View Poll Results: Do you read sheet music for mandolin?

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  • Yes I do, it's great for learning/playing mandlin!

    74 67.89%
  • No, I rely on tablature.

    7 6.42%
  • I learned to read music but really, I just play by ear.

    18 16.51%
  • Never learned it, I play by ear.

    10 9.17%
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Thread: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

  1. #51
    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ranald View Post
    ... it implies that what is on the paper is "music," and not a code that we read to produce music from our instruments and bodies.
    Exactly. The sheet music is no more actual "music" than the script is a real performance of a play.

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  3. #52
    Registered User Polecat's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Caleb View Post
    When I was new to the mandolin I took a stab at learning to read notation. I gave up quickly and havenít regretted it. For me there was absolutely zero joy and excitement in the endeavor. Everyoneís mileage will vary.
    I play with a variety of musicians, some who can read standard notation, some who can't. I have never met a reader who has expressed regret at having learned to read.
    "Give me a mandolin and I'll play you rock 'n' roll" (Keith Moon)

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  5. #53
    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    r0gue,
    I fear your poll, like many, will have highly inaccurate results due to the wording of answers that we're supposed to tick. I use notation, tablature, and ear learning to learn tunes, sometimes one complimenting another, e.g., I may learn a tune by ear, but check either notation to better grasp "that tricky bit" or tablature to see which placement of particular notes or chord versions the person who wrote the tabs recommends. I can't tick off any survey answers, as none suits my situation. Judging by many of the posts above, others are in the same boat, often using two or three learning methodologies interchangeably for a variety of reasons.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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  7. #54
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by brunello97 View Post
    There's a lesson there. If you're a righty, learn to go to your left. Versa vice.

    If you have a great ear, learn to read music.

    If you can read musics well, learn to play by ear.

    Why would you ever think anything else?
    Because there's a thing called opportunity cost. Time spent working on X is time you're not spending working on Y. Different genres of music can mandate different approaches.

    I was force-fed piano lessons for six years as a child, played well enough to give recitals and I had a good grasp of sheet music. Then as a teenager I ditched piano and played drums in rock bands. Then I spent years playing fingerstyle acoustic guitar (Kottke, Renbourn, Fahey styles) where reading sheet music wasn't necessary or even available at the time. All ear learning. Eventually guitarists started tabbing out that material, but it still isn't sheet music.

    Then I got into playing lead electric Blues guitar in amateur bands. Again, sheet music was no help. It mostly doesn't exist for that music and ear learning is easy. Music theory started to get important for Blues and beginner Jazz improv, but Blues guitar learning materials are generally not based on sheet music fluency. Time spent trying to brush up my old piano reading skills at that point would have been time wasted. The opportunity cost problem.

    But them... I fell down the rabbit hole of Irish/Scottish trad after picking up mandolin. Now sheet music is important as an adjunct for remembering tunes, finding settings on thesession.org, and so on. Ear learning is still paramount in this genre, but sheet music makes a lot more sense as a helpful tool on the side than it ever did in fingerstyle acoustic or Blues guitar.

    So I'm not a fan of the "complete mandolinist" theory that one has to spend equal time on every possible thing. Work on what's needed for the music you play.
    Lebeda F-5 mandolin, redwood top
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  9. #55

    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I voted yes as well. I teach my students to read music and tab, and it's extremely beneficial to know both.

    I think, depending on your practice level, anyone can advance more quickly with tab because you don't really have to think about much, and because of that notation is left behind in the dust. Because of this I like to tell people it's like eating your vegetables. It's not steak, but it's important and good for you!

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  11. #56
    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Keith Witty View Post
    I voted yes as well. I teach my students to read music and tab, and it's extremely beneficial to know both.

    I think, depending on your practice level, anyone can advance more quickly with tab because you don't really have to think about much, and because of that notation is left behind in the dust. Because of this I like to tell people it's like eating your vegetables. It's not steak, but it's important and good for you!
    Although I pretty much only play by ear or use standard notation on mandolin, I want to remind everyone that even in the Renaissance and Baroque, many if not most plucked stringed instruments such as lute, vihuela, guitar, cittern, etc. used a tablature for most things.

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  13. #57
    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ranald View Post
    r0gue,
    I fear your poll, like many, will have highly inaccurate results due to the wording of answers that we're supposed to tick.
    I agree - there was no "I use any and all options to play music" choice.

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  15. #58

    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I read the treble clef fairly well (years of school band programs). I don't know if I would play better if I couldn't.

    In old time circles it's fairly common for people to teach a tune phrase-by-phrase. I find sheet music a lot more convenient. Even then the "by ear"/"from the dots" dichotomy doesn't completely hold, because I'm still hearing the tune as I play it from the notation, and I'm going to have to play it and hear it many times to memorize it.

  16. #59
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Polecat View Post
    I play with a variety of musicians, some who can read standard notation, some who can't. I have never met a reader who has expressed regret at having learned to read.
    I don’t doubt that at all, and I admire those with the skill set. But for me there was no joy in it, and I work all day and play music for fun (not to do more work).
    ...

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  18. #60
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    Because there's a thing called opportunity cost. Time spent working on X is time you're not spending working on Y. Different genres of music can mandate different approaches.
    While that might be true for some, I am guessing not for most. It implies that we are spending 100% of our available time working on music. I know it is true for me and I assume many others, that time not spent working on X is spent dawdling, fiddlefarting around, fixed to do this or that, checking out mandolins in the classifieds, making gumbo, reading the classics, reading Batman comics, whatever. There is always a bit of time that can be squeezed from something to spend a little time working on X. My apologies (and admiration) to those to whom this is not the case.

    I would respectfully disagree with you on another point.

    Work on what's needed for the music you play.
    Working only on the music you play limits you to the music you play.


    None of us are the complete mandolinner, we know that going in. The complete mandolinner is just a kind of ideal, out there to remind me that should I have a moment, and a cup of coffee, there is something mandolinnish I could be working on.
    Life is short, play hard. Life is really really short, play really really hard.

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  20. #61

    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Wow! Got caught up at work the last few days and haven't had ample time to really digest the thread until now. Great input from all!!! I do plan to give it a shot. In fact, I hope I can muster a good solid effort at it. I'm enlarging some of the music from our student packet so i can see it better. But it's nice to know there's a fair contingent that get by ok without, should I fall short.

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  22. #62
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I donít have anything smart to add, except that I found reading music to be a surprisingly easy skill to acquire. I learned the basics in middle schools, got a bit of refresher as a teenager learning classical guitar, then never used it again. 20 years later, picking up fiddle tunes on the mando was a breeze (except that for the first month I kept picking an open A every time I saw a G on the score).

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  24. #63
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    I would respectfully disagree with you on another point.

    Working only on the music you play limits you to the music you play.

    None of us are the complete mandolinner, we know that going in. The complete mandolinner is just a kind of ideal, out there to remind me that should I have a moment, and a cup of coffee, there is something mandolinnish I could be working on.
    With complementary respectful disagreement, I don't see how anyone could object to "working only on the music you play" and ignoring things that aren't helpful in that music.

    This might have to do with stage of life you're in and what the future might hold. A 20-year old student of music who plays mandolin might be well-served by being the "complete mandolinist" if they haven't decided their path in life.

    Me, I'm going to be 70 years old this Summer. I've played a lot of genres of music in my life. Rock drums, fingerstyle acoustic guitar, electric Blues guitar and beginner guitar jazz. I'm now playing Irish/Scottish trad on mandolin and flute, and that's the only music I'll probably ever play until I'm pushing up daisies.

    If I hadn't swerved into trad, I'd still be playing Blues guitar, or maybe Blues mandolin and would have no need of sheet music. Nobody would get any traction by telling me I had missed out on something.
    Lebeda F-5 mandolin, redwood top
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  26. #64
    Unfamous String Buster Beanzy's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by r0gue View Post
    Anyway, I'm setting out to learn mandolin with my daughter. She's coming off of several years of playing instruments in school. So she reads music already and is flying through her lessons with great success.

    My first lesson will be this Thursday. I am assuming I need to suck it up, look and play like a 7 year old, and blunder through learning to read notes. Mary had a little lamb and so forth...
    As you're learning along with your daughter you'll probably enjoy doing some duets with her. It could be really limiting & disappointing if you had to avoid some pieces you would otherwise enjoy, just because accessing your part was a hurdle too far.
    Having to get her to play /repeat your part until you could learn it would be a chore for all & might make the activity less attractive & in danger of fading of interest going forward. Being limited to chording or runs would limit access to much of the really interesting repertoire out there.

    If I were in your place I'd be doing everything to facilitate the enjoyment of the times you play together, even if it added an extra chore to my own lot.
    Having said that, there are lots of resources to get to a decent level of reading without too much additional work, especially if you incorporate them into your lessons & get extra out of each piece you learn, by improving the reading while you go.
    Always keep the prize in sight, enjoying playing music with your daughter & for yourself. Don't get stuck in the dots though, the aim should be to internalise the music so it comes from you, not the page.
    Eoin



    "Forget that anyone is listening to you and always listen to yourself" - Fryderyk Chopin

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  28. #65

    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Beanzy View Post
    As you're learning along with your daughter you'll probably enjoy doing some duets with her. It could be really limiting & disappointing if you had to avoid some pieces you would otherwise enjoy, just because accessing your part was a hurdle too far.
    Having to get her to play /repeat your part until you could learn it would be a chore for all & might make the activity less attractive & in danger of fading of interest going forward. Being limited to chording or runs would limit access to much of the really interesting repertoire out there.

    If I were in your place I'd be doing everything to facilitate the enjoyment of the times you play together, even if it added an extra chore to my own lot.
    Having said that, there are lots of resources to get to a decent level of reading without too much additional work, especially if you incorporate them into your lessons & get extra out of each piece you learn, by improving the reading while you go.
    Always keep the prize in sight, enjoying playing music with your daughter & for yourself. Don't get stuck in the dots though, the aim should be to internalise the music so it comes from you, not the page.
    So many great posts in this thread. Thank you for this, as you are 100% correct, there is one goal here, and it's not to get a retirement gig in a Bluegrass band (though given my job lately, that's an attractive thought as well, haha).

    And thank to you all!

  29. #66
    Joe B mandopops's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Yes. I would encourage you to learn. It isn’t rocket science hard. When I started out I didn’t read, then I learned. If I can do it…I’m glad I did.
    I can play by myself or with others without Music & I can play by myself or with others with Music. I can jam in Bluegrass context & play in a section with a Mandolin Orch. It allows me to play in various Musical contexts. I like having those different experiences.
    I think some distinction should be made between reading notation & sight reading. Usually when someone says sight reading, I think they mean they can read a piece of music cold, fairly fluently without mistakes. That is an advanced skill. I can read notation, but unless it’s reasonably short & simple, I prefer to have time to prepare.
    In my lessons with Jethro, he encouraged me to read. He could. I said I knew the notes on the staff, but I was slow at it. He said, “nothing you have to be in a hurry about”.

    Joe B
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  31. #67
    Registered User Polecat's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    If you do decide to learn to read dots (which I would encourage you to do), you may find it helpful to download the notation program "musescore". It is free, relatively intuitive and easy to use, and has a playback function that you can slow down or speed up according to your needs. You can then choose a simple short tune, copy the dots into a score (purely mechanically, you don't have to know what you're doing), play it back, then play along at a tempo that suits you. A cursor moves through the score so you know where you are, as well!
    Hope this helps
    "Give me a mandolin and I'll play you rock 'n' roll" (Keith Moon)

  32. #68
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by r0gue View Post
    Every Good Boy Does Fine, FACE, Staff, Time Signature, etc etc...

    I've been muCking around with guitar for decades (poorly) and never learned to read music. I used tab for a while, then basically went to playing by ear. Which I suppose is why I play poorly. Anyway, I'm setting out to learn mandolin with my daughter. She's coming off of several years of playing instruments in school. So she reads music already and is flying through her lessons with great success.

    My first lesson will be this Thursday. I am assuming I need to suck it up, look and play like a 7 year old, and blunder through learning to read notes. Mary had a little lamb and so forth...

    Did you learn and do you use sheet music?
    Prejudice is not the best way to get started ...

    When I started learning the guitar in 1957 I could already read music notation. More precisely, I knew the system, I knew about keys and their scales, the role of the key signature, etc. I picked that stuff up in music classes. So I just started learning the fretboard in first position, key by key, C, F, G, Bb, D ... Realizing that the C and F scales use only the first three frets it was easy to transpose these scales to higher positions and then go on to a freer approach. Unfortunately I relied too much on sheet music, neglecting formal ear training (which actually requires a teacher). To this day the only ear training I ever had was playing with people and transcribing stuff from records.

    Much of the sheet music I used had elaborate piano scores of popular songs, which gave me lots of ideas for accompanying these songs on guitar. Learning grand staff was a cinch, as the bass and soprano staves are continuations of one another, separated by a common ledger line, middle C. (The lowest note on the guitar is on he first line below bass staff.)

    When I picked up the mandolin in 1967 I was into colloquial genres, such as country, old-time, Bluegrass, fiddle tunes so a lot of the stuff I played came from, or was inspired by, records. For some of the lengthier tunes, e.g., simpler rags and polkas, I sometimes relied on published scores but learned and memorized the complete song before working it out on the mandolin. Actually, I have almost never played anything on the mandolin directly from a printed score. Hence, I never rely on sheet music as a substitute for memorizing the tune. Of course, when picking out a tune from a record, the tune is fully memorized by the time Iīve figured it out.

  33. #69

    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Ornette Coleman, who was born on this day in 1930, observed:

    “I’ve been playing the saxophone since I was a teenager, but I kept analyzing, I kept trying to think, what is the difference between a note and an idea?”

  34. #70
    Registered User Ky Slim's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    The complete mandolinner can read notation, and tab, and the so called Nashville number system.
    Just curious why you refer to it as the "so called Nashville number system". If the answer or reason is related to a system that uses Roman numerals and small i symbols that is not the Nashville Numbering system. NNS uses Arabic numbers. No biggie just wondering.

    As for reading, I learned it slowly and still read slowly. Fiddle tunes are excellent for learning to read notation.. Might as well learn it for the mandolin IMO

  35. #71
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    With complementary respectful disagreement, I don't see how anyone could object to "working only on the music you play" and ignoring things that aren't helpful in that music.

    This might have to do with stage of life you're in and what the future might hold. A 20-year old student of music who plays mandolin might be well-served by being the "complete mandolinist" if they haven't decided their path in life.

    Me, I'm going to be 70 years old this Summer. I've played a lot of genres of music in my life. Rock drums, fingerstyle acoustic guitar, electric Blues guitar and beginner guitar jazz. I'm now playing Irish/Scottish trad on mandolin and flute, and that's the only music I'll probably ever play until I'm pushing up daisies.

    If I hadn't swerved into trad, I'd still be playing Blues guitar, or maybe Blues mandolin and would have no need of sheet music. Nobody would get any traction by telling me I had missed out on something.
    I think point of view, be it from different places in life or different approaches to music, is a good explanation of our differences here.

    In my case not so much time and time left, (though the ticking is getting rather loud) but more that I have never adored any genre of music more than playing mandolin itself. If my focus was the genre I guess skills not immediately pertaining to the genre would be less relevant.

    I only play bluegrass because I play mandolin, and I only play old time and traditional because it seems to fit well on the mandolin, and there is room at the jam for another mandolinner. I have more recently taken on playing classical mandolin, and that mostly because it can be done on mandolin.
    Life is short, play hard. Life is really really short, play really really hard.

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  36. #72
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I think my main objection to the poll, and the question itself, is the word "should". I didn't say this at first because I wanted to encourage folks to go do and try. But the real reality is that for us recreational players, there are no shoulds. There are likely benefits, and likely consequences, to every decision, but there is nothing, ultimately, one has to do.

    Just thought that needed to be said. So there.
    Life is short, play hard. Life is really really short, play really really hard.

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  38. #73
    Registered User Eric Platt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Can read most music, but that's because through high school I primarily played classical bass and in the junior high jazz band. Very much relying on reading music.

    Even now, still like sheet music for Finnish, other Nordic and Quebec music. At least to learn the music and get a basic framework for practice and performances. And like others, have found that transcribing tunes has helped my ear to an extent.

    And the dots are definitely just an outline. If one has never heard a Swedish polska being played, it would be very difficult to get the feel correct just looking at the notes.

    Oh, and I'm no good at reading alto or tenor clef. Haven't done either since high school.

  39. #74
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Simon DS View Post
    Sounds like a lot of fun! Will the two of you be learning using the Suzuki method?

    Learning mandolin it's quite different from guitar. Optimism

    (Iím working on the last ten qualities )

    The big difference to me was between learning a first and a second instrument. The guitar is where I learned music, how things hang together, how the melodies relate to the underlying harmony, why the notes are there. As I've said before I learned very systematically, key by key, at the same time developing transposing skills and the ability to extract hamonic information from grand staff. The guitar, of course, is better equipped for that kind of learning because of its range: from the first ledgerline below bass staff, to at least the first line above treble. I never had a teacher.

    My approach to the mandolin was much less systematic. As I recall -- 56 years later! -- I started with a few of the somewhat busy tunes I had been wantng to do in their proper octave, and without those fequent and string changes, e.g., fiddle tunes as recorded by Howdy Forrester, rags (e.g., Beeswax and Grizzly Bear) and polkas like Lawrence Welk's Champgne Polka (for which I already had the chords and the vocal section down, on guitar), and then went on to playing whatever came to my mind, at first in more common keys (determined by the position markers) then in just about any key. I never wrote anything out, except my own compositions.

  40. #75
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    I think point of view, be it from different places in life or different approaches to music, is a good explanation of our differences here.

    In my case not so much time and time left, (though the ticking is getting rather loud) but more that I have never adored any genre of music more than playing mandolin itself. If my focus was the genre I guess skills not immediately pertaining to the genre would be less relevant.

    I only play bluegrass because I play mandolin, and I only play old time and traditional because it seems to fit well on the mandolin, and there is room at the jam for another mandolinner. I have more recently taken on playing classical mandolin, and that mostly because it can be done on mandolin.
    That's a good point and I think it does describe the basis of our differences. I have always been drawn to genre first and instrument second. It's why my few remaining guitars sit unloved in a corner these days after I fell down the Irish/Scottish trad rabbit hole.

    Mandolin is what led me first to OldTime and then Irish/Scottish trad because it's so similar to a fiddle. It fits well there. But then the trad genre led me further into deciding to learn the "Irish" wooden flute for the wider range of expression in ornamentation. All those twiddly bits like cuts, rolls, taps, cranns that break up a sustaining sound with finger articulations. It all comes down from the early pipes, basically, and the other sustaining instruments like fiddle, concertina etc. find ways to mimic those articulations that make it "sound Irish." Mandolin (and banjo) are not sustaining instruments, so they come at ornamentation from a different angle with things like the "treble" ornament. It works, but it's more limited.

    I still pick up the mandolin for Irish/Scottish tunes with essential notes down on a fiddle/mandolin G string where the flute can't go. And I still like playing slower tunes on my octave mandolin where I can fool around with a chord-melody approach. I bring both the mandolin and the flute to local sessions because I still haven't transferred all the repertoire to flute, and mandolin is just easier to play on some things.

    So yes, I'm a "genre-first and then what instrument does the genre want me to play?" kind of musician. On the other hand, I can certainly respect the different path of loving a particular instrument and finding all the things you can do with it. The mandolin is certainly one of the most adaptable in that respect. Look at all the different genres covered here in the Cafe!

    Anyway, I think all this isn't completely unrelated to the topic here, because I believe the genre of music will tell you how important sheet music is. If you're interested in many different genres of music, then eventually you're going to hit some where reading is important, or at least very helpful.
    Lebeda F-5 mandolin, redwood top
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