Overview:

  • Learning tunes by ear is great – slowing tunes down makes that easier
  • There are many free and paid programs that can help you do that
  • YouTube and Timestretch are two good, free ways places to start

Learning by ear

There are lots of ways to learn to play oldtime, but for most people, most of the time the best way is by ear. In part this because the various musical practices we lump under the term oldtime are themselves predominantly aural traditions, passed on by ear, in-person. Learning in this way is an important part of the music itself.

It’s also a great way to learn because it develops the skills needed to swim when unfamiliar tunes come up in jam sessions. Musicians who have learned primarily from sheet music or video tutorials, where the parts are broken down slowly and methodically, are generally not as good at just picking up tunes in a session. No wonder – their listening skills have had less practice.

Furthermore, written notation is fixed. Whatcha see is whatcha get. But recordings can display an almost limitless depth. The more you listen, the more you can discover. Thus learning tunes by ear gives you the ability to find your own level within any recording, from the most basic to the most insanely detailed.

There are lots of reasons to learn tunes by ear. The question is how? Learning from tunes played at full speed is not for the faint of heart, and not likely to be the best way to discover the details that make a tune really special.

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Slow it down!

Slowing down recordings of tunes you want to learn gives you the best of both worlds. It gives direct access to the sounds themselves while also giving you control over how much sonic information is coming at you. Slowing down tunes allows you to choose a recording you want to learn, bring it down to a speed that is reasonable for your current listening skills, and focus on particular parts one-by-one until you get them under your fingers.

So, how?

In times past, musicians could turn halve the speed of their turntable to slow down a tune. A rare few even had fancy cassette players that allowed the same. Today, fortunately, there are many options for slowing down tunes to learn them.

YouTube speed function

YouTube may be all you need because it has a function to slow down videos while maintaining the pitch. A great many oldtime tunes are available on YouTube, either as an actual video or simply as an audio track. How do you slow them down?

At the bottom right corner of the video box you will find a gear symbol that controls various settings. One of them is Speed. Using this Speed setting you can alter the speed of the video to 3/4, 1/2, or 1/4 of its original speed, all without changing the pitch. While it may seem a bit hidden, this feature is indispensible for learning tunes that are on YouTube.

Features:

  • free
  • web-based
  • works on desktop, tablet and most smart phones
  • super easy to use
  • speed function only
  • no pitch adjust, no looping, no key change, nada

Amazing Slow Downer

The classic tool to slow down tunes has long been the Amazing Slow Downer. The Amazing Slow Downer is a program that you install on your computer, tablet, or phone with which you can then play audio files (MP3, AIFF, AAC/MP4, and Wave) you have on your hard drive. 

Amazing Slow Downer allows you to choose how much you want to slow down a tune. It allows you to select a particular section of the recording to loop so you can learn piece-by-piece. And it allows you to save these files so you can come back to them later.

You can also change the key of a tune, which is useful, for instance, if you want to learn a cross A tune in cross G or vice versa. And, especially for old recordings, it allows to make fine adjustments in pitch to account for the use of non-standard tunings. Many of the old recordings are not tuned to the modern A440. They’re slightly – or very – out of tune. This function allows you to learn the tune without retuning your instrument.

Finally, the EQ and Slow Down Types allow you to shape the sound so that the instrument you want to hear is as clear as possible.

However, the program does not play tracks directly from iTunes, making it slightly more cumbersome to use for some Mac users. And the user interface is not exactly wonderful.

Should you stick with the classic?

Well, the free trial version allows you to play the first quarter of any file up to 3 minutes. Fortunately, for a great many oldtime tunes, this is more than enough time to find a section that would allow you to learn the tune. So, often the free version is more than adequate.

If not, and you want to learn from the entire file, then you’ll need one of the paid versions which range in price from about $10 for Android phones to $50 for the Window and Mac versions. Compared to the price of workshop, a private lesson, or other instructional material, that’s not too bad.

Features:

  • free or paid
  • Windows and Mac
  • pitch adjust, loop, key change, 
  • great sound quality, save files, EQ adjustment
  • no direct import from iTunes
  • sub-par user interface

While Amazing Slow Downer is the classic program for good reason, there are many other programs today with the same or added features as well as better user interfaces. It’s well worth check these out too.

Timestretch (web or Linux)

Timestretch is a free, web-based app that has many of the same functionality of Amazing Slow Downer. You simply upload an audio file from your computer and begin working with it through the interface. Very good user interface, great features, and free. If you’re starting out, don’t mind using a web-based application, and don’t absolutely need to save your tracks, I think this is a great way to slow down tracks for learning.

Features:

  • free
  • web-based
  • slow down, pitch adjust, key change
  • looping
  • great, simple user interface

Anytune (Mac/iOS)

Anytune is another slow down practice app for Mac and iOS. It’s available in a free version with no time limit, but fewer features than the paid “Pro+” version. Anytune might also be of interest to some users because it allows you to play tracks directly from iTunes, which Amazing Slow Downer does not. The free version of the program is not time limited and offers most of the functions one would need to 

Features:

  • free and paid versions
  • Mac and iOS
  • slow down, pitch adjust, key change
  • looping and visualization
  • iTunes import
  • save tunes for future use
  • isolate instrument with EQ presets
  • more complex program, but good user interface

Best Practice (Windows)

Best Practice is a free, Windows-based tool very similar in functionality and look to Amazing Slow Downer. You can play files on your computer or directly from a CD, set a loop, adjust pitch, and change key. In other words, if you have a Windows machine and want the full functionality of Amazing Slow Downer without paying for it, this is your best bet.

Features:

  • free
  • Windows only
  • slow down, pitch adjust, loop, key change, 
  • save files
  • so-so user interface

Transcribe! (Windows/Mac/Linux)

Transcribe! is a very full featured program to slow down and transcribe audio and video tracks. It packs basically every function under the sun, while having a particularly strong emphasis on placing markers in the audio track so you can find certain parts of a tune easily. For oldtime musicians trying to learn a tune from a single repetition, a simple loop function is usually adequate. But if you want to go through different variations within a tune, then this could be very helpful.

Features:

  • $39 purchase after free trial
  • Windows, Mac, Linux
  • slow down, pitch adjust, loop, key change, EQ
  • save files
  • visualization
  • advanced marking and looping features for multiple sections in each track
  • note and chord detection
  • good user interface

Song Surgeon (Windows and Mac)

Song Surgeon is another highly featured program for Windows and Mac that allows you to slow down tunes, loop them, and learn quickly. Only Song Surgeon and Transcribe! also automatically detect the key, beats, and chords in a song, which might be of particular use for chord instruments. This is the most expensive program but probably also the most feature-packed one, with dozens of ways to loop and modify tracks for learning and transcription.

Features:

  • $70 Standard; $100 Pro
  • Window and Mac
  • slow down, pitch adjust, loop, key change, EQ
  • save file
  • note and chord detection
  • work from audio and video files
  • good user interface

Recommendations

Entry level: YouTube and Timestretch

Both of these options are free and perfectly adequate if you just want to slow down tunes in one sitting and learn them as best you can. Free, easy to use, work fine.

Intermediate: Best Practice, Anytune, Amazing Slow Downer

These three options offer deep feature sets including pitch adjustment, key change, looping, as well as the ability to save tracks for later. If you don’t plan to learn a tune in one setting or want to have a file of the tunes you’re learning by ear, then even the free versions of these programs are the next logical step. You’ll have to choose by which operating system you have. Best Practice is Windows only, Anything is Mac only; Amazing Slow Downer is available for all platforms

Expert: Song Surgeon, Anytune, Transcribe!

If you want to have all features available, break down tunes into various chunks, filter out instruments by EQ, work from videos, and more, then these three programs are going to be the place to go.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I use Amazing Slow Downer on a Mac. The tunes from iTunes are stored in the iTunes music folder so any tune you’ve downloaded and imported in iTunes can be accessed in ASD. You just have to navigate to that folder when you bring it into the app. I’ve used ASD for years and it’s worth every penny in my opinion.

    • Thanks, Stephen. It’s helpful to know that iTunes can also be easily used with ASD. Your experience also parallels that of many others – ASD is a classic choice for a reason.

  2. I should try some of these – however, I use the free Audacity presently. It is much more than just a slow-downer – it’s a multi-track audio editor and recorder – but has speed, tempo, pitch change as well as looping. As such, the interface may be more difficult than a more singular type program. But .. works for me. Cross-platform and imports most all of sound files.

  3. Anytune can isolate instruments with more than EQ presets — it has a feature they call “Reframe” that lets you pick instruments out of a stereo mix, either soloing so you hear only (well, mostly) them, or muting them so you can play in their place. I put together a quick demo with a modern old-time recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCDoWSNR1ao

    Reframe works in combination with EQ, too, so you can start with one and refine with the other. I don’t play banjo yet myself, but when I start learning, Anytune’s going to be invaluable in pulling it out of a mix where it’s hard to hear.

  4. Amazing Slow Downer when used on an IOS device integrates with your spotify account. you can access any of your spotify playlists so there is no need to import them…ASD and spotify are my most valuable musical tools..

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