New Member: sboag, 55y, Boston, Irish Trad Musician

I’m a software engineer, and have a varied background. I’ve been playing the Irish flute for about 12 years. Though I took some piano lessons when I was young, and fiddled with the guitar, banjo, and silver flute as a teenager, I didn’t get serious about music until an older adult, and certainly didn’t know anything about Irish Tradtional Music (ITM). Learning music as an older adult is different than learning as youngster, that’s for sure. I was never good at memory, and never really thought it important, to tell you the truth. I was raised in the age of “you don’t have to remember facts and dates, just learn the concepts!”.

Irish music session generally occur in pubs, or for dances. Written music is very much frowned upon, and tunes are usually learned by ear. Tunes (called “tunes” and not “songs”) breed and evolve through the community, and have histories of being written recently to being hundreds of years old. Most tunes are fairly simple, divided into 16 measures of AABB, and categorized as jigs, reels, polkas, etc. There are thousands upon thousands of tunes. As a ITM musician, you have to hold a rich repertoire in your head in order to play in sessions. It’s a challenge. Tunes are played in sets, and you have to quickly be able to play one tune, think of another, and move to that tune, rather spontantiously. And the tunes are structurally often similar, so memory confusion is quite the factor. Over the years I’ve become frustrated going through a bunch of work learning tunes, and then loosing them because I don’t get to play them often enough. And struggle with even remembering the tags (tune names) of what I know, so I find the tunes, so to speak.

I recently read “Moonwalking with Einstein”, and have been inspired to try to apply some of these technique to my application of traditional music repertoire. I’ve tried to do some research on the application of these techniques to music, but most of what I’ve come across has been related with classical music, applied to large compositions, which is fairly different than my needs. I’ve read one thread about applying these techniques for jazz music, which is closer. I’m very new to all this, so, please set me straight if you think I need it! I’ve been working on the following fronts:

  1. Palace of tunes: I’ve set up a memory palace of, so far, about 250 tunes. One room is hornpipes, three rooms are jigs, a hallway holds slip jigs, 5 upstairs rooms holds the reels, a room in the basement holds polkas, and another room holds slides. Essentally right now this palace is just an index of tune names. But I’m starting to be able to tour the palace an “hear” each tune, and in some cases visualize playing the tune. So, besides providing a “place” for each tune, the palace can act as a virtual practice hall.

  2. Space repetition with Anki. I basically have the list of the tunes loaded in Anki, and limit myself to about 26 tunes a night. I have to make sure I carefully and mindfully practice these, so I don’t end up practicing in rushed and bad playing just to get through the list. Sometimes I take a few of these and go in deeper, experementing with phrasings, variations, and ornamentation. This can sometimes take a couple of hours, so I’m worried I’m doing too much. On the other hand, if I don’t go through enough each day, I don’t think I’ll be able to rotate through the repertoire in a way that will make sense. Note that in some ways I’m trying to simulate the tune rotation that occurs in sessions, in my basement.

  3. Rapid tune learning. As I said, learning a new tune is often done by ear. Sometimes from a teacher, sometimes at a session, and sometimes from a recording. Generally the learning occurs in chunks of phrases. Sometimes as I’m learning the parts, by the time I start learning the B phrases, I’ll forget the A phrases. Often I kind of get the “bones” of the tune down, and then, 2 hours later, will have completely forgotten the whole thing. Sometimes I have to repeat a phrase over and over and over, more times than I think I should, in order to commit it to memory. So, my idea is to create a very structured palace or room or board that I can use over and over. I’ve started creating an association of notes to animals… like people do with numbers, I think. So, for the flute I generally have just two octives. So, land animals for the lower octive, flying birds and insects for the upper octives, with a choice of a few alternatives per note. The idea is, just populate a few of the pegs with animals or birds, maybe with them forming stories sometimes. Just enough to get my aural memory in place. So, I’m just starting this part. I don’t know yet if it will work. I’m especially interested in advice and input relating to this aspect.

  4. Aural memory, as opposed to visual memory. Being able to hear a tune in your head, play it from memory. I’ve read some research pertaining to this, but have been surprised not to have been able to find more. It seems like aural memory is very different from visual memory, both short term and long term. If you know of reading material pertaining to this, please let me know!

  5. Hearing a tune, and being able to remember it’s name. This is really the reverse card for #2 that I describe above, though not sure if I could pull it off with Anki in a tractable way, or if doing it would be worth it. Still, it’s a challenging problem.

Sorry for being so long-winded. I may start a blog or something, as I think it may be interesting to plot my progress.

If there are other musicians out there, especially traditional musicians, please let me know who you are!


Nice to meet you here!

One way I like to use memory for music is to have a key song in mind where I can visualize the fretboard on guitar and bass. If I can match one note in a new song to a note in my key song, it helps figure out how to play that new song without even having the instrument in my hands.

I’ve got other stuff about memorizing music on my blog if you want to click on my bio and head over to my site.

And speaking of blogs, do indeed start one. They’re awesome for charting memory experiences!

Look forward to seeing you around the forum! :slight_smile:

WOW!! Your post is exactly what I hoped to find. I’m learning guitar accompaniment from a Daithi Sproule at the Center for Irish Music in St. Paul, MN. I just joined this forum. I’ll spend some time reading your post and then perhaps have something more interesting to talk about other than my excitement seeing your post. All the best sboag!

Hello, sboag! Are you still out there, still fiddling? We seem to be doing the same thing. I too am trying to learn Irish fiddle and remember the tunes. Let me know if you’re still at it so we can learn from each other.

Hi, sboag. I realized I misread your post - you are playing flute. That’s great. I think we have a similar challenge in remembering tunes.
I came across a tip for remembering tunes here on YouTube:
Fiddlehed Lesson

I’m particularly interested in creating the “fingerprints” he describes. In short, he practices recalling the tune’s title and only the opening notes for the A part and the B part, which he calls the “fingerprint”. He says you can usually recall the whole tune if you know these opening notes. That’s my experience as well, but the “fingerprint” can be as long as needed.

I would like to take it one step further, in case I can’t remember the fingerprint, to have a mnemonic hook for that. I’m thinking of solfege. So you could remember, for example, Lilting Banshee is in the key of G and begins “La Re Re, La Re Re.” Then, maybe you think - oh, Laura is the lilting banshee- Laura sounds a lot like La Re. Then Laura is in your memory palace along with Lilting Banshee.
What do you think? Do you play songs in many different keys or mostly the key of D?

Hi Carollyn! Thanks for the link to “How To Remember Lots Of Fiddle Tunes”. Though I am subscribed to that channel, I hadn’t seen that. “fingerprinting” is a new term for me, and “review sets” is an interesting new concept which I really like. Really useful!

I’ve been working a lot with the “Practice Machine”. It has some limitations, but is the best way I’ve found so far to track my repertoire. It uses a limited form of spaced repetition. I’m interested if I can apply the “review sets” technique to it… I think I can. also has kind of a form of fingerprinting, where it only shows the first few bars of a tune, though I think this is mainly because of copyright infringement avoidance.

BTW, you can see my repertoire list at . I think if you sign on to the website you can also “friend” me.

He says you can usually recall the whole tune if you know these opening notes.

Note that I’m having some problem with this because of entanglement. Once there are enough tunes that many start with the same notes, the “trigger” notes may still not be enough!

I’m thinking of solfege. So you could remember, for example, Lilting Banshee is in the key of G and begins “La Re Re, La Re Re.” Then, maybe you think - oh, Laura is the lilting banshee- Laura sounds a lot like La Re.

It sounds promising! I don’t really do solfege as second nature, though it might help me. I’ll try playing around with this and see what happens.

Do you play songs in many different keys or mostly the key of D?

A few, but key transcribing tends to be a bit more challenging on the flute vs. fiddle. But maybe practicing solfège/ solmization will help with this.

I’m still looking for good visually-related mnemonics for melodies. I’ve so far mostly failed in this. I realize I do form visual associations with finger positions, similar to what metivier posted in this thread, but not quite what I’m looking for. I friend sent me a link to an old Tibetan notation (, so I’m wondering if there’s visualizations based on the “shape” of melodies?

Many of the spaced repetition techniques are based on learning short things, like language. I’m curious if there are other algorithms besides those based on SuperMemo, that are better tuned to music memorization. To take it a step further, as a software engineer, I’ve been doing some speculation about self-learning neural network approaches for “Practice Machine” like software. Thinking it would make an interesting research project.

Really excited to hear from you! You’ve given me several new ideas to play with! It’s great to exchange ideas on this topic. I’ve also had a lot of exchanges with the very opinionated Alan Ng, who runs

If you’re ever in the Boston area, let me know, and maybe we can play a few tunes at one of the local sessions here.

Hi, sboag. Thank you for your response. It’s fun to compare notes on this.
I agree with you that visual mnemonics for tunes would be useful but I wonder if it could be just an intermediate step until we further develop our ears. I think many players would say they don’t need a mnemonic because if they can hum a tune, they can play it. Is that the case for you? That is, are you trying to find mnemonics to remember how the tune sounds or to translate the sound, which you know, into the notes you need to play?

As for solfege, if most of your songs are in the key of D Major, you may want to start just with solfege in D Major and see what happens. In that case,
D = Do,
E = Re,
F# = Mi,
G = Fa,
A = Sol (pronounced “So”),
B = La,
C# = Ti,
and of course you finish on D (Do).
If you like, there are standard syllables for other sharps and flats. For example, “Me” (I think pronounced “may” is F natural. “Fi” is G#. I can send you more information on that if you are interested but the simple notes above may be your best start.
I find singing the notes very helpful but humming is very good for ear training too.

Initially, you may want to create mnemonics using the syllables, such as my suggestion of “La-Re” sounding like Laura. You could create a visual by picturing a woman named Laura in your memory palace.
But you can also remember by some knowledge of music theory. For example, Do-Mi-So is the major triad. So you’ll see this a lot and can try to “chunk” that. Arpeggios can also be “chunked” or remembered as groups. Any way you can make sense of it - make it meaningful - should make it more memorable.
Let me know what you think. I’ll be interested to hear whether this is helpful.
Is there a particular tune you’re working on at the moment?

I’m glad we’ve connected. Good luck!

I think many players would say they don’t need a mnemonic because if they can hum a tune, they can play it. Is that the case for you?

Well, people are so different. For myself, memory entanglement between the tunes is a real issue. My current repertoire is 472 tunes. How many of those start out in similar ways, or share phrases? Many tunes I learn to play quite well. I can go to my session and perform them. But, if I don’t regularly play them, they start to “decay”. And rotating 472 tunes to keep a 30 (15.7 a day) or 40 (11.8 a day) day review cycle can be challenging, given I have a full time job, kids, workout, etc. These days I haven’t been doing so well at keeping that rotation up. The fact that I’m older, almost 60, probably doesn’t help.

Oh, also, many times I can do well on the A part, and then discover the B part gets entangled! All of the sudden I find myself in a different tune!

So, mnemonics that are visual based, given the visual memory is in theory more powerful than other memory systems in the brain, could be a useful crutch. Or, in general, the ability to make stories with the tunes somehow. Something to make them less abstract.

Here’s one of my notes for Humours Of Carrigaholt:
Think of Castle in Carrigaholt, Ireland
fe pickup notes
Dove sailling down to the fishes then to the Ground
Think of defed transition between a parts
B part: Falcon damns day, lots of biting

So, just by itself, that’s another interesting thing to do. Write kind of nonsense notes like these, to try to form more associations.

Is there a particular tune you’re working on at the moment?

I’ve been slowing down the past year in the number of new tunes I’ve been taking on. But I just recently took on the Crib of Perches, which is put with The Broken Pledge by my fiddle friend. So, that would be Sol-La-Sol-Fa-Mi-Do. Solar Sofa My Dough? Ha ha, not so sure about the mnemonic angle here. I think I might do best just trying to use the solfege in conjunction with the fingerprint technique, as a way of singing the first few notes.

Thanks for the lesson on solfege. I’ll work on it!

Hi, sboag!
How is it going?
I’m wondering if maybe my solfege idea is too “granular”. That is, maybe you don’t need to remember every note one by one but only the general motion of the tune, or the turn it takes at a certain point. In that case… maybe something metaphorical (and visual) would work better. You imagine a waterfall, a tripping downstairs, or other visual image that can be related to the sound. Or you could try associating it with a person - someone who likes to play that song. I’ve noticed a lot of tunes are named for people. Perhaps thinking of those people playing the song helped musicians remember it?

Good luck!

Hi, sboag. I hope you’re doing well and making progress. I’ve been working lately on remembering songs in sets rather than individually and I wonder if this would help you. For example, Out on the Ocean and The Old Favorite are in the same set. So then every time I come to them/ practice them I’m also comparing them and reminding myself how they’re different.
And I’m getting the impression, though you may disagree with me, that very often similar sounding tunes are grouped together. And I wonder if, historically, this helped players remember how they differ, in addition to being fun to listen to together.
What do you think?