How music enhances our brain capacity

Learning and playing music is not only enjoyable, sociable, and expressive — it also develops our brains. A quick and fun summary of how this works can be viewed in a short animated video from TED-Ed-Lessons.

The video discusses neuroscientific research from the past few decades, which has revealed connections between activities and brain activity in real time. Scientists have found that each activity seems to have a corresponding location of the brain, where those efforts are processed.

Listening to music, however, appears to fire up multiple areas across the brain simultaneously, and even more brain activity among those who actually play music. The process of playing music results in intricate, complex, and incredibly fast signals in all parts of the brain, especially, auditory, motor, and visual centers. Regular musical practice appears to strengthen those brain functions, allowing musicians to apply them to all sorts of activities.

In particular, playing and practicing music increases  Continue reading How music enhances our brain capacity

Music is Not Alone!

A friend of mine was taken aback when a 4th grader in one of her music classes blurted out, “You’re pretty smart — for a music teacher!” My friend asked the little girl why she said that. “Because you only teach singing and playing instruments. Can you multiply? Can you divide? Can you do fractions?”

It’s pretty cute to think of this feisty little girl holding her teacher’s toes to the fire. But it’s also a little troubling.  Is our educational system so compartmentalized that kids don’t get to see how interconnected things really are? Do our teachers work so hard to teach their own curriculum that there’s no mental space or time to tie the subjects together?

Below is some food for thought about the connections between music and 12 other subjects. I hope you enjoy these ideas — and feel free to add a comment if I missed any of your favorite connections!

Math — The little girl asked whether a music teacher can do fractions, so let’s start there! Music divides and subdivides constantly along a timeline. We work with whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth notes, and multiple ways to combine them, using triplets or adding a dot next to a note, to increase the note’s value by 50%. Music makes counting physical. Many musicians do not actually count numbers while playing but rather feel and work with beats, and fractions of beats, in a more sensory way. Maybe this is why many musicians are so intuitively good at math.

English — Musical expression matches up well with the study of linguistics — the structure of words and phrases in language. This is most obvious when there are lyrics to a melody. Shifting note values from one verse to another help the music express different ideas through words, with changing rhythms from syllable to syllable. This connection between language and music is also

Continue reading Music is Not Alone!

Playing those higher notes

Most fiddlers leave their left hand in the same place all the time, in what classical players call “first position.”  You can get by very well this way, but there are some great tunes that make us play higher up the neck.

Let’s take a look at several different ways to play those higher notes. If you already have a way to do it, this article might give you a few new ideas to try, and if you tend to avoid those higher positions, read on — it’s not that hard to play higher if you find an approach that suits you, and practice doing it a bit. We’ll be talking about ways to “crawl” up the neck as well as exercises for learning to shift positions.

Before Louis Spohr invented the chin rest in around 1820, I suspect that violinists and fiddlers held their instruments the same way. According to the great violinist Ruggiero Ricci, they used to hold the neck with their hand, with the thumb partway up the neck. They had to reach back to play the normal first-finger notes, but they were able to crawl up the neck with their fingers and play high notes without moving their thumb. Apparently the virtuoso Niccolo Paganini once said his secret was that he had only one hand position.

After the chin rest was invented, violinists held the instrument with their chin or jaw, which freed up their hands to shift up and down the neck by bending at the elbow and keeping the fingers and thumb always in the same relative position. But I suspect that most fiddlers continued with the old way of holding the neck with their hand, and moving their fingers around while their thumb stayed put. This might have required that their left hand collapse at least partway at the wrist in order to reach back to first position — a position classical teachers frown on mightily these days.

Whichever way you hold your left hand, the old idea of “crawling” up the neck with the fingers is very useful and worth learning. “Crawling” refers to  Continue reading Playing those higher notes

Play Higher! Player lower! Can you?

Can you instantly play higher or lower when asked?  Some beginners start off with a sense of high and low on the fiddle that is visual instead of aural, and it can cause quite a few troubles.

If you find yourself (or you have a student or friend) hesitating or reprocessing when someone says to play on a higher string, or to play a lower note than the one you’re on, you may find it really useful to rethink “high” vs “low”.

The only useful meaning of “high” and “low” on the fiddle is based on sound. Does the note sound higher, or lower? Does the string sound higher, or lower?

Some people start learning the fiddle visually, so they look down the fingerboard from the vantage point of their chinrest, and they see that technically the G string looks higher up than the E string. Don’t look! Listen! Clearly the G is lower sounding than the E, and that’s the only thing that counts.

One student I had was an architect, and he unfortunately started off by

Continue reading Play Higher! Player lower! Can you?

Do We Do It for the Applause?

Those who watch performances, and those who do them, often have very different ideas of what’s going on. I remember one woman who was convinced that the reason musicians get on stage is for the applause. She felt that musicians play in front of people because they are basically egotists, or narcissists.

If you are working hard learning to play music, you know otherwise. Applause is not much of a motivator for playing music. It’s nice to get applause as appreciation, but it’s not what gets us on stage. In fact, for some sensitive souls, applause is what keeps them *off* the stage! Some have a bad case of stagefright. Oddly enough, stagefright, a fear of how you come across to listeners, a fear that you might screw up in front of them, is in a sense based on a certain kind of egotism, a focus on oneself instead of on the music. I find that people who love he music they’re playing, who know all about who wrote it and what it’s been used for and what it means to them, who really want to convey their enthusiasm for the music to their listeners — these are people who rarely have stagefright.

Let’s go to the extreme case for a moment, and take a look at a survey of one kind of performer — celebrities. Dr. Drew Pinsky managed to get 200 celebrities to fill out a “Narcissism Personality Inventory” survey. The results showed that those who had the least skills — reality TV stars — had the highest scores for narcissism, while those with the most skills — musicians — were the least narcissistic.

This survey suggests that the more actual content, discipline, and skill your work requires, the less narcissistic you are. Some aspects of the music biz can involve hype, buzz, connections, or status, but the bottom line is an inescapable reality check: How you sound. It’s very real. The skills of musicianship and of communicating to listeners are hard earned.

And those hard-earned skills are fun. It’s fun to make progress, to be able to play music you couldn’t play before, to be able to play a tune for people just the way you want to play it.

I remember introducing a group of kids to the violin for their first time. They worked hard, and every one of them had a grim and determined face. They didn’t sound so good. But when it came time to find out how they liked it, all of them loved it and said they had great fun trying out the instrument!

I thought of this when a man came up to me after I had just led a big fiddle orchestra concert, and complained to me that nobody was smiling while they were playing. He said people should be having fun playing fiddle music. I assured him they were having the time of their lives.

Fun isn’t just about smiling and relaxation and games. Working hard to learn a piece of music, and performing earnestly, is fun because it’s so rewarding — even without the smile!

And that reward doesn’t need applause, though it’s nice to see the smiling faces of the audience telling you they enjoyed the music!

©2018 Ed Pearlman

Clarifying and Embodying your Tune Map

In the last article we talked about learning a tune starting with the ears, instead of with the eyes or brain. This is not merely about “learning by ear” but about taking a very practical break from the quantifiable — the written notes, names of notes, rules and regs — to allow the ears time to process a tune, its phrases, the beat notes, the pathways it follows to get you from one beat to the next. The ears know a tune long before the brain has a clue.

We are not merely advocating “feeling” instead of “thinking.” By all means, use all you’ve got! But there are traps people fall into, and we’re trying to avoid them. The brain is fully capable of micromanaging and obsessing over details it can’t really understand, while ignoring the key moments and the bigger picture that we really need it for. Many people read music and drill the notes until they feel they get a tune down, but they usually neglect to recognize that the reason they got the tune was because they allowed their ears and hands time to learn it (meanwhile the eyes and brain took all the credit! O, the injustice!).

The bottom line, as mentioned in the last article, is that what we think most about is what we are able to verbalize. Without good words, we have a hard time thinking about, respecting, and developing the job done by the ears and hands (i.e. actually play the fiddle!).

“Ear map” were the words we came up with and emphasized in the last article. To learn a tune, we have to map it out with our ears.

The words for today are “clarify” and “embody.” After mapping out the tune with our ears, we have to clarify the map, and embody the tune in our hands.

Think of how an artist draws a portrait. The first step is

Continue reading Clarifying and Embodying your Tune Map

Ear-mapping your tunes

Learning fiddle starts with the ears. This might be a bit of a mind-bender for some to consider, but really, it’s the ears that teach the hands. The brain won’t admit this, but its job is really to observe and take notes for next time; it doesn’t actually know enough to tell everybody what to do (shhh, don’t tell it). Of course, that doesn’t stop the brain from trying to give orders and get in the way. The eyes, meanwhile, do their best to look super important, but there’s not much they can do when it comes to playing fiddle — music is about sound, and playing the fiddle is about muscles; the eyes can’t even see what’s going on, being farther apart than the strings, and at a weird angle. This is a big comedown for the eyes, who are totally dominant  when it comes to driving, reading, using a computer, and generally helping us navigate through every day.   For more on this perspective, read the blog about “Reversing the Learning Process” (the second one for November 2015 — archives are located at the bottom left).

But here’s the rub — we think about things that we verbalize.  We have a hard time thinking about the work of the ears and hands because we hardly have any words for what they do.  What learners think most about, and therefore work hardest at, are concrete tasks, usually ones that their eyes and brains can direct — for example, the notes on the page, music theory about names of notes, keys, marked bowings.  We imagine that our brain sits at its desk and orders the fingers to play this note and that one, and commands the bow to move so we can hear the notes.

This is all very unfair to the real workers — the ears and hands.  When you make a mistake, don’t get mad at your brain for screwing up. Thank your ears for knowing what the music should sound like and alerting you that they want to hear something different than what you played. Even a total beginner’s ears can learn a group of four notes after hearing them twice, even if the beginner can’t quite play them yet.

It occurred to me that if we spotlight some useful words about the ears and muscles, we could use them to better direct our thoughts.

Let’s start with the words “ear map.” When you listen to a tune you’re learning to play, your ears map out the tune. Since in order to read this article, you have to use eyes, let’s use a visual analogy.  Here is how the ears might “map” a tune to get a handle on it:

We hear the important notes in the context of the beat they land on.  We feel the pulse and how it matches with the beat notes.  The pathway getting us from one beat note to the next is at first a blurry one; we don’t yet know the details.  We want to know where we’re headed first, then we’ll learn how to get there. In fact, if you play those beat notes on time, even if the notes in between only approximate the ups and downs of tune, you will be playing that particular tune and no other. But if you change the notes that land on the beats, you’ll be playing a different tune.  Changing only the in-between notes, the pathways from one beat note to another, comes across as improv!

Next time you want to learn a tune, see if you can think about mapping it out with your ears. Rather than analyzing the map, try to recognize and anticipate the beat notes.  Feel them with your body by moving, tapping, marching, or walking as you listen. Remember, music without timing is just sound.

Occupy your mind with bigger things than the notes you might see on a page — sense the phrases, just as you would hear complete sentences when someone’s speaking to you.  Notice the order of phrases and when they repeat — many tunes are structured as Question & Answer, then Same Question & Better Answer. Note how you feel about the high and low points, where you sense simplicity and where complication, where the music seems comfortable and predictable, and where it surprises.

Demand more of your ears and hold them accountable as you work on a tune.  Rather than play through all the notes as if checking them off a list, ask yourself some questions related to how well you listen — Did you allow your ears enough time to map the music? Are your ears hearing all the beat notes? Are they comfortable with the timing? Did you let your ears sense the profile of the music, the ups and downs, even if some of the specific notes are fuzzy?  Those humble little holes in the sides of your head are doing a lot of work.   They will reward you well for paying attention to them!

In the next article we’ll talk about how to clarify your ear maps, and then come up with some words to help think about what the muscles do as you play. In the mean time, listen anew to your tunes.  Profile how the music travels as it rises and falls on its journey from beat to beat. Give yourself a frequent break from the quantifiable — the written notes, the finger numbers, note letters and rules — and let your ears be your guide.  If you allow your brain to take a break from being in charge, it will observe, take notes, and may well notice some pleasant surprises!

©2018 Ed Pearlman

A Year-ful of Laughs

Here’s how to have a happy new year — kick it off with a year-ful of jokes!

Did you hear about the farmer who played fiddle out in his cornfield? It was music to his ears.

What muscles do you use most when you cross a fiddle with a pig? The hamstrings.

How do you end up with a million dollars playing the fiddle? Start with 2 million.

The fiddler asked his friend if she’d heard his last show. She said, “I hope so!”

The boy told his mother, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a fiddler.” His mother said, “Honey, you know you can’t do both.”

How do you protect a valuable fiddle? Hide it in an accordion case.

When is a fiddler considered successful? When his wife has a really good job.

St Peter welcomed three new souls to heaven. “What did you each do in life?” he asked. The first said Continue reading A Year-ful of Laughs

About Auld Lang Syne (the tune)

New Year’s Eve is coming up, and the most popular song of the night will be Auld Lang Syne.  Did you know that the usual melody used for “Auld Lang Syne” song was not the original melody?  Below is the sheet music for both.

If you’d like to hear the song as originally intended by Robert Burns over 200 years ago, click here to open a new window and listen to it as sung by Mairi Campbell of The Cast.

Burns collected the song, which was already old at the time, and added some of his own words to it, to make it the song we know now. The melody we’re used to singing (click here to hear Dougie Maclean sing it) was apparently selected by George Thomson, an editor who included Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne” in his A Select Collection of Scottish Airs in 1799 after Burns died. It must have been a popular melody at the time, but Burns regarded it as “mediocre.”

Some say the “new” melody was composed by an Englishman named William Shield for an opera called “Rosina,” which was performed on New Year’s Eve 1782 in London. According to the score, he was attempting to imitate Scottish-style melody.

But others say that Shield was himself quoting an older Scottish melody which shows up in a number of 17th and 18th century Scottish tunes such as “Miller’s Wedding,” “Lasses of the Ferry” and a few others. One tune I think is closest is a strathspey called “Sir Alexander Don’s Strathspey,” but it’s hard to say when it was written because it wasn’t published until after 1815 in the Beauties of Niel Gow.

Whatever the history, the tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne at New Year’s is honored round the world, and a melody honored by so many people for so long means more now than it did when it was new. So while we can enjoy the beauty of the melody Burns selected, it’s hard not to appreciate a group of friends singing the song as we know it, locking arms and welcoming the new year.

Below is sheet music for both versions.  Have a good New Year’s!


Music = Relationships

1. The effectiveness of lessons is dependent on the relationship between teacher and student, not merely on the information being conveyed. This can be problematic for an online teaching site! At fiddle-online, we do have live events, videos you can relate to, every question is personally answered, and private lessons are available. But even in learning tunes for yourself, you can always learn more about a tune’s background (Tune Group tunes usually say something about each tune), the composer (if any), its typical uses, even a connection to the title, so you can develop your own relationship to the tune.

2. Music theory is only meaningful in terms of the relationships between notes, and how harmonic ideas progress from one to the next. The difference between major and minor key, for example, is all about the relationship of the third note of the scale to the root note.

3. The length of a note — half note, quarter note, eighth note, etc.– is only meaningful in relation to when the following note is played. A short note at the end of a beat is usually a lead-in to the next beat, and makes no sense without it. You wouldn’t practice the US national anthem by singing “Oh say can you see by the” over and over; “by the” is meaningless without “dawn’s early light.”

4. The impact of a beat note depends on its relationship to the pickup notes or breath that introduced it.

5. The musicality of a duo or ensemble is based on the relationship of its players and their musical connection, not in whether they play the notes, rhythms or tempos correctly. A player who as precise as a metronome but rushes the pickup notes, for example, may well throw the other players off tempo, because it’s the relationship of pickup to beat, the implication of when the beat is about to happen, that makes all the difference. A good dance band has a groove for the beat that comes when the musicians tune in to each other.

6. Good intonation is based on the relationships of notes to each other, not to the correctness of their frequencies or the names of the notes. (This is why the Finger Finder is so helpful.)

7. Expression of a musical idea is only effective because of the relationship between the volume or speed or quality of sound at the beginning and at the end of the idea. It’s almost never about a single note well played.

8. A good session is about the relationship of the players, whether they play together, whether they follow each other’s lead, not whether they get all the notes right or play the correct form or tempo.

9. The excitement or calm of a section of music depends upon its relationship to what was played just before. Playing a bunch of fast tunes is not nearly as exciting as building up to fast tunes from slower ones.

10. A change of tempo, from one kind of tune to another, depends on the relationship of the second beat to the first.

11. A smooth bow change depends on the relationship between the upbow and downbow on either side of the change.  If they are the same speed and pressure, the change will be totally smooth.

12. Quality sound is based on the relationship between speed and pressure on the bow.

13. Finger placement on a fiddle is based on patterns — relationships of scales and arpeggios, and the proximity between fingers, not correct placement according to an objective measurement. For example, fingers on a string or across strings touch or remain a finger’s width apart, or may feel stretched or close depending on the interval, and these connections mean more to the muscle memory than whether a note was technically correct.

14. The value of a practice session is found in its relationship to the previous one. “You don’t get good, you just get better.”

©2017 Ed Pearlman