Domain Knowledge 1: Mental Models

Elite tennis players can read and react to a serve before the opponent’s racquet has even hit the ball.  But in a lab, the tennis players didn’t show any faster reaction times than the average person.  Similar results have been shown for the top baseball players, who have to react to a fastball before it has even left the pitchers hand.  How do these elite players do it?




The answer, as it turns out, is Domain Knowledge.




Knowledge comes in two types: the first type is knowledge that can be applied across different subjects.  That includes information like “how to learn effectively,” “how to alphabetize,” or “how to practice,” because you can use that knowledge in a variety of different jobs and tasks.  This is often called “Domain-independent knowledge” because it is independent of a domain, or subject.




The second type is knowledge that is specific to a particular subject.  For musicians, that could be simple facts like Mozart’s birthdate or which key is E-flat on the piano, or more complex information like “how to analyze the form of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin,” “Baroque ornamentation,” or “How to improvise.”  It’s this second type that we generally refer to as “Domain Knowledge” because it is specific to a domain.




You may have noticed that there is some overlap in these definitions: Practicing the B-flat major scale, for instance, will help you play in many styles of music, but you can’t use it to file your taxes, or really for anything outside of music.  At the same time, learning to slow it down, break it apart, and repeat it accurately until it’s effortless is a strategy that you can apply to all sorts of different everyday tasks.  Nonetheless, the two definitions can be helpful in creating a strategy to accelerate your learning and practice.




One of the clearest differences between beginners and experts is in how much domain knowledge they have accumulated.  The elite tennis players had gained knowledge and experience that helped them to “read” the body language of their opponent.  That’s how they could predict the speed and direction of the ball before the serve.  The same was true of the baseball players.  And it’s true of experts in any field.




Domain knowledge allows you to categorize information more effectively, to keep track of what part of the music is most important at any given time, and to ignore irrelevant or less relevant information.  Part of this process called “chunking”, which is combining individual pieces of information into larger structures known as “chunks.”  The most obvious example in music is the humble scale.




A beginning music student plays each note in the scale as a separate entity.  An intermediate musician will start to recognize the scale pattern in their music, and will be able to play and sightread faster passages by predicting upcoming notes based on the scale.  An advanced player will use the same scale to adjust the intonation of certain notes based on their function, will know their place in the underlying harmony, and may recognize an accidental as the preparation of an upcoming modulation.  This is one reason why advanced musicians are able to look further ahead in the music when they sightread: they process larger chunks of music with the same brainpower, so they can quickly make decisions and predictions, and they have more time to look ahead.




This is sometimes referred to as a “Mental Model” of the subject.  It is usually developed over a decade or more of serious study.




But it can be accelerated.




Here are some tips for rapidly improving your mental model:




1)      Create a mind map or outline of the different subjects that you know about within the domain of “music.  There will be plenty of overlap, so don’t worry too much about where to place each individual skill or piece of knowledge.  The idea is to uncover missing areas of knowledge that you can then learn and improve.


 Some ideas to include:


a.     Technical skills (scales, arpeggios, ornaments, etc.)


b.    Rhythm/time skills (tempo markings, rhythm decoding, etc.)


c.     Intonation (scale degree functions, instrument-specific tendencies, etc.)


d.    The structure of music (harmony, form, phrasing, etc.)


e.     Historical knowledge (style periods, major composers, etc.)


2)     Copy the masters.  Listen regularly to the best in the field to develop your intuition around musical subtleties like phrasing.


3)     Read/study a little bit every day: you can accumulate a huge amount of knowledge in a fairly short period of time.  You can make it a regular part of your practice routine, or use a different part of your day.


4)     When you come up against a stubborn problem in your direct practice, consider whether you might be missing an important piece of information.  Try to find the answers by researching: look it up online or ask questions.  Some possible sources for answers are your teacher, an online forum, or on The Practice Habit Facebook page.




Music is a complex domain—there is always something new to learn, and deeper levels to uncover.  Most people take over a decade to reach expert status because they get their knowledge haphazardly.  One reason why expert teachers are so effective is because they can guide the student to the next piece of information or the next skill in the best order.  However, the teacher is only there to help guide—you are in charge of your own education, your own improvement.


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