Old Time Fiddle Tunes

About Old Time tune transcriptions

Guidelines, not Gospel

OT music is not Bach, where every note must be played and bowed as written, or you will be shamed out of the orchestra. Playing the exact note is not important, especially in a jam setting. The great fiddlers do not play a tune the same way every time. Even so-called "standards" are played in a different signature style by each fiddler. As the saying goes - "if you play the wrong note and it sounds good - that's harmony, if it sounds bad - that's jazz."

The Limitations of Notation

Notating a tune helps me to remember it. It's a bit like putting something in my own handwriting. Unfortunately, the printed notes are only about half of the tune, the rest includes bowing, rhythm, emphasis and variations. A transcription is, at best a single frame snapshot. It is an imperfect attempt to approximate a complex aural tradition. It is impossible to notate all the possible variations and nuances of old time fiddling in one written page. Just as taking someone's picture does not require them to always wear the same clothes, a transcription is not meant to freeze the tune for all time.


Most of these tunes are traditional. For those tunes, I try to acknowledge the performer of the notated version and if possible where they got it. To avoid excess verbiage, I indicate just the name of the player. "As played by" is implicit. If there is a known composer, I attempt to be faithful to their version. "by" preceding the name indicates the composer.

Learning by Ear

In my humble opinion, the best way to learn a new tune is by ear. I will play along to a recording until I can remember the tune. I may slow the recording down (using one of several available software tools) until I can figure it out. I refer to the sheet music only if I get stuck. The internet is an amazing source of recordings and YouTube videos. You can also make your own field recordings at jams or lessons using a handheld mp3 recorder.

I believe that playing only from sheet music is a form of learned helplessness. It is like GPS in your car - it usually gets you there, but you won't remember how you did it. If you challenge your ear, it will develop. Many excellent fiddlers do not even read music. If you set up a music stand at an OT jam, you will get some strange looks.


For the most part, I do not attempt to show bowings. Bowing is highly subjective and personal choice and is what gives lift and drive to a tune.

John Lamancusa