This is your brain on music

Posted: April 4, 2013 in Learning, Mental Reboot, Music, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I just finished re-reading This is your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin.  It’s a general overview on how the brain processes music and includes a number of deep dives into things like his theory about the evolutionary basis of music, how one becomes an expert musicians and how music interacts with our brains.

I first read this in 2007 when I was hip deep in frustration at work and remember the biggest take-away being the wistful sense that I’d like to start playing an instrument again.  But perhaps it was an early seed for my reboot project. The brain is a strange an mysterious place and I certainly can’t be responsible for understanding my motivations 100% of the time.  Sorry, but it’s true.

In any case, on a re-read I realize that this was the book where I first encountered the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to expert status hypothesis that I had most tightly associated with Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers.  And this figure keeps cropping up.  Not just in the two books I’ve already mentioned but also in Moonwalking with Einstein that I mentioned in my Okay Plateau post.  And a friend who I swear I didn’t prompt brought the 10,000 hours to expert subject up at lunch last week.  While eating Pho. So I decided to go hunting up the source.  It looks like all of the references that I’ve cited lead back to K. Anders Ericsson and his work. (I wonder what the “K.” stands for?)   So now I probably have some heavier reading to do.

But in the meantime let me attempt to drag myself screaming back to my original point.  The point that I almost completely lost sight of in the process of looking up dates and following sources.  Which is, how in the heck am I going to find 10,000 hours for each of the several things I’m tackling this year?  Oh wait, I guess that’s physically impossible.  Huh. The rough math is that it takes about 40 hours a week for 5 years (40*50*5) to get to 10,000 hours, or 10 hours a week for 20 years…

Which is the point where I have to forcefully remind myself that I’m not actually trying to attain expert level for most of these things.  If I can hold a reasonable conversation with a Spanish speaker I will count that as good.  If I can enjoy my own piano playing that’s great (I’m actually almost there for this one). If I can have fun with tap dancing and maybe pull in a bit of improvisation that would be really cool. I don’t have to be good enough for other people to enjoy watching me dance much less make a living at it.

So I’m all right with my breadth first learning for now.  But I think there is some hope that there are generalized learning skills that I can hone over the course of the next year or so that will make me more effective in whatever I do next.  I’m certainly going to dig into the “deliberate practice” part of Ericcson’s work, because perhaps 1000 hours of deliberate practice is what I need to get where I want to go with a particular skill, rather than 10,000.

If nothing else, forcing myself to write on a regular basis has got to be useful, right?

  1. David B. Gray says:

    How does learning to be an expert in coding rank for hours to excellence?

    I have student who is an accomplished musician. I’ll as her if 10,000 hours is about what it took.

    • ohdwg says:

      Thanks for reading!

      On the coding question: This is interesting because one of the things that is generally emphasized is that time on the job doesn’t necessarily count. One has to meet some bar of deliberate practice. I don’t fully understand what that bar is so that’s one of the things I’ll be digging into for my own practice. But one aspect of being a programmer in a large company that has become more and more common over the last twenty years is the idea of code review – Which in general is a systematic review of your work before it goes into the product by one or more peers. I think that practice at least has a tendency to make day-to-day work as a programmer closer to a deliberative process – I wish that it had been more common in my early years when I was actually coding 40-80 hours a week, I probably would be a better programmer for that now. The other interesting point is that when I started diving into Ericsson’s own work (rather than the more pop-science stuff I referred to in my post), the introduction to his book Development of Professional Expertise directly calls out things like software engineering as skills that are more and more in demand and the need to be more effective in training people in these skills.

      On the music question – another thing that’s popping up a bit as I start reading the scientific literature is that the 10,000 hour figure is often accompanied by the phrase ‘world class expert.’ In Ericsson’s synopsis of his recent work here he talks about different levels of expertise:

      “For example, the critical difference between expert musicians differing in the level of attained solo performance concerned the amounts of time they had spent in solitary practice during their music development, which totaled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts,  around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists.”

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