In a previous post (see Synesthesia and Creativity) I discussed the tendency of creative people to have a degree of overlap between their senses – associating feelings with sounds, colors with numbers, and even taste with words, for example. I think that people who have some degree of this ability would also then have an enhanced potential for learning – having different ways of processing information makes it more concrete.
Perhaps, early on, I accidentally developed the connection between touch and seeing – learning to “trace” shapes I saw in space, seeing them as interlocking jigsaw pieces (see Learning to draw - a breakthrough). Experiencing complex three dimensional shapes in this way, imagining touching the edges as each shape is drawn, helps to make the experience far more accessible, and concrete. It renders the complex and confusing visual information in a way that is much easier to understand. It’s rooted in the body and in everyday experience. It is, therefore, easier. I imagine that many who are accomplished in art, music, mathematics, or other challenging and abstract field, are using more than one modality, effectively triangulating the experience to make it more accessible.
Conversely, most of us struggle because we are using only one primary sensory mode to process info. Perhaps we could improve our learning ability by creating more sensory and emotional (feeling, pleasure) connections.
For example, music. I love music. I respond to it emotionally, and listening to music is one of the most exciting experiences I can have. Of course I want to play it too! But –
I took the usual lessons as a child (piano and violin). Like many, I avoided practice, found the lessons to be pure drudgery, and feared recitals. I ‘dropped out’ of formal music lessons by the time I was thirteen. But it wouldn’t end there.
Since music gave me so much pleasure, I really wanted to master it. As an adult, I re-engaged. I bought instruments. I took formal lessons. I read everything I could find. I had many starts and stops, many hours of practice, and a lot of noodling about. I have persisted, in spite of very little evidence that I have ability (especially early on). I was not a quick learner; in fact, my progress has been painfully slow. And I was not a good performer – I lack fluidity, and my self-consciousness about my ability made me shy.
But here’s the thing. I have persisted. And I’ve developed a theory about why music is so hard for many.
I am primarily a visually-oriented person. I also respond to touch, sound and emotion. And since I am primarily visual (and tactile), the typical way of approaching the learning of music was useless for me. And a big barrier – subconsciously, automatically: I am oriented towards music visually – and therefore, oriented to the visual information presented by the instrument itself.
Visual learners are good at seeing what’s in front of them. They are good at discerning visual harmony – mirror images, symmetry – and quick to identify visual anomalies. Seeing is believing – size differentials, the relationship of dark to light, and foreground to background, is how the world is understood. Touch supports this, helping to make the visual world concrete. Visual thinkers are more literal, at least at first, more concrete, and less abstract. They tend to prefer Geometry over Algebra.
Now, imagine the piano keyboard. From a visual standpoint, it’s clear that the white keys are more important – they’re brighter, and bigger. The black keys are smaller, and set back. A secondary clue to their secondary status – they’re called “accidentals,” and in printed music, they need sharp and flat symbols to indicate what they are.
So, the white key scale (the "C Major" scale, starting with “Middle C”) must be the most important one. You can play the whole scale on the white keys alone – no accidentals needed. And, you can pick out a simple tune, and even play some combinations of white keys that sound good together – a chord. All white keys. Nothing accidental here. You now have the vocabulary of the early stage piano student – Chopsticks; Twinkle Twinkle Little Star; Heart and Soul.
The visual learner also notices that that the black keys are grouped in regular intervals of twos and threes, with white keys in between. It makes a striking visual pattern; what does it mean? You might also learn then, that there are notes where there is no black key in between – between E and F, and B and C. You learn that these are called “half steps” while the distance between two white notes with a black note between is called a “whole step.” Why? Finally, the C major scale, all white keys, sounds “even” (to most of us) – it is hard for us to hear, and understand the difference, though it does seem there is one. But it's slippery. Perplexing.
(Also, it makes no sense to a visual person that the scale starts on “Middle C.” Why C? Why not start with the same letter as the alphabet, A?)
If you get slightly more advanced, you might notice that the spaces (or intervals) from the notes C to G on the keyboard is called a fifth (five white keys) when you count up. BUT – when you go down the keyboard (four white keys), it’s a fourth! And fourths and fifths sound different (a C to G up, sounds different than a C to G, down - yet they are the same notes - G and C. OK, the G is an octave down or up, but still). Fourths and fifths are also used differently in more advanced harmony.
In fact, if you divide the octave (eight notes of the major scale, all the white keys in C major, C to C), in half, you don’t land on a white key at all – you land on F sharp, which is not even in the scale! This seems so strange to a visual thinker. It’s not symmetrical.
None of this is addressed in the standard approach to teaching. Instead, the student focuses on sight-reading (black notes on white paper - yet another abstract system) with a totally different visual logic – staff lines, treble clef, bass clef, measures – how are these related the piano keyboard?)
Visual learners want to know why – why does it look this way, why is it made this way? How does the visual logic relate to the underlying logic?
As the student progresses beyond an elementary level, the apparent logic of the keyboard provides a barrier – a cognitive dissonance. Because, in actuality, most intermediate to advanced music is not written in one key; chords may be very complex and have notes that are outside of the scale; and the C major scale is only one of many used (and perhaps the most boring). And music is so tied to other elements - rhythm, melody, dynamics of loud and soft - that pulling it apart makes it even more confusing. The sum is greater than the parts.
Playing jazz, pop music or standards on any reasonable level requires a deeper understanding of the logic of music, which the keyboard falsely exhibits in many ways. The student has to “unlearn” the priority of Middle C, of the C major scale, and focus on the logic that can’t be seen, but must be heard. The flavors of chords, the subtle distinction of the whole step and half step, the mathematical logic of the chord progression, and all the other elements of rhythm, melody, dynamics. And to conquer this, it’s helpful to have access to an alternative, and concrete, way of learning about music.
I'll go deeper into this later.