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Confusion as a Learning Strategy for Music

Let’s Get Confused!

Have you ever listened to a piece of music and feel absolutely bewildered and awed at the technical and musical brilliance of the performer? Perhaps you’re an aspiring guitarist and listening to a remarkably complex guitar solo makes you think: ‘I’ll never be able to do that!’.

If you find yourself in these situations, you’re actually in a great place to level up your skills as a musician. Have you ever felt utterly confused when trying to learn a piece of music? Let me know in the comments below!

Now, let’s discuss the intriguing use of confusion as a key strategy in learning music.

Confusion and Cognitive Dissonance

Confusion is the state when you feel as though your brain overloads and feels as though you simply cannot process the musical information being fed into it. While initially this could be very frustrating, the key is to look past and push through the frustration, even despite repeated failed attempts.

As a learner, confusion generates a strong desire in you to master that musical material, which then leads to a process of highly motivated, self-initiated internal analytical activity. This mechanism is known as cognitive dissonance. In working through this difficulty, your brain is also trained to process increasingly complex and intricate musical information.

Confusion as a Teaching and Learning Device

Confusion is often minimized in Western teaching contexts, where theoretical and technical information is normally broken down into easily digestible components and taught to the student.

On the other hand, many world music cultures frequently employ confusion as a learning strategy, both consciously and subconsciously. In my years studying Indian classical rhythms, I frequently find myself at a complete loss as my teacher beats out a blazingly fast and complex rhythm on the mridangam, a South Indian classical drum, and immediately expects me to replicate it. I make attempt after attempt and repeatedly fail. What proceeds is often not a slow process of breaking down the musical material into shorter sections, but a repetition of the musical piece at the same blazing fast tempo in its entirety.

In the initial stages, my brain seems to want to split apart as I try my best to calculate and map out the mathematical rhythms. This, however, often fails as these rhythms are far too complex to process in real time.

However, as I got accustomed to this process of teaching and learning, I’ve learnt to embrace my cognitive dissonance and absolute confusion. I fully acknowledge my inability to understand the music and just let my ears and fingers do the work, trying my best to replicate what my teacher plays before me. Amazingly, my fingers often fall into place, replicating the rhythm to a much better extent than I ever could if I had tried to process it all logically first.

Once my teacher recognizes that I’ve got it somewhat in my hands, he then proceeds to lay out the math for me - and it all makes so much more sense because I’ve already got the rhythm in my fingers before my brain could ever catch up! Very often, before my teacher even explains the math to me I’ve already caught it simply from feeling the intuitive movements in my fingers.

Applying Confusion in Your Own Learning

No matter what genre of music you play, you can apply confusion in your own learning process as well, with or without a teacher! The key here is to embrace confusion as a natural part of the learning process, and not feel overly discouraged by your inability to understand.

On your own, I recommend listening and watching recordings and videos of masterfully performed live music. Watch these videos over and over again with your instrument at hand, and try your best to imitate it. In many cultures, this is what the guru often does - repeat a musical phrase over and over again for the student to internalize.

As with all things, use confusion in moderation. It should not be the only strategy applied to learning music, as overusing it can lead to you feeling discouraged and worn out.

And with that, have fun being confused!

By Neil Chan


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