How To Learn Tunes From Recordings

Can’t figure out how to play the B part of Bill Cheatham because the band is playing it so fast? You could have your teacher slowly teach you each part of the tune and then practice the parts on your own until you can play the whole thing. Or you could learn it with me on FiddleHed.
But what if you want to learn a tune and I haven’t made a lesson for it?
In this lesson I’ll show you how to do this with the Youtube player as well as the Amazing Slow Downer. In a nutshell, the process works in the same way I teach tunes on FiddleHed. Learn a small 3-5 note bit, then learn another bit, then assemble into bigger chunks.
It’s really the same process as learning from one of my videos, except that you have to be your own teacher with the help of technology.

The process:

  1. Listen to the whole tune.
  2. Slow it down.
  3. Learn the first phrase of the tune.
  4. Stop the recording and loop on that small phrase.
  5. Move on to the next phrase.
  6. Assemble parts.
  7. Once you can play the whole thing slowly, speed it up SLOWLY. You may want to separately speed up all the difficult parts.


Start by listening to the tune a few times. Take note of the form of the tune. How many different parts are there? What type of tune is it (reel, jig, etc.) If it’s a song try to pick out what is the verse, the chorus, the bridge, the solo, the breakdown, etc. Here’s an article with more on Passive And Active Listening.

Learn small parts

Next, I highly recommend using a software app for slowing down recorded music. I use Amazing Slow Downer (it integrates with Spotify, so that I can use it to practice almost anything). You can also use recording software such as GarageBand to do the same thing. Here’s a tutorial on how to slow down recordings with the Amazing Slowdowner:

You can also slow down Youtube videos (click the settings wheel at the lower right hand corner of the screen, then click speed).

Video lesson on learning tunes from Youtube coming soon…

I recommend starting at a speed somewhere between 60-75% of the original speed, depending on how fast the original is.

Next step is to set up a loop on the first phrase or part. Listen to it and then try to play along. Once you start to hear it, a key step is to STOP THE RECORDING and just practice it on your own. Then play back the loop and see if you are close. Tinker with the speed. Once you can consistently play that piece, repeat the whole process with the next little part. Looping is a powerful practice tool for learning any instrument. Learn more in this lesson on Looping Practice.

Assemble parts

Once you get the next little part, put together the two parts you know. Start slow. You may find that you get stuck on one part. You may need to return to practicing a smaller loop, maybe even 2 or 3 notes. DON’T BE TOO PROUD TO DO THIS! Learning a tune is like using a microscope; you alternate between looking at a very small portion and then changing the lens so that you see a bigger picture. Learn more about this in the article on Micro-learning.
Repeat the above process until you can play the whole tune at a reduced speed, and then speed it up slightly. Next time, speed it up a little more, and so on.

Pitch correction

Another good feature of the Amazing Slowdowner and similar apps is pitch correction. Say you are learning a version of cotton eyed joe which in A major, but you play with a banjo player who wants to do it in G major. NO PROBLEM! Just lower the pitch by two semitones to learn it in G. Better yet, learn it in both keys. You’ll become a more adaptable and skilled musician by doing that.

Tip: take breaks

Learning from a recording can be mentally taxing. After learning a difficult part, play a scale or an easy tune. Or just take a break from playing; go outside, do some push-ups or go eat a banana. This allows your brain time process the new information its received.

Approach learning a tune from a recording like you would learn anything. Don’t try to do the whole thing at once. Methodically work through it. Don’t hurry. Play it slow at first, then faster, then RIDICULOUSLY SLOW. Loop on phrases. Try to sing, hum or whistle the part.
Good, now go fiddle with it…

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8 responses to “How To Learn Tunes From Recordings

  1. Super helpful lesson on using slow down and other tools on Youtube to learn tunes, thank you! I am accidentally becoming more tech savvy as I learn fiddle. Hidden bonus. Haven’t tried yet, but I think pitch correction will be really great with friends who want to use keys other than g, d, or a. This website makes me wish I’d started playing a long time ago so I could imagine learning all the content here. But that’s a great problem to have.

  2. Great advice! I would add that I like to use the slow down feature available on YouTube videos. This can be found by clicking the gear symbol on the YouTube page. Fifty percent and 75% work well. Twenty five percent slowdown may or may not work depending on your internet speed. I like YouTube because it gives you a visual look at the hands to help you get started, and understand the fiddler’s technique.

    1. I might be able to handle that. I couldn’t figure out how to use the app for slow play lite. I was going to request a computer lesson LOL. Jason, I remember a video of yours in which you were at the computer and using the slow play features and thought that is what I need, but I didn’t even know how to put my songs on the page. Hoping this You Tube feature works for me. Thanks to both of you.