There is some controversy in oldtime communities around the use of musical notation – both tablature and standard notation – in learning tunes. What role does notation have? Is it ok to learn a tune from the page? Or is it not?

In my experience, musical notation is but one tool among many that players use to better understand, hear, and feel what’s going on in a tune. And yet, the controversy remains.

The simplistic version of this debate has two sides. One side holds that oldtime is best learned by ear, directly from another player.

For instance, the renowned West Virginia banjo and fiddle player Dwight Diller wrote in his 2007 book on oldtime banjo:

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My approach to teaching the music is for a student to record a tune and then listen to it day in and day out when convenient for weeks or months. This is the way mountain children learned. They were absorbing it while running around when it was being played. Both ‘language dialect’ and ‘music dialect’ were learned the same way. The old West Virginia fiddler, Mose Coffman, said “. . the person’s gotta be able to whistle, hum or sing the tune before he can play it.” First get the rhythm & melody going around in the head, body, & heart. Some students will find this comes easy; others, like myself, find it very hard; and the older I get the harder it is to pick up tunes. Only when the whole tune+rhythm is internalized, can the tab be applied, but NOT BEFORE the person’s interior being is breathing the tune. If tab is applied BEFORE, most likely the rhythm and ‘feel’ of the tune will be blocked forever!”

The other side sees the utility of notation as a tool in learning the music. I’ve never personally come across someone in favor of using notation who claims that it is the only way to learn, or that it is in every instance the best way to learn. Instead, the proponents of notation see it as one tool among many, to be used when it seems, well, useful.

The debate seems to continue solely because of those proponents of aural transmission who believe that it is either the only “true” way to learn or, in a milder form, that it is the best way.

I don’t wish to formulate a final statement on the utility of musical notation in learning oldtime, but simply to make several observations in the hope that we can have a more nuanced understanding and debate whenever the issue arises. Let’s look at these in turn.

Learning styles

The obvious first: different people learn differently. Some people can pick up tunes by ear quite easily and develop the skill to an enviable level. Others learn better by first getting the basic melody under their fingers and then building out the tune’s nuances from there. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many contemporary teachers of oldtime music teach in precisely that way: melody first, then bowings and drone strings, smaller details last. Or at least some variation of that progression.

If musical notation becomes a crutch that players use to avoid developing their listening skills, then they will likely have greater difficulty picking up new tunes at jams and also slow their insight into those aspects of the music that can’t be represented in notation. If it is used as a tool to deepen listening skills, then just the opposite will likely be the case.

The details are lost in notation

The major claim that is made in favor of learning by ear is that the subtle details of a performance cannot be captured in notation, and therefore notation is always inferior to aural transmission.

Jeff Titon begins his Kentucky Fiddle Tunes thus:

“Nuances of pitch, rhythm, and accent that make old-time fiddling what it is are hard to represent in musical notation. […] Therefore, advanced players will use the notation in this book with care, interpreting it based on their already-acquired knowledge of the old-time style and sound. Beginning fiddlers, no matter how accomplished they are as classical musicians or note-readers, are well advised to develop a feel for old-time fiddling technique and sound before attempting to play from this notation, because the literal rendering of the notation in this book must fail to convey the music’s essence.”

Of course, in an absolute sense, this is perfectly true. Musical notation is not the music itself. It is a shorthand in black and white which tries and always fails to represent the sounds themselves. The most direct experiential access to the music will always be through playing the music itself. Listening and watching are a close second.

The claim fails, however, in a practical sense. There are many instances in which players have no access to the source musicians themselves. They may be dead or simply live elsewhere. In such cases, musical notation can be very helpful. (Unless you truly believe that the only acceptable way to learn a tune is directly from another person, in the flesh. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who claims that, but it’s plausible.) A great mass of notated oldtime music is of musicians to which we have no other access. George Knauff’s Virginia Reels, Marion Thede’s The Fiddle Book, Drew Beisswenger and Gordon McCann’s Ozark Fiddle Music, Harry Bolick’s Mississippi Fiddle Tunes and Songs from the 1930s, and many, many more collections all contain ample examples from this category.

So, at the risk of stating the obvious, if we have neither the person nor available recordings, musical notation is the best access to the details we’re going to get.

But even if the musician is still alive or we have available recordings, there are many instances in which musical notation does provide better access to the details. This is because the relationship between musical notation, listening skills, and playing skills is not just a one-way street.

It’s not simply the case that using musical notation to learn a tune bypasses listening en route to playing, as is so often feared. They can be in a mutually supportive feedback loop – musical notation allowing the player to hear details that they previously couldn’t and therefore also play them.

A prime example of this is Brad Leftwich’s book with his meticulous transcriptions of many Tommy Jarrell tunes. Tommy’s dead, so we can’t go visit him. That rules out that form of transmission. But we do have lots of recordings and some video material. Isn’t bathing in those sounds and images the best way to learn his style? For the vast majority of players, I would say, no, simply because the crazy intricacies of what Tommy was doing are really, really hard to hear until one has highly developed listening skills specific to Round-Peak style oldtime fiddle and Tommy in particular. In this case, Leftwich’s transcriptions can significantly accelerate insight into what Tommy was doing, both in terms of playing and listening skills.

In other words, for those musicians who can read musical notation, I would argue that Leftwich’s notation is certainly the fastest and most efficient way to get into Tommy’s playing precisely because it allows them to use Leftwich’s ears – a skill that would otherwise take inordinately longer without the transcriptions, if it ever developed to that level at all. Leftwich, and others like Thede and Beisswenger and McCann, had direct interactions with these musicians and had a deeper understanding of their playing than remains available today. By translating that understanding, that depth and subtlety of listening and playing into the best possible transcriptions, they have given us access to details that can’t be gleaned from an audio recording. That allows players to play tunes with greater fidelity to the source, if that’s what they’re after, and develop their listening skills so that they can, in the future, hear details through new, more refined ears.

In this view, transcriptions are not a substitute for listening skills, but are a tool by which they can be developed better and faster than without. This is especially true for the pitches themselves, of course, but also for details of bowing, subtleties of intonation, fingering, tunings, the use of drone strings, and grace notes; a bit less so for accents and dynamics. And essentially not true of timbre or tempo variations. All of these go into the “feel” of a player’s music. But seven out of ten ain’t bad.

In other words, I think it’s misguided to ask, “Is this the best tool?” The question is more helpful when it asks, “What’s this tool good for?” For certain aspects of the music, notation can be a wonderful tool. For others, it’s next to useless. But you don’t knock a great chisel for being a poor hammer.

It’s just not the way we do it

If, in spite of the arguments for using notation when it seems appropriate, some people still feel as if learning by ear is the best way, then I propose there is a different issue at play. Perhaps there is a deeper level of the debate which is not about the actual utility of notation as a learning tool, but about the community values and practices that are being negotiated through this particular debate. A kind of proxy war, if you will. Maybe we’re not arguing about notation at all.

Perhaps the deeper level of the whole debate is not notation vs. aural transmission, but a desire to protect the community’s value of personal connection and place that can be endangered or diluted through the acceptance of the impersonal and placeless nature of notation. In other words, learning by ear from another person can only occur if you’re with that person, in a particular place. That form of transmission may or may not be the best form if our focus is on learning the music qua sound or even the music qua instrumental technique, but it may be the best way to learn the music as a social practice that emphasizes personal relationships and musical lineages. And learning directly from another person increases the likelihood that a local tradition – unique in itself and distinct from others – is established and maintained.

In other words, maybe the issue is that musical notation, even when it’s useful for getting the sound of the music, can simply make an end run around relationships and place precisely because it’s disembodied.

I think there’s solid ground under this argument. If that’s what oldtime means to you, then any form of learning that is not directly from another person, in your contiguous space-time, is not the best way to do it.

This is slightly complicated, however, because it begs the question of learning by ear from recordings. Doesn’t this very common way of learning tunes then also ignore the community values of relationship and place? Yes and no. Yes it does because, of course, one can be anywhere in the world with a recording and attend solely to the sound, ignoring the person or place or community or cultural practices from which it sprang. I can sit in the comfort of my Berlin apartment listening intently to recordings of Snake Chapman without knowing anything about Snake himself or the musical community he played in.

But, in another sense, learning tunes through recordings, as opposed to notation, is very likely to do wonders for my listening skills so that when I do have the opportunity to spend time with other oldtime musicians, my ability to be in relationship with them and attend to what’s unique and valuable about their way of playing will be all the more refined.

Furthermore, communities create a sense of shared identity through the practices and rituals they have in common. Struggling through one’s first attempts to learn by ear might not be enjoyable or even particularly fruitful in itself. But that struggle becomes a shared experience that bonds me to other oldtime musicians who’ve made the same trek. Here the specifics of the practice are completely arbitrary, it’s just that we’ve all gone through the same experience.

In the end

In the end, I find the vociferousness of the conversations often jarring. Really? I mean, it’s just a tool, right? Just one way to get into the music? And I guess that’s where I still stand. You wouldn’t want to learn how to cook solely through cookbooks. In-person demonstrations of technique, learning the sound of a proper sauté temperature, building a taste memory from foods the masters have cooked – none of these things can be conveyed by even the best cookbook. But does that mean they can’t be great tools in spurring our imagination, detailing complicated procedures, inviting us into past times? Hogwash.

It’s true that there are many, many transcriptions out there that are unlikely to be helpful tools. A great majority of those with nothing more than pitches and durations notated will do little to aid in learning a tune or learning to hear, unless the melody goes by at such a speed that even they might add some insight. But more detailed transcriptions, including bowing, fingering, intonational oddities, and the like, as well as tablature with its direct reference to where which fingers go on which string, can be of great use. Especially if written by players who did have direct relationships with the source musicians, these more detailed transcriptions can be an invaluable window into the music.

Learning to play oldtime is a lifelong endeavor. And then you die. Anything that helps people get an instrument in their hands, develop their ears, brings them closer to the sounds and people and stories we cherish, well, it’s good enough for me.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this article. Our “old time” jam group is composed of classically trained violinists, former standard notation trained piano players who took up the violin, guitar or mandolin, musicians who learned completely without instruction except for jams and everyone in between. Although piano trained (maybe because of it), guitar and mandolin tab was easy for me to learn and has been a bridge to learning tunes. The mentor mandolin in our group developed his own shorthand tab, with over a 1,000 old time tunes, and has been sharing them as I progress, which has been an amazing assistance. He also explains his notation which opens up to more complicated playing (hammer ons, bump ditties, keys to crooked and oddly repetitive tunes, etc). The only problem with his tab is that so far I’m the only musician who could read and play it. Playing and musicians come in all kinds of variations, and as you said, we can use all the tools.

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