While we’re here we might spend a moment considering tablature.
This method of notation is much older than the ubiquitous dots we know today as “Standard Notation.” It seems to have first appeared in the Renaissance with the arrival of the Oud from Arabia, which was quickly transformed in Europe into the Lute. This has a lot to do with the social changes that were going on at that time. It became fashionable for wealthy people to learn to play instruments. Before that, being a musician had been a professional career and music was something to be enjoyed by the elite, not actually indulged in. Once the Lute became a popular parlour instrument for the wealthy and idle it was necessary to have a simple system of explaining how tunes sounded, and tab was invented. Lute players still, invariably, use tab rather than Standard Notation.
Tab has become pretty much universally used by guitarists outside of hardcore Jazz and classical music and for good reasons. The first is its very simplicity. Standard Notation is designed from a pianist’s point of view and is awkward for other chordal instruments. Tab on the other hand is immediately obvious to the player of a stringed instrument. Furthermore there are at least forty different ways to tune the guitar, something the Jazz and Classical purists pretend does not exist, and perhaps because of this attitude there is no tradition of scordatura. This is when we use standard notation but retune the instrument so that when we play what we read as if the instrument was tuned to standard the notes we will play will be correct even though they are not what is written. Another way of putting that is to say we change the names of the lines and spaces on the staff. This is used in violin music, although there are fewer tuning variations and much of the scordatura tradition was lost in the 19th century, due to the influence of conservatoire teaching methods.
Anyway this simply is never done with the guitar, with the result that every time you want to use a new tuning, you would be obliged to learn how to read the notes all over again. That’s just absurd, so tablature has become without any question the most common and “standard” notation for guitar. There’s a huge repertoire out there all in tab.
I know that as a guitar player you’re used to tab, particularly if you’re a fingerstylist, and you are probably fond of it. I know I read tab for guitar very fluently indeed and will never change, but even though going back to learning the dots was a pain at first, it was worth it. Fiddle music is—certainly at the level we’re talking about here—about melody, single lines of notes. There are no chords to worry about, so the music is easy to read.
Now there are some people out there who advocate using a form of tablature for the violin. DO NOT DO THIS. Learn the damn dots. It’s not difficult. No serious fiddle player uses tab. The amount of music available in tab is very limited, and I mean seriously. You could use mandolin tab but even this is limited. The vast bulk of the repertoire is in Standard Notation, so the best thing to do is to concentrate and learn it. It won’t take long.
So what about learning by ear? Most guitarists do this and take pleasure in it. You most certainly can learn fiddle tunes by ear and it’s a great way to sharpen up your technique and tune your ear. However I think most violinists today would agree that in the beginning you really have to work from printed music, unless you are lucky enough to live in a very musically active community where you can find people who will willingly spend time teaching you tunes. In which case you probably don’t need to be reading this.
Modern technology makes learning tunes by ear very much easier than it once was. When I learned guitar you had to take the black vinyl record and play the part you wanted to learn, stop the player, try it out, restart the record player, position the needle, try again, and again and again till you got it right. When cassette tapes came out, things got a bit easier, but not much. Nowadays you can simply load an MP3 file of the tune you want to learn into your computer and then use the little progress bar to go over the bit you’re working on again and again. There’s even software that will let you slow down the piece to get those tricky fills just right.
This is marvellous of course and a real boon to musicians. I will say this now and I will say it again: learning tunes by ear is the single fastest way to develop your ear and also to actually learn tunes that I know of. A tune learned by ear will be remembered long after tunes you can play off the page are forgotten.
So I am saying that you should learn to read the dots for the violin, but you should realise that notation of any kind is a tool for the musician, not something to be followed slavishly at all times. Notation will make learning how to play the instrument much, much quicker. However, you should do your best to start learning tunes by ear as soon as you can, and also to internalise the tunes you learn from the page so that you can play them from memory. I know that classical players do not work this way and that many classical players, bereft of written music, can’t play a single note. It is true that their sight-reading is turbocharged compared to that of most other players, and this is a useful skill. However unless you want to be part of this group of players, I counsel you to move on from the written music as soon as you can. A tune is not really learned until you can play it by heart.
Make it your own
Furthermore, once you have learned a tune by heart, you can begin to change it, to make it your own. I’m sure you already do this in your guitar playing. Once again, you should be paying attention to the style of music you are learning and modifying the way you play the piece in sympathy with this. This is anathema to classical players, of course, but for the rest of us it is part and parcel of what being a musician means. It is the essence of all forms of traditional music, in that the basic tune is just the frame upon which we hang our own contribution. If you go round sessions in Scotland or Ireland you will hear the same tunes being played over and over again, always slightly differently. I have heard I don’t know how many versions of Morrison’s, and every single one has been different. This is not wrong, it is right.
What you must remember is that the classical method, conservatoire teaching and the religious insistence on playing what is written and only what is written derives from the fact that the classical orchestra was invented before recording techniques. The only way that a composer could get people to hear his music was for an orchestra to play it. This became so axiomatic that in the 20th century pretty much any improvisation or modification of the music was strictly forbidden, something that was not the case beforehand. In the 19th century it was simply unthinkable that a great soloist would not improvise, and Paganini and Chopin to name but two made their names upon their blistering improvisations. Unfortunately the effect of recording technology was to make classical music fans want to hear music played exactly as it was on the radio or the disc.
Sadly, in recent years I have heard trad players saying that someone does not play a tune “right.” Well, as long as it is played with both sympathy to the tune and to the musical tradition and context it is being played in, then of course it is right. We do not need absolutism in music, and especially not in trad music.