Courtesy of Chris Weller...
Cognitive science has taken a look at how people learn and how people can learn faster. The results are surprising and super helpful when applied to learning the guitar...
Kids and adults can and should practice the skill of learning a musical instrument (i.e., guitar), if they want a fighting chance at fulfilling all those lofty goals ahead of them in life. Learning music trains many areas of the brain, and it's benefits are overwhelming.
But, more study time isn't the answer. It's been proven that even though some people keep studying — and thinking — if they're doing it the same way all their lives without improving their methods, they won't learn any better.
Thankfully, cognitive science has taken a look at how people actually learn. The results of their efforts are surprising and can be super helpful for musicians.
1). Skills are easier to pick up as individual parts.
If you want to learn the guitar, don't think about performing all the parts at once.
Set the smaller, more measurable goal of learning a few easy chords, a piece of a scale or how to strum one basic pattern correctly. Once the smaller pieces are there, you can learn how to put those chords and scales together over time.
After many weeks, the accumulation of those tinier skills will add up to the whole ability to play guitar.
It's a technique that applies to mechanical learning as well as fact-based lessons.
2). Multitasking doesn't work, especially for storing new information.
Most people understand that multitasking is a myth — your brain really can't pay equal attention to two tasks simultaneously. But few people apply that insight to learning guitar.
In addition to breaking a task down into individual steps, be sure to devote your full energy to each step on its own. When you get distracted, it takes roughly 25 minutes to return your focus to the original task.
Over time, multitasking could mean you only gain a partial understanding of various different skills or concepts, without acquiring a full knowledge or mastery of any.
Instead of multi-tasking, keep a guitar practice log-book. Set small segments of time aside and keep it devoted to individual topics and use a timer to keep you focused.
3). Writing down what you've learned helps cement it in your mind.
If you want to translate information to knowledge, research suggests you should be writing down what you learn — by hand.
A 2014 study found that students who took notes on pen and paper learned more than students who typed notes on their laptops. Over a battery of tests, the pen-and-paper group were more adept at remembering facts, sorting out complex ideas, and synthesizing information.
Researchers say the physical act of touching pen to paper creates a stronger cognitive link to the material than merely typing, which happens far too quickly for retention to take place. Writing forces you to confront ideas head-on, which leads them to stick with you over time.
So, instead of always firing up "Finale" grab a pencil and write out your chord changes and TAB those parts on paper. You'll recall that music better if you take the time to place pencil to paper.
4). Mistakes should be celebrated and studied.
Being perfect is overrated. The entire point of learning is to make attempts, fail, and find a lesson about where you went wrong.
In 2014, a study of motor learning found the brain has more or less reserved a space for the mistakes we make. Later, we can recruit those memories to do better next time.
If parents teach kids never to make mistakes, or shun them when mistakes happen, kids end up missing a wealth of knowledge.If we as guitar players beat ourselves up for every wrong note of failed strum, we're doing enormous harm to our psychological perspective of how we're processing our own progress on the instrument.
5). Being optimistic helps you succeed.
Stressing kids out with negative reinforcement can get them stuck in a mental rut, filling them with self-doubt and anxiety, both of which are toxic for learning.
"Anxiety precludes you from exploring real solutions and real thought patterns that will come up with solutions," says Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks.
Decades of positive psychology research suggest that we will become more successful in just about anything we try to do if we approach it with an open mind and see tangible room for improvement.When you first begin improvising on guitar it seems impossible. But, through an open mind to trust in your skills, improvisation starts to become easier.
Parents should teach kids to see learning any musical instrument as exploration. It will help give them a sense of determination, which they can manufacture into grit when the going gets tough.And, music does get tough, performing is tough. But, if you're prepared and encouraged mentally, you're skill and ability will be defined by your thoughts of success instead of thoughts of failure.
6). Exciting topics are "stickier" than boring ones.
Kids naturally drift toward the weird and wacky, but once the experience of rote education gets them thinking in cold hard facts, that sense of fun can die off.This is why it is always so important to keep learning new songs on the guitar.
Songs can present really different ideas. This can include rhythms, scales, the use of a capo, new tunings - a lot can occur in a song!
As early as possible, kids should gain an appreciation for why they remember odd or different things... Grandma's weird-smelling house and those highlighter-yellow shorts Dad wears on nighttime runs. It's because they're unique, we recall them and their difference gets burned in our minds.What we learn in songs will do the exact same thing.
Author and former US memory champion Joshua Foer memorized a full deck of playing cards in under two minutes by tying each card to a weird image. Kids can do the same for their times tables for learning guitar chords, scales or anything else.
7). Speed reading can condense learning times.
The premise is simple: If you can read faster, you can learn faster.
Though you might think speed reading takes a lot of effort, programs like Spreeder pick up the pace gradually to make it feel manageable.
By training your brain to process words more quickly, you get accustomed to reading entire strings of words, rather than imagining each one individually, which slows you down.
Try looking over a chart for a popular song you have the audio track for. Then, quickly glance over the chords and then turn away from it. Do your best to recall what you saw. Try and play what you remember. Force your mind to remember what you think you saw. You'll be surprised and what your brain can record if you practice mental recall.
8). Practice, practice, practice.
A strong work ethic makes a real impact on the brain.And, learning an instrument is no different. If you want to get good, you have to practice.
In 2004, a study published in "Nature" found the act of juggling produced more gray matter. When people stopped juggling, the gray matter disappeared. Practicing a guitar is all based on motor-skills. We gain amazing "thinking" power when our minds are practicing motor-skills like guitar chords, strumming and scales.
In the 2004 study of juggling, there wasn't anything special in the juggling itself, just the repetition and the motor-skill practice.
Neuroscientists call this process "pruning." It refers to the new pathways that are carved by doing an act over and over again, to the point where it sticks around for good.
In other words, skills follow the "use-it-or-lose-it" principle.Keep a guitar schedule and work hard at maintaining a regular routine of practice.
9). Use what you know - to learn what you don't.
If kids encounter a topic they have trouble wrapping their heads around, parents should help them to understand how it relates to something they've already learned.If you learn a new scale or a new chord, but have difficulty memorizing it, relate it to some other guitar pattern that you do know.
The practice is called "associative learning."
A guitar student might like scales but have trouble with arpeggios. If they can see the relationship of how arpeggios come from scales, and how close arpeggios are to the pentatonics, the student will quickly begin realizing the association between all of them and their ability will increase quickly.
10). Tackling tough / complex problems
Kids and adults alike should learn how to grapple with tough problems — doing this in life helps us become better critical thinkers. The act also teaches us better mental discipline.This can be particularly true for musicians when learning music theory topics.
But, how much time should we be spending on tough topics and problems? Evidence suggests spending too long on a problem can make it worse.Not enough time on it, probably won't be enough to find solutions.
In 2008, researchers found that unresolved learning can gradually slip people into an "error state," in which their memory of the concept or fact gets replaced by the memory of the stress of the learning experience.
The solution: Set learning periods for tough topics. Speak to others who are experts and if all else fails - Google it. In other words, expose yourself to more than one line of thought. Tough topics require a larger thinking pool. You need more input to form the pathways in your mind regarding complex /foreign topics. Over time the topics slowly becomes more familiar. So do the words and sayings that coincide with the topic.
Over time, the topic starts making more sense. But, we need that learning period. We need to experience the entire learning curve before we reach the stage of fully understanding the full scope of the topic.
11). Teaching other people helps you, too.
Scientists have dubbed it "the protégé effect."
When you take something that you've learned and put it into your own words, you're not only demonstrating mastery of an idea — you're refining your own understanding of it.
In distilling information into small pieces that someone can easily digest, the teacher must gain a certain intimacy with the subject matter.The teachers skills must be quick and fast at relating the details in a simple manner to the student.
That's why older siblings are generally smarter than younger siblings, one 2007 study suggested — because one of the jobs of the older sibling is passing knowledge along after having received it.They in turn get even better at the topics as they explain them to their younger siblings.
So, once you gain a few foundational skills on the guitar, start teaching the instrument to others. Teach a strum pattern, or a chord shape. Teach a melody or a small chunk of a scale. Or, try explaining a music theory topic you've learned. The act of teaching will do wonders for your own music training and guitar practice!