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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Conceptual Learning

I distinguish between two ways of learning: Conceptual and Perceptual.

Ideally, the Conceptual comes first and the Perceptual follows.

In order to communicate my conceptual approach to teaching/learning guitar, I like to use learning-to-read as an analogy.

When learning to read, the Conceptual stage of the process is phonetical:

  • Memorize 26 letters that stand for 44 sounds, also known as phonemes.

  • Learn how those letters/sounds are blended to become words.

  • Associate: process, hear and speak the letters/sounds of language through drilling and use.

As the student progresses, he moves into the Perceptual:

  • Through repetition and drilling the student organically moves into whole-word recognition, that is, instant recognition of a word based on its shape.

  • Word-shapes are retained in a "visual dictionary."

  • This automatically enables fluency.

In the typical course of learning to read, the student will first learn phonics and eventually establish the visual dictionary of what the letter groups (words) look like and associate those words to either the sound of the word, a picture of the meaning, or both.

At the whole-word recognition stage of reading (Perceptual), phonics (Conceptual) has been sublimated and is only used to decode words that are unknown (not already in the visual dictionary).

The end result of this process is understanding, remembering and applying the information contained in the text.

Perceptual learning involves rote memorization of large amounts of data with no underlying methodology. Most guitar teachers teach perceptually without the conceptual coming first;

"Here's a page with 144 chords on it. Learn these and then we'll do more!" Or, "Memorize these 72 notes on the guitar neck!" Or, here's an awesome lick! After you learn this one I'll show you a bunch more! Or, "Learn this song and then we'll learn another one!"

The problem is that there are thousands of chords. And thousands of songs. And the 72 notes are just the first 12 frets. That's a lot of rote memory.

Conceptual learning involves learning single principles or concepts, and then combining and applying them to particulars.

To continue our analogy, instead of memorizing thousands of word shapes, memorize 26 letters that stand for 44 sounds and then learn how to put them together into words. Even if you see a word you've never seen before, you now have the understanding to sound it out so that you can get it.

Let's say you are playing through a chord chart and you see C7+(#9). If you can't remember the chord shape on the fretboard off the top of your head (Perceptual) you deconstruct the name and apply the Conceptual;

  • You understand where "C" is

  • You know what a 7th chord is

  • You know that "+" stands for "sharp 5"

  • You know what "#9" means

  • So you play a C7, change the G (5th) to a G# (#5) and add a D# (#9).

In other words, you decode the chord symbol that is not already in your visual dictionary, or has been forgotten, and remember it for the next time. The next time, your "reading" of the chord symbol will be perceptual.

This is the way I teach guitar. First the concept, then through drilling, the conceptual integrates with the perceptual - to the end that you understand, remember and apply the information to real music.

Actually, I teach music theory (Conceptual). It just so happens the guitar is the instrument I use, but the principles of music (Conceptual) are the same no matter what instrument you play.

Of course, you must master the instrument, that's the guitar part, and that's the part you'll spend the most time on, at least at first, but music is what I'm really interested in. The goal is to transcend the instrument and deal with the music and not to let what you play be dictated to you by the limitations of whatever instrument you happen to use. That is my agenda with every student.

My job as the teacher is to know the material and to organize it in the most logical and linear manner possible. If you go through my method you will learn how to think about music and will understand the way the guitar neck is laid out (Conceptual) so that you can apply your musical knowledge however you want (Perceptual). Then you won't need me anymore.

From a pedagogical point of view (pedagogy: the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept) genre is secondary because all genres use the same musical concepts and language. G major is G major in Rock, Country, Jazz, Blues, Gospel or whatever. Doesn't matter - G is G; I teach the G.

Again; I teach music theory - the concepts and language of music - as applied to the guitar. Yes, I can help you apply those concepts to whatever genre you're interested in and yes, I can show you how to play the latest dope song you're into.

How can I do that without knowing the song?

All I have to do is listen to it, beak down the content conceptually and then show it to you. But I don't just show it to you; I explain the concept. What key(s)? What progression(s)? What scale(s)? There's a concept behind every song and that's the key to figuring it out and remembering it. (How I Play Songs I Don't Know.)

Another thing that needs to be stated is: you'll get out of it what you put into it. I give you the tools and the concepts and ideas about how they can be used but you are the only one that can make it work for you. Only you can do the drilling that it takes to internalize the concepts; self-motivation has to be there.

It's the internalization of the concepts (which happens through repetition) that causes the shift from Conceptual to Perceptual and enables fluency.

Wouldn't you rather learn the concepts? Then you could figure out the song (and thousands of others) for yourself instead of paying me to teach them to you by rote.

The dictum applies: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Teaching people how to fish makes me happy. If I merely sell them a fish every week I'm just stringing them along.


P.S. I've written at length about the left-brain/right-brain distinction and how it applies to playing music, teaching guitar and life in general. Conceptual corresponds to left-brain; Perceptual corresponds to right-brain. Go here for a 4-part series on the subject.

Another related blog is Theory Doesn't Matter? Don't Be An Idiot! wherein I tell the story of how 13-year-old me discovered I could double my vocabulary with a concept!


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