Brainjo Bite: Drinking Beer and Playing By Ear


I want you to think back to the first time you tasted coffee or beer, if you’ve done such a thing. Chances are you didn’t love it.

You may have even found that a little repulsive and you may have asked yourself, how could anyone like the taste of this, but now if you’re a fan of either coffee or beer, your experience of it is probably entirely different. In fact, there’s a decent chance that these are now amongst your favorite things to drink. So what changed? How did such a complete reversal happen?

Well, what changed of course, was you, or more specifically your brain. So by repeatedly exposing your brain to those flavors and paying close attention to them, your bank brain began building circuits that could detect subtleties or nuances of flavor that it previously could not. And over time it was able to extract details from that particular kind of sensory data in this case taste data that it simply could not extract previously.

So pieces in that data or details in that data that were biologically impossible for it to perceive previously because your brain didn’t have the machinery needed to do so. And it had never built that machinery or those circuits before you began drinking coffee or beer, because those details didn’t matter to you. And it’s analogous to looking at a picture that’s initially out of focus and blurry.

So in that case, you know, you may only be able to perceive patterns of light and dark or vague forms. And if you’re asked to describe it the best you could probably do would say that you see a patch of dark here and a patch of light here, and maybe some blobs of color, but as you sharpen the focus, you’re now able to extract all sorts of information from the image that was previously hidden to you and impossible for you to see previously, you may have seen wine experts who can discern all sorts of subtle flavors from wine that a novice wine drinker would simply describe as maybe sweet or sour or bitter.

And some can even distinguish the particular geographic location that a wine came from just from its flavor. And again, that’s because their brain has created circuits that can perform that kind of detailed perceptual analysis and their brains built those because they needed those circuits in order to perform their job better, or maybe in order to pass the master exam.

But in those cases they had two key ingredients for building a new skill or perceptual ability. And those two ingredients are inputs or data and attention. So in the case of the expert wine tasters, they needed to be able to detect flavors and wine that anonymous wine drinker could not taste. So they provided their brains with lots of data in the form of lots of wine. And they cared about being able to extract certain details from that data that other people simply wouldn’t care about.

And by repeating that process of input and attention over and over, they acquired new circuits and new perceptual abilities. And this is something that anyone can do because all brains possess the same incredible learning mechanisms. And so through the right kind of training, you too could train your brain to detect flavors that right now you cannot taste the human brain.

Every human brain has this ability to build new circuitry, according to our needs, to support new knowledge, skills, and abilities. We just have to signal to it that we want it do so, and we have to provide it with inputs or data that it needs in order to build those circuits effectively. But again, this is something we can do throughout our lives as another fascinating illustration of the speed and scale of what’s possible here consider the research that was conducted in the 1950s by scientists Evo Kohler, and Theodore Arison.

I hope I’m pronouncing those right in their experiments. They had their research subjects wear inversion goggles for anywhere from several days to several weeks. With inversion goggles, as you might imagine, the entire world is upside down, up is down and left is right. And you can imagine how disorienting it would be at first to have those on and how hard it would be to navigate through the world.

And there are some very amusing videos of this that I will link in the description, but here are the two really remarkable results from this study. The first is that all of the subjects who wore the inversion goggles adapted to them. In other words, over time, the brain ended up flipping the image of the world to where it was now back to normal, even more extraordinary perhaps is that this transformation predictably happened by the sixth day of wearing these goggles. It happened in all subjects regardless of their age.

And guess what also happened when they stopped wearing the goggles, they then saw the world as upside down through their own eyes. Ultimately, the brain would adapt back and start seeing the world normal again. But these experiments along with many that have been done since then clearly demonstrated that human perception is remarkably plastic and adaptive.

We can radically alter what we’re able to perceive in the world around us. And this is no different than our ability to learn new skills with our limbs. So each and every person has a unique set of motor skills that we’ve all acquired throughout our lives that reflect the sorts of things that we’ve cared to do with our limbs over the course of our life. And likewise, each and every person has a unique set of perceptual abilities that reflects the sorts of things they cared about perceiving in the world over the course of their lives. 

But what’s really important to remember is that these things are always changing and we can decide which ones to add at any point. As you may know, this ability of our brain to change its own structure to support the acquisition of new knowledge and skills is known as neuroplasticity, or sometimes just plasticity.

And we can further categorize what I’ve described as an example of perceptual plasticity, the ability to change how we perceive the world.

So what does this have to do with learning music?

As you may know, the ability of the brain to change its own structure to support the acquisition of new knowledge and skills is known as neuroplasticity, or sometimes just plasticity. And what I’ve described above we could further characterize as perceptual plasticity.

So plasticity in how we perceive the world. One of the crucial components of becoming a musician is having a good ear, but what exactly does that mean? And what exactly are we trying to accomplish through ear training?

Clearly we’re not altering the physical structure of our ear. In fact, what we’re doing has nothing at all to do with our ears themselves. What we are actually refining are our skills of auditory perception or our listening skills. So our ability to extract certain details from the sounds that we hear, that we couldn’t previously hear.

It’s no different than the examples that I’ve already described other than the fact that we’re enhancing our ability for auditory perception in the case of ear development, rather than taste perception in the case of beer, coffee, and wine, or in the case of the inversion goggles, our visual perception.

And if you’ve ever acquired the taste for things like coffee or beer or anything else that you initially found somewhat unpleasant, but now greatly enjoy, then you’ve already done this sort of thing in your own brain.

For example, if you were to play a recording of an old time or bluegrass band for the average person, chances are, they would be unable to identify the banjo versus the mandolin versus the guitar versus the bass. And so on, especially when they’re playing simultaneously on the other hand, I’ll bet that you can likely do that with ease. Why is that? Because you’ve done, what’s necessary to build the machinery in your brain that can do that sort of thing. You’ve given it the data it needs in the form of multiple samples of music. So you’ve listened to a lot of that music and you cared about figuring out what instruments were playing when you were listening.

Again, we’ve all built these kinds of circuits in our brains throughout our lives, and we continue to do so as long as we’re alive. So nowadays I think more people than ever appreciate the fact that the brain is plastic and is capable of changing in remarkable ways throughout our lives to acquire new knowledge and skills.

But I think that most people tend to think of this as mainly applying to motor skills, things like learning to dance or ice skate or ride a bike. But what I want you to take away from this is that it applies equally to our powers of perception in particular, our ability to extract details from the data that comes in from our senses, whether it’s our eyes, our ears, our nose, our mouth, or joints, or our skin.

And I think this is one reason people still buy into the notion that you either can or can’t play music by ear or that whatever your abilities you have now are the ones that you’re always going to have when the truth is that it is a learned skill, just like anything else.

In the Banjo Player’s Roadmap I talk about the three categories of skills that we want to develop along our learning journey. One of those being our technical skills – the movements that we need to make with our hands and limbs to play music on our instrument.

Two, we have knowledge and skills of kind of the concepts about how music works, that inform how we play, And the third is ear training or ear development. And ear training means learning to hear things in music that we couldn’t previously hear.

And what often happens is that folks spend a lot of time developing the technical aspects of playing and neglect the knowledge and concepts and especially the ear training part. And that’s usually because they either don’t appreciate that it is a learned skill, like anything else, or they just don’t know how to go about training their year.

And so often it’s the neglect of ear training and development that leads people to get stuck and frustrated. And that often leads them to believe that they just don’t have what it takes to learn how to play music. Hopefully this discussion will have put any notions that you may have had about that to rest.