Welcome to another Brainjo Bite. In this episode I want to address a question that I think not too many people ask themselves or if they do ask it think the answer might be obvious. And that question is how good do you want to get? Or how good do I want to get now? The focus of these Brainjo bites is on learning to play music but really this question could apply to many other things that we might aim to get good at.
And the reason I’m asking this question is because it brings up some important issues that aren’t commonly considered and that I think you’ll find interesting and thought provoking to contemplate and ones that could alter how you decide your to chart your own future course. Now again this question of how good should I get, I don’t think it’s one most people ask and that’s probably because at least in part the answer may seem obvious.
I want to get as good as I can get, right? But is that always true? Are there circstances where continuing to focus on getting as good as you can get on your instrument wouldn’t be the best choice? And are there even situations where doing so could make you less likely to achieve certain musical goals? And are there circstances where the opportunity costs of continuing to work on improving are no longer justifiable?
Okay. So the first thing I want to discuss here that applies to this question is the concept of perceptual plasticity and how that impacts how we experience the world around us. It’s a concept that I talked about before in a prior episode there explaining how it’s the phenomenon that allows anyone to play by ear. But the fundamental point here is that our sensory systems are all plastic meaning that they can continue to change and adapt and learn over time throughout our lives.
When we’re born we all have our sense organs – eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, and those sense organs translate stuff that’s happening out in the world into the firing of neurons. But when we’re first born that those firings of those neurons is meaningless to us and meaningless to our brains. And the first several years of our lives our brains are busy trying to decode all that information and find patterns in that sensory data and figure out what those patterns represent in the outside world. So in visual data in audio data and so forth you know this pattern is the sound of my mother’s voice, this one is the color blue, this one is a car and so on and so on. And the goal for all of this is for our brain to be able to create maps right? To be able to say that this pattern of firing corresponds to some to this thing in the outside world a map of sorts, right?
And that’s because one of the primary goals of our brain, including our sensory systems, is to represent the world around us to ourselves. And our brain is always checking to make sure sure that those maps are still accurate. If they still accurately represent the world outside of us if not the brain will rewire itself to ensure that they are. And of course one of the key findings over the last half decade half decade in the neurosciences is that this map making process is always happening. As long as we live our sensory systems are always monitoring the world to make sure those maps are still accurate. And this is what I mean by perceptual plasticity, this ability of our various perceptions to continue to change and adapt over time according to our needs and our experiences.
We’re more apt I think to think about the phenomenon of plasticity as applying to our motor system. So in order to acquire a particular skill with our limbs whether it’s picking a banjo or typing on a typewriter or learning to swing a golf club our brains must change to create motor programs that control that skill. So in these cases we are repeatedly signaling our brain through our practice that we want to perform that skill better and better. So it continues to change and adapt in order to do so and to create those motor programs.
But the same type of plasticity occurs in our perceptual systems as well. Our perceptual or sensory systems can also get better at extracting more information out of our sensory data or those firing of neurons. But we must tell our brains what data we care to extract. So take the example of someone who is studying to become a master sommelier right. A sommelier is an expert wine taster who works typically at fancy restaurants and helps guide people on what wines to buy. And in order to pass the master sommerlier’s exam they must develop the ability to taste and describe all sorts of nuances in the wines flavor, tell what variety of wine it is based on the taste, the region it came from and so on
And a person does this by tasting lots and lots of wine and caring about the details of those taste perceptions, so that over time the brain itself changes so that it can extract more and more details from that sensory data, in this case taste. So when we train our perceptual systems over time they develop the ability to extract more information or detail from sensory data. And here’s the important thing about that – those changes in our perceptual system that allow us to do that fundamentally changes our experience of that data which is why the same exact wine tastes entirely different to a novice wine drinker than it does to a master sommelier because they have entirely different perceptual systems that are decoding the sensory information from that wine.
Likewise if you’re an old time or bluegrass banjo player and you listen to an old time or bluegrass band chances are you can easily pick out the sound of the banjo along with all of the other instruments. In fact the sound of the banjo likely jumps out at you just like your name would jump out at you. If someone said it at a loud cocktail party and depending on your level of experience you can hear certain licks and phrases in those sounds and know how they’re being played. On the other hand someone new to listening to old time or bluegrass music may not be able to distinguish one instrument from another. And in fact there are likely many details in the music that you can perceive but they cannot again build through years of experience listening and caring about those details. But again the important point here these differing perceptual systems profoundly impact the experience of those things. So the same old time or bluegrass recording sounds entirely different to a novice listener than it does to an experienced one. And I’m talking here about the direct, immediate experience of that sensory information, not after any type of thoughtful analysis.
So our our initial question of how good we want to get. Well have you ever noticed that there’s often a significant discrepancy between what experts in a field really like and what is best liked by a wider or general audience? How it’s really common, for example, for a movie to be beloved by movie critics but to be a box office flop. And the exact same phenomenon occurs with book restaurant and even music critics. Also have you ever heard someone referred to as a writer’s writer or a musician’s musician? This is often used to describe someone who hasn’t enjoyed the same level of commercial success as some of their contemporaries but who is loved and deeply appreciated by their peers in the field who are often dismayed by the fact that they haven’t enjoyed more success because of the level of their talent. The point again being that there is often significant differences between what’s most appreciated by people with a high level of expertise in a particular area and what’s most appreciated by a wider audience of people who don’t have that same level of expertise.
And again why might that be? Entirely different perceptual systems for decoding that data. The master sommelier has developed much richer brain networks for analyzing the flavors in wine. The experienced banjo player has developed much richer networks for analyzing music that has banjos in it. Again, same sensory data, very different experiences.
So on some level I think everyone recognizes that, past a certain point, there’s very little correlation between the complexity of music or its technical challenge and its popularity. For example, from a technical standpoint, country music is less challenging and complex than bluegrass music. Yet country music enjoys far more popularity amongst the general public in 2018. For example country music accounted for about 9% of music consumed while bluegrass was less than a 10th of a percent.
The same could be said of pop music and jazz. So pop is generally much less technically demanding and musically complex compared to jazz. And in that same year pop accounted for 20% of the music consumed while jazz was only 1%. And I think it’s also safe to say that the fan base of bluegrass and jazz contains a disproportionate amount of musicians. People who’ve cultivated perceptual systems for music that’s different than the general public. What this means is that not only does increasing the level of complexity not appeal to more people, but that past a certain point it starts to appeal to fewer and fewer. And here’s a graph that kind of sums that up. So super simple music not can appeal to a lot of people. Once we reach a certain point we have the ability to appeal to a wide range of audiences.
And then ultimately it reaches the point where we start appealing to fewer and fewer people. Once the music reaches a certain level of complexity it’s becoming overwhelming to a significant number of people because they lack the perceptual machinery needed to make sense of it. And this has nothing to do with the music being better or worse but rather how the experience of any music is impacted by the brain that’s experiencing it.
So the point being is if your goal is to entertain the most number of people possible with your music then continuing to get as good as you possibly could get and play music that reflects that may well undermine that goal. If that is your goal once you reach a certain level on an instrument you’re probably better off learning another one or learning a different style. Incidentally, even if your goal is to get as good as you can on a particular instrument, there’s good evidence that, in some circumstances, moving to a new instrument would also be the best way to get better at your current instrument. But that’s a topic for another episode.
Now there could be many other reasons why you’d want to continue to develop your skills as far as they can go. And you may not care one bit about entertaining the most number of people that you can. You may just love the challenge of seeing how far you can go and that’s great. But I think for many aspiring musicians this is a very encouraging concept. And regardless I think that this is a phenomenon that’s important to be mindful of and be aware of the fact that as you develop the gap between what really appeals to you and what really appeals to the majority of humans will likely continue to widen, no different than if you spend your life watching and analyzing movies the gap between what movies appeal to you and what movies appeal to most humans will likely continue to widen. Or if you spend your life drinking and studying the flavors and wine the gap between what you like and what the majority of humans like will continue to widen – all of it again because of perceptual plasticity. And so when it comes to certain things, make sure before you cultivate very expensive tastes that it’s something you really want to do. Remember, the experience is likely the same regardless of whether you’re a novice enjoying a cheap bottle of wine or an expert drinking a high end one. The difference is the expert now has to spend a whole lot more money to achieve the same level of enjoyment!
Okay. I mentioned earlier that the second reason you might not want to get as good as you could was because of the opportunity costs or the trade off. With learning anything including music the greatest gains are made in the initial period of learning. And as your expertise grows you spend increasingly more time for the same amount of gain or improvement and achieving the very highest levels of expertise means spending countless hours to achieve gains that are likely imperceptible to the casual observer. So the opportunity cost of your time investment continues to increase as your expertise grows. In other words the cost of not doing something else increases and those opportunity costs could apply to many different things like if it meant spending time less time with friends or less time exercising or whatever. But the opportunity costs that I’m referring to here is the one of not moving on to using that time to learn another complex skill including learning another instrument or technique on your current instrument.
So as mentioned the earliest phases of the learning process yield the greatest gains both in terms of skill and in terms of the amount of brain change that is stimulated. And there’s good evidence that stimulating brain change is one of the best things we can do to maintain and enhance the health and function of the brain over time as we get older. So if you are optimizing for brain health and trying to make this particular decision then it really doesn’t make sense to spend your time trying to get as good as you can on one instrument because that would mean sacrificing the opportunity to start learning another one or learning some other complex skill. Now there’s a lot more to say on this particular topic and it’s a really important one. So we’ll address it again in future episodes.
So like I said in the beginning hopefully you found this conversation at least to be thought provoking and maybe it brought up some important ideas that you hadn’t considered before. At the end of the day I think is most important that we are able to make decisions that are best for us and our needs and that we are equipped with the information needed to make the best decisions for ourselves. And I also hope that you recognize that at whatever ability level you are right now you can probably entertain more people than you think you can with your music. So don’t be afraid to share it.
All right that’s it for this Brainjo Bite. If you enjoy these episodes you’ll likely enjoy the book the Laws of Brainjo which you’ll find on Amazon and on other online outlets where books are sold.