Banjo Hangout Logo
Banjo Hangout Logo

Premier Sponsors

Banjo Lovers Online

The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: Episode 3 (The Easiest Way To Get Better At Banjo)

Posted by Josh Turknett on Monday, March 2, 2015

like this

About the Laws of Brainjo Series

The Laws of Brainjo ("the Art and Science of Effective Practice") series describes the theoretical foundation for the Brainjo Method, a system of musical instruction that integrates that science of learning and neuroplasticity specifically designed for the adult learner.

The Brainjo Method is used for the Breakthrough Banjo courses for both clawhammer and fingerstyle banjo (and a brand new fiddle course!). 

Click here to learn more about the Breakthrough Banjo course for clawhammer banjo

Click here to learn more about the Breakthrough Banjo course for fingerstyle 


Episode 3: The Easiest Way To Get Better At Banjo

by Josh Turknett, MD (


When it comes to pattern recognition, the human brain is king. Compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, our brain's ability to extract patterns from the world around us is arguably its single greatest distinguishing feature.

It’s what enables us to make accurate predictions about our world, and to imagine new tools and technologies. And it does all this in the service of one primary goal: to keep us alive. The better our brain can predict and manipulate the world around it, the better its odds of achieving that goal.

But here's the wondrous thing about our pattern recognition capabilities: most of it occurs beneath our awareness. In other words, it happens without any conscious effort or deliberation on our part, and it happens whether we want it to or not. Just going about the business of our day, we provide our brains with a continuous stream of sensory data that it sifts through and analyzes in an effort to better understand the world we inhabit. 

This isn’t the narrow view of learning most of us are accustomed to. Learning is something that requires teachers, books, and intensive study. And, to be worthwhile, it probably should be a bit unpleasant. 

Yet, most of the knowledge that any card carrying adult member of the human race possesses wasn’t acquired in this manner. Most of comes simply by existing in this world, and it starts the moment your draw your first breath.

Every 6 month old knows that if they drop their milk-filled sippy cup, it'll hit the ground with a pleasing thud. We all implicitly understand the law of gravity long before we ever crack open our first science text.

When you see someone’s face with their eyebrows and mouth angling down and their eyes narrowed, you immediately recognize the face of anger. You can interpret all sorts of facial expressions, in fact, effortlessly and instantaneously. 

Yet how many times have you sat down and analyzed the differences between patterns of facial muscle contraction and the emotions they convey? Not once, I imagine. 


Listening to Language

Nowhere our are pattern circuits on more impressive display than in the process of learning our native language. It is the crowning achievement of human cognition and, to this point, an achievement unique to our species. Most children are fluent by the time they enter their first school classroom.

In order to reach fluency, the child’s brain must be able to decode the composite sounds of speech, build associations between those sounds and the concepts they represent (e.g. that the sound for "cheerio" refers to the crunchy little circle mom puts on your plate every morning, etc.), and then construct motor programs that allows them to reproduce the full array of those sounds through the vibration of their vocal cords, coupled with movements of their mouth and throat.

Now, next time you have a conversation with a three year old, ask them how the figured all that out? They'll surely cast a quizzical glance in your direction. Figure out what, exactly?

Here we have the most sophisticated of human behaviors, the pinnacle of human cognition, and it develops without any formal study whatsoever. The brain, using its massive computational horsepower, figures it out for you using nothing more than the data of daily experience. 

Now, how can we put this remarkable pattern recognition ability we already possess to good use when learning banjo? Preferably with zero effort ?

By listening.

Let’s revisit the infant learning how to talk for a moment. 

The first rudimentary attempts at spoken language don’t typically begin for a full 6 months after birth. What, then, is she doing in those preceding 6 months? Being a bit lazy, perhaps? 

No. She’s listening.

In order for her to utter the sounds that comprise her native tongue, she must first know what those sounds are. She must unravel the basic sonic elements of her language. 

And this is no trivial matter. Nowadays, you’re so good at parsing through the sounds of your native speech that you probably take this gift for granted. But to get a glimpse of just what a major feat this is, simply listen to a conversation in an unfamiliar language. It’s entirely inscrutable. You don’t know when when word stops and another begins, and many of the sounds themselves are entirely foreign. 

The very first task our language-learning infant must conquer, then, is to build a vocabulary of the fundamental sonic building blocks of her language. Yet, to do so, all she must do is listen to other humans speak.

She listens, and the amazing pattern recognizing machine inside her skull does the rest. 

Over time, as she begins the practice of making those sounds with her voice, her brain builds associations between her sonic vocabulary and contraction patterns of the muscles that control her mouth and throat. Ultimately, and in impressively short order, she will become an expert at producing those sounds. 

And this is precisely the kind of neural machinery we’re trying to build as we learn banjo: associations between sounds in our head and movements of our two hands (so that those sounds come out of our banjos). 

As such, the language acquisition model provides us with an ideal template to guide our learning efforts. It’s one that mother nature has refined over a couple of million years, so we’d be wise to pay attention.

Which brings us to the 5th law of brainjo:


Brainjo Law #5: Listen often to the sounds of the music you wish to make. 


We’re all in the midst of learning a language - the language of banjo. And, like any language, it is comprised of basic sonic elements that we combine together to make the music we enjoy. 

These are sounds that are unique to the 5-string, though, and that are further defined by style and technique (clawhammer, 3 finger, etc.). So, like the infant learning her native tongue, we must first acquaint ourselves with these sounds if we hope to one day be able to fluently reproduce them on our instrument. What's more, the richer our sonic vocabulary, the better we’re able to express ourselves. 

So listen up. Find the music of the 5 string that moves you, the music you’d like to make, and listen every chance you get. Then sit back and let your brain do the heavy lifting.

It’s as central to your development as a player as any other aspect of practice. And it couldn’t be any easier. 


About the Author: Dr. Josh Turknett is the creator of the Brainjo Method, the first music teaching system to incorporate the science of learning and neuroplasticity and specifically target the adult learner (more at

12 comments on “The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: Episode 3 (The Easiest Way To Get Better At Banjo)”

bildapaul Says:
Monday, March 2, 2015 @1:25:27 PM

Great stuff does'nt bare thinking about

jamesd Says:
Monday, March 2, 2015 @3:46:57 PM

Dr. Josh, I appreciate these articles and the time you put into them. I also enjoy the tunes and tabs you provide on the BHO. Thanks for all your work. James

Reubenv Says:
Monday, March 2, 2015 @8:53:28 PM

Thanks Josh. This was very well written and your explanation was excellent. It made a lot of sense to me.

Lester M Says:
Monday, March 2, 2015 @9:02:39 PM

Really interesting read.

Strelnieks Says:
Tuesday, March 3, 2015 @12:10:53 AM

Thanks for this. I'm going to play the skeptic here, however, based on my experience.

I listen to a lot of bluegrass and listen specifically for the banjo. I sometimes find myself completely mystified by how certain sounds are made. I can then sit with a banjo and try to imitage what I just heard and end up not finding it anywhere. I can only think of one instance where I managed to imitate something from a CD. And if we compare it to a baby cooing and clicking and just trying things out - yes, I have spent time just "noodling around" on the banjo. But I have made few discoveries doing so (although perhaps there is room for doubt here - I might be learning more than I think). When I do discover things, it is by piecing together things I learned formally: new combinations of rolls with certain chords, for example, or finding that two rolls I never put in sequence sound quite nice together. I did not discover the chord formations or rolls myself, however. I found them in books and practiced them over and over and over again.

And if I try a song I've heard on a CD with tab, it is a long road. At first, even when played correctly, what I hear from the 'jo bears little or no resemblance to what I hear in the up-tempo, professional recording. Only at higher tempo does it at some point go "click" and sound like what I am hearing. An example from years ago is the beginning of that first E-flat in "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." That 1-2 slide was a complete mystery. I didn't get what it had to do with the music on the CD. I think I would learn that particular spot faster today, but the basic issue remains.

My impression is that if there is anything like first-language acquisition involved, it is in the final steps, the nuance or final feel of the song. Before then, it is like learning a second language: work/formal study, although not necessarily rote memorization, but certainly nuts and bolts types of practice. I do not find this study "unpleasant" however.

Part of this might be my particular music brain type. I sing well enough and have 30 years of choir and quartet experience. I have even sung barbershop and other a capella music with challenging harmonies. But I have never managed to improvise harmonies, no matter how many times I hear the song. I know people, however, who can do this after hearing the melody sung once. I think spending more time trying to immitate recordings would help here - but it would soon resemble just a different kind of "formal" study - hitting "repeat" 1000 times until I find the note the guy on the tape is singing.

Josh Turknett Says:
Tuesday, March 3, 2015 @4:05:34 AM

Thanks for the feedback, folks.

Streinieks - thanks for your comments. There are certainly multiple routes to learning to play an instrument, including trying to play entirely from rote in a style you've never heard before. As someone who's been playing bluegrass banjo for a bit, you've taken a specific learning path, which resulted in the banjo playing networks you now rely upon, and that now define your experience with the banjo. We're ultimately constrained by the networks we build (which is why I think being careful and intentional about the network building process is so important).

What I'm trying to present here is what I'd consider to be the most efficient and effective path to banjo mastery - one that's informed by what we know of the science of learning and neuroplasticity, that fully capitalizes on already existing cognitive capacities, and that is modeled after the methods of top musicians and performers. The idea being to provide a blueprint for developing the type of fluency that masters possess. As you probably know, Earl has said he never thought in terms of rolls, that he couldn't really tell you what he was doing when he played, and that he never played something the same way twice (I remember I used to hear that and think he must be joking). For Earl, like the 3-year old who's acquired language, there was near instantaneous translation of mental sounds to motor programs.

In my own personal experience, I can relate to what you described, both in my efforts with piano and bluegrass banjo. Years ago, I learned both of these in a manner similar to the one you described, and ultimately reached a wall that felt difficult to move beyond (though I'd reached a performance level of competency). After revamping my own learning methods using the principles I outline here and applying them to other instruments and styles (fingerstyle guitar, then clawhammer banjo, fiddle, etc.), I ultimately went back to piano and bluegrass banjo, and started over from scratch (in an effort to undo the old networks and build new ones). The difference has been night and day, as the wall I experienced then is gone, and I've been able to develop the type of fluency that I'd always wanted.

Peter Metz Says:
Tuesday, March 3, 2015 @10:23:25 AM

Very interesting article.

As to Streinieks comment: as adults we have lost a certain amount of the baby's ability to learn by imitating (not only producing the sounds it listened to, but also all the movements people around it are executing...); plus the baby really has all day to do this ... and we don't. So, of course, it's only partly comparable.

bobburton53 Says:
Tuesday, March 3, 2015 @12:58:01 PM

Of course, when the baby starts talking, she's just trying to say "Mama" and "Daddy", or, in the case of my oldest, "More!" and "No!" :) I never had much luck trying to figure out stuff by ear until I geared down and worked on learning a large number of simple tunes--quantity over quality! If you can't play "Happy Birthday" or "You Are My Sunshine" by ear, you're not ready to tackle "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" yet.

Josh Turknett Says:
Tuesday, March 3, 2015 @1:14:25 PM

Excellent point, Bob!

Keith Freebairn Says:
Wednesday, March 4, 2015 @8:47:01 AM

I think it helps if you heard the type of music from childhood that you take up whenever that might be. In my case my parents played big Band stuff which I may have assimilated but it wasn't untill I heard dueling banjos that my marriage to the banjo started. I had to listen day and night till I had those songs and instrumentles soaked into my subconscious and then my conscious mind. I could never use tabs untill I already new the tune so tabs became just a crutch until I got a handle on the basic rolls as a way to fill out and support the melody notes. A person growing up with this music played by Dad or Uncle Ned would have those tunes already in his mind and would therefore be ahead of the game and then would only have to learn the manual dexterity needed to bring his inner musical thoughts to the listening world. This of course is often easier said then done and different with each individual. Keith

Garyflksngr Says:
Wednesday, March 4, 2015 @5:25:33 PM

That is such a basic idea, it is how I teach my guitar students. We chunk notes into chords, then chords into songs just like an infant learns to chunk sounds of letters into words, words into sentences and sentences into ideas. The music that's in your head, is usually what you want to play. When you figure out how to get it from your head to your fingers, you are pretty much on your way to playing. It doesn't always come out like what someone else is playing, but that is what we used to call "the folk process." What I hear is not what you hear, but the basic melody or chord progression is there for us to "tinker" with until we make it our own. I recently commented on the Deering blog that I started out finger picking because I was a folk singing guitar player so it was pretty easy for me, but a couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn how to frail. I watched a lot of videos by good frailing teachers like Pat Costello, his dad and many others, but I just couldn't translate what they were teaching into what I was hearing. I finally just took their basic frail and turned it into what I was hearing, just like I had done with bluegrass style banjo. Now I am a decent frailer. I still finger pick almost everything, but when I'm around people who frail, I don't feel so intimidated, because I have the music in my head. building long term tonal memory is just like building any other long term memory skill. It there for your short term memory to pull out when you need it. Listen and play a lot. That's how it works.

drewbarries Says:
Wednesday, March 18, 2015 @4:46:22 AM

Great discussion and I can relate to pretty much everyone's experiences. In my own path I developed poor learning habits that created improper muscle memory and so for me to get back to the fundamental listening translation to practice is probably more sick ult than a complete beginner. I am working on a totally different approach which now must overwrite the ingrained muscle memory and train my ear as well. It's going to take a lot of time and practice and above all listening.

You must sign into your myHangout account before you can post comments.

More posts from Josh Turknett

Newest Posts

Click for Details 'Kay K52 banjo' 5 hrs

More >  

Hide these ads: join the Players Union!

Hangout Network Help

View All Topics  |  View Categories