Scottish Whispers: Making Learning by ear easy and fun!

Presenter: Morag Johnston


Scottish Whispers is a learning strategy I developed to enable musicians to learn by ear and perform from memory. It is an effective research-based series of activities where the learner plays an active role in the learning process.

Scottish Whispers is based on current research into how the brain works and its effect on learning as well as the aural tradition I grew up in. For ESTA 2023, I propose a forty-minute workshop where participants learn a tune with me using the method. Participants would leave with having a folk tune they learnt by ear and knowledge of the stylistic aspects of the tune including bowings and ornaments.

In addition, they will have experienced the Scottish Whispers method and learnt how to teach the method to others (with ideas how to modify it for different audiences). Although research shows that ear playing is beneficial for musicians, it is a skill that many find difficult to do and teach.

I grew up in the Shetland Isles where the violin and the aural tradition are key elements of traditional island culture. Now a professional classical musician, I developed this method after witnessing colleagues finding learning by ear and memorising intimidating and frustrating.


Morag Johnston is a baroque violinist and folk fiddler who studied Historical Performance at The Royal Conservatoire of The Hague and Hochschule für Künst, Bremen.

In 2021, she began research into memorisation techniques at the University of Aberdeen. Morag grew up on the Shetland Isles where she learnt to play the fiddle in Shetland’s living aural tradition. Playing with her mum in dance bands and fiddle groups, she learnt the music by ear and played from memory.

It is these early experiences as well as her research which has shaped her project Scottish Whispers. A passionate and qualified pedagogue, she has taught at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Conservatoire of Rennes and the Huntly Summer School which she co-directed for 10 years.

In 2020, she set up the memorisation project Scottish Whispers which teaches folk music to students all over the world using a unique aural method.

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