Fiddle Forays How to Recognize Thirds in Irish Tunes

How to Recognize Thirds in Irish Tunes


Picture this: you're sitting in your local session and there's a fiddler visiting from out of town. They launch into a tune that you haven't heard before, but that you really like. A couple of your friends recognize the tune and have started playing it. Your guitarist figured out the key this tune is in, and is playing some tasty chords to accompany the guest fiddler. You know that there's a time to play and a time to listen, but you really, really want to get involved here. It's a session after all, which is all about collaboration through sharing and learning tunes!

So what do you do? You listen and you start picking out familiar patterns that you know you can play on your instrument! Pretty soon you've got the tune under your fingers and you're playing along like you've known it for years.

It all sounds simple, but you and I both know there's more that needs to happen if you're picking up a tune on the go like that. If you want to get better at learning tunes by ear, you're going to need to tap into a bit of aural music theory -- the practice of recognizing notes and intervals by using your ear.

In the video tutorial below, I'm walking you through several exercises you can use to get more familiar with the sound of one interval: a third. You can use similar exercises for other intervals (fourths, fifths, sixths etc) as well, but for the sake of simplicity and not trying to do all the things all at once, we're just going to look at one interval today!

Looking at a D major scale, we have the notes:

  • D - E - F# - G - A - B - C# - D

In order to create a third, you're going to skip every other note. So our thirds in a D major scale are:

  • D - F#
  • E - G
  • F# - A
  • G - B
  • A - C#
  • B - D
  • C# - E

The intervals above are what we'd call ascending thirds because you're moving up the scale. To create a descending third, switch your order:

  • F# - D
  • G - E
  • A - F# ... and so on!

Scales really are going to be your friend here. The more you listen to these intervals right under your ear, the more you're going to be able to match up interval patterns in your head as you're listening to people playing their tunes and trying to pick up a tune by ear at a session. 

Have questions? Did you try these exercises out and want to share how it went for you? Join my free weekly Sunday newsletter so we can keep this conversation going! It's the best place for us to connect and chat all things Irish fiddle -- and I'll also send links to future blog posts straight to your inbox so you can get more exercises on developing your ear + deepen your knowledge of Irish traditional music.

And if you're ready to take your ear training practice further and learn more tunes without relying on sheet music, check out the Tune Library here. With over 150 video tutorials (and you get to request new tunes), this resource is meant to help you both build your repertoire all while developing the skills to learn tunes by ear more quickly.


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