At the Brainjo Center for Neurology & Cognitive Enhancement Josh tackles the question “Is it possible to take any ordinary adult brain and turn it into the brain of a musician?” – and finds strong evidence that the answer is a resounding “Yes!”
He is also the host of the terrific Intelligence Unshackled Podcast, which focuses on how to optimise the health and function of the brain, including its capacity to learn and change itself.
If you’ve ever wondered how exactly the brain learns new things, or whether your music-learning process is really dialed in to help you learn as quickly and enjoyably as possible – you are going to absolutely love this one.
In this conversation Josh shares:
- A completely new way to think about how you’re spending your music practice time
- An explanation of how to use visualisation to help you improve faster – and when exactly to do that visualisation.
- The “labyrinth technique” to focus your practice time on what will deliver the biggest impact.
We also talk about how playing by ear on banjo is – and isn’t – different from other instruments, how playing complex music by ear actually works, how the adult brain compares to the child’s brain for learning – and a whole lot more.
You will come away with several new ideas that change how you think about your music learning.
Watch the episode:
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Josh: Hi. This is Dr. Josh Turknett, Founder of Brainjo. Welcome to Musicality Now.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Josh. Thank you for joining us today.
Josh: Thank you for having me, Christopher.
Christopher: You are the most fascinating blend of musician and brain scientist that I’ve come across in a while, and I have to say, as I look through your websites for Brainjo and the Brainjo Center, I was just continually saying, “This is so cool.”
Josh: Thank you.
Christopher: I’ve really been looking forward to this and the chance to unpack some of the topics you cover at Brainjo and the methodology you bring to music learning. But, you are a musician, as I said, as well as a brain scientist and an avid student of all the latest in learning theory and brain development. I’d love if we can begin with your musical backstory, if we may, and what got you into music in the first place and what that looked like.
Josh: Sure. I’ve been interested in music for as long as I can remember, probably like most human beings, and first, initially, through singing. My earliest memories are going out on my swing set and singing the songs, my favorite songs of the day. It had to have been I was three or four years old. First, through singing, and then I grew up in the era when the keyboards were hitting the market, you know? The Casios and things like that. My brother and I had one that we liked to mess around on, and that was the first time that I’d played an instrument, so to speak, and it was also the first time that I’d ever done anything like trying to play by ear other than trying to sing by ear. That was kind of the first, early exposure to playing.
Josh: I wanted to do more. I really wanted to become a better keyboard player or a better piano player. I kind of wanted to be able to play the songs that I heard on the radio, right? Figure out how to make that music myself. I knew from my experience that the ability to play by ear was possible, right? We could pick out little melodies on the keyboard, but I didn’t really know where to go from there. I didn’t know what steps to take to go from the music that I could do there to playing something fully formed, that sounded more complete and comprehensive.
Josh: The only thing that was really available in terms of instruction was people teaching to learn to read sheet music, to learn by rote, the classical music approach. A couple different times, took lessons where that was the approach, and it wasn’t the thing I wanted to learn, so it didn’t really click with me. I was able to play some songs and stuff, but I was still looking for someone to kind of show me the path towards what playing by ear would look like, because it felt very different. It was a very different way of making music. The by rote approach kind of took a lot of the fun out of it for me.
Josh: But it was still, back then, even this idea around, and it’s still pervasive, but it was even more so back then, because we didn’t have the internet. You didn’t have other exposures, so there was this idea that you people out there who were born with this ability to learn by ear, right? It was just like they just walked up to a piano and they just played everything they heard. It would just happen by magic, right? And there was nothing in between. It was this idea that you either were born with that capacity or not, and there was really nowhere to go to learn how to do that sort of thing.
Josh: So, I kind of resigned myself to that idea for a while. Would still mess around on the piano some, but kind of like put it aside for a while. Then it wasn’t until I was in, let’s say, I think my last year of medical school where I got a guitar and just getting the guitar and learning chords, where the guitar tradition, at that point in time, there was the internet. I was able to get some access to some instructional materials. There was enough there that I could sort of start figuring that out by ear, just learning chords, learning to play and sing along.
Josh: That got me completely excited about playing music again. It felt like I kind of understood, then, where I could go from there to play the kind of music that I wanted to play. So, messed around on the guitar. Learned strumming and singing styles, learned to play flat pick, bluegrass style, and then moved into playing some country blues finger picking. Then, one fateful Christmas, I was given a banjo by my family, who I’d expressed an interest for quite some time that one day I would like to learn how to play the banjo, so my brother was the instigator who ended up getting it for me, and really fell in love with the banjo as an instrument.
Josh: Then, was hooked on that, learned several different styles of banjo. Since then, it’s been learning other instruments, fiddle, going back to piano. As I figured out things about how to learn to play by ear, how to make my own music, went back to these other instruments that I’d tried to learn on before and applied those same concepts and made the kind of progress that I’d hoped to make so many years ago.
Josh: So, that’s kind of my journey in a nutshell. Also, a lot of what I’m doing now with Brainjo is kind of reaching back to try to solve some of the problems that I’d faced long ago and demystify a lot of the stuff around learning by ear, providing pathways for people to do it, make it not so intimidating. We’re all, as I think you guys feel as well, we’re all wired to make music. It’s just trying to figure out how to tap into that best and giving people ways to do that.
Christopher: Awesome. I’m always conscious that whatever episode we’re doing might be the first episode anyone’s tuned into. Like someone listening, it might be their first episode. A moment ago when you talked about the idea, back when you were growing up, that playing by ear was an all or nothing gift, you and I have a shared understanding that that’s not reality, and we can a talk a lot more about that, but if someone’s listening and they’re like, “Wait, but isn’t that the case?” If they’ve never come across this idea that actually that’s not how playing by ear works, could you just explain in a nutshell why it isn’t that magical gift, or maybe why we ended up with that cultural assumption that it was, too?
Josh: Yeah. It’s interesting. Why we ended up with that is a good question. You’re right, that I, We kind of take for granted that people realize that it’s not this all or nothing thing nowadays, because it’s not true. I was at dinner with someone just the other night who said that very thing. We were having this conversation about it, it’s all or nothing. So, probably one of the most important points to make about it is that it is a learned skill, like any other part of playing music. Just like playing a scale or learning how to fret a chord or whatever. Playing by ear is a skill that can be developed.
Josh: Part of that is having a road map. How do you get from a starting point to being able to pick out songs by ear? One of the articles that I’ve written about on the topic talks about that in terms of what you need and the raw materials that you need to be able to play by ear, it’s basically just being able to match a pitch that exists outside of you to one internally. Almost everybody has that capacity. True tone deafness would be the absence of that ability, just like colorblindness, you can’t perceive certain colors. If you’re completely unable to perceive certain pitches, it makes learning by ear really tricky to learn as a skill. But that’s a really uncommon problem. Most folks who have it aren’t actually drawn to learning how to play music. Most people who are interested in playing music have the ability to discriminate pitches.
Josh: Also, if you can sing, you’re already doing that. All you’re doing when you sing is matching an internal pitch representation with what you’re producing with your vocal cords. And, even if you don’t sing well, if you recognize that you don’t sing well, then you also are matching internal pitches with what you can … So that’s a production problem, right? There are two things that you have to have in order to be able to sing on pitch, be able to recognize the pitch and being able to have the control over your vocal apparatus to match it. If you can either sing on pitch or recognize when you aren’t singing on pitch, then you have the apparatus. You’re not tone deaf. There are ways that you can formally test yourself for it.
Josh: But from there, it’s really a matter of having a sequence in terms of taking where you are at any point in time and then taking that to full on being able to play by ear, and there is a sequence, just like learning anything else. There’s a progression of skills that it takes to ultimately get to the higher levels that you’d want to be at. But yeah, it’s something that anybody can learn if they’re given the right pathway for doing it.
Christopher: I think when you say the word “banjo,” people immediately hear banjo playing in their head. That there’s a fast flurry of notes, that it’s very kind of active and energetic. Is banjo a difficult instrument to play by ear for that reason?
Josh: Good question. I think there probably is some … Yes. Depending on how you go about it or how you deconstruct banjo playing. If you have a framework for understanding what’s going on with the banjo when you’re listening to it, it makes playing by ear a whole lot easier. One of the reasons for banjo having a fairly high failure rate, particularly bluegrass for banjo, which is the staccato, really fast sequence of notes, is that people oftentimes try to approach it as if it’s one single entity. Like you’re just hearing all those notes and you’re just trying to replicate that without peeling back and seeing, what’s this structure that’s producing this?
Josh: It’s really, you have these melody notes, and then you have all of this stuff going on around it. There’s more stuff going on around it than there are actual melody notes going on. If you deconstruct it and start it from the building blocks that are there, it makes it a whole lot easier, whereas if you were to try to especially learn by ear, even just making sense of what’s happening is hard, without some kind of slowdown software to even hear the notes. It’s really hard. So it’s fair easier to start with … Every complex scale is just an accumulation of simpler ones, right? It’s figuring out what’s the simplest way to start with and then build on top of that.
Josh: But absolutely, if you were to try to learn … That’s part of the myth, right? That people would think that if you’re learning to play banjo by ear, the conventional myths that are out there, that that just means you listen to some professional banjo player playing this crazy sequence of notes, and then you just play the same thing on your banjo. That’s how it works, right? When it’s totally not like that, right? The first steps, one of the things that we do, that I do in the banjo courses, the very first step in teaching to play by ear is, first, we take recordings of tracks of professional banjoists playing a song and then teach them first how to extract the melody from that.
Josh: The first thing you need to be able to understand is how to deconstruct what you’re hearing into the component parts. Then the next step is then taking that basic melody, figuring out what are those notes, and then adding on top of it.
Josh: Okay, then, what are kind of the rules the banjo players use to decorate those notes? What are the extra sounds that you use? Then you can put those in. That part is really just pattern based. The real ear learning part of it is really extracting the melody and chords. You’re building your foundation, and then you’re using different patterns to fill it all out. But understanding that, I mean, that unlocks everything. If you understand the structure of it, whereas if you were just trying to do the whole thing all at once, it would be impossible for anybody.
Christopher: Absolutely. You mentioned you play a few other instrument, partly before banjo and partly since. How does that approach or that understanding of learning to play by ear compare across instruments?
Josh: I mean, I think it probably … There’s definitely some universals. For me, it’s always about starting simple and building from there, with everything, everything. There’s so much magic that happens when you just add a few simple things together. It doesn’t matter what instrument you’re playing. It’s those moments when you experience that for the first time that are kind of a revelation in music, where you’ve learned a few little things, and then you put them all together, and you’re like, whoa, this sounds amazing. You feel like you didn’t do anything that great, but it’s starting to come together. Those are powerful illustrations of that concept.
Josh: I think that ultimately, it’s very easy to get intimidated by music, whether it’s a particular genre that feels intimidating or an instrument that feels intimidating, but if you break it down to its fundamentals, it’s essentially just all frequencies of sound. It’s all the same stuff, fundamentally, and then music itself is just melody, rhythm, and harmony. Just figure out, okay, what are those three components, and you can build up from anywhere.
Josh: If you start there, everything kind of looks the same, right? You just figure out, these are these same concepts applied to these different instruments. I think once you’ve kind of unlocked those basic building blocks, then it becomes a lot easier to apply them on whatever instrument. Then it’s really just a matter of learning the mechanics of how that particular instrument works.
Christopher: Got you. You touched on something there which is really important, I think, which is we often, we’re attracted into the process by the end goal, and that first flurry of notes that we want to be able to play by ear, and then we get into it, and that’s not what we’re learning, because we have to start from the beginning and we have to start from the basics. You have a lovely post on your site, one of the laws of Brainjo is about motivation. I wonder if you could share the story you tell in that post about motivation and how to handle that discrepancy.
Josh: Yeah. This was kind of a revelation that I had not that long ago that seems kind of obvious in retrospect, but it clearly wasn’t, because it hadn’t really occurred to me in that particular way. One of the things that I’m really passionate about doing is keeping people from giving up. There are different reasons why that happens. There are limiting beliefs, there are mindsets about music, about what it takes, the talent versus innate ability and all that kind of stuff. So much of it is just psychology and mindset, and one of the things that gets in the way is this, we come to music and we think, okay, we have some end goal in mind, right? You have a particular player you idolize. You say, I want to be like that one day.
Josh: But that may be three, five, 10 years off. You don’t know, and you really don’t know what the path to getting there is going to look like. You kind of only go to what’s next in front of and then keep kind of moving forward along that. If you try to take that … If you were to just say, “Here’s where I am now, here’s where I want to be,” and you’re just constantly looking at that gap, over time, it becomes a little bit demoralizing, especially if you realize, okay, I’m making progress, but man, if I keep up at this pace, it’s going to be 10 more years or whatever, you know?
Josh: Taking that kind of as your sort of only framework for assessing what you’re doing is a prescription for getting frustrated and giving up. But the thing is, the revelation was that that’s really not what keeps me going, and I don’t think that’s what keeps most everyone I talk to going. What I realized was that the first … Where I am now versus where I was in the beginning, when I make progress or when I play a new song or something, it’s no more fun now than it was then. Those first few songs, I probably could, I don’t know … One of the most joyous moments was just being able to strum and sing my first song on the guitar, right? It wasn’t anything complicated, but it was just like, here it is, I did it. It felt amazing.
Josh: Each moment along the way of progress like that feels amazing. It’s not like once you get to a more advanced level, it feels any different, any more amazing. It’s all great. Focusing on just … There’s a lot of reasons for why it’s better to focus on the next step rather than the step that’s a thousand steps in front of you, but just from a pure enjoyment perspective, it’s actually just as fun every point along the way. No longer am I chasing any kind of idealized version of myself far out. It’s just about making progress and enjoying each time, because that’s actually where the enjoyment comes from.
Josh: There will always be … You will always feel like you can get better. There’s never going to be a moment where you say, “Okay, I’ve arrived. I’m done.” Right? It’s an illusion anyways, so anyways, that’s a much more helpful way, I think, to frame the journey, in a way that makes it a lot less likely that you’ll give up in frustration.
Christopher: Absolutely, yeah. You hear the advice, enjoy the process or enjoy the journey, but I think the way you just described it is so much more powerful, because it makes that point, that the journey is all there is.
Josh: Exactly, right. Right. Really, it’s the same concept, but it’s like, it’s thinking about it in a little bit different way that makes it a little more tangible, I think.
Christopher: Yeah, and you actually add another strand to that, I think, in some of your work, which is, we’re not just learning music for the sake of learning music. For a lot of us, and I know a lot of people in our audience, it’s also for the sake of brain development or brain capacity, functioning, as we age, avoiding degradation.
Christopher: I love that you bring that perspective to it, because I think it makes it much easier to enjoy the process, enjoy the journey, and be a bit easier on yourself. Maybe you could just talk a little bit about why music is such a great hobby, activity, pastime for the sake of brain development and preservation.
Josh: Yeah. One of the other hats that I wear is as a neurologist. Over the years, people ask me all the time, what should I do to help with my memory, what should I do to protect against developing Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive function declining over time? They’re usually expecting me to say, “Do crossword puzzles,” or something like that, but my answer has almost always been, “You either learn a musical instrument, learn a language, or learn to dance.” Things like that. Music is … I don’t think you could argue that there’s any better form of cognitive development than music. Just purely from a standpoint of the amount of cortical real estate, so the amount of the brain that’s used when you’re learning music, when you’re playing music, there are few things that compare.
Josh: What we’ve also learned, maybe in the past few decades in neuroscience, is that new learning, so any time you’re engaging in neuroplasticity, so building new networks, increasing the density of gray matter in certain areas, that that not only protects against degeneration but can actually restore the brain to a more youthful state. There’s some pretty remarkable research along those lines. There’s sort of the cognitive benefits in the here and now of music, because I totally think that building the kind of neural networks that are required to play music does transfer into other domains.
Josh: There’s a book called Range by David Epstein that recently came out. Great book. In it, he talks about Nobel Laureates, who are 22 times more likely to be performers of some kind, whether it’s musicians, magicians, things like that. There’s all sorts of research from that, that people at the heights of cognitive output, per se, or cognitive performance, are multidisciplinary and particular in things like the performing arts. I don’t think that’s coincidence. I do think there’s real benefits in the here and now for cognitive function, but also in protecting the brain over time.
Josh: I think there’s enough evidence to indicate that when we learn new things, the brain takes that as a signal that we need to keep this apparatus around that allows us to do this, so it sorts of keeps that machinery in good working order, whereas our brain’s not stupid. If we stop using it, it literally down-regulates all the genes and things that are required to maintain that, and that has consequences. It has consequences on our cognitive function, but it also likely has consequences in terms of how protected we are against degeneration and disease. So, there’s reasons from that perspective.
Josh: The other thing that comes out if you take this perspective, is that if you’re optimizing for brain health and brain function, then it’s actually great to be terrible at something. You want to choose the thing where there’s the most capacity for growth. This can completely flip on its head how we might typically feel about things. From this perspective, if you’re terrible, if there’s a huge gap between where you are now and some idealized version you want to be down the road, that’s fantastic, because that means there’s a tremendous amount of growth that can happen, which will then translate to all these cognitive benefits that you can accrue for it.
Josh: If you take that even further, you could argue that if you’re optimizing for brain health and not optimizing for mastery, once you reach a certain level, you’re actually better off jumping to something, whether it’s a new instrument, a new genre, a new style or so forth, something that you’re less familiar with rather than those finer points that we know make the difference between being intermediate, advanced, and a master at something. Another useful perspective, I think, particularly if you’re someone who cares about the health of your brain and your cognitive function.
Christopher: Absolutely. I’m really glad you shared that point. I very much enjoyed your recent podcast episode. Josh’s podcast, Intelligence Unshackled, digs into all this kind of stuff in more detail. Not music specific, but often with musical examples, and I loved your episode on that, because, like you say, it totally flips it on its head, and I think particularly for adult learners, anything we can do to make us feel okay about not being good at something is a really benefit, it’s a really important thing.
Christopher: Maybe we could talk a little bit about adult learning, because I know that at Brainjo you specialize not in teaching children the banjo but teaching adults. In particular, we’ve talked about how playing by ear is possible to learn, and some of the challenges we might encounter around motivation and some maybe different ways to think about why we’re learning music, but you have a great post also sharing some quite solid reasons why you actually have advantages as an adult learner, compared with the child that you might envy, who learns anything easily, because children are a sponge. I think we often come at it with that assumption, but as you pointed out, there are certain benefits to being an adult.
Josh: Right. There are a lot of ideas and biases that I think a lot of people have about the differences between an adult and a child when it comes to learning anything, and the prevailing idea is heavily biased towards thinking that the child brain has all the benefits and all the advantages. I’d argue that there may be some kernel of truth in some domains there, but much of what we’ve taken as the accepted wisdom hasn’t been proven, and that there are alternative hypotheses that haven’t been tested or explored.
Josh: There’s that, to say, this idea that the child brain is inherently better at picking up something like music, I think that’s still an open question. There are definitely advantages that adults have. There’s also the fact that much of what we’ve ascribed as byproducts of the aging process in the brain have been shown to be reversible. We don’t really have an understanding of what true aging in the brain looks like yet. Until we even answer that question, we should be careful to say what’s possible and what isn’t possible, right? That’s still research that needs to be done. I’m writing a paper with a friend that hopefully will be published on that topic, about questioning what is true cognitive aging.
Josh: But, back to the distinction between the child and the adult who’s trying to learn a new instrument. One thing that the adults have as an advantage is the parts of the brain that are involved with focus and attention are definitely more well developed in the adult brain. One of the last areas to develop in the human brain are the frontal lobes, typically end of teenage years, even into early 20s is when those fully mature. That’s the part of the brain that kind of sends the attention signal to other parts to say, you need to change, you need to learn this new skill.
Josh: Another one of the things that I try to emphasize about how we even conceive of practice is that practice is our time where all we’re really trying to do is send our brain a cue for what it’s supposed to be working on. So, almost all of our learning is happening not when we’re practicing, or all the changes that support new skill acquisition happens not when we’re practicing but when we’re not practicing and mostly during sleep. So, our primary purpose of practice in general is simply to tell the brain, these are the things I want you to be working on tonight and tomorrow night, whatever.
Josh: The way in which we tag … During the course of our day, we have gazillions of bytes of data coming at us, right? We’re not going to store all that. That’d be stupid and we’d run out of capacity, so we have to have mechanisms for tagging what’s important, telling our brain what you need to change for tonight and what you can discard and not worry about. The part of the brain that does that is our frontal lobe, and it does it through secreting a chemical called acetylcholine. It has these long projections that go out to different parts of the brain, and the parts that’s been processing information that it wants to stick, it squirts more acetylcholine into that area to tell it, tonight you’re going to revisit this and learn it for tomorrow.
Josh: The adult brain is better at that. That’s the part of our brain that’s more well developed. We can be much more efficient in how we use our practice because of that. We all know … Probably some of the listeners are aware of the concept of deliberate practice, right? Just practicing alone isn’t really what you want, you want to be actually practicing on specific things that you know are going to move the needle forward. Again, that’s another area where an adult has an advantage, in that they’re able to sort of plan out a sequence more than a child brain can. Again, something that’s mediated by the frontal lobe. You have this ability to focus and attend better. You also have the ability to plan out your learning in ways that a child brain doesn’t.
Josh: Really, you’re left with there are probably, if we think about anything that might be sort of an inevitable byproduct of aging, you might could argue that processing speed is one thing that will slow down. So just the speed of transmission, which would affect, maybe, your ability to … How fast you could play, how fast you can send the signal to your muscles. But it doesn’t appear that if that’s true, that it’s enough to impact the music you can make in any meaningful capacity. You might not be setting a world record for how fast you can play a song, but for stuff that would matter for making music, it doesn’t seem to matter. That’s one of the main advantages, if there is one, of the childhood brain.
Josh: Then the other that people may often think about is just the childhood’s brain capacity for plasticity, so how readily it’s able to change itself in response to experience. We know that, obviously, childhood’s a time of very rapid learning. Much of that is developmentally scripted learning that happens, learning to talk, learning to walk. Really, we’re look at what are the differences in the plasticity that supports general purpose learning, so music would be a category there. Something that’s not common across the human species.
Josh: In general, we might see that in general purpose that you might see a childhood brain, if you’re given the same type of practice, controlling for all factors, a childhood brain may learn that faster, but what we’ve also learned is that plasticity itself is plastic. Meaning that if you are not on a pace of continuous learning throughout your life, we talked about this a little bit ago, your brain actually down-regulates those mechanisms. What we don’t know is, are those differences inevitable parts of aging, or are those simply reflections of the natural course of a human life, which these days, partly or a lot culturally, is heavily biased towards front loading the learning early in life.
Josh: So, we don’t know if someone continuously learns throughout their life new things as a child would be doing, who’s continuously up-regulating those general purpose learning mechanisms, are those differences still going to exist or not? That’s one of those questions that we don’t even have an answer to. Suffice it to say that the best way to keep your brain in a childhood state and reap all the benefits that you had then and the ones that you have now as an adult is simply to continue to acquire new skills and new capacities.
Christopher: Fantastic. And you are actively helping people do that with your work at the Brainjo Collective. Could you talk a little bit about that project?
Josh: Yeah, sure. The Brainjo Collective started at the same time that I began the Intelligence Unshackled podcast. The goal of that podcast and that whole mission is just to talk about anything that relates to improving the health and function of the brain. It was kind of a way to organize all the different hats that I wear under one umbrella and talk about things that really interest me the most. The Collective was a way of allowing people to support that podcast but also to build a community of people who were interested in these same sorts of things, so that we could all learn from each other.
Josh: One of the things that I started as part of that was what I referred to as the Brainjo Brain Fitness challenges. So, trying to sort of promote this idea that just as we think with exercise, everybody takes it as an accepted wisdom that exercise is just inherently good for your body. We do it. Most people who are going out biking or running, they’re not going out to become Olympians. They’re doing it to improve the health of their body. The same concept applies to the brain, but we haven’t widely embraced that idea.
Josh: I personally think that there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that’s true and that new learning should be a continuous part of anyone’s life if you’re interested in protecting the brain, the health of the brain in the same way you protect the health of the body. We all know the brain’s more important anyway. So I started these Brainjo Fitness Challenges as ways of kind of, as a group, we do some new form of learning that the express purpose of which is to reap the cognitive and brain health benefits, with the skill acquisition being a happy byproduct.
Josh: The first one that we began doing was a learn the ukulele challenge. The Collective launched in January, so we’re almost finished with that one. I’ve created a course for that that’s similar to the other courses I’ve done with Brainjo, but in this case really focusing on the intention being doing it for brain health specifically as the first priority.
Christopher: Very cool. Give people a taste of what it means that you made the course similar to your other courses. What’s the inherent Brainjo philosophy or methodology that would make this different from your average Ukulele for Dummies book or video series?
Josh: Right, right, right. I guess the fundamental idea or concept for Brainjo was to integrate what we learned about how the brain changes or neuroplasticity into a methodology for learning music. Essentially, it’s a learning framework that you could apply to anything. Music is a great place to apply it for a lot of reasons, one being because it’s a place where the talent myth has been so pervasive. A great place where if folks can demonstrate for themselves that it’s not about aptitude but about process, it’s a really powerful illustration that this concept may apply to all other domains of their life.
Josh: That was one of the motivations for starting it, because I felt like, I talked earlier about not having a path to going where I wanted to go and wanting to get people that, and trying to create the best or the most effective path for doing so was the core idea behind Brainjo. Fundamentally, all we’re trying to do when we’re learning an instrument or learning any new skill is change the brain. We’re trying to create a version of the brain that can play whatever instrument that we’re trying to play.
Josh: Obviously, the thing, and this would apply to all of education, the thing is what’s the science of brain change. Anything that we’re doing to educate is fundamentally trying to get at that question. It may have different ways of doing so, but to me it made perfect sense that as we’re learning about how the brain actually does this, this should be integrated into methodologies for learning, and music is a great place to do that.
Josh: Another reason music is so great is because the feedback loop is so tight and so immediately apparent, so you have lots of immediate feedback and you have a pretty steep learning curve. It’s a nice place to test this type of methodology. At any rate, the difference is, then, how the content is organized. A lot of what I would have encountered previously would be, I would say, “These are the things that you need to learn,” but how to learn them and what sequence they’re learned in wasn’t really spelled out for me.
Josh: I realized, both experientially and understanding the neuroscience behind it, that those two things matter a whole lot, right? Really, the difference between somebody who continues to learn and continues to press and someone who doesn’t is, again, not the brain they’re born with but the one that they build. All of that’s determined by the sequence of practice and how they go about practicing. If you’re practicing in a way that leverages your brain’s natural ability to change itself and moves it in the direction that you want it, then the sky’s the limit. Those concepts are embedded into how the courses are delivered.
Christopher: Terrific. You have several posts on your website sharing really great insights into improving practice or extending beyond practice. The comment you made in passing a few minutes ago about how you can see practice time just as a way of giving your brain instructions on what to work on later, that alone can transform how someone thinks about practice. I’d love if we can talk about a couple more of the ideas that you cover on the Brainjo site, one of which is visualization, and that conceptually has come up on the show before, but not in quite the way you talk about it. I wonder if you can share how visualization is a part of your own practice or what you teach the students of the Brainjo methods.
Josh: Yeah. I’m a huge fan of visualization. I wrote the article, I first wrote an article in a magazine about it. It was giving the analogy between visualization and using the Force. As a kid, I always wanted to be Luke Skywalker and change things in the world with my mind. Literally, that’s what we’re able to do. It’s pretty astonishing, the research on it, that simply thinking about something, you can change your brain.
Josh: The research specifically on music and other forms of skill learning is that when you’re visualizing, first person visualization of engaging in some activity, you’re activated almost all of the same areas of the brain as you are when you’re doing the actual activity. There are also studies that are showing that the benefits of doing so, that the improvements, sort of the external metrics of improvement, as well as the neurological or neurophysiological correlates of those improvement change, whether or not you are visualizing or actually doing practice versus if you compared across groups, the visualization and the practice groups will improve, and the ones that don’t practice don’t.
Josh: You can get many of the same benefits as a physical practice simply with visualization. It’s important. One of the things I always emphasize to make sure we’re not … Some people think of visualization like, imagine yourself winning the trophy or something like that. But here, we’re not just visualizing a third person perspective on yourself but it’s super important to actually visualize a first person perspective. If you think about yourself, think about throwing a ball with your non-dominant hand and really trying to feel that visually, or think about switching your knife and fork and cutting a piece of steak and how that would feel. You should be able to feel that kind of awkwardness. It gives you a glimpse of how powerful the visualization mechanism is. If you can feel that, then you’ve got the right idea.
Josh: I use it, I still use it all the time for practicing. It’s a great way to practice when you’re otherwise engaged in something you don’t want to be engaged in. It’s a nice distraction. But there’s also, in addition to just sort of giving yourself additional practice moments that you wouldn’t otherwise have, I think there’s particular benefit in using visualization for developing ear learning. Because in order to actually visualize, so if I’m trying to visualize a particular piece that I’ve learned on the banjo, and if I’m doing it correctly, I’m visualizing the movents that I’m making and I’m visualizing the sound as I’m doing it.
Josh: What we’re truly trying to do, sort of the ultimate goal for someone who’s learning by ear, is to create what I’ve referred to as musical fluency, where you’re taking imagined sounds in your mind and mapping those onto the movements of your limbs. In order to visualize, you have to do that. You have to be able to be … Taking an imagined sound and mapping it onto the movements that you’re making. You’re building those connections between just sounds and motor maps that you don’t have to do when you have your instrument in hand. It’s specifically a way, I think, it’s even better than just regular practice for that particular purpose.
Josh: Then if you find yourself unable to either recall how it’s supposed to go or recall the movements, then it gives you a clear idea of what things you need to focus on, and then you can retry visualizing and seeing it. Visualization is also a nice metric of your improvement in that area as well. It’s a reminder that if you can do that, then you’re on your way towards building the kind of networks that you want for ear learning.
Josh: One last thing that I think is really helpful along these lines is to, in terms of this particular process, is recording yourself playing something that you’ve learned and then listening to those while you’re away from your instrument and seeing if you can visualize. I think you’ll find that you’ll almost naturally do it. If you’re listening to a piece that you’ve actually played, you’ll actually start to … Most people will start to just visualize themselves playing it as they’re doing it. As another way to test the ear capacity is if you’re able to visualize what you’re doing as that music is playing, then that’s another way of working on those mappings, but it’s also an easy way, because it kind of naturally kicks in the visualization process.
Christopher: Yeah, cool. It’s that ear impact that I think is often glossed over when people talk about the visualization. It’s often talked about in the context of stage fright or performance anxiety, and obviously there are huge benefits there, but the kind of mental play exercise of imagining yourself playing it and hearing yourself playing it and, as you say, making that connection between the sound you intend to make and the sound you actually make and what your fingers need to do is a really valuable part that we shouldn’t ignore.
Josh: I should say too that, to me it’s still amazing how similar it feels to visualize something compared to playing it. The way I use it now is if I have some piece that has a section that’s particularly tricky, I can just visualize, just practice by visualizing as a means of getting better. This dovetails with the labyrinth technique that I talk about. Just rehearsing a particular tricky passage is another really great way to use visualization.
Josh: One last thing I should have mentioned before while we’re on this topic, doing it before bed is really a great idea, because we talk about what the brain’s going to decide to work on that night. It does tend to prioritize or triage information according to the time. It gives a little bit of a bias towards things that have occurred closer to bedtime. A great way as you’re falling asleep, if you have some little piece that you’re working on or some tricky passage is to visualize it as you’re going to sleep. It may even work as a sleep aid as well.
Christopher: That’s a great tip. We can’t leave people hanging for too long. If they haven’t been to your website and learned about the labyrinth technique, could you explain what that is and why it’s relevant here?
Josh: Yeah. It’s another one of those things that when you think about it, it seems obvious, but it’s still overlooked a lot. Even myself, I have to remind myself to do it. It comes from the game, the name comes from the game Labyrinth, which is, I don’t know if some of the listeners are familiar with it. It’s where you have this sort of a board that has a marble on it, and you have to navigate a maze. You can change the tilt of the board with little knobs that are on the sides of a box, and you’re trying to navigate the marble through a big maze without it falling in little holes that are designed to trap it.
Josh: My son had gotten Labyrinth as a birthday gift. This was a few years ago, so he was maybe like five or six. We were having a contest to see who could get the furthest in the game. There was this one little tricky section that neither of us could get through. What we were doing was we’d get to it, and it took you maybe two or three minutes to get to that section. People who play video games are familiar with this idea, you have to go all the way back to the start to go back to the thing that is giving you trouble. So you’d get to that part, then we’d put our marble all the way back. We learned how to navigate all that part of the maze getting up to that particular point. It was just we had to figure out the maneuvers to get past that tricky part.
Josh: What I did was I took the game and I was like, wait a second, why don’t I just drop the marble right at the start of this tricky section and just figure that out, and then I’ll go back and figure. And of course that worked, right? It dramatically shortened the amount of time it would have taken to master that little part. The same exact thing … It’s something that I’d been doing with music as well, but I realized that I hadn’t instinctively at first decided this was obviously the way you’re supposed to do this, but it makes perfect sense.
Josh: But it’s, again, overlooked a lot in music, whereas … If you have a new song that you’re trying to play and if you look and if you’re having trouble with it in some capacity, it’s usually just a measure or two of some particular area. It’s rarely the entire piece that you have trouble with, and yet what we often do is, when we practice, is we play the whole thing. Then, what even worse oftentimes happens is that we try to gloss over the part that’s giving us trouble. That’s when people speed up or just fuzz the notes together or whatever, whereas what the way … The better way to handle that is simply to focus on that particular section. To isolate where am I having trouble, and just focus on that.
Josh: Going from not doing that to doing that will exponentially reduce your practice time. That’s where I was saying, that same technique can be applied to visualization, so if you have a practice session, you know what little part you need to work on. Just visualize that. You’ll be surprised that if it’s tricky for you playing your instrument, it will be hard to visualize it correctly and then you will make the same improvements that you would make if you were actually practicing with your instrument, and then you go back to it and that part’s gotten a lot easier.
Christopher: You said something similar in that same context of visualizing, revealing problem spots or opportunities, which was that it can do the same for recall, and are you actually memorizing, have you remembered the piece well enough? I know that’s a big bugbear for a lot of our audience, and it plays into this conversation we’re having about adult learning in particular, where a lot of people are concerned that generally their memory isn’t great. Memorizing music is arguably a big part of becoming a good musician. Maybe music’s not for me because I won’t be able to memorize all that stuff. How do you think about that, or what does the research show on this topic of memorizing and music? Is there any good advice you can offer to help people with that?
Josh: Yeah. and I agree. Musical memory is a barrier for folks, and oftentimes an unrecognized barrier. It’s particularly people who would say they have a really hard time memorizing a song that they’ve played. It’s not so much they forget the mechanics of it, but they’re actually forgetting the song. It’s important to actually recognize, where is the difficulty. I think folks who come to an instrument with at least some musical background or they’ve been singing a long time or they’re just used to having a repertoire in their memory that they pull from, it’s not an issue. That’s one reason why I think it can be a hidden barrier for some, is that they don’t … It hasn’t really been recognized that that can be a crucial distinction for some folks.
Josh: The piece that I wrote about it was first talking about what are the signs that this may be something to specifically work on? Because I never encountered that as a real topic in musical instruction, but it’s obviously a prerequisite for so much of what we do, being able to remember how the music goes. But just like anything else, it’s a skill that can be developed, but it’s one that requires specific practice on it to do so.
Josh: Just as you could create a body of recordings of yourself that you would use to determine whether or not … Or use to practice visualization or actually practice the mechanics of playing a song, you can use the same concept to try to build your musical memory. So if you have particular songs that you’re working on, keep a playlist somewhere, keep a list somewhere, test yourself. Just say, can I sing through this start to finish and keep the melody in mind? If you can’t, then obviously that’s something to practice and to continue to, just as you practice any other part of music. I think, for me, the most critical point to recognize is that in and of itself is its own unique skill and if you don’t recognize it as a particular skill and don’t develop it, it can kind of undermine a lot of other stuff without you realizing it.
Christopher: Yeah, it’s kind of one of those lurking … I don’t want to say speed bumps, but it’s almost like a speed limiter or something, that you don’t realize you’re being held back from your actual learning potential by this thing that, as you say, is often not explicitly addressed in the learning process.
Josh: Yeah. I think in that article I wrote, sort of the pie of musical knowledge, and there’s the things that we know we know, the things that we know that we don’t know, and then there are the things that we don’t know that we don’t know. Those are all the hidden barriers. We want that piece to be as small as possible, and that’s where the Brainjo method, that’s where the articles come in, is trying to figure out what’s the scope of all the possible knowledge that needs to be attended to.
Christopher: Well, it’s clear by now, I’m sure, for anyone watching or listening that your expertise in music learning and practice methodology and the brain implications of music learning goes way beyond the banjo, but obviously banjo is your primary instrument. It’s front and center in a lot of what you do. Do people naturally know if banjo is the instrument for them? It sounds like it just kind of clicked for you, and you were drawn to it in a way. Is that normal, in your experience?
Josh: Actually, I think it is. There definitely tends to be a sort of banjo player phenotype. Actually, one reason I enjoy Banjo Camp so much is because it’s like, these are my people. There’s so much in common. There probably is some kind of universal banjo affinity traits that are lurking out there. But yeah, I was … And it may be different things for different people, but for me, it started out with the sound of the banjo. It was just so different and unique and I just knew it, just loved to try to make sounds with that thing. It just sounded so interesting.
Josh: But I also, there are other things about how the banjo has been traditionally used in music, where it’s rarely front and center. It’s kind of a supporting role. Just sort of its history, as well, is really rich, and a lot of people connect with that part of it as well. I think there are a few reasons that really attract people, but I do think that it is one of those instruments that people do tend to have a real affinity for kind of right out of the gate.
Christopher: Cool. Well, in that case, let’s leave people with very clear direction if they’re a banjo fan or a player or aspiring player, where should they go to learn more about your projects. If they’re not particularly banjo oriented, but they’re fascinated by all the brain science and practice methodology you’ve been talking about, where’s the best place for them.
Josh: Sure. The best place if they’re globally interested in connections between neuroscience, neuroplasticity, music learning, all this stuff, the principles behind it, you can go to lawsofbrainjo.com, and that will direct you to the menu for the articles that I’ve written on the topic, which are housed, actually, on, at the moment at least, on clawhammerbanjo.net. Claw Hammer Banjo is the first Brainjo course that I created, and it’s one style of banjo.
Josh: Then the next course was, speaking of playing other styles and genres, is fingerstylebanjo.com. The other ways of thinking about it is that claw hammer is down-picking and finger style is up-picking. So, down-picking banjoists, go to clawhammerbanjo.net, and up-picking enthusiasts can go to fingerstylebanjo.com.
Christopher: Fantastic. I’ll just throw in a big recommendation myself. If you’re watching this or listening to this, you’re a podcast fan in some sense, so definitely do check out the Intelligence Unshackled podcast. I’ve been diving into the back catalog myself with great enthusiasm, and there’s a lot of really juicy ideas in there to transform how you think about learning and brain development.
Josh: Great, thank you.
Christopher: Huge thank you, Josh, for joining us on the show today.
Josh: Yeah, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.
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