In this blog post we want to talk a little about the roles our brain plays in music learning. I know it sounds a bit scientific but don't panic just yet. In the previous blog posts we have stressed the importance-of-ear-training and music theory. But we haven’t quite fully explained the reason why people constantly struggle and why they believe ear training is nothing but torture. We hope that after reading this post, you can have some understanding on how our brain works in music!
Before we start, we would like to first break a common misconception many music learners might have. We know that many people learn guitar for their own pleasure, hoping to solo and improvise like a rock star. They frown upon the notion of learning music theory and practicing ear training as they believe that they are not aspiring to be a professional musician anyway. Why bother and waste the time on learning those technical stuffs? Little did they know the main cause of failure in learning guitar is actually not understanding music theory well enough.
The main cause of failure in learning guitar is actually not understanding music theory well enough. Click to tweet
An article on Guitar World has further addressed the issue of the pedagogy of learning guitar. It states the reason that the common plateau many self-taught guitarists hit is due to their lack of understanding towards technical materials that are actually the fundamentals to aiding guitar learning. It is not to say that learners should only pay attention to this area, but for ear training beginners, it’s necessary to incorporate technique and theory into their practice at some point. Again, this is generally why ear training or music theory practice are so crucial in developing your musicality. It’s like trying to write English sentences without learning the alphabets first! Those advance skills that we see musicians performing are often built upon a solid foundation already, and it is the fundamental knowledge that provides the thorough grounding in improvising. So this is why you should learn music theory. If you want to master the skills to play by ear and benefit long term, you should not neglect to practice ear training.
For ear training beginners, it’s necessary to incorporate technique and theory into their practice at some point. Click to tweet
The main reason it’s hard to do ear training is because it requires a lot of time and practice to be able to reach a sufficient level, and time is something often in short supply nowadays. This is supported by the fact that being ‘too busy with school work/other commitments to continue’ are ranked the second main reason why students tend to cease their music learning journey in the UK, data taken from the ‘Making Music’ research report by the ABRSM, UK’s largest music education body.
However, I do not know whether we should thank or blame the advanced technology nowadays. Apart from the already existing book resources, the vast majority can enjoy the benefits of ear training apps, ear training websites with online software, exercises and games, and the millions of great YouTube tutorials just a few clicks away. In a sense, our music learning and production industry can be said to have been forever changed by the internet, and guitar certainly has played centre stage. In addition, the guitar leaning process has become even easier with the introduction of guitar tablature. Suddenly, those pesky time signatures, staves and semi-quavers were a thing of the past. The stave was replaced by guitar strings and notes by numbers. It was elegantly simple and easy. The old, stuffy guard of music had fallen away and now anyone could be playing ‘Wonderwall’ in short space of time.
So surely this revolution of guitar learning is nothing short of fantastic. Though the benefits are huge, there is also one large drawback, and, depending on your guitar experience, you may not have even noticed it yet. After 13 years of tablature books and online tutorials, I first noticed it when I was asked to solo and improvise. Suddenly I was adrift, scratching around the minor pentatonic scale for a blues riff. I resorted to repeating riffs I had already learnt, desperately searching for some Muddy Waters inspiration. For many, they might first notice the problem when trying in vain to play a song by ear.
So what has happened?
With the quick fixes of tablature and online tutorials, many have never gained the ability to ‘hear’ music. The tablature books provide absolute convenience but it also meant that our ears were never engaged in the process. The numbers and strings in the book or laptop were processed by our visual brain into motor responses, almost completely bypassing the auditory system.
And this is one of the main reasons why people still struggle when it comes to training their ear.
The tablature books provide absolute convenience but it also meant that our ears were never engaged in the process. Click to tweet
When it comes to explaining why the ear training process is so hard and time-consuming, it is important to understand the science behind hearing music. So how do our brain process music? Let’s use the case of an acoustic guitar as an example. When playing an acoustic guitar, a vibrating string causes air molecules to compress, changing the air pressure. This changing pressure then gives the air molecules a certain frequency as they propagate out from the source. This creates sound waves.
These sound waves will then enter the ear and through a complex chain of bones are transferred to the inner ear, and the fluid within a snail-like shape called the cochlea. Within the cochlea are tiny hair cells that are caused to vibrate by the surrounding fluid, transferring mechanical motion into electrical signals to be carried to the brain. The interesting point here is that the hair cells are arranged by frequency. So higher frequencies cause hair cells to move at the base and deeper frequencies work at the apex. Therefore, individual frequencies are routed to the auditory cortex within the brain. The perception of these frequencies entering the brain is what is called pitch. What’s worth mentioning is that the brain represents pitches directly when processing information, and one will be able to tell simply by the brain activity what pitches are being played.
Not that complicated after all, is it?
Here we will also like to recommend a book written by Daniel Levitin titled “This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession.” It gives a clear overview on how our brain system works along with how music affects our brain, minds, thoughts, and spirits in a neuropsychological perspective. A cool example is when Levitin explains how brain represents pitches, he uses a red tomato. If, he says, I showed you a red tomato while electrodes are in your visual cortex, there will be no signs of neurons that will make the electrodes turn red. On the other hand, if the electrodes are in your auditory cortex and a pure tone of 440Hz is being played, neurons in the auditory cortex will fire precisely in that frequency, resulting in the electrodes emitting the exact 440Hz of activity. However, he also points out that interestingly, music is rather perceived by pitch relations than absolute pitch values. In short, “for pitch, what goes into the ear comes out of the brain!” If you’re interested in learning more on how our brain processes music, you should definitely give the book a read, and let us know how you think about it!
I hope by this point, you have gained some insights on the relations of our brain and music. In the next blog post, we would touch upon the two main ways our brain learns and why it is important to understand the differences between them to most effectively help us in our music learning! If you like this blog post, please like and share!
Also, if there are any specific topics you would like to learn more in the future or if you have any thoughts or feedback, feel free to comment below or shoot us an email!
Until next time :) !
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Source: Levitin, D. (2011). This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding A Human Obsession. 1st ed. New York: Atlantic Books Ltd.