Why Isolation Is Important When Learning Guitar

11111The brain tends to learn best through a deliberate step by step process. Remember when you were a child learning to tie your shoe laces? It was a challenging task that required serious concentration and practice. This is referred to as ‘deliberate practice’.  Playing guitar is about learning and developing a range of skills such as picking, finger placement, pitch recognition, rhythm, reading and so on. Isolating each of these elements helps development but it also helps understanding. Recognising the different elements of what you hear is really the first step to being able to play what you hear.

An example of a trained musical ear

In a TV music quiz show I was impressed by the woman who was able to identify instantly the instruments being played in a complex orchestral arrangement after just a few seconds of listening. It made perfect sense when they announced she had spent years touring with some of the world’s best orchestras. She was able to single out the different instruments instantaneously.

Brain awareness test

The following video is a visual awareness test was conducted by Daniel J Simons at the University of Illinois. You may have seen this already but if not try watching this short video and doing the exercise before you read below.

The experiment demonstrates how our brain filters when it is focused on a task. This is important because irrelevant information can just get in the way. Learning music can be a real challenge because the music itself can get in the way. Ask the average non-musician to count the number of beats in Happy Birthday and they will have trouble because they just want to sing along to the words they know.

To learn music effectively you need to isolate its elements.

Learning music can resemble the ‘Rub your belly and pat your head simultaneously’ challenge most of us did as kids. If you did learn it I bet you can still do it now. If not you will probably find it challenging. The secret is to not to begin by doing both. Start by rubbing your belly in circles until it is automatic and then stop. Now pat your head until it is automatic and stop. Now start the belly rub and then introduce the head pat after 15 seconds. If it doesn’t work start all over again. Keep isolating and then combining and you will have it down in no time and once you do you will probably never forget it.

Multitasking when learning is a myth

You simply cannot learn two new skills at once. Yes we can do two things at once like walking  while talking or eating etc but that is because you have already mastered at least one of the two skills. Breaking down a complex action or thought is the key. Learn one element at a time. Once your brain understands one part of the task it will automate it and will then be able to more easily learn and incorporate a new part.

How does this apply to guitar?

Students (and I don’t just mean beginners) invariably pick up a guitar and try picking out a riff with the left hand. They move their hand around the fret board with the right hand picking out the right strings at the same time. The right hand is generally trying to operate automatically but for the beginner this rarely works. It’s best to begin by picking out a few notes and focusing on just the picking hand. Once your picking hand is familiar with picking it will be free to focus on the fretting hand. Then like the ‘Rub the belly, pat the head’ exercise bring them together. You should never stop isolating and developing the skills because there is always room for improvement. This is why at G4 Guitar we encourage skill development. Songs will come and go but the skills will be with you for life.


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