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.