June 4, 2014

Listen, listen, listen

If you’re reading this, it is likely that you are primarily playing traditional folk music.  One of the beautiful things about trad is that is has always had a significant aural component.  There was a time, according to the historians, that all harpers learned their music by ear.  In fact, they learned everything by ear – the tunes, the words to songs, the epic poetry, the histories – all in the aural (and oral) tradition.

This makes excellent sense – after all, music is aural – we all, musician and appreciator, participate in music by listening.  We know that how it sounds is essential.  In fact, when we make a mistake, we know it because it sounded wrong.  Not very many people will tell you they knew they made a mistake because it felt wrong!

But how are you to know how it should sound?  How does someone new to the music learn how to give it the lift, lilt, or jaggedness to make it sound right?  If you grew up in one culture, how do you know how to make a tune from another culture sound like it should? How do you make your Irish tunes sound Irish and your Scottish tunes sound Scottish and ensure that only your Welsh tunes sound like they came from Wales?  How do you know where they came from???

The best way is to listen!  Listen to the music.  And of course, really listen – find the nuances.  How does an Irish tune sound relative to one from Cape Breton?  What lets you know when the tune is from Scotland?  Can you tell your favorite harp players apart when listening? (Being able to identify my friends by their playing on their cds was a turning point for me – when I finally “got” how important listening is!).

And, of course, you have to do a little homework – it will help when you start causing yourself to listen to have some information handy (to know where the tune is from).  Once you get comfortable with actively listening to music then you can move on to listening while not knowing, guessing where the tune (or the player) is from and then looking it up to check your work.  Just be wary of tunes that are played everywhere (they’ll be tricky - these are typically very old or very popular!).  

And don’t forget to enjoy the listening while you learn how to bring those sounds into your own tunes.

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