Learning (to listen to) Jazz (kind of)

3/1/2023, 2:47:00 PM

Exposure-based Perceptual Learning (EPL) has been catching my attention for some time now. I first got introduced to the term by Sunil Pai's tweet reviewing the book Badass: Making Users Awesome (I have to say, I haven't read the book yet, but I'm dying to).

The best way for me to explain EPL is by saying that it's the ingredient that makes you become an "expert" (whatever that means), and you do that by consuming the content of other experts. For example, following on social media the experts in your field is a way of becoming better at your job.

Now my last example goes with a caveat: it's is extremely difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to filtering who's an expert. People want to seem experts and people want to follow experts, so when it comes to Twitter or LinkedIn, the number of followers becomes an (highly) arguable metric to use.

Having said that, in some fields it is much easier to objectively know who is an expert. For example, in chess, a player's skill is benchmarked using a ranking. It's obvious that if you're in the Top 10 in the world, you're probably an expert.

But we were talking about Perceptual Learning.

One of the debates that are going on is should EPL be the main way of learning as opposed to deliberate study of a subject. I think that argument is a false dichotomy. The important question is, how to determine the balance of EPL vs deliberate study you need. And of course, it depends on the topic!

So how have I applied EPL personally? There are 3 main fields where I consider EPL plays a huge role for me: jazz, chess and software engineering. The last two are pretty simple: the more you watch top chess players playing chess and the more code you read of other top programmers, the better you will become. Although, with both, I have applied deliberate study for a long while.

But jazz for me has been an exception, as I think I've only applied EPL (and no deliberate study at all) to learning, understanding and appreciating this music genre.

My technique to learn how to listen to jazz has been very simple and it composes of two parts: listen to a lot of it - that's the most obvious one. An the less obvious... and you'll be surprised this actually exists... is reaction videos! If you don't know what these are (lucky you), here's an example of a (more theoretical) reaction video https://youtu.be/iCtffPv9yKY?t=231 and a more fun example https://youtu.be/u7tR38ff7Hw?t=203.

The authors of these reaction videos have been the "experts" whose content I consumed and perceptually learned from their reactions, comments and so on.

Another way that I used to perceptually learn jazz is that when I'm watching a concert and one of the musicians starts to improvise a solo, I then start watching his or her bandmates' (the experts) reaction and try to figure out what was it that made them react in a specific way.

After 3 years of doing it, many of my musician friends usually tell me that my reactions and understanding of what's going on in a jazz song seems more profound than a lot of their other colleagues who are actual musicians. Which probably isn't true, but you get my point.

Eventually I enjoyed jazz much more than I did when I started listening to it for the first time and most importantly, I started to feel it, even if I don't understand it.

For music,
A mysterious form of time