How to Listen to Music (Part Two)

Last time we talked about the CALL and RESPONSE structure of PHRASES in Irish music, which we showed graphically as:

A part

Question 1 | Response 1 | Question 1 | Response 2

(2 bars) (2 bars) (2 bars) (2 bars)

B part

Question 2 | Response 3 | Question 2 | Response 2

(2 bars) (2 bars) (2 bars) (2 bars)

So you’ve been listening to some of your simple tunes and you can hear some of the repeating phrases. You’ve got the hang of it but you might be thinking “This is all great for these simple tunes but how is this going to help me sound like Liz Carroll or Kevin Burke?”

Well the most obvious way it’s helpful is in learning new tunes. If you know which phrases are likely to repeat, then you will learn more quickly. In the tune above, three of the phrases are repeated! It simplifies the process to know that instead of having to learn 8 phrases you need only 5.

But to improve your playing and make the music come alive the way the greats do, use this idea of phrases.

Think of it as an actor or public speaker would. If part A was written as a sentence, we could say for example:

Where are you going? | I’m going to the store. | Where are you going? | Out to the market.

(Question 1) (Response 1) (Question 1) (Response 2)

You can begin to make small changes in the phrases by just varying the emphasis. So you might vary the question this way the next time you say it:

Where are you going? | I’m going to the STORE. | WHERE are you going? | Out to the MARKET.

Or you might try:

Where are you GOING? | I’M going to the store. | Where are YOU going? | Out. To the Market.

So if you’ve got the idea using language, then you can do the same thing with music.

The easiest way to start is to vary your bow. Pick a phrase and bow it differently each time, hooking various notes together to see what the change in emphasis is. What happens when you hook 4 notes together that you don’t usually slur? What happens if you suddenly change bow on the last note? What happens if you play it loud one time and soft the next? Or maybe this time you play the last note strong and the next time the last note of the phrase is barely there. You can have a lot of fun exploring all the differences just changing the bow makes and it’s usually where I start if I am looking to loosen up a bit and find more things in the music.

Rhythmically speaking, if you’re a little more advanced, maybe you make a quarter note into 2 eighth notes . Or maybe you make 2 eighth notes into a quarter note. Or maybe you skip a note, or play a different note, or you play a little run.

If you’re more melodically inclined, you could try swapping out a part of a phrase with a similar phrase you heard from another tune. Or play notes an octave higher or lower.

Understanding the phrase structure will help you decide where the variations could go and help you strengthen the feeling you want to give to the tune. Maybe you want to only vary the questions or only vary the responses. Maybe you won’t vary anything except the first phrase or the last note. Now try going back and listening to super creative folks like Liz Carroll and John Carty and see if you can hear the way the phrases change each time.

And go play!

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