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Learning ‘orally’ or ‘Learning by Ear’

Oral learning – or ‘learning by ear’ is how the ‘traditional’ and ‘folk’ players have learned and passed on their tradition for centuries. Even though the music has been in existence for over a thousand years and has been internationally acknowledged for at least that long ( - and the harp is our emblem etc etc so is very highly respected universally), isn’t it a surprise to note that the first significant publication of harp music didn’t happen until the 1970s? Not when you know that ‘learning orally’ is how it has been passed through the generations.


It is important to note that there are 2 forms of learning orally / by ear:
learning by ‘rote’ or learning by ‘reason’.


The difference can be likened to the learning of language. To learn by ‘rote’ means to learn by direct imitation – like a parrot would learn – without understanding the meaning of what is said or sounded and certainly not able to use the component parts or concepts to recreate other constructions or communications.


Imagine: You have travelled to Japan and have learned a song in Japanese – and being a good student, you have studied all the inflections, sounds and stops so your performance of it can be convincing – even excellent - and evoked excitement and acclaim from the audience. With a ‘good ear’ and retentive memory, students can learn fixed arrangements quickly – but will understand nothing of how the piece is constructed and so cannot respond to the ‘insiders’ excitement with participating in the ‘language’ / ‘tradition’ as they can only perform what they have perfected. This type of playing has been called ‘parroting’ and is the result of purely ‘rote’ (or ‘imitation’) learning.


To learn by ‘reason’ means to learn the language that created the music in the first place so every sequence of notes has meaning, every embellishment is understood, every accent is logical, every nuance is relevant, communicated with conviction and meaning – with the expectation of generating collaborative response from the other ‘insiders’ / speakers of the language / players of the tradition. And, the conversation can go on for hours at a time, exciting to both players and listeners, who are ‘sparking’ off each other, bouncing energy about and having a merry time - because the ‘language’ or ‘tradition’ is common and is a ‘conversation’ – with each participant inspiring the others to explore and experiment with the music – always holding fast to the basic melody (‘the bones of the tune’) with each participant applying different arrangements, ornamentation and variation (‘puttling flesh to the music‘ or ‘the dressing of the tune’). This is what happens in the ‘session’.


In the ‘classical music’ model, learning to read notes and finger technique is the priority. In the process, there is no ‘creative’ interpretation as the player is required to play only what is dictated on the page. These are the differences between learning ‘by ‘note’, ‘rote’ and ‘reason’ (about which I have written extensively. If you are interested in learning more, contact me on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!).