007 · Bimonthly

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Learning By Ear Vs. By Reading Music or Tab

by Carolyn Osborne

You may be wondering what the best way of learning is, whether by ear or by music/tab. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages. If you are the type of person who reads the instructions before putting something together, you might enjoy learning by printed music or tablature. If you just sort of figure out how to put things together for yourself as a general rule and you don't enjoy reading books or magazines, learning by ear might be the best choice for you. If you are aware of the advantages and disadvantages of both ways, then you can maximize your learning.

Learning by ear

Since music is something we listen to, learning by ear is the most natural way to go about picking it up. But when we say "learning by ear," we are actually missing half of how we can learn "by ear," that is, without reading music. We also learn by eye-by watching better musicians. It's one thing to listen to a CD and to figure out the notes being played on a fiddle. It's quite another to watch a video of a fiddle player-how they bow or finger the notes. So, if you have decided to learn by ear, you also need to find a good player (in person or on video) to watch.

Secondly, the major disadvantage of learning by ear used to be that you would have to learn at full speed if you were using recordings. In the past you would slow the recordings down by playing a 33 RPM record at 16 RPM but the pitch would also change drastically. However, now there is technology that can help. You can buy a CD player that slows down CD's but keeps them at standard pitch or you can get computer software that does the same. Windows media player will slow CD's down without changing pitch; the Amazing Slow Downer will not only slow music down but it allows you to change the pitch, for instance, when the recording is clearly not in standard tuning.

One thing that helps learning by ear is getting to know music theory. If you know what key a piece is in, can hear the chord changes, and know where those chords are on your fiddle, you will find learning by ear much easier. Music theory information cuts down on the guessing you might have to do about certain notes.

The advantage to learning by ear is that you learn to listen very carefully and that is a good thing. The more carefully you listen, the better musician you will be. So, those who learn by ear might be a step ahead on that count.

Learning by notes/tablature

The major advantage of learning by notes or tab is that if the transcription is good, you are guaranteed to be playing the exact same notes that Bob Wills (or whoever) played-you don't have to worry about whether your ear is good enough or not. This is a good way to build up a foundation of technique. Also, if you are learning by note, you can also learn exercises that help to build your technique. Finally, when you learn by note, you can work on something at a pace you can handle-you are not so tempted to play faster than you really can.

That said, there are some significant disadvantages to playing by note. The first is that you can fall into the trap of thinking that you don't have to listen-it's all there written out by note. That's not true. Pitch and rhythm can be notated but not drive and feel. If you want to be a good player, you have to learn to listen very carefully.

Secondly, what you play by note is only as good as the transcriber wrote down. Fiddle books are notoriously bad for this-they often contain simplifications of fiddle tunes. If you listen to a good fiddle player, you will notice that he or she will play all sorts of "extra" notes and that each time the tune is played, it is different. If you were a transcriber, what would you do? You wouldn't want to write it down 20 different ways. So you would choose what is common to all versions of the tune and leave out the "extras." This is another reason you need to listen and to pick up by ear what the performers are actually doing. Not that you have to do it exactly that way, but you need to know what the possibilities are beyond what is printed on the page.

Finally, there comes a time when you have to let the notes go, when you have to learn to improvise. You have to be able to figure out a fiddle break without a transcription and you have to do the backup work of any instrument. If you decide to learn by printed note, then be sure in the back of your mind you plan to learn some things by ear after you have the basic technique in hand.

Printed music vs. ears

Wonderful musicians have learned both ways. If you are thoughtful about your playing, neither of these methods will hold you back. Choose what works best for you.

About the Author

Carolyn Osborne is the co-director of the Gahanna-Lincoln High School fiddlers, Gahanna, Ohio. She teaches in the Dept. of Education at Capital University.

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