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Picking Up Fiddle Tunes By Ear
At Jam Sessions

An outline by Joel Mabus

Listen before you play!

Determine the key

Ask about the key BEFORE the tune starts!  

Don't stop the proceedings - never engage a conversation with the driver while bus is in motion!  Never expect a musician to talk to you while they are playing. His/her brain is busy, thank you!  Look at the positions played on an instrument you understand for clues as to key.

You can find the key by ear alone. 

The END of a part usually resolves to the key note (do).  Quietly test your own instrument to find that note.  That should be the root note for the chord - major or minor.  Sometimes the end of a part feels unresolved.  This is a clue that, unlike most tunes, YOUR tune may be kinda "funny."

Test out the common keys first.

Old-timey fiddle and celtic tunes tend to be in D, G, or A.  C is not uncommon.  F and Bb  pop up from time to time from advanced fiddlers.  Minor keys favored tend to be Em, Am, Dm, and Bm  (relative minors to G, C, F, and D, respectively).  Watch out for odd modes!

Bluegrass tunes and other kinds of songs can be in any key, though C, G, D, & A show up most often. For fretted instruments, a working knowledge of the keys “G” and “C” plus a capo = total freedom (or potential chaos).

Determine the rhythm

Duple or Triple time? 

If it goes "boom-chuck, boom-chuck" it is in duple time - everything counts out in twos or fours or eights – that’s duple.  If it goes "Oom-pa-pa, Oom-pa-pa" it's in triple time - a.k.a. waltz time.

But Wait! There's More!  Jigs are in 6/8 time with a TWO beat feel. It can be thought of as two triplets in a row - "hoppity boppity" or "One-and-a, Two-and-a."   But some jigs leave out that middle note of the triplet - "humpty dumpty" or "pizza, pizza."  Slip Jigs are in 9/8 - that's three triplets per measure - "One-and-a, Two-and-a, Three-and-a." 

Whatever the "official" name for the rhythm, the trick is to get into the "groove" and not try to force your own sense of the beat onto the jam.

Determine the structure

How many parts does it have?  

Most fiddle tunes come from the square and contra dance tradition and have TWO parts of equal length.  But some tunes have three parts or more.  Some have only one. 

Musicians commonly refer to parts by letter, e.g. "A part" "B part."  Don't confuse this with the key.  You might hear someone warn you of a key change by saying something like "The A part's in D, but the B part's in A."

You might hear a shorthand of repetition patterns  -  "AABB" or "ABAB"  or "AABBC"  - that tells you how many parts there are, and how they repeat.

Some (usually more modern) tunes follow a pop song structure, in which you have basically two themes - the main and a bridge.  This could be thought of as AABA in which the three "A" parts might each resolve a little differently.

How long is each part? Does it have a typical structure?  Does it repeat?

The most common form in old-time and Celtic-based dance music is 2 parts, 8 bars per part, each part repeated,  2 beats per bar (define a beat as a "step" in the dance).  Each part is typically repeated to yield 16 bars before proceeding to the next part. The result is the "32 bar tune." But watch out! Sometimes everything is halved (e.g. "Old Molly Hare" or "Eighth of January")

Usually these 8 bars can be broken down into four 2-bar phrases:

Phrase 1 states the theme and may resolve on the I or IV chord

Phrase 2 "answers" that theme and may end on the V chord

Phrase 3 basically echoes or repeats phrase 1

Phrase 4 is an ending that may or may not be similar to phrase 2 but will almost always resolve to a I chord after the usual V chord.

In a typical two part tune the B part may have the same "phrase 4" as the A part. In other words, it is common for both parts to end the same way.  But it isn’t always so.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It's very likely that your tune is in some ways "typical” and in some ways "different."  Listen for HOW the structure is different and HOW it is the same.  Knowing when a phrase repeats saves a lot of frustration in keeping on top of a tune. 

If you are warned that the tune is "crooked," watch out!  This term has come to mean that there may be extra beats, measures left out, or weird little phrases - in short something strange in the structure.  In some areas of the world, crooked may just mean "hard to play" but to most players in America it means an abnormal structure.  Perversely, some players gravitate to the crooked tunes.  This shouldn't be taken to mean these players are any more or less advanced than anybody else.  Never confuse weirdness with skill or lack of it.

Pay attention to chords and melody

Let the tune sink in.  Does the melody remind you of another tune you already know? Maybe the ending is the same as another tune?  How is it different?  Maybe that one phrase is just like so-and-so except it “zigs” when the other “zags.”  Make some mental notes as you listen.

Are the chords the usual suspects for the key?  If there is a funny-sounding chord, try to figure what it is - look at the players hands.  Even if you can't figure the chord, you might find a NOTE to play when that chord pops up.  Then when the tune is over, ask what that funny chord was.  Somebody will tell you.


Playing along

Quietly at first please!

After you have listened at least 2 times through the tune, it's time to start playing along, if you honestly think you can handle it.  You are testing the waters. Slip in - don't do a belly dive.  Be kind to the musicians whose ears are close to your instrument. Good manners always apply!

“Chords only” at first. (If you play a melody-only instrument, play the roots of the chords.) Make sure you know the key, know the chords and can sense when the changes happen.  Put your ear close to your own instrument and see if you are "with" the others.  If a section of the music baffles you, drop out and listen, and try again quietly when it comes around next time. 

Try the melody if you want, but make sure your noodling isn't going to spoil the session.  Sometimes just playing lightly, or stepping to the rear while you explore your instrument is the best thing for everybody - yourself included.

Use the structure to guide you

While there may be 32 bars from head to tail of a tune, there may well be only 4 or 5 distinct musical phrases.  If you know when to expect a repeat, you will catch on to the tune much more quickly.  If you ignore structure you will be constantly wondering what comes next - always playing catch-up.

Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.  Boil down that fancy phrase to its essence. Edit out the unnecessary fills.  Add the passing tones, the triplets, grace notes and all the filigree after you grasp the basic musical statement.

Fill in the blanks.  If you are sure of MOST of the tune but that one phrase is stumping you, leave it out and work on it after the tune is over.  OR (if you promise to do it discretely) leave the rest of the tune alone and only join in on the tough part each time it comes around, hopefully coming closer to the melody each time.

When you think you have it...

Think again - make sure what you are playing is indeed a reasonable facsimile of the tune.  Pull back and listen - you might be surprised.

Know when hot licks make it and when they just fake it.  You can play your favorite licks in place of the proper melody, but be aware that that is not the same thing as "knowing" the tune. While bluegrass and swing jams are often "hot lick swaps," in Irish and some old-time sessions, a string of all-purpose licks that sort of fit the tune just won't cut it. Learn what the given style of music expects of you, and honor the tradition.



Etiquette in jam sessions

When is it right to join in on a session at a festival or party?

Some sessions are conversations between old friends.  It's not right to intrude.  Other sessions are more open for strangers to join in.  Lurking for a tune or two and paying attention to the interplay should tell you the difference.

Likewise, each jam has a general level of skill.  Try to find a session where there are players at about your level - some better, some worse.  You can teach as well as learn and feel good about yourself.

Know your idiom - different styles of music have different customs

Bluegrass jams tend to be round robin affairs, with the solos rotating among those players with melody instruments.

Old-time sessions tend to be everybody playing over and over, with fiddles setting the pace. Don’t expect a solo slot to open for you.

A session of Irish music can be pretty exacting, depending upon the seriousness of the players.  Focused Irish-style players, when in their element, tend not to appreciate a funky bluegrass version of the tune!

When you are “following” ...

Be polite.  Don't make snap judgments (out loud, anyway) about the relative worth of a tune. Don't be quick to say a tune stinks just because you had trouble getting into it.  That might be the tune leader's dear favorite - or an original. It might even become one of your favorites after you learn it.

Don't hijack the tune.  It's not your place to speed it up, call for a key change, etc.

When you are “leading”...

It's nice to tell everybody the key (ahead of time), the number of parts, the title, and if there is anything weird to watch out for.

Don't be a show-off.  If you have a tune that you KNOW is way beyond everyone around you, it's not a good tune to trot out.  Don't be a jam-buster with your latest solo piece.

Try to play it straight and solid the first few times through, so those learning the tune can get a good taste of what it really is.  Save the variations for later into the tune.

When someone is singing (or soloing)...

Don't drown them out.  If you are strumming hard - BACK OFF!  If there are umpteen guitars and one singer trying to overcome them, you might want to play at a whisper’s volume.  If everyone co-operates, the balance will be right.

Everybody can't play "fills" all at the same time.  Take turns.

Manners …

In general, if you use the same good manners you would use around your grandma’s dinner table, everybody will come away from the jam session with a good feeling.  And good feeling is the ultimate goal of music when all is said and done!


©Joel Mabus 2001

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