Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guest Blogger: Ken Kolodner - "Learning Tunes by Ear"

While out of town this week I'm happy to feature my long-time teacher and mentor, Ken Kolodner, as guest blogger. Focusing largely on traditional music, Ken has often been called one of the most influential players in the US. He teaches fiddle and hammered dulcimer in Baltimore, MD and throughout the United States. The following is taken with permission from his "Old-Time Fiddle Style Book/CD Set", (Mel Bay Publications, Inc., 2010). It's a collection of 35 traditional Appalachian tunes written with fiddle players in mind, but there's a lot of wisdom in this article for the hammered dulcimer player as well!

Learning Tunes by Ear
Written by: Ken Kolodner

Improving your listening skills is vitally important! I offer this discussion to encourage you to develop your ear.

Shortly after finishing college and just before heading to graduate school, I decided that I would teach myself to play the fiddle. I had no music background and didn’t read music. I tuned the fiddle using a pitch pipe (bad idea), bought a few albums (remember those round things?) from County Records of old-time fiddle “classics” and proceeded to listen to the tunes over and over again. It was a total struggle, my technique was non-existent and I really had no clue what I was doing. But, in time, I did begin to approximate what I heard on the recordings. I can’t honestly say that I would recommend trying to take the road that I went. If I had it to do all over, I would have found a teacher, focused on technique and, yes, learned to read music and learned some music theory right from the start. But the process of learning solely with my ears forced me to listen and perhaps gain some appreciation of what old-time fiddling was “supposed” to sound like.

My experience is that an overwhelming majority of the more accomplished players of traditional music believe very strongly that to fully understand the phrasing of the music, learning by ear and from experienced players is much preferred to learning solely from sheet music. While it may be true that the subtleties of the music cannot be effectively notated (e.g. swing, anticipations, ornamentations, etc...), once you become an experienced player, written music can be an important aid in expediting learning tunes. I have a very large library of traditional music books and often learn tunes by reading. Experienced players can often interpret written music and create a version of the tune that sounds “traditional.” Over the years, I have become a strong believer in getting as many people participating in playing music as possible and doing whatever it takes to get everyone going. This means that written music is a useful aid. Nevertheless, there are many advantages and situations when learning by ear is a great asset. There is simply no substitute for developing your ears.

The issue is really not whether there is significant value in learning traditional music by ear. The bigger issue is how does one learn to master the skill of listening and learning by ear? I hope that some of the techniques discussed below will help you in your quest to practice learning by ear. Many of the ideas are obvious but they still bear mentioning. As with any other skill, the more understanding you have and the more techniques you bring to the process, the more likely are your chances for success.

Ten “Tools of the Trade”
(1.) Identify the meter. In old-time music, you are almost guaranteed that every tune that is played in a jam will be in 4/4. Old-time musicians do not play jigs (6/8) but do play the occasional waltz (3/4). Still, viewing the broader world of learning by ear, we need to establish the meter of the tune. There are some tunes that do not stay in a consistent meter. These are among the tunes that are said to be “crooked.” Crooked tunes might have an extra count to a measure or a full extra measure in an A or B part of the tune. It can take a while to understand these tunes—repeated listening usually gets you there.

(2.) Find the tonal center and understand the modes. Find the note on which the tune resolves. This is a great start to get you rolling as this might (probably) tell you which key the tune resides but be careful. It is better to understand the “modes” as most traditional music is typically in one of four modes. The modes tell you where to play physically, what notes to expect, and the chords that you are most likely to encounter.
     Most common is what we will all know as major but is also known in mode-speak as Ionian. Don’t skip this section and start rolling your eyes! The other modes can easily be found by starting on different notes of the major scale and playing eight notes. First, let’s start on the second note of the major scale and form a scale called the Dorian mode. It might sound a little weird to play this scale. I did not include any tunes in Dorian but don’t let that fool you—it is a very common mode. The tonal center uses a minor chord. Thus, the mode sounds minor.
     Now, let’s skip to the fifth note of a major scale and form the mixolydian mode. Players often misclassify this mode and call it major. That is probably because the mode has a major chord for its tonal center. But the mode does not sound like it is in a major key and has a sort of, well, “modal” sound! (See “Mike in the Wilderness,” “Sandy Boys”.) Next, from the sixth note, we form the Aeolian mode. This is also called the “relative minor” (See “Devil in the Strawstack,” “Home with the Girls in the Morning,” most of “Journey to the Heartland,” and “Sally in the Garden”). There are many tunes that switch modes from one part to the next. For example, a common usage is to move from major to relative minor (Aeolian).
     People will often say “this tune is modal.” This really doesn’t mean much since all traditional tunes are modal! If you can learn how the modes work and recognize them, this can be a huge clue into finding the notes of a tune faster since you will know which scale to use. Tunes typically are composed of scalar patterns and pieces of chords (arpeggios). Once you find the correct mode, you will at least have a frame of reference from which to get started.

(3.) Think structure. Identify the number of parts that a tune has and within each part, the number of phrases. Most importantly, phrases usually repeat, and sometimes phrases repeat multiple times within a tune. Most tunes have two parts: an “A” and “B” section. Within these parts, most tunes are composed in two measure phrases with a question and answer format. While many different structures are common, a very typical construction of phrases is as follows.

The A part:
(Phrase A1) A two measure “question”
(Phrase A2) A two measure “answer”
(Phrase A1) Repeat question #1
(Phrase A3) A new two measure answer (the ending)

The B part:
(Phrase B1) A new question
(Phrase B2) A new answer or possibly the first answer of the A part (A2) (Phrase B1) Repeat the new question
(Phrase A3) The ending of the A part or possibly a new answer (B3).

Another way to think of this construction is to imagine a conversation that goes as follows: Question/statement: “Hey?!”
Answer: “What?!”
Repeat the question/statement: “I said ‘Hey?!’”

New answer: “OK!”
There are many good examples of this exact construction (see “Needle Case,” “Single Footin’ Horse” and many others.) But watch for the occasional crooked tune!

(4.) Think chord progressions. My ability to learn tunes by ear improved enormously once I began to understand chord progressions. Now, I cannot imagine learning a tune without first identifying a basic chord structure (not necessarily “the” chord progression but at least a likely or “beginning” chord progression). Identifying the modes and a “beginning” chord structure are integrally related. This is an enormous topic which regrettably is beyond the scope of this discussion. I would encourage you to learn the four big modes and learn which chords commonly occur in each of them. It bears repeating that tunes are essentially scalar fragments (pieces of scales) and arpeggiated chords (pieces of chords) put together in clever ways. Once you see that, you can find tunes much faster.

(5.) Simplify: Identify target or anchor notes or phrases. Almost every tune has what some musicians call variously the “corners,” “anchors” or “target notes” that are critical to defining the tune. To new players, it can be a mystery why there are so many versions of common tunes. They often want to know what the “real” tune is. Or maybe they might complain “that is not the way you wrote it down!” or “that isn’t the way it is in the book!” The reality is that many notes in most tunes are relatively unimportant and that there may be only a few phrases or critical notes within each phrase that are essential to the integrity of the tune. These are the “anchors” of the tune. A typical technique in learning by ear is to find these notes first and then gradually fill out the tune upon repeated listening. Some musicians call this finding the “skeleton” of the tune. In many tunes, you discover that a good part of the melody is not that critical to the tune, but the tune must have the anchors, corners or whatever you want to call them. In other words, you can create your own version of the tune as long as it is reasonably close to what you are hearing and you retain the anchors. Do not get lost in the details of the less important notes. If you don’t like a few note choices in my tune versions, feel free to change them!

(6.) Practice and learn intervals. Even if you do not think chords or even modes, being able to recognize intervals is perhaps the key to figuring out tunes, once you identify the structure. Identifying the mode/key is certainly very important, and identifying the chords is a huge bonus. But recognizing intervals can get you very far. Formal ear training typically consists of learning the distances between any two notes (intervals). Many of us practice scales up and down. This is not sufficient. At a minimum:
(a.) practice playing thirds through major scales (e.g. the key of D, walk up the scale playing D - F sharp; E - G; F sharp - A; G - B; A - C sharp; B - D; C sharp - E; D - F sharp; and then go back down: E - C sharp; D - B; C sharp - A; B - G; A - F sharp; G - E; F sharp - D); and
(b.) practice arpeggios and their inversions all over the instrument, backwards and forwards; and
(c.) learn to recognize other intervals (fourths, sixths etc.).

Why do all of this? Again, most tunes are comprised of scalar patterns, little sections of movement in thirds, mini arpeggios in their various forms in all directions, and so on. In addition to using the above practice tools, there are all sorts of simple ways to recognize the many intervals you are likely to encounter. Using examples of common tunes is perhaps the easiest. For example:
For a “minor third,” think the first two notes of “Greensleeves”
For a fifth down, think “Flint-stones” (ok, you have to be a certain age for that one)
For a fifth up, think “Twinkle, Twinkle”
For a fourth up, think “A-amaze” in “Amazing Grace” or “Here Comes” in “Here Comes the Bride” For a major arpeggio, use “Morning Has Broken” or “Soldier’s Joy” or see measures 1-2 in “Elk River

Blues,” “Flop Eared Mule,” “Quince Dillon’s High D” and many other tunes in this book.
For a sixth down, “Crazy” and the beginning of “Liberty”
For a sixth up, the beginning of “Bill Cheathum” or “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and see

measure two in “Needle Case”
For an octave, “Some-where” in “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and see measure one in

“Home with the Girls in the Morning”
You can find many others by simply trying out different common tunes. Practice playing the interval and learn to hear and recognize it.

(7.) Practice learning small pieces at a time; practice “call and response.” If you listen to the entire tune over and over again, you risk getting overwhelmed. In a jamming situation, you have no choice. But this is NOT the place to start to develop the skill of learning by ear. You will likely sit there and be frustrated by sensory overload. Rather than listen to an entire piece over and over again, it really helps to take very small pieces of the tune and master only that. Practice that small piece and get it down before you move on. When working with a CD or other recording, I must admit that I sometimes write it down as I go (hitting the pause button!) just so that I can remember it later. I see no harm in doing so as you are still learning by ear! A common technique in teaching a tune is to use “call” and “response” where a phrase is played; perhaps a full two measures or perhaps smaller depending on what can be most easily digested. Try to play as much of the phrase as you can. The “call” and “response” is continued until the learner gets the whole phrase. Additional phrases are added using the same technique, gradually incorporating larger pieces until the whole tune is captured.

(8.) Slow it down. Experienced musicians sometimes disparage the practice of slow jams at festivals. I understand that this may not be the “traditional” way to learn. I understand that by slowing down the tunes significantly, there is a risk that the groove and other subtleties of the tunes are lost or obscured. The point of the slow jam or slowing the tune down is to get people to learn, have fun, and build confidence. Most of us do not find the time to listen and practice for hours. Nor do we often have access to other players. So I am all for playing the tunes slowly which is why I did this book with a recording! In fact, you can learn a lot by playing the tunes slowly and hearing them slowed down. For example, it is especially difficult for newer players to hear the “swing” in the tunes when played up to tempo.

(9.) Learn from different instruments. Since you are likely to want to learn tunes from all sorts of players and sources, try learning from an instrument other than the instrument you play. You can learn so much about the phrasing and other subtleties in the music by listening to experienced players of other instruments.

(10.) Listen for subtleties in the music. As you gain skill and experience learning by ear, hopefully your focus shifts to pick up the subtleties in the music. I always recommend that it is best when first learning a tune to basically ignore ornamentation and other details: i.e., simplify! But after I have the basic tune, I listen for details. Especially important is to listen for swing. As described earlier, fiddlers and other musicians typically speak of swing as the evenness (or lack thereof) of spacing of the eighth notes such that the first note of a pair of eighth notes is held longer than the second. Listen also for the accent shifts (e.g., in 4/4, the degree to which the pulse is on the two and four counts as opposed to one and three or possibly on the counts of “and”), anticipations and other ornamentation.

Misconceptions about learning by ear
I would like to offer a final word on several misconceptions about learning by ear. First, you do NOT need to be able to sing very well (or at all) to learn by ear. I hear it stated often that you need to be able to sing the tune in order to play it by ear. Singing the tune certainly helps many people but it is also not necessary. Rather, you only need to learn to “hear” the tune “in your head.” Second, you do not need “perfect” pitch (e.g. you do not need to ever know what an “A” sounds like) but only need to develop a sense of “relative” pitch. Most musicians develop a sense of relative pitch—few have perfect pitch. Third, while some people are perhaps “naturals” and can hear tunes easily, learning by ear is a skill to be learned, practiced and developed. You will get better and better at learning by ear by practicing and understanding the many components of the task. Finally, learning by ear does not need to be “rote learning.” Rote learning usually involves playing something over and over again typically without any thinking. Some people confuse learning by ear as rote learning—that you just have to listen many, many times to get a tune. And you just listen and play it over and over again until you memorize it. That might work for some or even many people. As I have tried to describe above, I would argue that for many of us there is clearly much more to the process, especially if you want to retain the tune for a long time. Rote learning typically involves no understanding of structure, chords, intervals etc. I believe that many experienced players retain hundreds or even thousands of tunes by using a wide variety of the tools including many of those described here. Good luck! 


  1. Awesome article! Thanks Sue and Ken :-) Have printed it out for continued reference!