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Learning ‘orally’ or ‘aurally?’

'Oral' or 'Aural' learning is delivered 'by mouth' (oral) and acquired by ear (aural) - so either term is right!   ‘Learning by ear’ is how the ‘traditional’ and ‘folk’ players have learned and passed on their music for centuries in Ireland. While the harp music has been acknowledged for its excellence throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, isn’t it a surprise to note that the first publication of Irish harp music for Irish harp players didn’t occur until the 1970s?  This is not a surprise when you understand that with oral learning, harpers' 'ears' (aural acuity) and memories are exceptionally well trained, and there was no role or need for written notation to support them.  

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

To learn by ‘rote’ means to learn by imitation with all elements of creativity, interpretation and style directed from the source.  It does not require the player to contribute creatively to the process - and whether from a notated or aural source, this is about 'reciting' the music ('giving a recital').  To learn 'by reason' is to learn the language of the music, and calls directly on the player to be spontaneously creative - as you would be 'in conversation'.  

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 style so your performance of it can be convincing – even excellent - and your performance was so convincing that many expected you to be a native speaker.  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 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 - as an intuitive art - spontaneous, creative, ultimately variable and unpredictable.  Every sequence of notes has meaning, every embellishment is understood, every accent is logical, every nuance is relevant – with the expectation of generating a 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 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’.  Each participant inspires the others to explore and experiment with the music – always holding fast to the basic melody (‘the bones of the tune’) with each applying different ornamentation and variation (‘puttling flesh to the music‘ or ‘the dressing of the tune’), harmony and accompaniment. This is the nature of what happens in the ‘session’.

In the ‘classical music’ model, to perform as the composer/arranger intended - whether communicated by 'note' or 'rote'. If you are interested in learning more - please enjoy to check out "Irish Harp by Note, Rote or Reason", the video recordings from the Symposium of this title (with keynote speech presented by Professor Janet Harbison, Ulster University) that are also accessible on this website.



The ‘traditional’ style of playing

Traditional music which is an ‘oral tradition’ (‘taught or learned by ear’) requires players to be spontaneously creative applying ‘ornamentation and variation’ to the melody and harmonic bass accompaniment to the music. Every player is expected to develop their own style of playing – from fiddles and flutes, concertinas and uilleann pipes – each applying ornamentation and variation of their choice (within the traditional style) to the melody, thus ‘making the music their own’. This is the goal of every traditional player!


Harpers have twice the challenge! As well as applying ornamentation and variation like all the other melody-only instruments, harp players are also expected to ‘add an accompaniment’ – a ‘left hand’ – a ‘bass part’ – equally creatively with a multitude of choices and creative options between chording choices, basslines, harmonies, complements and counterpoints. This is the phenomenal ‘other dimension’ that is a creative ‘blank slate’ offering players a tremendous opportunity to showcase their creativity and to thrive with the potential for unique and characterful arrangements.


Not everyone is creative however! This is human nature – some musicians are more ‘creative and flamboyant’ than others who may be ‘careful and predictable’. But all have their place in the world – and to copy a creative player is a complement to them – as long as they are duly acknowledged – for otherwise, the performance is an act of theft. This might sound strong, but one’s creativity is one’s ‘soul song’ – and the sacred offering of the creative spirit. There is no embarrassment in playing other harper’s compositions or arrangements – but there is the responsibility of at least acknowledgement. If there is financial gain in the performance of the music, there will also be a licence fee or royalty due. For more information on this, please write to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..