Brainjo Bite: Learning What Can’t Be Taught (Brainjo Bite)


All right, welcome again to another Brainjo Bite. So to begin this episode, I’m going to give you a little challenge and that is I’m going to sing a song, and I want you to clap along to the beat. Alrighty, I’m going to sing Jingle Bells, since it was just Christmas recently. All right, here we go. (singing). All right. Could you do it? (singing). Right, something like that. I bet most of you were able to do that and it wasn’t too challenging. Studies show that most people are capable of clapping along to a beat and finding the beat. So, now, what I want you to imagine is trying to explain how you just did that to somebody else.

If someone were to come up to you and say, “Teach me how to clap along to the beat.” What would you tell them? You probably don’t have any idea how to do that, right? I sure don’t. And imagine if you had to write a computer program that could take an audio file, say the sounds of me just seeing Jingle Bells without any drum or percussion that’s marking the beat and then find where the beat is. It’d be pretty hard to figure out how to write that program. There’s a lot happening underneath the hood, so to speak, in order for you to figure that out and yet you’re able to do it without a second thought. Now, when you hear the phrase, well you can’t teach that, what does it mean to you? It’s something you hear all the time in sports. Anytime a player does something that’s unique or remarkable or special, but you also hear it in other domains like music. And the implication is that whatever it is they’re referring to, the thing that was just done, it’s some skill that they were born with.

Which, of course, when you stop and think about it, is pretty absurd. We’re not born knowing how to do much of anything, if you’ve ever come across an infant. But nonetheless, that phrase that you can’t teach that, often conjure up this notion of innate abilities. And so most people, when they hear it, take it to mean that thing that’s being referred to is something you either know or you don’t know. And it’s true. It makes sense on one level. There are a lot of things that you really can’t teach. And it’s yet another one of these things that helps to reinforce the fixed mindset, which is the idea that we humans, once we become adults, are fixed in our knowledge and skills. And that’s in contrast to the growth mindset, which is the idea that we are always able to continue to add new knowledge and skills or grow throughout our lives.

As some of you may know this concept of a growth mindset and some of the research to support it was popularized by Carol Dweck, who wrote the excellent book Mindset on this topic. And again, the existence of these things that you “can’t teach,” for many is taken as evidence that’s in favor of a fixed mindset. And I want to explain not only why that’s entirely wrong, but why understanding why it’s wrong is so important for understanding how to learn the very things that can’t be taught. Before we do that, let’s do one more exercise. So I’m going to play a few notes on the banjo and want you to do is just listen and see if you can listen for a note that sounds a little bit out of place.

Chances are that one note, that one, stuck out like a sore thumb, right? But why is that? Or better yet, how? How did you know that that was the wrong note and who taught you how to do that? Better yet, how would you teach someone else how to do that? And I was just making up what I was playing there. So you couldn’t say, “Well, that’s just not a note in that song that you were playing.” The technical answer there is that the note that sounded out of place, wasn’t part of the scale that I was playing. But nobody needs to know that technical answer in order to be able to identify that wrong note. You could demonstrate the mathematical relationships between the notes of a major scale and how the wrong note violated those mathematical rules, but that wouldn’t bring someone any closer to being able to hear which of those notes was out of place.

And in fact, you’re able to identify the out of place note, regardless of whether or not you’ve heard anything about the concept of a major scale. But the reason that you could identify it is because through years of listening to music that’s based on the Western chromatic scale, that obeys those mathematical rules, you’ve learned the rules of what notes belong together and what don’t. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t really care about listening to music. Because when you’re listening to music, you are extracting patterns upon patterns in the sounds that you’re learning. And it’s those very patterns that lead to your experience of the music. But you weren’t born with this. You weren’t born being able to extract those patterns and generate those feelings. Just like you had to learn the meanings of the rules of your native language and its rules of grammar, you also had to learn the rules of the musical system in the culture you were born into.

But the point here is that your entire neural apparatus for decoding music and extracting all of those patterns that bring you joy or sorrow or longing or whatever emotional experience you might get from a piece music, every bit of that was something that you learned to do. And none of it was taught to you. So again, being able to pick out the out of place note in the exercise I just did, just like being able to pick out the beat, is an example of another thing that “you can’t teach.” And the big mistake that people make is in thinking that things that can’t be taught are things that can’t be learned. So if you were to see somebody clapping along to the beat or picking out the out of place note in a song, it would be entirely accurate to say you can’t teach that.

And what’s more, that could be said of just about everything that you know how to do. Earl Scruggs, one of the most influential banjo players of all time, said he couldn’t really explain how he played the banjo to someone else. In other words, he didn’t know how to teach it to others. No different than you being unable to explain how you clap to the beat or find the beat or how you identify the wrong note that’s being played. And this is another example of why it’s so important to understand how we learned. Some of you may recall the very first law of Brainjo, which is to learn to play like the masters, we must learn to play like the masters. In other words, we want to emulate their learning process, or how they learned. And again, the big mistake or misconception is in thinking that things that can’t be taught, can’t be learned. Saying that something can’t be taught, does not mean it’s an innate gift.

Rather, it’s a reflection of the fact that so much of what we know was not taught to us. We learned it and we learned it in the same way our brain learns just about everything else that we know. One example in the realm of music, where this concept is super important, is in learning to play by ear. It’s not something that can be taught. And it is another area where the fixed mindset reigns and where the phrase you can’t teach that is often used. And again, perpetuating the idea that it’s some sort of innate ability. But it is something that without a doubt can be learned. The problem is that you can’t go from never having developed your ear to improvising on songs you’ve never heard before in one fell swoop. There are many different steps along the way, and many perceptual abilities to develop in order to get there. And getting there requires creating the right conditions for doing so.

You’ll also oftentimes hear people say that such and such player is entirely self-taught, to mean that they never took formal lessons with a teacher. But the reality here is that we’re all self-taught. Nobody can give us what we need, we have to acquire these things for ourselves. But what teachers can do is to help us create the best conditions for that to happen or to help to shape the learning path. For example, if you want to teach a child how to ride a bike, sitting down and explaining the physics of cycling and the movements of the body and feet that are needed to maintain balance, isn’t going to help them learn how to ride a bike. And yet I’d imagine that virtually everyone who learned how to ride a bike was helped by somebody, someone who helped to create the conditions where they could discover for themselves how to move their body and feet in order to maintain balance.

And as with how helping someone learn to ride a bike, oftentimes it’s a matter of simplifying the process in some way so that they’re able to focus on learning the next best step in their learning progression. But again, it’s a step that only they can take. And in the end, everyone ultimately teaches themselves how to ride a bike, even if they had someone who helped make that process easier. And the same thing is true for learning music. One reason for addressing this concept is that I see a lot of beginning players who want detailed step by step instructions for everything. But anytime you’re practicing, you always want to leave some room for discovering something on your own. Because again, that’s the only way you’re going to grow. And if you are in the Breakthrough Banjo course, each step in the learning progression is designed to help you teach yourself the next essential skill in your learning path.

All right, so again, the key takeaway here is that the vast majority of things that humans know how to do, can’t be taught, but they can be learned. And whether we succeed in doing so depends entirely on whether the path we take allows our incredible brains to work its magic. All right, that’s all for this episode. Thanks so much for listening and I will see you in the next one. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo Bite. To make sure you catch future episodes, be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your podcast player and consider leaving a rating interview in iTunes, which helps other folks to find it as well. To learn more about music courses based on the Brainjo method of instruction, head over to