Is Playing Music Hard? (Brainjo Bite)

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So, I have a question for you: Is playing music hard? Certainly, that’s the prevailing view, right? But consider this: when an expert musician is playing a song, they’re exerting less effort than a beginning player who’s learning their first chord. So, the expert is doing something insanely more complicated than what the beginner is doing. Yet, the insanely complicated thing feels relatively easy, while the simple thing feels really hard. What are we to make of that?

The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And I think the same could be said for any complex skill, right? I think you could say that any sufficiently advanced skill is indistinguishable from magic. Whether it’s a skilled musician, athlete, gymnast, comedian, craftsman, or writer, and so on. One of the reasons we find witnessing these things so compelling is that we can’t grasp how they’re even possible. We can’t imagine ourselves being able to do such things. It seems impossible or, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, it seems like magic.

When Earl Scruggs first burst onto the banjo scene, people were utterly baffled by what he was doing. They couldn’t figure out how on Earth he could make all of that music come out of his banjo, and with just two hands. It seemed like he’d found some kind of cheat code. And so, for an untrained person who is observing such feats of skill, the idea that they could even hope to do something similar may seem foolish. Because what you’re seeing in these instances is so many orders of magnitude greater than whatever level you’re currently at, it’s impossible to imagine the path from how you get from where you are to there. In fact, it’s quite natural to think that nobody could get there without being born with those abilities, which is one reason why the myth of innate talent has endured for so long.

And that, of course, is the nature of magic. It feels impossible, and yet, all complex knowledge and skills, including many magical skills that you possess, arise from the exact same process. It arises from the brain’s ability to execute a great many different basic skills together, at the same time. Skills that, on their own, don’t seem like magic. And the only reason we are able to learn how to do this is because, through practice, our brain is able to create and then embed the algorithms for those skills, the set of instructions, literally into the substance of our brain, so that they can be executed automatically, meaning while our conscious attention is directed elsewhere.

And because our conscious mind can only single-task, can only focus on one thing at a time, this process of automating skills, which of course is why we practice, is the only way we’re able to perform more than one task at the same time. And the reason that this wonderful ability to automate basic skills so that they can be executed simultaneously, an ability that, again, if you’re listening to this, you also have, the reason that ultimately leads to capabilities that look like magic, is because it allows for exponential growth in the things that we can do. It is ultimately a mathematical phenomenon, and one that’s enabled by this fundamental mechanism that exists in every brain.

But in the early days of learning anything, as we’re building foundation skills and before we’ve begun to benefit from the magic of combinatorial math, things are slow-going, right? Our progress is slow and linear. But then, provided we’ve built the right sorts of skills, something changes. We hit a threshold, and suddenly progress starts to accelerate. And it’s when we’ve hit this threshold that we start to reap the rewards of combinatorial math. So, whereas adding five skill layers together may only get us to five, adding 20 could get us to 1,000, right? And again, the only thing that can ever make this possible is the automation of a sufficient number of skill layers, which is something, again, that anyone can do.

Your ability to understand what I’m saying to you right now is made possible by this exact same process. It’s only possible for you to comprehend the words I’m saying because you’ve built layers upon layers of automatic perceptual and conceptual skills that can discriminate, identify, and instantly understand the sounds that are coming out of my mouth, at the speed at which I’m talking. So, you have to have built up the auditory skills needed to automatically distinguish and identify the sound of one phoneme from another, all this stream of phonemes that are coming at you, and then one word from another. And then you also have to have built up the conceptual skills required to automatically comprehend the meaning of each word and automatically apply the rules of grammar and syntax, so that you can understand the entire sentences that I’m speaking.

It’s a process that relies on layering thousands upon thousands of subskills that you’ve automated,

which is exactly why you can now do it without any conscious effort. So, if you’re a native English speaker and you’re listening to me, you can’t help but automatically understand the words I’m saying to you. You can be in a restaurant, and if someone is speaking loudly next to you, you can’t help but understand what they’re saying, even if you’re trying to focus on reading the cocktail menu. Comprehension is instantaneous. It feels so easy that we don’t appreciate just what an incredible feat of intelligence it is.

But when you first started building your language skills as a baby, your progress was initially painstakingly slow. So, for a while, you couldn’t understand full sentences at all, just a few words, and then maybe a few words strung together. Yet now, as you’re listening to this video, there are more possible sentences that you can understand effortlessly than there are grains of sand on the entire Earth. Way more, in fact. For all practical purposes, the number of sentences that you can potentially comprehend effortlessly and automatically is limitless. And that magical combinatorial explosion happened through the relatively ordinary and mundane process of learning one relatively simple skill after another and then layering them on top of each other.

In fact, if you’ve been around a young child learning language, you’ve seen this combinatorial explosion happen first-hand, when suddenly, overnight, they seem to understand everything that you’re saying. And that happens when they hit this threshold of having developed enough automated skills to produce exponential growth in their ability to comprehend language. And to every other animal on the planet, except us, this also looks like magic.

If you’d have shown me a banjo tab 20 years ago, it would have looked like an indecipherable mess. And now, when I see it, I see layers. I see picking patterns, melodic patterns, harmonic patterns, stacked on top of each other, each themselves composed of sublayers. Incidentally, this is a big reason why tab gives the illusion of a shortcut, right? There’s the whole tune, what more could you want, right? Except that if I’m looking at a tab for how Earl Scruggs played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” for example, his ability to play that, and what I’m seeing on the page, emerged from layering all of those automated skills that he’d built up to that point.

And this gets back to the first law of Brainjo, which is: to learn to play like the masters, learn to play like the masters, right? You don’t learn to play like Earl Scruggs, or any other expert in any domain, by copying what they do. Rather, you develop similar abilities by copying how they learn, because it’s how they learn that builds the networks that enable whatever skills they have. Just like if you want to learn to speak French, you don’t memorize speeches in French. Rather, you follow the path that millions of children have followed to also become expert French speakers. Train two brains the same way, and you’ll end up with the same skills.

So, the challenge then, about learning music, is not actually the things that we have to learn. Each subskill, each layer, each step in the process is simple enough to master. It does take consistent effort and patience, but those are things that are entirely within our control. The challenge is in knowing what the subskills are and how to go about learning them. It’s figuring out what the next bit should be and the best way to learn it, which, of course, as many of you know, is the whole objective of Brainjo and the Brainjo method.

So, back to our original question: Is playing music hard? Well, I think Thomas Fuller, back in the 17th century, said it best, which is, “All things are difficult until they are easy.” And that certainly applies here. Remember, that effortless execution that you see of any expert, that seems so incomprehensibly complex that it’s indistinguishable from magic, is not the result of any innate ability. That’s not how brains work. Rather, it’s the result of effective practice that led to the automation of a great many basic skills so that they can be executed simultaneously and allow for exponential growth.

Alright, that’s all for this Brainjo bite. By the way, if you like to listen to podcasts, there is now a dedicated podcast feed just for these Brainjo bites. And you can find that by going to your favorite podcast player and just searching “Brainjo bites” or just “Brainjo,” and it’ll pull it up. Alright, thanks so much for listening, and I’ll see you in the next Brainjo bite. Thank you for watching this Brainjo bite. To catch future episodes, hit the subscribe button and ring the notification bell, if you haven’t already done so. You can also hear these episodes on the Brainjo Jam podcast, and you’ll find a

link to that in the video description. Also, if you’d like to boost your brain health and function with neuroscience-based musical instruction for banjo, ukulele, fiddle, and piano, head over to Brainjo Academy. [Music]