Thursday, August 03, 2006

Technique: Ear Learning

The other day I got the Jig of Slurs stuck in my head and I wanted to try and work it out by ear. Now I find two general things challenging in the area of ear learning. One is learning the tune well enough that I don't get confused about it when I make mistakes trying to play it. The second is figuring out where to start.

The second problem generally involves a good bit of trial and error for me, but this time I realized the solution was easy. The Jig of Slurs is a pipe tune, so it has to be in A mixolydian, since that's the only key the GHBs can play! This is a pretty useful shortcut if, like me, you haven't yet learned how to reliably distinguish all of the modes by ear.

Learning tunes "by ear" is something of a euphamism for me since I tend to memorize the tune first and then try to play it later, instead of playing along with a recording. One thing which has been helpful for this process is to lilt the songs instead of humming (or playing) them when learning. There are several reasons I think this is helpful:

  • It divorces knowledge of the tune itself from the technical ability to play it, allowing me to focus on really learning the tune.
  • Lilting is less forgiving than humming in terms of making you get the tune right. When I hum I tend to slur notes a bit, and this makes it easy to gloss over notes that I don't have right in my memory. With lilting it's harder to get away with this.

I tried to find a link about lilting, but I can't find anything. Any suggestions? The best suggestion I have is to listen to a good recording. I'm enjoying Colm O'Donnell's excellent Farewell to Evening Dances, which features lilting, singing, whistle, and flute.


Stephen Seifert said...

You have such a great BLOG! I too have been learning Irish whistle. I can relate to so many of your discoveries.

On to Ear Learning. I've spent some time using Transcribe! to slow down tunes so I can acknowledge the passing of each note. (

I've gone from hearing a big blur to hearing single notes and especially four-note phrases. I normally listen to broadcasts from Clare FM at about 75% of their original speed. Just in a few months time, I've developed pretty good comprehension even at full speed.

My first goal is to lilt the tune. I memorize it this way before I even get the whistle out. I sometimes go around lilting it for days. Here's what I've dug up on lilting.

Locate and purchase Cavan's Lilter - Seamus Fay - "A selection of 33 tracks of the best in Irish lilting by Seamus Fay. With a wealth of great tunes interspersed with songs, an interview and a spoken piece."

I heard this guy do an interview on Clare FM and he is the best I've heard. His stories of his mother and grandmother will blow you away. He says his grandmother could lilt all night for dancers without repeating a tune. (People that make fun of this stuff should not be trusted when it comes to Irish Traditional Music.)

The next thing you should explore is a site with MP3s of 11 different lilters over the last 100 years. The site calls it Celtic mouth music. ( Download these before the site disappears.

To wrap up, I firmly believe that if I can lilt the tune from memory, the whistling will be no problem. Thanks for all your work. This blog is a treasure!

Stephen Seifert

Craig said...

Thanks for your compliments and especially for the link and CD reference!