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“Hum a few bars! We played by ear!”

These words, spoken by accordionist Roger Gendron, highlight the lack of a written tradition. Instead, musical knowledge was passed down in person, with musicians learning to play by ear.

Many great traditional accordionists were unable to write or read music. Blessed with a good ear, they learned by observing their peers, copying melodies and asking their mentors for advice.

Despite a lack of formal training, many of these accordionists could play dozens and dozens of pieces from memory, allowing them to entertain audiences for hours on end.

Photograph of three young accordionists performing on stage. They are sitting behind music stands, which hold their sheet music. Their teacher is at the back, watching them.

Carrying on local traditions, young accordionists perform in Montmagny, 2016

A Body of Knowledge With Many Sources

Until the 1950s, accordionists were typically taught to play by family and friends. Older musicians can remember a time when they relied exclusively on their memory to learn and reproduce the pieces they had heard. Later generations had the benefit of vinyl records, VHS tapes and compact discs.

Colour photograph showing an album whose cover depicts a pair of fiddlers, two VHS tapes whose handwritten labels have a yellow stripe on top, and two compact disc cases featuring vibrantly coloured artwork.

Vinyl records, VHS tapes and compact discs

Armand Labrecque talks about how learning to play the accordeon has evolved:

Listen to the interview (FR) with transcript (EN).