Learning to Play Irish Music by Ear


Don’t get me wrong - I’ve got nothing against written music. More power to those who are good readers!

As long as reading the notes doesn’t “get in the way of the music”.

Irish music is full of all sorts of musical inflections and ornamentations (one might call them “lilt” or “lift”) that, in my experience, have yet to find their way onto paper (or screen). 


Luckily today we have an over-abundance of recordings to help us (and sometimes hinder us!) on our quest to not only to just play the notes, but to make music while we’re at it. 


OK - ready to dive into your first set of Irish Reels?


Whoa, hold your ponies! First you must learn to play by ear. The Irish stuff will come in time.

Best to start with some simple tunes you already know by heart. The simpler the better, the tune doesn’t have to be Irish. “Mary Had a Little Lamb”? You betcha! “Amazing Grace”? Amazing! Any tune that you already know will give you a head start on learning to play by ear. 

When you get good and bored with “Happy Birthday”, Grasshopper, then it will be time!


In between now and then though, do some homework. Just listen. Listen to (good) recordings (I stipulate “good” because Lord knows there’s a lot o’ crap out there!). Go and find a concert or session featuring solid musicians (you’ll know it when you hear it). Listen and record (whenever possible). Listen over and over. Start humming or “diddling” along with tunes you like. 


When you think you’re ready (Aw hell, don’t wait that long), listen to the first tune below. Get it into your head, hum (or lilt) it, try to play it if you want. It’s called "The Britches Full of Stitches". It’s one of the most commonly played tunes in Irish music, meaning, if you’re among a group of seasoned musicians they’ll probably turn their noses up and maybe reluctantly play it with you. Which is one reason why I love it!

After you figure "The Britches" out, move on to the others - have fun!

A note on the tunes:

The tunes below are played slowly and simply for beginners. I recommend beginners play slowly and "make each note count".

I'm a woodwind player, so these tunes are all played on tin whistle, flute or Uilleann pipes. Most beginner woodwind students of Irish music will start on tin whistle. If you're learning the whistle, you'll want to be using an instrument in the key of D for all of these tunes. 

But just because these are played on woodwinds here doesn't mean you can't learn these tunes if you're playing string instruments. The notes are the same. Just jump in and hang on!


The most important thing a musician, beginning or advanced, can do is "The Three Ls": Listen, Listen, Listen!! Look at my page of great musicians and find their recordings, and hear them play live when possible. My page is by no means exhaustive, but a good starting point.

www.thesession.org - Great sight for Irish tunes, and some Scottish ones. Midi, sheet music, ABC notated music, lore and discussion. The upside: Lots of versions of tunes. The downside: lots of versions of tunes might lead you up a dark alley and down the back lane but who doesn't like an adventure?

Tunepal (app) - You can search for a tune on Tunepal and get a quick midi audio file of just about any Irish tune, and lots of Scottish and Welsh ones too. Or (and this is really cool) you can play a snippety of a tune and if you play the tune pretty well you'll probably be able to find out what that tune is called. Not perfect but damn close for a buck. I use the iPhone version (on the Apple App Store on yer phone) - I think there's one for Android too. The web version is a little janky.