Fabulous Folk

I have just spent a merry few days at the fabulous Cambridge Folk Festival. Although I don’t personally play any folk music, or traditional folk instruments, I love the melodies, wonderful rhythms and a good dance! There was some amazing musical talent on display at the festival, and a veritable panoply of live instruments – fiddle, flute, guitar, pipes, harp, drums, etc – played staggeringly well (as evidenced by the awesome Irish band Lúnasa, pictured below).


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t see a single sheet of notated music at the festival. Every performer in all of the sets I watched played from memory. Indeed, playing folk music from memory is largely expected, and while various ‘fake’ books of folk tunes exist, folk musicians often learn music by ear rather than using a score. Although some of the melodies and rhythms are undoubtedly highly repetitive, there is enormous skill in having (seemingly) hundreds of tunes ‘in the fingers’ as well as the skill to decorate and combine them in exciting new ways.

Learning music by ear removes one of the key memory aids, namely a visual memory of the score. Although singers will usually have the words written down somewhere, and the chords may be notated on a ‘cheat sheet’, the same is not necessarily true of the melody. Musicians must therefore rely more heavily on other types of memory, including motor memory (through repetitious practice) and auditory memory (through listening to the music). Learning to recognise musical intervals and translate them onto the instrument is particularly important when relying heavily on auditory memory. Even if there is no formal score to analyse, it is important to have a good mental map of each piece, such as the structure and harmonic patterns, otherwise it is easy to get lost. As with classical chamber music, visual communication between folk musicians in a band is also important for key and tempo changes.

While I’m hugely impressed by the musical memory of folk musician, both amateur and professional, I remain somewhat baffled as to why it has become so different in the classical world. Although many classical pieces are extremely complex and no doubt harder to memorise than folk tunes, which have often withstood the test of time largely as a result of being memorable, I think part of the reason for the difference is simply expectation. Folk music is usually played without a score, so folk musicians are expected to learn how to memorise from an early stage and have to rely on it. Unlike classical musicians, who are often required to read music and use the score, folk musicians are generally encouraged to join in and play by ear. Regardless of the musical genre, that must be a skill worth learning.



About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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3 Responses to Fabulous Folk

  1. Pingback: More Memorization Tips | How to Play Music | Music Practice Tips | Molto Music

  2. michael says:

    An awful lot of it has to be put down to length and difficulty. It’s certainly easier to memorize a short repetitive tune or chord sequence than a long classical sonata, not to mention that the material is note-for-note more interesting (melodic or at least familiar; no transitions, subsidiary parts, etc). I for one certainly wouldn’t want to have to memorize the viola part for Beethoven’s Ninth! Classical musicians often point to the importance of theory–or better, simply understanding the structure of the music in order to play it from memory. This is clearly easier to do if you know the piece’s vocabulary and thought well enough that you could improvise your way out of a jam. And pianists (of whom I am one) often engage in great feats of memory–long concertos, etc. while organists (I am also one of these) often ask each other, “how come we never memorize our music?”

    And pianists don’t memorize everything, either. Chamber music is played with the music. Solo recitals and concertos are not. If it hadn’t been for the cult of the performer in the 19th century we probably wouldn’t be doing that either.

    What is most curious, perhaps, is that, after all, many folk musicians have to play without a score simply because they can’t read one. Theirs is often an oral culture by default. And yet, given what would seem to be the far greater faculties of a classical musician for playing, and sometimes memorizing, far more complex scores, many classical musicians seem to have no ability whatever to function within an oral culture themselves–even when the music is memorized it is done so as items in a list, out of context, outside the ability to converse with it, explain it in other terms, own it as more than a lengthy sequence learned sheerly by dint of long hard labor. Having learnt pieces that seemingly require far more musical understanding to make sense of, these musicians often cannot even improvise their way out of a paper bag, to say nothing of any other creative skills they ought to possess. Odd, isn’t it?

  3. thomasR says:

    Opinionated stranger here. What’s the *explanation* for why memorisation is important?

    We all represent the world differently in our minds, i.e. with different coding. Therefore learning must be a fundamentally *creative* process, as the epistemologist Karl Popper pointed out. We can’t simply download meaningful new material into our minds. If we somehow could, it would be in the wrong language. Everything must be conjectured afresh, whether it originated in our own brains or in a composer’s brain from a distant shore. We have to *guess* what it is and what it means.

    Since creativity works in the background, possibly even during sleep, we must have raw material in our memories, otherwise there’s nothing for creativity to work with.

    Thus, whilst reading music is fine, to really *improve* as a player I suspect memorisation is helpful and/or inevitable. Remembering something not separable from understanding it. The computer scientist Jeff Hawkins’ work on ‘Sparse Distributed Representations’ explains this further.

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