The tyranny of sheet music
Printed sheet music fills many shelves in our house. I learned much of what I know from written sources. But printed sources can also get in the way of playing music, especially in more folk music styles with aural traditions.
Over the years, I have played on-and-off with the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles, a community group that has been around for almost 40 years. With a larger number of members and constant flow of newcomers, it is challenging to maintain a common repertoire or add to it. Sheet music definitely can help, but it sets a low threshold. During recent seasons, the music directors have moved towards teaching/learning tunes by ear and that has led to a tremendous improvement in how the group sounds. Chris Peoples, the associate musical director, is organizing a number of Scottish fiddle jams across the Los Angeles area to maintain that new skill (including one at my house in July).
Why is playing by ear so much better in this context? It is hard to claim that playing by ear is inherently superior. After all, it would be nearly impossible to coordinate an orchestra to play a half-hour symphony without sheet music. But the tables turn in folk styles, even (or especially?) when participants are trained classically.
One reason is probably because sheet music is typical in a fake book style where tunes are stripped down to their essentials with little to distract (ornamentations, accents, bowings). The actual music lives between the notes and it is that stylistic content the player needs to provide to play musically. Another one is that reading music may require more eye-hand coordination than ear-hand coordination, leading to a lot of rather unmusical playing when people faithfully reproduce printed notes. This has been a challenge for the Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles, but I have seen that in other contexts, especially the intermediate Celtic Session in Culver City.
When it comes to learning tunes, there isn’t a wrong or right way. But there is a way that initially seems easy and there is a better way. The easy way is to grab some sheet music, read the melody and chords off the page, and grind through it. There may be some instant gratification that way, but it leads to very slow progress. Music has some similarities to language and the key part for learning a language is mimicking. Nothing wrong with sheet music; reading is also an important part of learning a language. However, it is not one that leads to fluency.
Learning music by ear is not that easy and requires disentangling individual phrases to make sense of them. This naturally requires repetitions, but at the same time improves retention of a musical idea. Initially more laborious, but if the goal is to be able to memorize a piece, it probably is faster. Learning phrases in context is just like sentences in a conversation, much easier to remember than a random string of letters/notes. Because one would obviously want to learn from an attractive performance, mimicking that sound will automatically lead to a more musical version than what sheet music provides. I also found that tunes I learned by ear stayed in my memory far better than anything I learned from notation.
In any event, if you are dissatisfied to be a musician stuck to music paper like a fly to flypaper, give it a try on your own. Or think about joining the Scottish Fiddlers in the fall.
Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.