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The thing that helped me the most as a musician, and how I developed it

I've been pondering for a while now about what I would write in a blog if I were to start one. I don't know much about blogs. I don't follow any blogs, and I'm not a particularly avid reader. In saying that, I like helping musicians where I can, as I know what it feels like to be at a loose end. So today, I'm going to discuss the most common question I get from fans of my music:

"What can I do to improve?"

In my opinion, the best answer is: get your musical ear as sharp as it can be. A good ear is the best tool you can have in your musical arsenal. It will allow you to sit in on any jam, session, or band, and to be able to follow what's happening, at the very least. I have met musicians who can't understand how I can listen to a song and play it back to them, how I can back a singer in any key, or how I can play along with a song having never heard it before. Having a sharp ear is the answer. A sharp ear allows you to learn quickly, it allows you to identify salient points and features of a piece of music with ease, and it makes you a lot more diverse than you think you are! I attribute my ear - and, thus, my ability to understand music - to Irish traditional music (trad), which I have been exposed to all my life and which I have played since I was four years old. I have no musical qualifications and I have had no formal instruction, just years of playing trad tunes prior to picking up the guitar, and what I've since gleaned from listening to musicians from all walks of life.

My musical beginnings are probably different than most. While there is an awful lot of music in my family on my Dad's side, I didn't learn music from them; I began learning music in school, aged four. In school in Ireland, every student has to learn how to play the feadóg stáin (tin whistle). In 99% of cases, we use a 'D whistle', because its tuning suits the most common keys of trad tunes. Generally, we learn to play by learning the notes of the whistle, reading the notes of a tune off a page, and then committing them to memory. This is not anything like a conventional musical score - see the picture below.

A sheet of notes I would have used in music class in primary school. The C# beside Dinkey's Reel and the C natural beside Congress Reel don't refer to what key the tunes are in, but which 'C' to use when playing. Sheet originally written by my first music teacher, Máire Hutton

The notes are written in letters, and are loosely grouped together to give an idea of what the rhythm of the tune is. Sometimes these notes will have some basic dynamic and/or rhythmic instruction, and sometimes a key signature for potential backing players, but the 'feel' of each tune is usually taught to you by whoever you have learned the tune from. I don't think I actually saw sheet music until I was older, and to this day I struggle with it to the point where I would say that I can't really make head nor tail of it, even though I sat a Music paper for my Leaving Certificate (high school examinations).

I still clearly remember sitting on the steps in the school hall in my old school. The hall was a large pre-fab in the middle of the school grounds, where the teacher would take her seat on the floor facing us, going through each new tune note-by-note, akin to a conductor refining the dynamics of the orchestra. In the early days we would start off with simple trad tunes like The Kerry Polka or An Ghaoth Aneas and, progressing through the years, we were then streamed into classes depending on ability. On the suggestion of my Mum, I decided to give the violin a go aged five, but I didn't take to it. I was really fascinated by the concertina, probably because that was what the teacher was playing, and so in 1998 Santa brought me a concertina on Christmas Day. I still remember finding the air button (which drew air quickly into the bellows) fascinating, and making my way note-by-note through the printed diagram of both sides of the instrument, to figure out where all the notes were. Later that day I remember sitting in front of my parents and grandparents playing the air from Good King Wenceslas. I took to the concertina quickly, and that was the beginning of my progression not only into trad, but into music. In the years after that, up to age twelve, I performed with my school, competed in the Fleadh competitions, and played at local sessions in my hometown. Technically, my first paid gig was a trad session with my teacher in the local hurling club for €10, a diet Coke and a bag of Tayto.

Tunes on the concertina in Clitheroe, Lancashire, UK, 2015

Okay, but why is Irish music so great?

Irish music is a great way to learn music because it is deceptively complex. It exposes you to modes, time signatures, key changes, and rhythm changes from the outset, disguised to the untrained ear as a flurry of notes in quick succession with a pulse to match. One set of tunes can encompass all of the above several times over! We were never taught how or why the music works, we were just told to play it. The benefit of learning this way, in my view, is that my ear developed really quickly without knowing it. I never had to spend any time thinking about the music, I just had to play the notes in the right order, at the right time, and a natural feel for the music developed. I think this is true for every type of ethnic music - the non-formal and non-structured nature of the learning process allows you to reach the 'heart' of the music, and then the actual learning - the labelling, the terminology, the how and the why, etc. - takes place as you work 'outwards'.

There was no talk about triads, intervals, scale degrees, or anything else you might come across in a school music class. I feel like I would have found learning about compound times like 6/8 or 9/8, or the differences between the mixolydian mode and major or minor keys, really boring when I was learning. Conversely, learning the tunes and then finding out their features afterwards gave me something to base this terminology around, and made it easy to understand. Learning about form was easy too, because it wasn't explained as such. In most cases, it was AABB, but we never thought of it as 'form'. We just said 'first part once, first part twice, second part once, second part twice', you did that twice over, and then into the next tune. When I was in school, there was only melody and rhythm. There was never a mention of harmony, and since no-one in the school played a guitar, a bouzouki, or a piano, there were no instruments to facilitate any harmony either. The closest thing we had to backing was the left-hand on the accordion which would occasionally come into play for a drone note, although from memory most players ignored it totally.

Prior to picking up the guitar, I played concertina and listened to trad exclusively, on both counts. That's not to say that I shunned any other kind of music, it just didn't interest me like trad did. Funnily enough too, I paid no real attention to the backing of the tunes I would listen to. For whatever reason, I was focused solely on the melodies and the ornamentation that went with them. You can imagine then when my interests diverged from solely trad music how amazed I was that harmony existed in so many different ways and how effective it was. Imagine if you had only ever seen the world in black-and-white, and suddenly you realised that colour existed, and that you had been ignorant to colour your whole life up to that point. That's how it felt for me to sink my teeth into harmony, to the point where to this day I still become obsessed by it.

Why are you talking about harmony instead of your ear?

My understanding of harmony is all thanks to my ear training. I think of every chord I play or hear as basic chords plus extra notes. I think of harmonic progressions as basic chords moving with musical lines, rather than as separate entities. Nine times out of ten, I can't actually name the chord that I'm playing, but I can always tell you which notes are in the chord, or which way a progression is going, and why I picked the chord that I did. Sometimes I can name chords straight off due to familiarity, but it usually takes a while to name the chord in theory terms. While it is much easier to say "well I hear it as some kind of a C chord, but it's got a G in the bass, and an A and a B in it too, but the highest note is an E", that's not overly helpful in most cases. It's more helpful to other musicians to name the chord as a Cmaj13/G, but even now seeing that chord written on a chart would throw me off and take a bit of thinking as to what it actually means. If I have to be specific for any reason, I refer to something like a chord-namer website e.g. Gootar, where you can draw in a chord and it names it for you. As I side note, I also find the limitations of theoretical naming conventions really frustrating at times as there can be such huge differences in chord voicings of the same name.

Don't confuse my lack of understanding when it comes to music theory as pride - I would love to be more comfortable with it all, to be more able to utilise theoretical knowledge and to have better score-reading skills, but as a result of my sharp musical ear I can't think of a situation where I have been at a loss because of it. I don't doubt that at some point I will find myself involved in a project where I'll have to knuckle down and/or adapt, but to date it hasn't been an issue.

The important point here is that working out chords and harmony is essentially the same process as working out a melody line or an interval, you're just processing more than one note at a time. I have another theory about why certain chord changes sound as 'stunning' as they do but that's for a different blog post! To paraphrase what I wrote at the beginning: Training your ear makes everything easier when it comes to learning. It is the key to versatility as a musician.

So what can I do to train my ear?

Training your ear is not the slow, clinical process that it is sometimes made out to be, however it is something I find difficult to help people with at times, as it came naturally to me via the way I learned.

Luckily, there are plenty of resources available online to help with ear training. A quick Google search for 'ear training' brought up this website, , which seems to offer an array of types of identification exercises (intervals, scales, chords, progressions).

A less clinical and more fun approach (and more in line with how I learned) would be to turn on the radio, a CD, or a recording of a concert, and to try to play along. You can even get the info you need online such as the key of the song or what the first few bars are, but the more you do by ear the more beneficial it is for you. When I was learning how to play guitar, I used to listen to James Taylor CDs and work out each song note-by-note. This was possible for me to do without too much difficulty, and I know that again this is facilitated by my background in Irish music, but this isn't out of your grasp. A lot of great options such as Riffstation, Soundslice and The Amazing Slow Downer can help you to figure out what you want to learn.

Another thing I often recommend to my Skype students to do is to find a well-written chord chart or tab for a song they know, and to listen out for features of the song as written in the chart. Let's say, for example, that you have a song like Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles, which features a section ("All the lonely people, where do they all belong?") where the chords follow this pattern:

Em7 -> Em6 -> C/E - > Em

All this really is, is a constant chord of Eminor, with a musical line in it going from D down to B.

The musical line is the notes (D -> C# -> C -> B):

D C# C B

Em7 -> Em6 -> C/E - > Em

Consciously listen for the 'new' note each time, and get a idea of how the chord feels. Listen for that progression of the D down to the B, maybe sing along with it or play along with it if it helps - there is no right way or wrong way. You might find the Em6 (Eminor with a C# in it) a little bit jarring. You might find that the Em7 at the beginning a warmer, less definite sound compared to a normal Eminor. You'll probably find that the Em at the end feels like the definite 'end' of that passage; where you would place a full stop if you were writing a sentence. I don't think it's too important at the beginning to understand why the chords have the names that they do, or why they feel the way they do. I think it's more important to be able to identify the note you're looking to hear clearly. To this day, when I hear something I like, I go looking for the salient note or feature that makes it what it is, which leads me to my next point:

Simply being conscious and analytical of what you're hearing around you counts as ear training. I often spend time in public places listening intently to a piece of music I'm hearing, analysing what in particular about it has caught my ear. Is it an unusual note? Is it a key change, or a nicely resolved chord sequence? Is it a feature of the rhythm? Is it the blend of the instruments? Is it the space between the notes, or the reverb? My point here is that I'm always looking to identify the thing that has caught my ear, and to figure out how I can then use it myself. I probably look like a weirdo to onlookers at times, but ultimately if it is of benefit to me, it's time I haven't wasted. That in itself is ear training, because your ear is doing the detective work.

If I do all of this, what will I be able to do? What's the goal?

The goal is to feel comfortable playing music no matter where you are or who you are with. I would feel as happy sitting down to play music with trad musicians as I would with Japanese musicians, African musicians, or Latin American musicians. I could sit in with a jazz band, a country band, or even a DJ! Even though music is so vast and so different, the basics overlap almost everywhere, and getting your ear up to speed will reap dividends for you.

As with everything in music, how quickly you progress with ear training skills depends on how much experience you have playing, how much you're conscious of music around you, and of course how much you practise. All in all though, if this were a game where you were offered a 'power-up' at the start, I would pick ear skills every day over any other skill in music.

One more thing - always play music you like. There's no point sitting going through pages of exercises and material if you're not enjoying it. Sometimes musical exercises focus way too much on the technical and theoretical implications, but I always found a lot of that stuff so boring. There is always a way to learn new skills while playing music you enjoy. If you enjoy it, it won't ever feel like work.

What about you?

Have you any strategies / tips / tricks / methods that you use to develop your ear? Or have you any left-of-centre methods to either learn or navigate music? If you do, write a comment. I'd love to hear them!

Until next time,



Investing your time into ear training is the best investment you can make. Being conscious and analytical about what you hear on a daily basis counts as ear training. Also, always play music you enjoy. You never know who you might end up playing with:

Photo Credit: NCH Dublin, July 2016


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