Folk music has been learned by ear for centuries, and it’s the best way to learn it. Many of the beautiful subtleties that make folk music so great cannot be transcribed without loss. Ornamentation in Irish music is a prime example of this: You have to learn it by ear to get it right.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with using sheet music, especially in the beginning, but your ultimate goal should be learning tunes by ear. It may feel like an impossible task at first, but fear not, it’s actually not that tough. Persistence will get you there and once you get the hang of it, you can learn anything you want, and you will memorize the tunes much better too. It’s very rewarding and will lift your playing to a new level.
Learning tunes by ear needs practice. Here are some tips to help you to a good start:
- Get a program to slow down the tune and/or change the pitch. It should allow you to loop a certain section of the tune as well. I use the free version of Music Speed Changer on my (Android) phone. Youtube can play tunes slower (click on the cogwheel for selecting the playing speed) but it cannot loop sections.
- Pick something simple to start with, e.g. an air or a song.
- Listen to the tune a lot before attempting to learn it by ear. If you can hum the entire tune, then you will find it much easier to learn it by ear.
- It can help to take notes. For this purpose, you can use some blank tabulature.
- The more tunes you have learned, the easier you will find it. It’s a lot like learning a language. You simply build up a library of common fragments. Just like learning the words of a new language ;-)