Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Irish Trad - Does It Help To Read Music?

Have you ever seen the lyrics to a favorite song and realized that you were mishearing some of the words? Did you benefit from learning what the correct lyrics were? One example that comes to mind is the Grateful Dead song Franklin’s Tower. I used to think that the words “If you plant ice you’re gonna harvest wind” were “If you play nice you’re gonna always win”. What I heard in my head was inferior to the actual poetic lyrics penned by Robert Hunter. Finding this out didn’t in any way take away from my enjoyment of this song that I already loved. It enriched it!

I think the same can be done with caution with Irish tunes. When people say that Irish traditional music is an aural tradition and you should learn by ear and not by notation that is true. You should strive to train your ear to learn this music via osmosis and resist the urge to “cheat” and look at the music too early in the process of learning an individual tune. However, glancing at transcriptions of the music can help clarify some muddy areas and help you grasp and remember the tune better, much in the same way that seeing the lyrics to Franklin’s Tower helped correct the faulty words that my mind’s ear was hearing.

I am trying to learn basic tourist French right now prior to a trip to Quebec this summer. I have some audio instruction “tapes” that I got from the library. Since I am a visual learner (and a fairly good speller) it really helps me comprehend the language better if I can pair the audio with the written. So for me, pairing a written phrasebook with the audio helps give me a more complete picture of the expression. The same holds for music: audio + notation vs. audio only.
Jerry Garcia said, “With records, the whole history of music is open to everyone who wants to hear it. Nobody has to fool around with musty old scores, weird notation and scholarship bullshit. You can just go into a record store and pick a century, pick a country, pick anything, and dig it, make it a part of you, add it to the stuff you carry around and see that it’s all music.”
This is definitely the approach I want to take as I continue to learn Irish music and tunes. By listening to the likes of Angelina Carberry, John Carty, Kevin Griffin, Daithi Kearney and Mick O’Connor (slowed down and pitch-corrected as needed) I hope to intuitively get the feel of this music as played on tenor banjo. Ideally, in my case, the years of listening to Jerry Garcia prior to ever playing an instrument can also come through the background of my unconscious when I am attempting to interpret tunes. No harm in that!


Jerry Garica also said “If you’re wondering why in an old-timey band you can’t understand the words very well, it’s because we don’t know them, and we can’t figure them out off the records, so we make up our own as we go along.”

When you can’t understand the exact words you replace them with words of your own choosing based on what fits or what you think it might be. The same is done as a player with your choice of musical notes. You may not like what you see when an Irish tune is written out and may prefer your own way of hearing it. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as your aural version is driven by purity of intent and not held back by your ignorance or skill limitations. You get to choose how “enlightening” you find someone else’s idea of what the notation should be. Use it as an aid, not as a crux.

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