Reading music? Musical theory? Do I need to know…

by adminKFS on · 4 comments

Should I learn how to read music?
As musicians of traditional music, we place a great deal of emphasis on learning music by ear. When you primarily learn by ear, you not only pick up a melody but you also absorb all the other nuances that go along with a style that are difficult to teach. However, reading music is an extremely valuable skill. It’s true that Cape Breton music is mainly transmitted orally. But much of the repertoire has been learned by fiddlers searching through tune books. The majority of Cape Breton fiddlers read music. Tune books have been a valuable and treasured resource for Cape Breton fiddlers ever since they started to become more available around the time of WWII. I love going through tune books not only to find new tunes, but also to find tunes that I frequently hear but don’t play. Yes, learning by ear is important, but reading music is still a valuable asset.

Do I need to learn music theory?
Ultimately, your ear is your best guide through the learning process. You most likely know some theory already – you know what major keys sound like versus minor keys. You just might not know what exactly a ‘key” is or what major and minor really mean. In my personal experience, I had a little theory knowledge growing up, mostly learned from my piano lessons. I studied it more in depth in high school and college. Music theory has helped me understand traditional music in a different way, especially in my piano accompaniment. It helped me understand and be able to explain the sounds I already knew. It is a tool that helps me teach traditional music. Having said that, an in depth knowledge of music theory is not necessary to be a good fiddle player. But it does help to have some basic skills, for example, a knowledge of key signatures and chords. If you are playing with an accompanist, it is helpful to know what key you are playing in and some basic chords to accompany the tunes with. Ultimately, having some theory empowers you to help you learn things on your own. In my teaching I like to focus on these skills to help give students more perspective and understanding about the tunes and music they are playing.

Should I take classical violin lessons?
We all know of many traditional players of various fiddle traditions who are self taught, hold their instrument in all sorts of different ways, yet are virtuosic in their traditions. In Cape Breton, many fiddlers are and have been self taught and play brilliantly. Think of the instrument simply a tool to produce music. But that doesn’t mean you should just think that you should ignore some classical technique. It’s especially valuable if you are having trouble getting good sounds out of your instrument. In these situations, taking classical lessons can definitely help you play more efficiently. Classical training can help improve skills ranging from a good bow hold and string crossing to good intonation.

What are some other concerns you have about learning fiddle music? Please feel free to post about your experience.


February 19, 2011 at 9:40 pm, Jane Smarzik said...

I started my musical journey 3+ years ago. I did not know how to read music and I was 54-55 years old. I also did not know how to deal with a violin. I came to Gaelic College and was lucky enough to be taught by Stan Chapman who was so encouraging.The next year I met Dara Smith…another excellent teacher who added to my encouragement.
A bit later in my journey, I realised that the tunes I learned by ear, stayed with an uncanny way.
As the classes progressed and the written music was obtained I could not keep up with the speed that the “readers” obtained.
I have progressed a bit …but the HUGE fact is , what I learn by ear I keep.

February 19, 2011 at 10:07 pm, Kimberley Fraser said...

Hi Jane,
Thanks for your input. I also retain tunes much better when I learn by them by ear. The tunes are in my head first before I go to pick up the fiddle. I can read through quickly enough, but it takes me much longer to commit them to memory. But it is great that you have the skill to read through tunes if you wanted to go through a tune book or even to check a note or two on tunes you already know.

February 19, 2011 at 10:49 pm, Margie said...

Well put, Kimberley. Thank you. All of those skills are valuable, even if not essential. I know some fiddlers who look down on others because those others have reading skills, apparently thinking that reading and ear playing are somehow mutually exclusive. That’s just silly. I don’t know how many times people have come over to look at my music stand to see what I’m playing only to find that it isn’t there…it’s something I learned by ear. The more tools in the box, the better, I say.

    February 19, 2011 at 10:56 pm, Kimberley Fraser said...

    Thanks, Margie. It’s great to be able to draw from a variety of resources.

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