How the Brain Learns Music Part 1

Your Brain can know what to do much faster than it can tell your muscles what to do. 

This matters more when you’re learning to play music than say...unloading the dishwasher. Learning to make intricate, coordinated movements of many muscles takes a great deal of time. Learning to make those movements rapidly takes even more time. Learning to do it rapidly and with precise see where I’m going. It takes time! There is no way around that. Telling your muscles what to do and when is an extraordinarily complex task for your brain. That’s why it may seem impossible at first, and that is EXACTLY why it is so good for you and can prevent symptoms of Alzheimer's: it develops a great deal of brain pathways, and actually, it makes you smarter. At everything.

Much of the discouragement people face, even grave conclusions which lead people to stop trying, arise simply from asking the brain to do something it can’t do YET. 

“But I’ve watched my friend, my husband, my band mate learn something new so quickly!” you may say. Well, yes and no. You’ve watched someone who has already developed a required set of brain pathways succeed at something that is more difficult for you, because you have yet to develop those brain pathways. You can get them. Sometimes these brain pathways are developed sort of accidentally in early childhood, which creates an illusion of that talent being innate. But you can still develop them. It’s just a lot more uncomfortable when you’re grown than when you’re little and you’re still used to the daily struggle of learning basic things like walking, talking and putting food in your mouth. 

It’s easy to underestimate how complex musical expression is. It requires your brain to coordinate a great variety of skills. It uses almost all of your brain. It’s easy to conclude that a person “doesn’t have what it takes” when only one of the required skills is underdeveloped. What a tragic conclusion that is, when everything else is in place and only one or two areas of weakness may require intensive effort.

In this blog, I invite you to cut your brain some slack. Slow down and learn some strategies for cooperating with your brain as it develops the necessary pathways to tell your muscles what to do and when. It takes time. But if you slow down at first, you will progress faster. 

Your brain needs time to develop pathways for telling many muscles what to do. If you understand this process, you can design practice that will be more effective and get you where you want to go more quickly. But it will still take time. Be patient. (...until I write the blog on transcending patience. Then you don’t have to be patient any more.)

As a teen or an adult, you have already developed brain pathways that allow you to learn new tasks very quickly. You have grown accustomed to a process that looks like this:

  • Someone explains it to you.
  • You understand what to do.
  • You do it.
  • Boom. Yer done. 

When you are learning new movements that make music, it usually goes more like this: 

  • Someone explains it to you. 
  • You understand what to do (or not).
  • You try.
  • You fail.
  • You try again.
  • You fail.
  • You make adjustments.
  • You try again. 
  • You fail again.
  • After many attempts, you succeed. (Maybe you think you got it now.)
  • You try again. 
  • You fail. 

And so on...but over time, you succeed more and more often and finally you are consistently successful. You experienced a process similar to this when you were small as you learned to walk, feed yourself, and speak. Some of us are not used to this process anymore and consistent failure helps us to believe that we are just not good at it. The truth is that learning to play music is an extremely complex process.  Accomplished musicians are very familiar with the process of trying and failing, and trying again and again until they get it right. 

What’s going on here is... 

...the brain is changing physically with every experience you have and everything you do. 

It’s like that song by The Police: every breath you take, every move you make, every flat note you sing, every true note you sing, every string that buzzes, every violin bow that screeches, every key you press, every crystalline note you hear...reading this blog, 

EVERYTHING that happens in your life changes your brain physically...permanently.

..that’s why that Police song is probably playing in your head right now: Brain pathways. 

To appreciate what you are asking of your brain, consider this:

You have about 206 bones in your body. Over half of those bones are in your hands and feet. 26% of your bones are in your hands. 

Over one forth of your bones are in your hands! So, how many muscles is that? 



Half of those muscles are in your palm and the other half are in your forearm. Your muscles move your fingers through a complex system of tendons attaching muscle to bone, controlling very precise movements LONG DISTANCE. 66 muscles folks!...if you count both hands. Look at your hands for a minute and see if you can appreciate how beautiful and miraculous they are. Now. Even before you learn to play that next song. No wonder a kiss on the hand can be this much fun! And some of you also use muscles in your mouth, throat, chest, diaphragm, and other interesting places for music making. In order to coordinate those movements to make music, you must develop an extremely complex set of brain pathways. 

Photo by NicolasMcComber/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by NicolasMcComber/iStock / Getty Images

But take heart. At last count you had about 86 billion brain cells. That is often compared to the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. (...which is actually more like 200 billion, but who’s counting?) With 86 billion cells, imagine the number of possible connections and pathways you can make! It’s like driving in London. Only when you travel a brain pathway, it gets quicker and easier every a cowpath that becomes a dirt road that becomes a two lane highway, that becomes a freeway. At first it’s slow going. Later, you’re driving to California on Route 66.  

Sometimes when you learn a new movement, you already have the freeway and it’s quick and easy. (Like that person you’re comparing yourself to?) Sometimes, you don’t even have a cowpath to walk on. You’re cutting your way through brambles. But, I think I hear your brain saying:

Once you are conscious of the many miraculous things your brain has already learned to do, and you realize your brain is still developing, the process of reaching your goals can begin to seem very do-able. I’ve chosen to remind myself of this by not cutting my hair. I figure, once my braid touches the top of my jeans, I’ll actually be pretty good at playing the harp...and since I’m enjoying the process, learning to play the harp is no more difficult than letting my hair grow. 

I believe the real “gift” that anyone has if they are an accomplished musician is that they love it enough and they love the process enough to practice a LOT. Some of my students learn readily and have what seems like “innate” abilities, but they just don’t care to spend time with it, and they cease to progress. Other students get off to a pretty rough start and I may even feel skeptical and wonder, “Am I just leading them on?” But they LOVE it! They spend time with it. They practice and practice and eventually a few things fall into place and sometimes, suddenly they seem to have a natural ease they did not have before. They can learn new things more readily, and I say, “What happened!?” and they say, “I don’t know.”

It’s magic!

So... I did some research, and I found that what is often perceived as “giftedness” is now being shown to be the result of many years of practice. (...and I would add that certain kinds of early childhood experiences can do magical things too. More about that in Part II) I found this in a very academic research paper:

Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.
— K. Anders ERicson, Ralf Th. Kramp, and Clemens Tesch-Romer

I wish I had a video of me trying to play guitar and sing when I was a teenager. Or maybe it's good I don't! My voice would consistently slide off key, and my groove wasn’t very groovy. But over the years, I’ve continued to develop and where else can you go but better? ....and that’s a lot of years! The gift is what flows through you and the gift is the love that makes you study and practice. Study and practice enable the flow.

The other gift is experiences that develop brain the stereo record player my parents bought when I was four. ...and the reel to reel tape recorder that I used to listen to classic rock my big brothers had pirated from friends who owned the vinyl records....and the soulful licks of the master guitarist who lives with me. (Everything you experience changes your brain. Permanently.)

Success has more to do with well designed practice and good mentoring than it does with any “innate” abilities. Early childhood experiences help a great deal, but it’s never too late...especially if you embrace the concept that it’s the process that gives you joy...and music that is very simple can be played with flow and groove that will shake your bones. 

To be continued.

Please comment and let me know what you're most curious to read about in Parts II, III, and IV.

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Preview of Parts II, III, and IV:

Part II:  How the brain learns music

Part III:  How to apply this knowledge to practice

Part IV:  How to make music simpler, so you can stop thinking, start feeling, and flow


“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of of Expert Performance” K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer, Psychological Review, Vol. 100No. 3, 363-406.

Further Suggested Reading:

The Brain The Story of You by David Eagleman

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD

The Woman Who Changed Her Brain by Barbara Arrowsmith Young

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin