How the Brain Learns Music Part 2

When you understand how the brain learns music, you feel less discouraged; you recognize that the things you struggle with are a normal part of the process. Your practice gets you farther faster. You have realistic expectations and learn strategies to overcome common stumbling blocks. 

Whether you are a baseball player learning to throw a curve ball, or a banjo player working on Foggy Mountain Breakdown, as far as your brain is concerned, the process is the same. When you are learning to play music, you WILL pass through the three phases of Skills Acquisition. I capitalize that, because I think it deserves some respect. If we neglect to understand this process, we can create all sorts of problems. Understanding, accepting, and using this process is golden!

There are three phases of Skills Acquisition:

1. Cognitive Phase

2. Associative Phase

3. Autonomous Phase

Many people are discouraged with phase 1 or 2 and that is where it ends. Many music teachers (and math teachers too BTW) don’t understand phase 1 and 2 and actually help the student to feel discouraged. Athletic coaches seem to totally get these three stages; as a matter of fact, my favorite reference for this blog is a chapter from an athletic training text book. If you can understand, accept, and enjoy these first two phases, you’ve got it made. Phase 3 is very user friendly. For now, we are going to focus on phase 1 and 2, because they are the most cantankerous. We will address phase 3 more in the next couple of brain blogs. 

As far as your brain is concerned, the process of learning to play music is the same process athletes use to train their muscles to do amazing things. It seems easier to understand and accept this process when you consider athletic training than it does when you are talking about music. If you are a figure skater learning to do a double Axel, you are going to fall. A bunch. That doesn’t mean that you are not good at it or that you cannot learn. 

If we compare making music to athletic training or even a common life skill, like learning to type on you’re new ergonomic keyboard after 40 years of typing on the old fashioned kind, the clasp on your new necklace, or driving with a are familiar with these stages. 

The Cognitive phase can be quick, but the Associative phase always takes longer than you want it to. As I said before:

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

(If you haven’t read Brain Blog Part 1, you might want to read that in order to appreciate just how much you are asking of your brain when you learn to play music.)

You are probably very familiar with these characteristics of the cognitive phase:

  • You feel awkward
  • You stumble
  • You fail
  • You are thinking

But don’t think that you are not good at it or that you cannot learn. If you are a teacher, it definitely does not give you the right to tell your student they are not talented enough, don’t have what it takes, or any such thing! If you are a teacher who does not understand your student’s slow progress, please consider the possibility that this student is a puzzle YOU have not solved...YET. If you are the student and you feel awkward, congratulations! That means you’re on your way.

Try to feel comfortable being uncomfortable.

It’s part of the process. 

Folks who are accomplished musicians are very familiar with the challenges of the first two phases. You'll probably go back and forth a lot between the two. If your failures trouble you, try to remember watching an olympic figure skating champion when the graceful princess totally falls on her butt and bounces back like nothing happened with a tell tale ridge of frost across her thigh. Then later, she’s standing on the highest step with a gold medal around her neck. Imagine how many times she fell during her Associative phase!

This is what must happen during the Cognitive Phase:

  • thinking (later, we abandon thinking, so it’s good to be aware that the cognitive phase requires thinking)
  • focusing on position and technique
  • more repetition

This is what must happen during the Associative Phase:

  • movements become more coordinated and refined
  • you can begin to focus on timing
  • you can anticipate the next event
  • you have memorized movements
  • you are correcting errors
  • more repetition

...and here is the prize:

If you practice well, you will be rewarded later. You will have magical powers. ( otherwise known as the autonomous phase ) When you see someone who progresses faster than you and you feel like they have something you haven’t got...

This is how


It takes a while. 

In music MORE than in sports, a student should expect a series of failures while learning in order to achieve success. Just like an athlete, you are asking your body to perform highly specialized movements with precise timing. Only in music, the movements are smaller, more varied, more precise, require coordination of more small muscles, and are usually intertwined with an ongoing pulsation of time called groove. 

And let me just interject here: You can learn to enjoy this process!! It can be sublime! If your only satisfaction is immediate success, or if you are attached to the outcome, you’re sunk, but “How to Enjoy Practice” is a blog for another day. 

In Brain Blog Part 1, we talked about how when you use your hands to make movements to make music, you are training your brain to coordinate the efforts of 66 muscles. But that’s NOT just 66 brain pathways! Let’s consider the massive number of brain pathways it takes to play music: In order for each muscle to learn to move correctly, there is a perpetual loop of feedback from your fingers, your tongue, your eyes, your ears, and more...telling your brain what just happened.  And in order to play music, your brain must anticipate the whole sequence of movements. You're also keeping track of time.

So, multiply the number of muscles you are using times the number of precise movements you are performing, times the brain pathways involved in the loops of feedback, times the brain pathways it takes to do it all in order, times the number of brain pathways it takes to do it all with good timing, times all the factors we have not considered, and you can better appreciate that you are asking a lot of your brain. 

That’s why it’s so good for your brain. That’s why it makes you smarter! That’s why it prevents Alzheimer's symptoms, why it feels so magical to play or hear music, and that’s why playing music is a transcendent experience. 

That’s why Ringo sang,

“You’ve got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues and you know it don’t come easy.”

Playing music is so complex! Brain researchers have actually analyzed the many brain functions required to play the piano, and based on what they currently understand about the brain, they have concluded that playing the piano is impossible! 

When Einstein's brain was studied, it was unremarkable except for one thing: there was a small horseshoe shaped mass in the right side of his brain. This was attributed to the fact that he played violin and had developed massive brain pathways due to the intricate motion of his left hand. Piano players have been found to have this horseshoe shaped figure on both sides of their brain. So, what we’re talking about here is actual physical changes in your brain; they are incremental, and it takes time. 

In Brain Blog 3, we'll talk about how this knowledge can be applied to our practice and our teaching. Have you observed these phases in your practice? Your work? Life in general? Have you already applied this understanding to the way you learn or teach skills? Please comment, and we can discuss some of these things in Brain Blog 3. 

In the mean time, I hope you enjoy the process the way this little girl is enjoying learning to skate. As the late great Townes Van Zandt said, “All you keep is the gettin’ there.”  

Photo by JohnnyGreig/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by JohnnyGreig/iStock / Getty Images

To be continued.

Brain blog 3 is about how this knowledge will help your practice. 

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Human Performance by Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, Praeger 1974.

Music and Soulmaking by Barbara Crowe, The Scarecrow Press 2004.

The Brain The Story of You by David Eagleman, Pantheon Books 2015.

link to PDF from athletic training text  You can also google "skills acquisition Paul Fitts Michael Posner" and find all sorts of fun articles. Mostly sports related, but surgeons use this knowledge too!