image description

Tips & Tricks: Learning by Ear vs. Reading Sheet Music – Which is the Better Way to Learn the Fiddle?

May 15th, 2013 by Katherine Moller

small__5653690833For several years I ran a fiddle camp and hired many other instructors.  It was interested to hear what their opinions were when it comes to learning by ear vs. learning from sheet music.  It is a very divisive topic among fiddlers!

As with everything, there are pros and cons with both methods!

Reading Sheet Music:


  1. You can learn music that you have never heard.
  2. Sheet music shows you both the notes you need to play and the rhythms.


  1. You have to have the sheet music in order to be able to play a fiddle tune.
  2. Learning to read sheet music can be a slow process and it can take longer before you are able to play a recognizable tune.

Learning by Ear:


  1. If you hear a great tune that you want to play, you can learn it, even if you can’t find the sheet music.
  2. You can start playing fiddle tunes quicker than if you learn from sheet music.


  1. Tablature does not show you the rhythm of the music, so you have to know what the piece is supposed to sound like.

So, what is my opinion?  I think that the best musicians can learn both by ear and from sheet music.  I started playing classical music, so was well versed in learning from sheet music and learned how to sigh read really well.  When I went to live in Ireland I was introduced to learning by ear, and it was terrifying at first.  It is now liberating to be able to go to jam sessions and sometimes being able to pick up new pieces from hearing them played.

With my own students, especially my young students, I like to teach by ear first and then after about a term introduce sheet music.  This allows my students to become familiar with the violin without having to think about reading music too.  Having said that, I do use tablature with some of my older students who have no interest in learning how to read music.  It is all depending on the student’s needs.

Leave a comment below to tell me how you started off learning the fiddle.

photo credit: teawithlizzie via photopin cc

4 Responses to “Tips & Tricks: Learning by Ear vs. Reading Sheet Music – Which is the Better Way to Learn the Fiddle?”

  1. May 16, 2013 at 3:48 pm, Judy Reynolds said:

    Like you, Katharine, I learned classical first but was raised in a musical family where only my grandmother (on piano) played using notes. They all sounded wonderful so note reading ability is not an absolute must but, again like you, I think being able to learn to play music by ear AND by reading notation is a huge plus. I have known old-time players who have played all of their lives and like to brag about playing “over 100 tunes”. That is wonderful, it really is, but I worry about the music that didn’t get played because it is written down in books. Being a moderator in a large fiddlers group, this verbal battle comes up on a regular basis. I have finally learned just to say, “learn both ways” and leave it at that because I feel so strongly about it. I would bet you know exactly what I mean.

    • May 18, 2013 at 11:15 pm, Katherine Moller said:

      I know exactly what you mean! I think it is too bad when musicians can’t accept that there is value to both. Since I live in both the classical and fiddle worlds, I see both music reading and non-music reading musicians looking down upon the other… Thanks for your comments!

  2. May 27, 2013 at 3:20 am, John Tait said:

    I can read music and I have to learn to transcribe to play tunes I like that I hear when there is no notation available.

    I am trying to learn your version of “Draggin the Bow” from YouTube. It is not easy to transcribe your playing of this tune, and some basic notation would help.

    Any advice? Thanks.

  3. June 07, 2013 at 1:26 am, AJ said:

    I believe in both. Reason being is that I compose better music, that is to say, I hear the tune, then write it down after I have tried it on my instrument. This way I can actually put in the actual “feeling” of the tune into the dots so to speak. As a musician I think we need to be more rounded and accepting of different ways of learning.
    As to be well rounded, I am 5’9″, 270 lbs, and portray the Santa stuff. Rolly and Jolly 🙂


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

image description
''Celtic fiddle with a classical twist:
the heart and soul of a fiddler, the artistry and finesse of a classical violinist.''