Understanding the Learning Process

Learning to sing or play a musical instrument is certainly about practicing and developing a decent repertoire. However, musicians rarely focus on the cognitive processes that are involved.  The result can be frustration and confusion when obstacles are encountered, and this can even lead people to quit playing music all together.  Taking the time to think through and understand some of the underlying learning processes – how and why they take place – can help a musician through these rough spots. 

This blog post will describe a cognitive model that I have developed for musicians to think about their learning methods and how to leverage them for better success.  I will emphasize that these are not based on any empirical or scientific studies but my experience with learning and teaching.  They have yielded good results for me; hopefully they will help you too.

To begin with, let’s separate learning to play an instrument into two parts – playing and listening.  Most folks don’t think of these as two separate things, but I think you’ll find it is helpful to do just that.  You are developing both playing skills and listening skills simultaneously when you learn to perform on an instrument – and I’ve found that it is helpful to think of them as two separate aspects of learning.  Let’s briefly cover playing skills first.

Learning to Play:  Muscle Memory

The development of playing skills involves getting your fast-twitch muscles to twitch at exactly the right time, and then committing the twitching sequence to memory.  People talk about muscle memory.  This is a bit of a misnomer (because it happens primarily in your brain and nervous system and not your muscles) but is an important part of learning how to execute musical passages.  Muscle memory is when you don’t have to think about the individual notes but instead think at the phrase or maybe even think at the emotional level.  For example: I am playing this break and feel like I should add some drama here and I know just the lick and here it goes… 

In the “training” phase (before you have muscle memory of a particular lick) the thinking part might go: “index finger, second fret, first string, pick down, then middle finger on the third string, fourth fret, pick up” and so forth.  When you get this sequence in muscle memory you no longer need to think in these individual “string, finger, pick direction” terms but at the higher level of: “I know this perfect lick, it feels just right and here it goes” …  This is absolutely essential to perform good music, because the conscious processes in your brain can’t possibly think fast enough to play at the speed of a song if they are going note-by-note.   Nor would it be possible to follow those emotional hunches that come up when you are taking a break.

Learning to Listen:  Training Your Ear

Now to the listening part… When a musician is executing a series of notes, that musician is also obviously listening to those very same notes as they are being played.  But you will find it helpful to view the listening part of this as a totally separate process.   In fact, just as you are training your fast twitch muscles and imbedding countless phrases into muscle memory, your ear is simultaneously getting trained to recognize this series of notes as a “lick”.  Believe me, once you’ve spent 400 hours trying to get that eight notes that constitute the reverse roll lick in Earl’s breakdown just right, you will instantly recognize it when you hear it on XM62.  So, your ear has gotten trained in the process (actually these are the neural circuits in your brain that process sound, but we will continue to refer to these as “your ear”).

Further, you also can train your ear to hear all the subtleties such as timing and syncopation.  For example, if you are paying attention to the right things, you can hear when musicians start rushing the beat or perhaps playing behind the beat for a phrase or two.  Even if you are not a musician, the next time you are sitting at a bluegrass concert, concentrate on the mandolin break to see if he is rushing.  See if you can detect the bass player trying desperately to hold things back.  Listen for the duration of each bass note.  Are they consistent?  Are they sustained or staccato?  When you consciously focus on these things while listening, you are actually training your ear in the same way as you are training your body when you go jogging in preparation for running a race.

There is another important benefit of thinking about the playing and listening processes as separate things.  Playing skills and listening skills can progress at different rates and being aware of this can shed light on problems that might be happening in your performances.   In the next couple of paragraphs, we will illustrate some of the consequences of playing and listening skills improving at different rates.


Sometimes my playing skills progress very rapidly, and my listening skills might lag behind a bit.  Boy, do I sound good to myself!!!  Quit the day job and buy a bus!!!  This is because I am playing better than my ability to listen.  My licks all sound fantastic to me – I’ve got all these great new licks in muscle memory now and can actually execute them!  However, little do I know that my ear hasn’t progressed quite to the point where I can discern some of the subtleties missing in these licks that other players perhaps have mastered. 


How about the reverse… listening skills become better than playing skills? Yep, that has happened to me too at various times.  Sometimes my listening skills have progressed rapidly and perhaps my playing skills have not.  Maybe I’ve gotten to the point of where I start to hear and recognize the subtleties that my buddies are playing in that great new lick that I learned last month and realize all of the sudden that even though I know the lick, it doesn’t sound quite right when I play it.  At this point in time it feels to me like I’m going backwards (e.g. getting worse) because I’ve spent a zillion hours on that lick and my ear is starting to hear that it is not quite right at this point when it used to sound great.   My listening skills have improved, and my playing skills have remained the same.


Boy this is depressing – in fact, the more I play the worse I sound!  If you are a musician, I can guarantee you have experienced this more than once – and it makes you feel like you want to go wrap your ’23 Loar around the nearest oak tree.  Some people call this plateauing and it happens to all of us and is probably the biggest cause of a potentially good musician giving up music for good and going out and getting a day job (which he is going to need in order to pay for that broken Loar).

Listening at different levels

As you develop your listening skills, you will find you can listen to music at all different levels.  When you turn your attention to each phrase and note, you can start to hear recognizable licks – and how they are being executed.  You can hear the different types of lilts or grooves in each individual song.  Is it greasy?  Driving?  Peppy?  What are the chords to the song?  Does it go from a I to a V or a IV?  What about the vocal arrangement?  Is it two harmonies above the lead or tenor-above the lead and baritone below?  You can also start to make a pretty good guess as to what key the song is in, even if you don’t have perfect pitch (hint: listen for open strings).  Just be careful doing this in the car and that you don’t drive off the road!

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