Dots vs. Ears (April, 2023)
Probably more than half of the musicians I play with can read music, have at least some formal musical education and are at least somewhat dependent on sheet music when playing. I am not one of them. Everything I know musically I learned by ear. My use of sheet music is at the sit-down-and-puzzle-it-out level at best.
There’s no moral judgement intended or implied here. The better musicians are likely sight-readers. Others learn tunes mainly by ear. Neither way is “the right way”. But it’s instructive to remember that a good deal of the music of the genre on this website it folk music, i.e. it was composed originally by someone who probably didn’t write it down. If written scores exist now, they were probably transcribed later. From its beginnings, people learned by hearing and playing the tune together or just whistling or humming it to themselves.
Nowadays, with the vastly greater levels of education in our era, musical literacy is much more common, and many gifted composers are creating new tunes in the mold of various regional traditions and offering them not only as recordings but as sheet music too. Still, significant numbers of us learn even these by ear. Perhaps the purest form of folk music is transmitted through the culture by ear. When was the last time you had an ear-worm running endlessly through your head?
On Versions: (March, 2023)
They said, “You have a blue guitar.
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are,
are changed upon the blue guitar.”
20th century poet
Playing an Instrument is Good for your Brain: (January, 2023)
Without the Music? (June, 2022)
Without The Music
by Susan Reid, 2022
Without the music;
everything would have been worse;
the difficult letter
becoming impossible to write
the lost item more catastrophic
the flurries and wind
more biting cold.
Without the crisp demands
of the strathspey
my mind would have circled
around the flaws of the day,
of which there were many,
and I would have been caught
in the downward whirlpool.
Without the light lift
of The Boys Of Malin *
the weight of a thousand on-rushing trivial tasks
would have flattened me like a penny
under the wheel of a freight train
Without the harmony
wrapping itself around the stately melody
of De’il Take The Warr *
my heart might have frozen,
In the blast of headlines
bitter accounts of refugees
storm warnings of more devastation to come
Without the friends listening
for tempo and pitch
sounding more joyful
and less ragged as the night went on
I would have felt
the quiet of this late hour
without comfort, ease or peace.
Where Does Musical Creativity Come From? (May 6, 2022)
I’ve mentioned or alluded in previous posts to the creative processes at the heart of music.The large majority of the tunes on this website show “traditional” for their source, i.e. the composer is unknown.But obviously someone, known or unknown, first conceived each tune (or it’s distant ancestor) and we’re all blessed by that person’s creativity.Every tune we play was once a new composition.
So where does this creativity — and creativity in general — come from?I’ve also mentioned my personal philosophy, crediting my teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation or TM, the ancient technique he revived and taught around the world.I have been meditating now for over fifty years, and find that I have become acquainted with the source of my creativity.
Briefly, what TM does is to allow a person’s attention to go to the source of thought.Consider thoughts: they come from somewhere.You can’t stop them.They bubble up from some inner source continuously.TM is a mental technique that allows one’s attention to go in the opposite direction, apprehending a thought at subtler and subtler levels and eventually “transcending” thought entirely to experience the source of thought — from where creative thoughts arise.
TM has been scientifically confirmed to produce a profound state of physiological restfulness deeper than deep sleep.With regular practice this profound rest allows the physiology to dissolve the stresses in the nervous system which limit its functioning, opening up as I have found, increased creativity, enriched awareness as a musician and listener and increased sensitivity of the senses.These effects and many other benefits have been examined and verified in many independent scientific studies.Learn more at TM.org.
Maharishi said that music is the subtlest of the arts, operating as it does on the level of vibration.My experience of music has been profoundly deepened as has my consciousness of all things, and I would recommend the TM technique to anyone wishing to explore the full potential of their nervous system and creativity.
Trad “Creationism” (September 16, 2020)
A friend brought up this term the other day to describe a certain attitude that some in the traditional music community have — essentially that this genre includes only old, established tunes.
I disagree. There are many brilliant musicians out there who love traditional dance and fiddle tunes and are composing new works in that style. To that end I encourage musicians to submit their works to this website via the Suggestion Form.
Every tune we play was once a new composition, and there’s no reason to assume that this wonderful, creative process stopped at some point in the past. Indeed it appears to me to be blossoming and continuing to enrich us all.
Musical Taste (February 2, 2020)
There are infinite gradations and flavors of musical taste. I suspect no music lovers exist who don’t have a favorite genre or two and are less attracted to others. My favorite is the loosely defined category described by the subtitle of this website, “Dance & Fiddle Tunes from around the North Atlantic”.
My father always loved European classical orchestral music from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Some prefer jazz or country or rock or bluegrass or hip-hop or old-timey, etc., etc., and there are finer distinctions even within these broad categories. None of these preferences are “right” or “wrong”, they just arise from what kinds of sounds resonate in an individual’s consciousnesses.
I have recently come to appreciate one of these distinctions within the dance and fiddle tunes genre; a subtle difference of approach between “folk” and a more disciplined view I’ll call, “academic”.
Folk is characterized by groups of friends getting together on a porch or in a kitchen to play tunes they love. They seldom refer to written music and play largely by ear. they teach each other tunes a particular member may have come across. They chat, laugh, and socializing as an integral part of these “jams”. Small variations occur as tunes are played, and there’s little attention paid to “right” versions. It’s the “folk process”.
By comparison, the academic approach, often played by more musically educated people, relies much more on written notation and what is seen as the original style and intent of the tune’s composer or at least its cultural origin. Although these tunes may be equally loved by the musicians, they play together more in the character of a rehearsal than a jam; more disciplined and working for perfection, often with the goal of a planned performance in the future.
My own preference is for the more organic folk music approach in which the tunes, like languages, are constantly evolving rather than fixed in time as the only right way. And we may remember that a lot of classical music drew inspiration from the folk music of the composer’s time and place.
Harmony (January 12,2020)
The Saga of the New Guitar Top (Dec. 16, 2019)
This is a longer post and so will open in a new tab. Click here.
Country Music (October 6, 2019)
I’ve recently been watching Ken Burns’s superb PBS series “Country Music”. It is a major contribution to the history not only of that musical genre but of much of American culture from the late 18th century almost to the present.
It also got me thinking about the place of the kind of music I feature on this website. It is also “country”, although quite distinct from the ubiquitous and commercially successful kind Ken’s history documents. It is country in that it comes almost exclusively from rural traditions and is “folk” in origin, composed and played by ordinary people, seldom for pay.
Where it differs is that it is largely although not exclusively instrumental, often intended for dancing, whereas American country music is mostly songs with lyrics that evoke emotions and tell stories. But many of country music’s roots lie in old instrumental traditions of Africa and northwest Europe; for example the banjo (African) and the fiddle (Celtic and Scandinavian). Both the African American and Appalachian currents in country music come more or less directly from older, instrumental folk music traditions.
So I feel that the “fiddle and dance tunes from around the North Atlantic” which this website is about, are just another branch, or perhaps one of the roots of the great tree of country music.
About the Website; Update (October 1, 2019)
From its inception this website has continually surprised me with its popularity. Originally started mainly for my own convenience, a few musicians around Vermont began referring to it. Then word apparently spread and Google began to find it for search terms such as “fiddle tunes” or even for individual tunes on the site.
At that point I became curious to see what sort of traffic the site was getting and installed Google Analytics to report site usage. That was three years ago, and astoundingly for me, I’m currently seeing about 3,300 sessions per month by over 2,300 users from 30+ countries. Here is Google Analytics’ graph of sessions for the last three years:
It is gratifying to see that the North Atlantic Tune List is proving useful for so many musicians around the world. I continue to add tunes regularly and there are, as of this writing, over 630 tunes on the site. “So many tunes, so little time”.
Canada Vignettes: Log Driver’s Waltz (September 12, 2019)
Albeit slightly outside the mostly fiddle-tune genre of this website, one of my favorite songs by Wade Hemsworth and sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle is the basis of this delightful short cartoon by the National Film Board of Canada.
Music Lovers (April 27, 2019)
We humans have a complex but profound relationship with music. Clearly it’s on an aesthetic level, but there are deep intellectual and emotional, and even spiritual aspects as well. My own guru said that “music is the subtlest of the arts because it happens on the level of vibration”—as does the universe, on the deepest levels of physics. Anthropologists have never encountered a human culture which did not include music in some form.
In our culture, and in these technological times with the ubiquitous availability of recording and distribution, music is enjoyed by two sometimes overlapping publics; music “consumers” and musicians. For a good part of my life, I was a music consumer, listening on the radio, attending concerts, buying recordings, etc., but not making music beyond whistling while walking or mentally repeating some “ear worm” melody. I had played guitar a little with friends in high school but with the responsibilities of work and children, didn’t play for many years. But I remained a consumer, enjoying other people’s playing. Then in my fifties, my wife took up the fiddle and I dug out my old guitar to accompany her. Plus, we discovered we lived in a community that was rich with traditional dance and fiddle musicians playing together in jams and sessions. Suddenly it was difficult to NOT play and learn from friends. Although I was and remain only a middling amateur, I had crossed the invisible divide between consumer and musician.
It’s clear to me that my musical tastes are a tiny sliver of the musical universe. I favor a danceable rhythm, clear melodies and mostly Western European forms of harmony, generally ‘folk’ music in character. My tastes in jazz don’t extend much beyond Dixieland. Does this make the music I enjoy the “right” kind, and other forms wrong? Not at all.
Sometimes at jams, I hear discussions about exactly what sequence of notes in a particular tune are ‘correct’. If the tune was written down by a known composer, then his or her written notes are likely the ‘correct’ ones, but the great majority of tunes we play are traditional or folk tunes which, even if originally written down, have evolved over a long span of time and will continue to. When discussion arises at a jam and someone asserts that X is the “right” way to play a traditional tune, I think “This is folk music, folks, not Beethoven.” Most dance and fiddle music like I feature on this site is part of a living, dynamic tradition, and one of its great strengths is its endless openness to new interpretations.
Ensemble Consciousness (April 26, 2019)
I’m persuaded that collective consciousness exists. The quality of each of our individual consciousnesses contributes to the collective consciousness of whatever situation we’re in; family, class, meeting, home, community, even nation and world.
We have all had the experience of coming into a situation—a new community, a neighborhood, someone’s home, a meeting, where we could ‘feel the atmosphere’ positive or negative, even before any words were spoken. We apprehend a quality of the collective consciousness in that situation or place. In some we feel immediately comfortable and at ease. In others we feel a little uncomfortable—some tension or discord is in the air.
One of the great joys I experience is while playing music with others, say in a jam. It’s not always there but when several musicians get in a ‘groove’ together, there’s a palpable mental harmony among them that I’ll call ensemble consciousness. Each of us in not only focusing on his or her own playing but also listening to (maybe apprehending is a better word) each other’s playing. Each player is contributing to the overall sound but not trying to dominate or compete. Putting this into words is difficult, indeed it’s impossible to convey the actual experience, but it’s what I call ensemble consciousness and it’s to be treasured and encouraged.
What Kind of Music is This, Anyway? (March 14, 2019)
I spent the last 35 years of my professional life in magazine publishing. During that time (and continuing, it appears) the media landscape was fragmenting into narrower and narrower “niches”. The days of broad-market, general interest publications were over, or at least numbered. Think Life and Look magazines. Even the slightly more narrowly focused magazines like the weekly news magazines—Time, NewsWeek, US News & World Report—were withering or are gone.
Fortunately for me, the publications I worked for were much more narrowly focused on “special interests”: a magazine for designers and programmers of what were then called microcomputers, a magazine for builders of custom homes, and finally, regional magazines like Arizona Highways and Vermont Life. Even today, assuming competent management, special interest magazines like these or niche publications like model railroad, bird watcher, auto racing, sewing magazines, etc. are thriving.
Music, however is hard to pigeonhole with its broad landscape of genres; classical, jazz, funk, old-time, country, folk, etc., etc. and I’m never sure how to categorize the kind of music I love and feature on this website. It generally but not exclusively falls into the wider category of folk music, but even the somewhat clumsy name of this website, “The North Atlantic Tine List, Dance & Fiddle Tunes from around the North Atlantic”, reflects the challenge of identifying the genre. Still, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people play, dance to or just like listening to these tunes.
What’s your opinion? Do you have a nice, efficient, one- to two-word name for this music we love?
About Me and this Website (March 8, 2019)
I’m an amateur musician of very modest ability, playing guitar accompanying melody players. I play by ear and don’t read music beyond the sitting-down-and-puzzling-it-out level. I built this site originally as an aid to my musical memory, which I describe as including two databases, one for tunes and one for titles and with no connection between the two. The website was to help me answer the questions, “How does that tune go?” or “What’s the name of that tune?”
I grew up mostly with classical music played on my dad’s Columbia console record player. In high school my two best friends were playing banjo and guitar ‘folk revival’ songs; Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, the New Lost City Ramblers, etc. In the ‘60s (yeah, I’m that old) I found rock & roll; the Beatles, Stones, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, etc, etc.
In the early ‘70s I and my family were privileged to live for five years in Atlantic Canada. It was a busy time in our lives, with one and then two children to parent, but we enjoyed learning about the Canadian music scene, including a regular program on CBC TV, “The Cape Breton Symphony” with three older fiddlers and a young man with long dark sideburns named Jerry Holland. One of the older musicians, I remember, was Buddy MacMaster who was already one of the best loved Cape Breton fiddlers, and Jerry soon became legendary as well.
Long story short, I came to love a wide swath of traditional dance and fiddle music and was honored to be invited to play with the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra, led then by David Kaynor. The VFO, plus a variety of jams and sessions broadened my horizons to include Scandinavian, British Isles, Irish, Breton, Québécois, New England, Appalachian, old-time traditional music and more, all of which I try to represent on the North Atlantic Tune List.
Just as I’m not a highly skilled musician, I’m also not an expert web designer or programmer, but I did have the good fortune to study what was called “Internet Strategy Management” as part of a two-year program at the Marlboro Grad Center where I specialized in information architecture and usability design. That plus considerable help from some friends and my daughter who is a website and graphic designer, has resulted in this website.
This is the first of what I hope will be a continuing occasional series of posts on this blog, as appropriate thoughts present themselves. Please stay tuned!