Learning Tunes By Ear

Originally published on 2/6/2016

I've been taking lessons at The Center for Irish Music (CIM) here in St. Paul for the 7+ years now. Along the way, I picked up the mandolin (the whole mandolin family actually) as my melody instrument and joined the ensemble An Luan 2 years ago.

The Irish music tradition is primarily focused on passing on the tunes (tunes are instrumental, songs are sung) by ear. For someone who's primary musical experience in childhood was rooted in 8 years of piano lessons spent staring at sheet music, to say this was foreign was an understatement.

For the most part, when learning tunes, instructors will tolerate the use of sheet music, but always with the admonishment that we really should be learning by ear. But, whenever I'd ask "how exactly do I do that?", the answers were always a bit abstract. It mostly boiled down to "just work at it". Which, any beginner knows, leaves you standing at the starting line, confused and unsure what to actually do.

Given what we know about skill and expertise, this actually isn't unexpected. There's actually a whole body of psychological research related to the observation that most experts actually don't consciously know/remember how they do the thing they're experts at. They call it "the curse of expertise".

If you ask them how they put their skills into practice, many experts will tell you something. They often even believe that it's actually how they do it. But, in many cases, when you actually observe them in action, they're actually doing different things.

All of which is to say mostly that an expert who can effectively help others learn a skill is a really special and rare thing. They usually have refined their teaching skill by actually working with those trying to learn and, as objectively as possible, analyzing their own expertise in that light.

I've picked up LOTS of skills in my life and firmly believe that competence is achievable in pretty much any skill by just putting in the work. World-class mastery is another matter, but, let's be frank, being the actual best in the world at anything one does is already exceedingly unlikely. And, in nearly all cases where it DOES happen, it's one of those things that's figured out fairly learly in life. The nice thing is that it doesn't matter.

Wonderful careers, productive hobbies and successful businesses can be built on C+ skill level.

Anyway, this particular skill (learning music by ear) was one I wanted and the path to do so wasn't exactly clear. So, when I saw "Learning Tunes By Ear" in the course catalog a while back, I registered for it immediately.

That class was transformative.

The instructor (Sean Egan) has spent a lot of time thinking about how to teach this skill and it shows. By the time he's done explaining the next step, it feels like it was obvious. But, a large part of what he's doing is just not assuming that because the student is a 40 year old adult who's been playing music in some form or another for their entire life that they know any of the necessary pieces. He confirms that students either already know the next bit or he teaches it.

He started out by confirming that none of us was tone deaf. Only 1 out of 20 people is genuinely tone deaf, FYI. He the assured us all that anyone who's not tone deaf can learn to play tunes by ear. To prove it, he entirely set aside Irish traditional tunes for a bit and our first week's assignment was to pick out "Jingle Bells" and "Yankee Doodle" on our instruments. He gave us a starting note and told us to use that and our familiarity with those songs/tunes to just see how we'd do.

It was much easier than I expected. Sean then used that experience as proof to us that our struggles with learning Irish tunes by ear was one of familiarity. If we knew a tune as well as those, the actual task of picking it out on an instrument isn't that hard. Once you understand that reality, it's fairly obvious that the first step in learning a new tune should be listening to it. A LOT.

We spent the rest of the term working on new tunes, specifically tackling those in simple keys to make picking notes out a simpler exercise. We worked on singing intervals and working to identify those intervals when we heard them.

By the end of the term, I could pick out new tunes by ear. Sure, it still takes me WAY longer than I like. But, unlike before, where the skill seemed to be something that "good" musicians possessed and I didn't, I now know it's just a matter of putting in the work to get better at it.

Speaking of which, I have a few polkas and a couple of reels I need to learn in the next couple of weeks, so I should probably go.