Learning to play the fiddle without sheet music

Can you learn the fiddle without reading music? Absolutely! You can certainly play the fiddle without being able to read sheet music. In fact, I’d go further and say it’s best if you don’t learn to play the fiddle by reading sheet music! I’ll explain why.

Learning from sheet music v learning by ear

Fiddle players have learned ‘by ear’ rather than from sheet music for hundreds of years. Fiddle music is part of an ‘oral tradition’, meaning that the music passes from one player to the next by playing and listening.

Until quite recently, many tunes would never have been written down. Instead, players would learn how to play tunes from each other, with tunes and techniques passing from one generation to the next.

The great Paddy Fahey, played without reading music, and never wrote down any of his wonderful compositions
The great Paddy Fahey, Irish fiddle player, never wrote down any of his wonderful compositions

So you certainly don’t need to be able to read music to learn to play the fiddle. In fact, there are advantages to learning tunes ‘by ear’.

The most important reason, is that much of the spirit of the tune, can never be written down. The phrasing, the ornamentation, the subtleties of rhythm – you have to learn these by listening.

But also, tunes learned by ear stick much better in the memory. Tunes learned from sheet music are much harder to remember.

Learning tunes by ear

So, how do you learn tunes by ear? The first step is to listen to a tune until you know it really well. Until you can sing, or hum, or whistle the tune all the way through without hesitating.

Then break the tune down into chunks. If you are listening to a recording, play a short section – may just a second or two – then hit pause. Keep those notes in your head and see if you can work them out on the fiddle. You may have to try several times to find the right notes. Keep working your way through the tune like that.

If you are learning from another player, ask them to play each bar or measure for your slowly so you can work it out piece by piece. If you already play the fiddle a little bit, but mostly play from sheet music, give one of my step-by-step tune tutorials a go. See if you can follow along!

If you haven’t learned tunes by ear before, it may feel difficult at first. But it gets easier and faster the more that you do it. Once you have had some practice, you’ll pick up new tunes incredibly quickly!

Have a go at learning a fiddle tune without the sheet music

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