As you well know, Traditional Irish Music is an aural tradition that has long been passed on from each generation to the next by ear. If you go to any Irish music session you’ll see musicians playing together with not a sheet of music in sight.
Trad musicians commonly learn tunes by listening to a piece played several times over, and simply repeating the melody as they hear it. Of course this skill takes time to develop, and it helps if you’ve been immersed in the tradition for some time. As a result, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked by newcomers to the world of Irish folk music is “how am I supposed to memorise all these tunes?”.
While there’s no simple answer, there are a few tried and tested techniques that I’d like to share with you today. So if you want to master the art of playing from memory, and ultimately, playing by ear, keep reading to learn the tricks of the trade.
Rule #1: Repetition is Redundant
A controversial statement indeed, but allow me to explain…
You’ve probably found up until now that if you asked a more seasoned musicians for advice on how to quickly and easily memorise a tune that you were told to simply “play through it a few times”. Sadly this technique doesn’t work for everyone. After all, if it was that easy no one would be facing any challenges in accomplishing this task!
One important thing to remember when you’re practising is that change is good. Breaking patterns is good for the learning process.
What do I mean in this context? Here’s an example of an exercise that I’ve found to be incredibly helpful that’s suitable for all musicians:
- Take a small section of the tune, no more than 4 bars, and play the melody as notated.
- Replay the melody, ignoring the given rhythm and instead applying a new rhythmic pattern of long – short – long – short. Don’t worry about where the pitches are falling according to the original melody and rhythm – I promise there’s a method to my madness.
- Replay the section, alternating our new rhythm pattern to short – long – short – long (yes, there’s a difference).
- Return to the original rhythm and play the tune as notated.
By making these small changes along the way we’re giving our brain new points of interest and forcing it to take note of different elements of the melody. Our fingers are still developing that all important muscle memory but our brains are engaging in a totally new way. Most importantly, we’re not becoming bored by simple repetition.
It’s also helpful to practise at different tempos – fast, slow, a more moderate pace – with and without a metronome.
Rule #2: Understanding the Melody
By developing an understanding of the melody – its shape, intent and unique phrasing as well as the flow and direction of the tune, you will achieve far more than simply playing the notes on the page.
How do you develop this understanding? By shaking things up a little. This tried and tested exercise is perfect for musicians of any age or ability:
Building Blocks: Shaping The Melody
- Play through the melody, slowly as written/notated (with a metronome is best practice).
- Play through the tune again but this time play only the first note of each bar. Hold this first note for the duration of the bar (for example if you’re playing a jig, we will hold the first note of the bar for 6 beats) and play through the entire tune using this method.
- Return to the beginning, this time adding in the note which occurs on the second strong beat of the bar.
In a jig this will be the first note of the second grouping of three notes. In a reel this will be the first note of the second grouping of four notes. Check out my handy diagrams below for clarification.
JIG – MELODIC BUILDING BLOCKS EXERCISE – THE KESH
REEL – MELODIC BUILDING BLOCKS EXERCISE – THE RED HAIRED LASS
- Record yourself playing Step 2 or 3. Return to the beginning of the tune and play the melody alongside your recorded sustained notes. This will help your brain to identify the important notes within the tune, piecing together the building blocks that make up the melody, and identifying its shape and direction. It also helps your brain to take note of any “unusual” notes that occur within a phrase, such as an unexpected accidental.
Rule #3: The Sound of Silence
Any music teacher worth their salt will stress the importance of listening to as much music as possible as a student. One of the most important benefits to this seemingly simple task is developing an inner voice – or the ability to hear the music in your head.
“Silent practice” is an incredibly useful way of developing muscle memory in your fingers while developing this internal aural skill. So how do you do it? If you play the accordion or concertina you can hold down the air button while you press the keys – holding the air button down means the notes won’t sound. For fiddle or string players, you can fret the notes on the fingerboard without bowing or strumming, while flute and whistle players can simply cover the toneholes without blowing into the instrument.
While you practice silently, it’s important that you can hear the notes in your mind – singing along silently as you play.
This brings me to my next tip…
Rule #4: Sing Your Heart Out
Whatever your instrument of choice may be, and whether you consider yourself a singer or not, singing out loud is an incredibly useful tool when it comes to memorising tunes.
If you can hum, sing, whistle or lilt a tune from start to finish you’re already well on your way to having memorised the full piece. So once you’ve finished your silent practice, it’s time to let that voice of yours ring out and sing along as you play through the notes. This will help you to internalise the melody.
Rule #5: Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
If you want to beat the boredom of repetition then slogging through a whole tune in one go can be counterintuitive. Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to memorise a whole tune in one go. Work on small sections at a time, or even focus on the trickier phrases first.
You can even break your learning up into bitesize pieces throughout the day if you’d prefer – short, focused practice sessions are much more productive than long, meandering ones where you lose focus halfway through. You want your brain to be active and engaged throughout.
Most importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself along the way. Practice should be fun and rewarding, not a cause of stress!
Feeling inspired? Why not browse our selection of traditional Irish musical instruments?