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Beer Tent The general discussion forum, and the place to start a new "beer-tent-like" Piping Related discussion...

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Old 04-26-2019, 10:11 AM   #1
Tim | Birchen
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Default Learning Tunes By Ear

Hi, all,

I've become aware in recent years that there are a number of Highland pipers out there who have an interest in attending workshops for smallpipes, Border pipes, etc., but are put off by the fact that many of these workshops* are at least partly focused on learning new music by ear.

Others among you may have a similar apprehension about attending jam sessions whereby it can often be a very useful skill to be able to pick up tunes aurally, either in the middle of the session, or from recordings taken at sessions.

In an effort to quell fears, and encourage and help the uninitiated, this topic was addressed in the two recent 'Learning Tunes By Ear' articles in Piping Today magazine. For those who missed them and are interested, the articles have been re-published online, with permission:


~ Tim

* The ever-expanding list includes Cẹlas, The Pipers' Gathering, Càirdeas, The Spanish Peaks Piping Retreat, The Upper Potomac Piper's Weekend, Pipers Rendezvous, Maine Pipes & Fiddle, PEI Fiddle Camp, among others.
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Old 04-26-2019, 04:55 PM   #2
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Default Re: Learning Tunes By Ear

Thanks very much Tim!
I very much enjoyed them both.
I used to be a slave to the dots, but I've found that using my ears as much as my eyes is paying dividends. If I can't sing it in my head, no amount of playing the dots will sink it into my memory....
It feels weird to try and learn it strictly by ear the first few times, but if I drop the engrained need for competition level perfection, and just try to sing the tune with my chanter, it actually happens....
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Old 04-26-2019, 05:35 PM   #3
Holy smoking keyboard!
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Default Re: Learning Tunes By Ear

Greetings, Tim, and to All,

Tim!! It's a fine service that you're doing here!! :)

In my first band... now a very Long Time Past... some
90% of the fellows were (much) older...and from the
U.K. .... and were working-men...and with the calloused
hands to show it... and most of them... couldn't read the
first note(!!)... but damn!!... how they could play!! :)

Many had been taught... and by ear... by the regimental
pipers... who sometimes meandered about in their home
neighborhoods... helping to teach those who wished to
learn... but who had neither the time... nor the money...
for any sort of regular tuition. (Just spreading the music.)

And some had learned... from those who had learned...
is such fashion.

Now, my band teacher sat me down with the old Green
Book.... and I was taught the notes... and how to write
them in the practice book... but... it was emphasized to
me... that in this game... the ear... is more important...
than the eye... much of the time...

I am now re-minded of an interview with a rather famous
piper... and a fairly long time back (my apologies... haven't
the foggiest recollection of his name)... and he was asked
if he read music... and he said; "Oh. Aye. But not enough to
bollix up my playin'." ("Bollix"... is a substituted word. :)

If you stumble into a pub and there's playing going on... and
you get the nod to get tore in... you've got to hear... where
they are... and where they're going... and if there is a tune
change (regular for them but un-known to you)... then your
ear... has to guide you... in as seamless a manner as is
possible... :)

And over Time... I have been grateful... that my ear was
first... so brought along... and educated...

What ever Avenue of Approach might be chosen... wishing
for All... Happy Piping... and... listening!! :)

Regards to All,


My friends all know,
With what a brave carouse...

Last edited by Pip01; 04-26-2019 at 05:47 PM.
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Old 04-28-2019, 04:53 AM   #4
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Default Re: Learning Tunes By Ear


I've recently started working with a guitar player on some of his original compositions. Since he doesn't read music, learning by ear is the only possibility.
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Old 04-28-2019, 05:18 AM   #5
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Default Re: Learning Tunes By Ear

I get requests for sheet music quite often from Pipers regarding some videos I have posted on youtube...even though I state in the description that I did the arrangement by ear and there is no sheet music available..the tunes are fairly simple but not standard Pipe tunes..I'm always amazed at the lack of ability to use the ear in our community or the resistance to doing so..it's as if there's a stigma attached to doing something outside of the rigid notes in a tune book and any deviation from that, no matter how minor, is to be chastised and diminished...the standardization of tunes restricts developing the ear.
"...I think that I will take two small bottles of Dubonnet and gin with me this morning, in case it is needed..."
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Old 04-28-2019, 06:38 AM   #6
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Default Re: Learning Tunes By Ear

I think learning by ear should be cultivated more.
Some people don't learn well from sheet music to begin with. I know old and young pipers who prefer to learn a tune by hearing it and/or watching someone's fingers. Obviously, in a band, everyone should learn the same settings, and sheet music is useful for this, and a superior method for some people.

One of the dogmatic behaviors that I like to resist (and make fun of) is if you play a melody you like, probably from a traditional Scottish or Irish song, and someone tells you that you didn't play a grip in the right spot, or that it's an E, not a D gracenote, because that's how it is on the sheet music. Really? If it's not a band tune (or even if it is, but you're just playing it on your own), who cares? I heard someone playing the Star Wars theme once, just to warm up and get ready to tune, and another piper turned to me and said, "he played it wrong, it's supposed to be a half doubing there". I had to laugh. I didn't know John Williams had an official setting of the Star Wars soundtrack for Highland pipes.

Last edited by DapperDan; 04-28-2019 at 06:40 AM.
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Old 04-28-2019, 07:04 AM   #7
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Default Re: Learning Tunes By Ear

I remember this coming up in the forum a few years ago.


The general consensus:

Q: Learn tunes by ear, or by sheet music?

A: Yes
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Old 04-28-2019, 09:56 AM   #8
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Default Re: Learning Tunes By Ear

Originally Posted by DapperDan View Post
I think learning by ear should be cultivated more.

I think it is widely assumed by most of the musical world that a competent musician can learn easily by ear or read fluently from sheet music.

The fact that most pipers can do neither raises questions.
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Old 04-28-2019, 10:42 AM   #9
Patrick McLaurin
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Default Re: Learning Tunes By Ear

I remember back when I had to hear a tune for the notes on the page to make any sense. Not far into my piping journey, I decided that was BS and figured out how to read music. I can now sight read at tempo (if only my fingers can keep up).

These days, after I learn a tune by ear, I write it down.

Make sure you can speak and write the language.
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Old 04-28-2019, 10:54 AM   #10
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Default Re: Learning Tunes By Ear

Originally Posted by Patrick McLaurin View Post

These days, after I learn a tune by ear, I write it down.

Make sure you can speak and write the language.
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