top of page

Irish Flute: Learning By Ear

So you love Irish music and want to get started learning tunes. If you already know how to read music, it's going to be incredibly tempting to pick up some sheet music and read the tunes from the dots. Resist! If you really want to become a contributing member of the tradition, the best advice you'll ever get is: "Listen! Listen! Listen! and Learn. By. Ear".

Use your ears! Learning to play Irish flute.
Use your ears! Learning to play Irish flute.

I can't stress this enough: learning by ear is what is going to make the difference between sounding like you're just messing and sounding like you know what's going on. Which makes the next question - how to start?

Step 1: Listen

Listen. A lot. To good musicians. Act as if you're learning a new language. You'll pick up a lot just through osmosis - the right "accent", so to speak. It'll help you discern what sounds "right" or "off" in your own playing as you learn, saving you from travelling down paths that aren't useful to your goal.

I can't overemphasize the importance of intensive listening first. Think about how efficient it is to try to get somewhere you've never been by following random paths blindly. Now imagine the same journey with your GPS. USE YOUR GPS.

Learning by ear can be challenging at first, but once you learn the basic patterns, you have a vocabulary you can apply to any tune.
Learning by ear can be challenging at first, but once you learn the basic patterns, you have a vocabulary you can apply to any tune.

Step 2: Start simply

Think of an easy tune you learned as a child. Can you figure out Hot Cross Buns? Mary Had a Little Lamb? Happy Birthday? Twinkle Twinkle Little Star? Get used to hearing the melody in your head and transferring it to the flute or whistle.

Software like Audacity can be really helpful for these next steps. Use it to slow down, transpose or loop play the music that you're learning.

Audacity is a great tool for learning by ear.
Audacity is a great tool for learning by ear.

Step 3: Your first new tunes

Find a tune or air you want to learn. Short, simple & slow is best here! Listen first. Sing along. Do so until you can sing it confidently without the recording.

Step 4: Determine the shape

Listen to the contour of the melody as it moves on from this first note. Does it stay the same? Go up? Or down?

Step 5: Map it out

Listen for repetition. Do you hear the same bits coming back, over and over? How many parts does the tune have? (If it's a dance tune - jig, reel, hornpipe, etc. - it will often have two parts of equal length, each played twice. If it's an air, it might have phrases that repeat with slightly different endings.) Be able to follow the map in your mind.

Step 6: Find the first note

Listen to the beginning notes of the tune. Sing the note. Can you find it on your instrument? Sing and play until you feel confident that the pitches match.

Step 7: Find the first phrase

Where does the melody go from that first note? Does it stay on the same note? Go up? Go down? Play the first two notes. Then the first three. Keep building until you have the first phrase always repeating the bits you know, in order to reinforce how they fit together. Then learn the second phrase! Then the WHOLE TUNE!!!

Keep building up your repertoire, one tune at a time. Eventually you'll have built your basic "vocabulary" to a level where you'll have 60% of a new tune figured out before you ever play it.

Have any other tips? Share them with us!

It can be really helpful to learn tunes from like-instruments to start. If you're playing a wooden flute, see if you can find a wooden flute recording or ask for learning tracks from your teacher. You'll be able to get hints about the pitches based on the "colour" of the notes - a low D, for example, often has a really intense sound, while a mid-register c-natural will often sound thinner. Listen to the sound of your own instrument. How does the upper register compare with the lower notes? Use these clues to help as you decipher your recordings.


bottom of page