Why Have Music Books? Experience from Blackford Fiddle Group

Guest blog by Andrew Bachell

Music books are for those who wish to play or learn from a music score.  Like many traditional music groups, Blackford Fiddle Group is mainly based around learning to play by ear.  That said we have always had music books and have recently published a new extended version of our Wee Music Book for beginners and intermediate players. It contains 80 tunes which are the core selection that allows us to play together and to play for others without needing too much formal rehearsal.

One of the challenges we face as a community based fiddle group is providing for players at all stages and ages, from 7 to 70, for those who can read music and those that can’t.  We also encourage maximum participation in the 30 or so gigs we play every year and we need to have a common repertoire that interests everyone and around which we can develop arrangements, performance play lists and ceilidh sets. These can be rolled out at a moment’s notice no matter who is available to play.  It appears that the music book is an essential evil.

It is obvious, of course, that even for those who mainly learn by ear, the dots can be a safety net and memory jogger that allows them to carry on the learning at home when there is no one to help.  Sound recordings are also useful and most people now capture these on their phones.

The very first music books BFG produced were no more than photocopied pages of stolen tunes and hand written scores.  What became clear very quickly was that, for many beginners, their ability to learn to play the tunes developed faster than their ability to learn to read music.  The presentation of the dots is to some as much of an obstacle as to others it is an essential prop.  I have often thought that written music is imposed on people who may be baffled already by the complex mechanics of combining the fiddle and bow to make a decent sound and to hit the right notes.

In addressing this problem, our founder, Peter Cope, introducing a coloured notation system. This is not unique, although we are not aware of a system quite like ours. At first we simply coloured the notes on the staff to indicate which string to play.  We added a number to tell the player which finger to use.  It still looked like conventional notation. A second and simpler system dispenses with the notes and replaces them with a coloured number, placed in the right place on the staff. The colour still indicated which string to play and the number which finger to use but there was nothing to indicate the length of the notes. The consequence (unintended perhaps) was that this notation also required development of the aural skills of learning by ear.  Win win!

Young players in particular took to this system with great ease.  This form of notation quickly found its way into our music books and once we had found the right software mass production was easy. We have recently produced the 4th version of our Wee Music Book in which colour is used throughout.  There is a gradual transition through the book from easy tunes in simple notation to more difficult tunes in normal notation, normal that is except from the use of colour.

BFG meets every Friday and for the first hour of playing the session draws almost exclusively on the 80 tunes included in the Wee Music Book.  The weekly repetition of the repertoire allows everyone to develop familiarity with the tunes and a context within which to improve their playing.  The inclusion of both beginners and advanced players in this process and the deliberate avoidance of segregation seems to draw the beginners and intermediates on quickly. The better players spot who to help and it means everyone gets to play in a group that sounds (although I say it myself) pretty good. The whole process – the books, the colours, the collective playing – reflect our principles of mutual self-help, inclusion and removing barriers.  Much though some of us would prefer to do without written music, we have found a way to use it that brings all our players together without it becoming a barrier. In the end most people do learn to read music. The downside of this is that some of our dot-dependents come brandishing a rash of music stands that may have to be purged – purely as a health and safety precaution of course.

Please do contact me if you wish to know more about our group and our music books.  There is a companion to the Wee Music Book – it is the Big Ceilidh Book.  Details of both are on our website

Andrew is an organiser at Blackford Fiddle Group and sits on the TMF Board.

About Blackford Fiddle Group

Blackford Fiddle Group is a community based music group. We encourage people of all ages to learn to play traditional music for enjoyment and to entertain others. Our members are mainly fiddle players but we have players of several instruments including concertina, flute, whistle, guitar, mandolin, cello, percussion and bass.  We raise all our own funds through membership, by playing gigs and occasionally from local grant sources. We are supported from time to time by a number of professional tutors but rely also on the enthusiasm and commitment of our members.