Learning by Ear

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Learning by listening

When learning to play an instrument, many begin by reading music. This frequently develops into the idea that the “offical version”” of a tune is the one printed on the pages of books, and when people play, they are doing their best to approximate the music on the page. Any variations are either accidents or embellishments. That may be true of some kinds of music, but it is definitely not true in Irish traditional music. The true versions of the tunes only exist in the oral or auditory tradition, and the notes on the page are the approximation.

Written music can help with the order of the notes, but the “feel” or swing only comes in listening and playing. It is vitally important it is to listen to the tunes, and to play along with other musicians or recordings. If it helps to read the music to learn the order of the notes, that is fine, but there is no substitute for listening to the tunes under the fingers of players who have learned the tunes by using their ears. This music is an oral tradition, and the only way to be a part of that tradition is to use your ears.

We reckon that the best way to learn this music is by ear – listen to the tune until you can hum or lilt it and then start playing it. A method that works for many players is to play a recording of the tune slowly, over and over, and keep trying to play along with more and more of it. Once you can play a tune slowly, playing it fast is much easier.

If you have a patient teacher who will sit with you and teach you tunes, that’s great, but it’s not an option for many of us. The next best option is to listen to recordings and try to learn that way. Learning tunes by ear from recordings is much easier when the tunes are played more slowly and by playing tricky sections over and over again in a loop while you play along. We’ve designed the web pages to allow you to set the speed as slow as 50% of the “session speed”, and to play all or part of it in an endless loop. We hope that you find that useful.

What about learning tunes by reading the music?

We’ve attempted to provide “dots” for the tunes as well as recordings, but be aware that these may/will not match the recordings exactly, although they probably match some version of the tune played somewhere at some time. When there is a conflict between the dots, and what you hear, go with what you hear. If in doubt, slow the tune down and listen!

When you’re in a session, the tunes change fast, and frequently 4 or 5 tunes are played in a row. It’s almost impossible to find the name of the tune and turn to the right page in your music when the next tune starts. Also, when you learn tunes by reading, the triggers to remember the tunes are the notes on the page. When you learn tunes by ear, the triggers are hearing the first few notes. That’s what happens in session playing, you hear the first few notes and you recall the tune.

Playing by ear is hard at first, especially for people who have become proficient at playing by reading music. It gets much easier with practice, and it is a skill worth learning.

Accompaniment in the Irish Session

We’ve got some notes about Accompaniment in the Irish Session that you might find useful.

Learning from your own music

You will probably have recordings of your own that you’d like to do this with and there are options for slowing down other recordings you have on your computer, tablet or phone.

You can can use our Play Local Audio page to slow down a number of audio and video formats and play parts of them in a loop. If you’ve used the audio player on this site you’ll find a familiar interface.

Want to learn a tune from YouTube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp…?

There are features built into the YouTube player that allow you to slow down the recording and also to play the complete recording in a loop.

You can use tools like the excellent YouTube to MP3 Converter to extract the audio from YouTube and Facebook videos and store MP3 files locally and then you can use our Play Local Audio page.

You can also use a very nice tool called LoopTube for YouTube videos. Here’s an example:


Other software

The company that makes a package called Transcribe! have produced a comprehensive list of modestly priced packages which work better at really slow speeds (50% or slower) and also have a number of other useful options such as picking out sections to loop and saving parts of a file for later.

You can try some of the packages for free for a limited period before you buy.

Members of the Wellington Slow session have experience with these packages:

If anyone else uses a different package and you’re happy to answer questions about it, let us know.