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 :) !
p.s. Again, we would appreciate if you show your support by signing up to our landing page!
Source: Levitin, D. (2011). This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding A Human Obsession. 1st ed. New York: Atlantic Books Ltd.
Hello again! Since the last blog post, and with April coming to an end, we have some exciting news to share…which is, we have officially graduated from the FFWD programme after 8 weeks of hard work. We rock!
You might wonder from the title what FFWD is, so here's a little background info.
FastForward (or the FFWD) programme is one of the UK's leading Pre-Accelerator Programmes with the goal to take startups from initial idea to the first round of funding in a 8 week course. At Vibes, we were honoured to join this programme together with a wonderful group of other startups. During the FFWD course, we got to learn from experienced professionals and mentors, who helped us to validate the business idea and implement them step by step to actually make them become reality.
Though 8 weeks doesn't seem long, it definitely was an important milestone for us. In this short period of time, ‘Vibes’ was born and then nurtured from a vague idea into a solid business plan and direction. As you might have learned already from Phil’s previous post, Vibes ‘came to life’ after he became inspired (read: frustrated) from his own music learning experience, and, after reading various music forums and Reddit Threads, realised he was not the only one suffering from this problem. Does this relate much to you?
Essentially, what is a workman without his tools, and what is a musician (or a music learner) without his (good) ears?
Ok, so going back to our main topic today. What came after weeks of hard work and preparation was a 5-minute pitch on the final presentation day, where we got the opportunity to showcase our work to guests, accelerators, and incubators, etc., and get to connect with them afterwards. As the saying goes, one minute on stage often takes ten years of practice off stage. After all, we had been working on this for months, and now the day had finally came! "Excited" was not even the right word to describe half of what we felt!
What is a workman without his tools, and a musician (or a music learner) without his (good) ears? Click to tweet
The afternoon went a lot faster than we expected, which was mainly due to the fact everyone was so prepared and ready. We were amongst one of the last to present but Phil did a great job conveying our idea, mission statement, and future prospect of Vibes. After the event, we also chatted and connected with several guests and professionals over a relaxing pint (read: several pints) in a pub. What’s a better way to end the day than that, right?
Below are just some snapshots during our presentation. I hope this gives a little more in-depth knowledge of what Vibes provides. Any questions are welcomed of course!
We started at the beginning of the presentation by discussing the ‘problem’ Vibes is trying to solve. Surely everyone wants to solo like Jimi Hendrix (see below), be creative and enjoy music, or just simply being able to hear a song, in mind or from Spotify, and play it!
Thereafter, we moved on to explaining the science that underpins Vibes, namely the concept of sensory augmentation. Taking advantage of our brain’s capability to make associations, Vibes aims to stimulate the visual, auditory and tactile senses to enhance and accelerate the musical learning process. According to the neuroscience of learning, this use of association rather than repetition, as used in the standard ear training apps and software, will theoretically reduce the time it takes to recognise musical intervals, chords etc.
The presentation slide below shows graphically (though not purely accurately) how Vibes is trying to change the music learning process.
Association rather than repetition can theoretically reduce the time to recognise musical intervals. Click to tweet
The use of real and battle-tested science, which has been used in industry, is how Vibes differentiates itself from the countless ear training apps out there . All in all, we are glad that this ‘baby’ has been delivered. Looking back on the 8 week Accelerator programme, it was a hell of a long journey but overall extremely rewarding.
However, all good things must come to an end. As much as we enjoyed our past journey with FastForward and all our wonderful colleagues, we know we must now take what we have learned and embark on a new journey.
We sincerely welcome all of you who are interested in joining this journey with us. We may have graduated from FastForward, but it is definitely not the end, but the beginning of something more exciting, inspiring, and unique.
There will be more blog posts to come in the next few weeks, where we will record the process and growth of Vibes. If you like this post, feel free to leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!
At the moment we are building the prototype to put the theory into a reality, and hoping to find people who are interested in Vibes to be our first round of beta testers! If this sounds exciting to you, please do subscribe so you don't miss our latest updates! Also, feel free to drop us a message if you know someone who you can refer to. It’d be much appreciated!
Till the next post :)
Our first blog post looks to answer the two question. Firstly, for all those starting out down this musical road...
Why should you worry about training your ears to hear musical intervals, chords and scales?
Lend me your ears and I’ll tell you my story. I started playing guitar 18 years ago in Germany, but that story of hard labour and cold winters is for the memoirs. I took a few lessons and my teacher tried to teach me music theory and how it applies to the guitar. Sadly, for him, I already had a taste of playing Beatles songs (he liked German heavy metal which wasn’t quite my forte so we settled on the Beatles and Eric Clapton! I am certainly not that old but that is where our musical appreciation converged). Though I understood the theory, I was hooked on playing recognisable songs. I bought guitar tab books and with practice could soon play my favourite songs. It was challenging, fun and uplifting.
Fast forward all those years later and with the help of more books and the internet, I have improved technically and can now play a range of styles. Here comes the big ‘but’… when it comes to playing a solo, improvising or trying to play something I have just heard on the radio or in my head then it is simply embarrassing. It took me hours just to work out the ‘La La Land’ theme song (City of Stars)! Scratching around on the fretboard to find the right notes was nothing short of frustrating. And I still got it slightly wrong!
Scratching around on the fretboard to find the right notes was nothing short of frustrating. Click to tweet
What do we learn from this tale of horror and Oscar winning musicals? Basically, it doesn’t matter what instrument you play and how many years you have been playing, if you want to excel, really enjoy music and be creative, then you will want to actually hear the music you are listening to, including all the subtleties and complexities. You will then be able to:
If you want to excel, enjoy music and be creative, then you will want to actually hear the music. Click to tweet
So that is my answer to why ear training is important and the cornerstone of musical learning. However, that leads me to my next question...
Why had I, after playing guitar for so long, not been able to pick up the ability to recognise even the basics of intervals?
It suddenly hit me that learning from books and the internet had meant that I had almost completely bypassed the core skill of music – listening. I could not recognise melodies (or the intervals that make up those melodies) as at no point did I have to use my ears to really listen. From people I have talked to, who either were self-taught, had poor teaching or got bored with musical theory, I am not alone.
To work out what was missing, let’s take a look into the fantastical world of the brain for a second. I will try and keep it simple, mainly so not to embarrass myself. Amazingly, sound and music does not exist outside of your brain. Before we go down some dark rabbit hole filled with trees falling in woods, let me explain further. Your ear through various mechanisms converts vibrating air molecules of different frequencies into electrical impulses which excite fibres of the auditory nerve. Each nerve fibre carries a different frequency to the area of the brain called the auditory cortex. Here we enter the world of the brain and the firing of neurons. Neurons are the means by which data flows in your brain. Information is therefore encoded in your brain by the configuration of neurons. Different frequencies fire different neurons which then, using various brain centres, references them to previously stored configurations of neurons. The interpretation of music, including pitch, timbre, amplitude etc., is all linked to the constant referencing of the input stimuli to historical configuration of neurons.
It is a complex topic and, if people want, we will cover it more in depth in another blog post. Essentially if you want to get better at recognising musical intervals (relative difference in frequencies) then you have to build up the unique configuration of neurons to act as reference points. Like in forming any new habit this is usually achieved through repetition. Interestingly, Vibes is looking to help this process by creating more associations in your brain and therefore reducing the need for a high repetition learning.
To get better at recognising intervals, you have to build up the unique configuration of neurons. Click to tweet
Therefore, if, like me, you have learned from books without engaging your ears, then your brain has never had the chance to create the relevant configuration of neurons.
With a bit of understanding of how the brain works, you can hopefully see with dedication, you can gain the skill of ‘ear training’ and start on the road to be able to play that killer solo. Currently it requires study and hard work to allow your brain to recognise musical intervals, chords and scales. Our aim at Vibes is to reduce the time it takes you to learn and enhance the brain’s ability to process music. No tall order but we think it is possible.
I hope you enjoyed this first blog. If you have any comments then please let me know. Remember it's my first ever blog! Thanks