Learning music and pattern recognition


The Brain-Based Piano Method is a music and piano learning system based on our present understanding about how the brain learns.

This article deals with one important aspect of brain-based learning, namely pattern recognition.

To illustrate pattern recognition in action, let’s start from a simple example:

Let’s look at two rows of 6 numbers each.

A: 19, 21, 25, 31, 39, 49

B: 19, 18, 17, 16, 15, 14

Look at them, analyze them, and try to remember them. Take a piece of paper and write the numbers down in order from memory. Now compare your numbers with the ones on this page. Which row was easier to remember? How did you do it?

When asked how they remembered the first list, some people will give some complicated rule, others will say that they memorized it outright. As for the second list, they will say something like “I counted backward from 19 to 14”. When asked to recall the two lists at some later point, most people will likely remember B while having forgotten A.

Most people would agree that the list B was far easier to remember. What makes it easy to remember is the recognition that the numbers are not random, but go in a certain order (“count backwards”) In other words, memorizing a small amount of information (in this case, the numbers 19 and 14) and seeing a pattern or a rule (count backwards) is a faster, easier and more effective way of learning than rote memorization.

Here is how this insight applies to learning music and playing the piano. In the Brain-Based Piano Method Level 1, students learn first by listening and playing how to recognize and apply the “rules of music” (equivalent to “counting backwards” in the example above) by ear, and by seeing and doing, before they look at a song on paper. This allows them to concentrate on understanding what they hear and see, without the distraction of trying to learn to read music notation at the same time.

What they learn to recognize is patterns along four lines: rhythmic, tonal, formal and harmonic. Once they are introduced to printed music, they are already looking for the patterns they know “must be there”.

Here is an example of the children’s song “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. For comparison we have included the same song, as it would normally appear in a traditional elementary method (A), and as it appears in the Brain-Based Piano Method (B).

Music Notes
Music Notes

Intelligence is Malleable, Not fixed!

Which view of intelligence we adopt is important because it influences our children’s conceptions about learning and our decisions about how we and our children spend our time and effort.

Building your children’s skills can be compared to building and maintaining a house:

1 – The house gets built slow and steady investing time and resources. Using and improving the house over the years require a low level of resources invested in its maintenance.

2 – The house gets build, but does not get any maintenance. It deteriorates rather quickly to the point where it is no longer useful for its intended purpose.

3 – The house is not finished. It starts to decay before it is completed, and the decay is rapid. At no point in time is the house fulfilling its original purpose.

How do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice!

What it is going to determine that your child receives or not the benefits of a serious music education is the parents’ commitment to guide their children to PRACTICE. Remember that children create their own theories about learning. If they are not guided correctly, they can create the belief that the problem is that they just do not have the talent or the capacity to develop certain skills instead of understanding that good practice habits is what makes the difference.

A student who practices regularly will discover:

– That by practicing, a task which was initially difficult becomes easy. This allows him to enthusiastically move on to the next level of complexity.

– In the process, the student starts to see how focused work leads to greater ability, to better self-esteem and to recognition by the people around him.

A student who practices only sporadically will discover:

– That the lower level skills he possesses will not become automatic, and higher-level skills (like playing with two hands at the same time) will be impossible to acquire.

After a while, the ability of playing a simple song in one hand will no longer excite him, the student’s expectations about what he should be able to play will have increased, but his abilities will have not. Soon, dissatisfaction sets in, the idea that “I just don’t have enough talent” takes over, and the students moves on to something else. The story is likely to repeat with any new activity he embarks in if he doesn’t practice.

Every Person is Born with Talent! 

Where does ability come from? Most people agree that it comes from a combination of native talent (ability we are born with) and work.

In the “Nature vs. Nurture debate” what is being debated is the degree to which each one of the two contribute to the ability. The attitudes in western culture tend to ascribe nature a greater role (“He was born with this talent”) whereas in eastern cultures, the attitude favors work. Psychology research has shifted in recent years toward a view more in line with the eastern attitude, where ability is determined to a greater extent by work.

The two scenarios below illustrate the two views:

A: a student with higher native ability progresses faster than the one with lower native ability.

B: a student is able to compensate for his lower native abilities through work and soon surpass his better endowed peers.

The situation depicted in A is more intuitive (at least for us in the West). In real life, however, we find that the second model explains the evolution of our students better than the first.

Figure 1.3 Two possible scenarios: A: with more native talent leads to higher ability faster and B: through work, a student with less native ability can improve faster.

The different rates at which a student progresses can be noticed on a time scale of weeks and months. Over the years, however, these different rates lead to very different outcomes. In these outcomes, the initial native ability pales in comparison with the skill acquired over the years.

Jack of All Trades Master of None!

In todays’ world we find ourselves lost in an ocean of limitless possibilities and if this is hard for us as adults, imagine for our children! As teachers we constantly see parents rushing their children from one activity to another, wanting with all their good intentions to provide the best and most complete education to their children. What we see that sometimes parents miss is that more than two disciplines or afterschool programs per week is likely going to limit their children to spend all the time and energy that is required by them in each discipline to develop the desirable and necessary skills that come with it.

We recommend that parents choose wisely. Parents are the adults, the ones who are in charge. Parents should make mindful decisions and guide their children based on realistic expectations and important considerations such as time, resources, logistics, and related costs and expenses that come with each activity.

1 – Ask yourself these questions:

Is the teacher a model person and a professional instructor who can motivate and inspire my child to learn and succeed in a healthy steady way?

Is my child going to receive a personalized treatment?

Is my child in a safe, nurturing and enriching environment?

Do my child like the activity and has the minimum personal requirements to perform it?

2 -Understand that:

For your children to learn and develop important skills and attitudes such as: perseverance, patience, reliance, creativity, courage and grit you need to:

3 – Establish your positive intentions and commit to them to help your child to achieve his educational goals:

Commit to bring your child to all the lessons/classes and performances, events and contexts related to the discipline.

Commit to watch that your child practices daily.

The Three Stages of Learning: Rote-Inflexible-Flexible

Cognitive psychology recognizes three stages of learning: rote, inflexible and flexible:

• Rote learning (the result of repetition, in this stage the student can only reproduce the material as he has it memorized)

• Inflexible (in this stage, the learner has some understanding of the material, but can only reproduce it as given. The students recognize it only in the context in which they have learned it)

• Flexible (in this stage, the student have analyzed it from different angles, can deconstruct it, use parts of it, can recognize it in different contexts, can rearrange it to suit his needs)

Our approach cultivates in students a flexible attitude towards learning, in which the student goes through the first and second stage (rote and inflexible), and has a desire to reach the third (flexible).

A student who possesses this attitude is not merely a recipient of knowledge, trying only to memorize a song or a piece from a book, but an active participant in the learning process, who sees connections and experiments with the ideas and material at hand, and creates new music in the process. This attitude transfers later to the student’s other academic and non-academic interests.

There are multiple advantages to reaching the flexible stage:

• The knowledge is secure and the piece is memorized well

• The learning process becomes fun and exciting

• The student really “owns” the piece, and is able to perform it with confidence whenever it is necessary

• The product is something personal, which reflects the students’ feelings and personality.

• The student understands the different levels of knowledge, the degree of confidence that comes with each one, and is empowered to take charge of their own learning process.