Why You Hate Your Recordings (Brainjo Bite)


Welcome to another Brainjo Bite. Today’s episode was inspired by a comment that was posted inside of the Banjo for Adult Beginners Facebook Group from David, who said, “Am I the only one that thinks that they’re starting to catch on, then record themselves and hope and pray that no one ever hears that garbage ever.” 

And then one person in the comments also responded, “I haven’t gotten to the stage of wanting to record myself.”

And I’m sure many of you out there can relate to David’s comment of the experience of recording yourself, maybe one of the first times, listening back and being horrified. And I wanted to discuss it because recording yourself is such an important tool. I want to ensure that people are using it to their advantage and to give you strategies on how you can make the most of it while also not allowing it to be a source of discouragement.

So why record in the first place? We live in an amazing time when it comes to learning music, thanks to the technological developments over the past couple of decades. And one of those developments has been in recording technology. Every smartphone is capable of making recordings, and there are really no limits to the amount of recordings you can make. And recording offers really priceless feedback. But you may wonder how is that feedback any different than just listening to yourself when you play, isn’t a recording, just playing back the thing you heard you were practicing or making the recording in the first place?

I’m going to demonstrate why what you hear when you listen to your recording and what you hear when you are listening when you play are two different things with what maybe my most favorite illusion of all time, this one almost broke the internet a few years ago. So I know some of you watching we’ll be familiar with it. So I’m just going to play a little snippet of audio. And I want you to tell me what word you hear. And if you if you’re watching this on Facebook or YouTube, just type the word you hear into the comments after you’re listening to the audio. So pause it and put that in.

Now some of you listening will have heard the word yanny and some of you will have heard the word Laurel. And if you go ahead and scan the comments, if this video has been up for any length of time, you’re going to see that there are different answers and it’s relatively even in terms of what people hear. 

And what’s so fascinating about this particular illusion is that these words sound nothing like each other. Yanny and Laurel. If you hear the word yanny in this snippet of audio, it’s pretty much impossible to wrap your head around the idea that someone else could hear the word Laurel. And it feels like you are the victim of some elaborate prank and some people find it very unsettling. Now, sensory or perceptual illusions have been a really important tool for understanding the brain, how it processes information as they provide a window into how the brain processes different kinds of sensory information.

But one reason I love this particular illusion so much is that it so clearly illustrates that what we perceive is not the actual reality or the ground truth. When you perceive something, when it bubbles up into your conscious awareness, whether it’s vision or touch or taste or sound, it’s already undergone a significant amount of processing. In other words, your brain has already edited that raw sensory data a ton based on your prior knowledge and experience, it’s your brain’s job to make sense of the world.

When you look out into the world right now, you don’t see a blob of colors and shapes. You see a table and a wall and headphones and the screen, et cetera. So by the time something appears into your awareness, your brain has already created a best guess about what that thing is, and that best get shapes how you perceive it, and the context in which something is being perceived shapes what that perception will be. In fact, you can change the frequencies of this recording, such that every person hears Laurel or every person hears yanny. And if you do that and you go back to the original recording, you’ll be far more likely it to hear that particular word in that original piece of audio. And that’s because the context then of your recent experience is now influencing how that audio data is being processed and edited and ultimately presented into your conscious awareness by your brain. All right. So once again, here is the original audio

Now here’s the same audio shifted to a lower frequency. Most people will hear yanny now.

And then here it is shifted to a higher frequency and most people will hear the word Laurel.

Now, when I play back the original audio, it may sound different to some of you.

So again, we don’t perceive the world as it is, but rather we perceive an edited version that’s shaped by our past knowledge and experience. So going back to this original post, David describes having recorded himself and then being disappointed by what he heard when he played the recording back, which means that his perception of the exact same sounds, the exact same audio was different when he was playing it on his instrument than when he listened back to it. Same input going into his ears, totally different percept experience. So that illustrates for one that listening back to a recording of yourself is different than listening to the same sounds when you’re playing them, which is one of the reasons why it’s worth doing. So why is it that listening to a recording of ourselves, if oftentimes worse, perceived as worse than listening when we’re playing instrument?

Now this is mainly speculation, but there are a few likely reasons that I can think of first, when you’re listening, as you’re playing your instrument, what your brain presents into your auditory, mental space, maybe something somewhere between the desired version and the actual version you’re playing. Meaning when we’re playing something on our instrument we have a target version in our mind, right? That’s how we know what to play, unless we’re just randomly hitting notes. So our brain may be altering what we hear to bring it closer to that target version in our mind, meaning it may be editing what’s coming in to make it sound closer to the thing that we’re trying to sound like. There may even be personality differences that contribute to this particular effect. So if you’re optimistic, you may be more inclined to hear it better. Pessimistic, not so much.

Another reason why is that you may just not be able to focus on all the details in the sound that you’re hearing while you’re also focusing on playing your instrument at the same time at when you’re listening back, you can focus all of your attention on that audio. This is probably especially true in the beginning where the act of playing your instrument is receiving more of your attentional resources.

And then the last reason, and maybe the most important of all is that when you’re listening back in a situation like this, you’re oftentimes listening with a critical ear. Typically when we listen to music, we’re doing so for enjoyment or entertainment, but in this case, listening back to ourselves, we’re judging what we’re hearing critically in hopes of learning something about our playing, especially if we’re using it for learning purposes. So we’re listening intently for our mistakes and not surprisingly, they jump out at us, literally.

And there’s a well researched phenomenon known as the cocktail party effect that relates to this. So this refers to our brain’s ability to tune into a single conversation when there are multiple conversations going on at once, like at a cocktail party, hence the name. Our ability to selectively attend to one stream of audio and ignore others so that we can better hear the thing that we care about. And the same thing is likely happen when we’re listening back to a recording of ourselves, we’re listening for mistakes, so they jump out at us and it’s hard for us to hear anything good by contrast. In which of course, this gives us a distorted view or perception of our playing. This is much like how many people have something about their own physical appearance that they don’t like, which stands out to them when they look in the mirror or look at a picture of themselves, but doesn’t stand out nearly in the same way to others that see them.

Similar thing also happens with the sound of our own name. You can hear the sound of your own name, much better than you can hear other words, the sound of your name will jump out if you hear it uttered by someone else in your vicinity. Now here’s another phenomenon I’ve also experienced, which is a part of why I think this concept of selective attention leads to this distorted perception of recordings of ourself. So on occasions, I’ve listened to a recording of myself and not realized that it was me. Some of these instances were a time where I was still relatively a beginner playing banjo, but I know at the time when I made those recordings, I didn’t particularly like them, I wasn’t crazy about them. Almost always. I liked them much more when I didn’t realize that it was me playing and I had some distance from that initial recording that I’d made and I’ve heard others report the same thing that they’ve found some snippet of audio or something listened to it and think no that’s pretty good and then realize it was a recording they made of themselves years ago, that they may not have liked at the time. Again, suggesting that we’re selectively attuning to the mistakes when we’re listening to them after we first recorded something.

All right. So the whole reason for having this discussion was because I think that recording yourself is an extremely useful tool and one that everyone should be taking advantage of right from the start. That’s because it provides one of the three necessary components for learning or three necessary components in order to stimulate the brain to change, to acquire new knowledge and skills. And that is feedback. And as mentioned, the feedback that we get from listening to a recording of ourselves is not the same as the feedback we get while listening to ourselves playing. And in the next episode, part two, I’ll talk about some techniques for getting the most out of recording yourself and how to do so without getting discouraged by it.

All right, thanks so much for watching. If you enjoy these Brainjo Bites, then you will likely enjoy the book. The Laws of Brainjo is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Brainjo Bites. 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 brainjo.academy