What makes certain tunes so hard to learn?

I’m not sure if it’s because I started playing fiddle late in life or just that my brain can only fit so much information in it at any given time, but damn it takes me a long time to learn a tune.

I find some tunes harder to learn than others, like Spike Island Lasses for example (in the video above). I have literally been trying to learn this now for at least three weeks. I work on it a little every night but I just can’t seem to get it into my brain and I get tripped up on not only the notes but figuring out which part belongs where. It’s a complicated tune. Which is probably why I like listening to it so much.

I use a couple of tools to help me like the Amazing Slow Downer and Transcribe (depending on which laptop I’m using). Both of these are great because they can slow down the tune without ever changing the key. And you can segment different parts and play them repetitively to practice trouble spots.

I have to admit though, even with these tools this tune is getting the best of me. So what makes this particular tune so hard to learn?

The makings of a difficult tune

Most tunes we play are made up of an A-part and a B-part. Both of which are usually played twice through and have a call and response or a resolve of some sort.

However, there are many tunes like Spike Island Lasses that unfortunately don’t follow the same formula. As I am trying to learn this tune I thought taking a moment to figure out what is so difficult about the tune can be helpful in trying to conquer it.

This particular tune has four parts, none of which to me are a call and response like your typical tune. Some of it repeats here and there but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason in the construction of it. This can make it difficult to learn but really fun to listen to.

I can think of a handful of other tunes that have a similar structure, (or non-structure for that matter), where the tune is not quite symmetrical.

Though it has a slightly different structure, I realized that some of the phrases repeat. This can make knowing which phrase you’re in a bit challenging. On the bright side it’s a phrase you already learned.

There are moments in music where you can hear just where the tune is going to go, but this tune in particular sometimes goes in a different direction, which can make it challenging to learn.

Conquering the tune

I once took a fiddle workshop where the teacher made us all learn the tune and sing it before we even picked up our instrument. If you can sing it in your head most likely you can play it.

Deconstructing the tune and figuring out which parts repeats helps. Once you learn those phrases that repeat you just have to learn where they fit into the tune.

No matter where you are in your playing experience, some tunes are just harder to learn than others. Sometimes they take a while to learn and sometimes they don’t. For me the tunes that are the hardest to learn end up being my favorite tunes to play.


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