Learning New Tunes

A woman recently sent a message, saying, she’d be interested in hearing the process of learning a new tune.

What Makes A Tune Easy to Learn

This has been on my mind lately, because I’ve found that learning by ear has many benefits over learning from tab or standard notation. Tab and standard notation allows you to correctly learn the tune from the beginning.  However, it can draw out the amount of time one takes to learn a tune.  When learning by ear, we have to listen to the tune repeatedly, which helps us get the tune stuck in our mind. I’ve found that tunes are much easier to learn when we know how they sound by heart. When learning a tune by ear, most of the time, we are learning from a recording or from someone else playing for us. Usually, this makes the tune more interesting. Tablature and written tunes usually lack life until a player inflects it with that life. Hearing tunes with “lift” and the stylistic human quality makes them more interesting, and also inspires us to learn them quicker.  (You can tell the difference between someone who’s learned by ear versus through sheet music or tab. The ear trained musician will know many songs, but not the names of them.  The sheet music musician often requires that they hear the name of a tune before they can jump right in. That’s interesting, no?)

Once we’ve figured all this out, then what?

Figuring Out the Key

The Key and the Scale Used for Various Tunes Sets the Tone. Learning to hear what the tone feels like, helps you pick the right key instinctively.

Once we’ve found a tune we enjoy, the next step is usually to figure out the key a tune is in. Why? Because this tells us what notes will be within that

tune, and we don’t have to waste time randomly fretting notes on our mandolin fretboard, hoping we hit a correct note.

The usual keys in Irish Celtic Music are D, G, and A, with variations on those keys. This is not to say that all tunes fall into these three categories, but most of the time they will. To figure out which key a tune is in, repeatedly pluck the D string, in rhythm with the tune in 8th notes. Start with D. If that does not sound correct, try G, and so on. Eventually you will be plucking a string that makes a good drone for the tune you are trying to learn. This droning string should sound good throughout the entire tune. Although again, keep in mind some tunes change keys from the A to the B section.

Examples of tunes in these three keys are as follows.You can pluck the notes of these tune’s Keys, throughout the entire tune as a drone.

D = Rose in the Heather, Merry Blacksmith, or Maid Behind the Bar.

G = Kesh Jig, Jim Ward’s, Swallowtail Jig (Em),  or Out on the Ocean.

A = Tenpenny Bit(Am), Bill Sullivan’s, Islay Ranter’s Reel (Am to A major in the B part).

Now if you were going to figure these tunes out for your self, you would know that in the D tunes you would probably only be using the notes, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# , because those are the notes in the D scale. Similarly, in the G tune, you would be using the notes, G, A, B, C, D, E, F#.  If you were going to figure tunes out in the key of A, you would use these notes, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#.  This information is no way meant to be exhaustive. Figure out the scales for Em, Am, Dm, F, C, etc., as well.  But to get you started, learning tunes in these three keys will suffice.

The Mist Covered Mountain is now available as Tablature on the "Tunes and Tab" page.

What Chords Do You Use

Say you want to back someone up who knows a melody because you haven’t learned the tune yet. It’s good to know what chords may be used to do that, once you know the key.

If you find the tune is in D, often the chords you will use will be D, G, A. If the tune is in G, try out G, C, D. If the tune is in A, try A, D, E. If it is in Am, try Am to G, or Am to G to Em to Am.  If the tune is in Em, often you can bounce back and forth from Em for a 2-4 bars, and then D.  Or for Em, you can do a classic, Em, D, E, C, D pattern.  Try the chords in these orders first. If you are certain of the key yet, these chords don’t sound correct, try a different order of the same chords.

Once you can figure this out, you are on your way to having a process for learning a tune by ear. If you have any questions, feel free to comment on this post, and I’ll answer them.

By the way, if you aren’t up for learning tunes by ear, I’ve just tabbed Mist Covered Mountain!

In a bit, we can discuss how to begin hearing the tenor of a tone, to instinctively know what key to play in. We can also discuss how to begin learning a song by ear, more efficiently.

3 thoughts on “Learning New Tunes

  1. It is very nice to see the process laid out step by step in this way. I have been teaching my self to play the mandolin for a couple of years using tabs. I now find that I am at the limits. People can guess what I am trying to play but the music is tight and unatural sounding to me. I need to learn to play a tune by ear and unserstand how music really works if I am going to make the step to the next level. It is time to stop playing by numbers and study chords scales and un learn all of the bad habits. So all of this to say I found this article very helpful
    Thank You

  2. I agree with most of your comments on tune learning, particularly on listening to the tune over and over again. Having had many conversations on tune learning over the years, it’s clear that everyone has their own way of learning. Personally, I like to hear the tune slowed right down to get the notes and speeded up in increments as I’m able to play it faster, something like “Amazing Slow Downer” is useful. Having the tab or notation to go along with this is even better. If you can find the tune you want in ABC or Tefview that is also very handy.
    I’m so sure it’s a good idea to be worrying about the key a tunes in and what notes are in that key as tunes of the same key are often in different modes and therefore different notes crop up. This can be quite confusing to the beginner and I would say, best to trust your ear and get used to spotting those F naturals and G sharps, etc. A lot of “old time” tunes have an A part in one mode and a B part in another mode.
    It may be worth saying that personally, I prefer not to learn a tune TOO quickly, as that often means I’ll forget it quickly too!
    So, listen to the tune many times to get it lodged in your memory, then either slow it right down or read tab or notes to play it phrase by phrase and get it in your “muscle memory”. Once up to speed, it’s good to play it in sessions a few times to see how it fits in with other peoples versions. After that, you should have the tune forever.

    • Good points David. There is a lot to be said about this, and I’m glad you filled in those gaps. Slowing tunes down is an excellent idea, and I’ve heard good things about the “Amazing Slow Downer”. Try to process the song through hearing it, then comparing it to a tab or standard notation, then putting the sheet music away, and going at it again through listening, covers many bases too.

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