An illustration of a pianist practicing his instrument

How Psychology Can Help You Learn an Instrument

If you approach music like a science, it will be much easier to improve your musical abilities.
March 10, 2020
9 mins read

We often hear people who lack musical ability argue that they were born that way. Although genes control our potential for musical ability, they can’t actively change that ability throughout our lifetimes. Environmental exposure to music, however, can actively shape our predisposed musical potential into success with an instrument. Genes set our starting point, or our baseline of musical ability, but once we are born, the environment takes over the larger role in determining our musical success.

In the book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn distinguishes between two types of science: mature and immature. Mature sciences are sciences that have an established paradigm, like biology or physics. Scientists in mature sciences share a common consensus, or a unanimous view, about the nature, subject and method of their discipline.

The field of psychology is classified as an immature science, making it pre-paradigmatic. This means there is a lack of consensus on fundamental issues, resulting in multiple competing theories, or schools of thought. One of these schools of thought is called behaviorism.

Behaviorists consider our behavior a result of our surrounding environment. In contrast, the biological approach seeks to understand our behavior as genetically predetermined. Behaviorists suggest the best way to understand musical learning is by studying the environmental contexts that correspond with musical ability.

Two important assumptions form the foundation of behavioral science: that behavior can be explained by environmental antecedents and consequences, and that a focus on the environmental causes of behavior, rather than appealing to biological, neurological or cognitive origins, is more productive. Behaviorists believe that, although musical perception may be partly inherited, nobody is born with the capacity to learn an instrument.

Musical capacity is assessed by aural perception tests, which measure an individual’s ability to recognize meter, pitch and tempo. Several theories exist to explain why some people perform better than others on aural assessments. Those who take the biological approach believe that genetics are predominantly responsible for someone’s aural perception, while those with a behaviorist perspective believe that aural perceptions are motivated by repeated exposure to music from a young age.

Gary McPherson, an Australian music educator and researcher, explored different methods of musical learning in his book, “The Child as Musician: A handbook of musical development.” At the end of his book, McPherson identified three common characteristics of musical experts, asserting that experts in musical ability “excel within their own domains, have strong self-monitoring skills and engage in deliberate practice.”

Excel within your own domain

Everyone has different musical tastes. Some enjoy wide varieties of music, while others remain faithful to a singular genre. Evidence suggests that musicians excel within their own domains, so it is important to determine which domain or genre you wish to play, whether or not you choose to get music lessons, whether it’s the best violin lessons or for something else, or learn on your own.

If you only listen to country music, it might be difficult for you to become an expert in electronic dance music, and vice versa. To learn an instrument, you must first decide which style of music you want to play. Determining your genre before deciding which instrument to learn seems unusual, but it is important.

Behaviorists suggest that learning music is based on repeated musical exposure, so pick a genre you enjoy and can listen to often. Your domain should be the genre of music that will motivate you to play the most. Once you determine your domain, choose an instrument within that domain that you are familiar with and appreciate.

Some genres make use of the same instruments, but do so in different fashions. It is important that, once you pick an instrument, you stay within your particular genre. Putting limits on your sound initially will enable you to excel within a specific style.

The most important factor to consider, when deciding your instrument, is personal preference. Your interest is what will motivate you to engage in continuous practice. When deciding which instrument best suits you, consider how your choice will affect your subsequent motivation. McPherson identified four dimensions that contribute towards motivation: interest, importance, usefulness and difficulty.

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Interest is the fulfillment or joy you get from playing an instrument. Do you feel gratification when actively engaging with the instrument?

Importance is the degree to which learning a specific instrument coincides with your personal goals. In order to determine the importance, you need to first set clear goals. The goal can be as simple as learning one song, or as difficult as becoming a professional musician. What’s important is that you are working toward something.

Similar to importance, usefulness considers whether the learning is constructive based on your set goals. Is your practice contributing towards your goal? If the domain or instrument fail at improving your musical ability, carefully reconsider them.

The dimension of difficulty requires you evaluate the pros of your instrument or domain against the cons. Are the outcomes of your learning worth the effort put in? You should carefully consider these dimensions of motivation when picking your instrument and domain.

Self-monitoring skills

Once you have established your domain, instrument and goals, it’s time to get to work, but it’s difficult to remain motivated in practice if you lack the skills needed to reinforce desirable musical behavior. The study of behavior analysis considers our changes in behavior as environmentally contingent. This means your behavior effects the environment, and your environment effects your behavior.

The environment can either reinforce or punish your behavior. To establish productive musical techniques, reinforce your constructive musical habits and punish your damaging ones. There are two types of reinforcement and punishment: positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement increases behavior by introducing a desirable stimulus, or reward, upon completion of that behavior. If you want to learn a song on the mandolin, you can positively reinforce that behavior by treating yourself to a candy bar after you are done with it. If you reward positive musical practice you will be more likely to engage in that behavior in the future.

Negative reinforcement increases behavior by removing or avoiding an undesirable stimulus. If you have trouble staying motivated during practice, you can negatively reinforce practice behavior by telling your friends to chide you each time you skip a practice session. Your friends having to remind you, in this example, is the undesirable stimulus you wish to avoid. You should reinforce good musical practices to decrease the occurrence of those actions.

In contrast, you should punish behaviors that damage your musical progress. Positive punishment decreases undesirable behaviors by introducing an undesirable stimulus. If you avoid practice or procrastinate often, you can positively punish that avoidance behavior by implementing a practice tax. A practice tax is a fine you make yourself pay each time you skip practice and works as the undesirable stimulus. Each time you skip practice, positively punish that behavior by putting $10 in a jar.

By taxing your undesirable behavior, you can decrease your avoidance behavior. You can also make the practice tax a positive reinforcer by allowing yourself to open the jar once you complete a certain amount of set goals. Negative punishment decreases undesirable behavior by removing a desirable stimulus.

The behavior of watching television instead of practicing your instrument could be negatively punished by forcing yourself to practice for thirty minutes after each hour spent watching television. Punishment should decrease the behaviors that conflict with your musical learning, while reinforcement should increase your appropriate musical behaviors.

Deliberate Goal-Oriented Practice

Some musicians begin their music education by learning how to read sheet music, while others achieve expertise through unestablished methods. However, the one thing all professionals have in common is their persistent goal-oriented and structured practice.

Some musicians may have help from their genetics, but it is ultimately their work ethic that enables them to accomplish greatness. Learning to read sheet music might be the easiest approach for some, but there are many other ways to develop your musical ability.

A good understanding of music theory can go a long way in furthering musical proficiency, but without a structured approach to practice, it is useless. Long-term goals are important, but short-term goals within each practice session are just as vital. An end goal is nothing without short-term realistic goals. In each practice session, focus on perfecting a specific aspect of your play, and make sure you have a good grasp of the fundamentals before you move on to more difficult activities.

Short-term goals should be simple, applicable and based on your individual skill level. To learn an instrument, you must practice regularly, set realistic goals and follow an incremental pattern of improvement.

Learning an instrument is hard work, and there is no singular pathway to success, but with motivation, self-monitoring skills and effortful practice, anyone can become a musician.

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