Chunking 101

Complexity is an Illusion

As you refine what you learn about a topic, you also refine how you learn about it. Chunking is one of those principles that will help you improve the strategies and approaches to the way you absorb material.

What is chunking for musicians?

There is a principle in deliberate, conscious learning. That principle is that we can't generally hold in our conscious awareness more than 7±2 bits of information at any one time (more info here). You can try this right now; imagine a field with three sheep in it. See all three sheep at once in your mind. You'll find that it is quite easy to do this.

Then try and visualise five sheep in a row and still make sure that you can see them all at once. Finally up the number to about nine or ten sheep and what you will probably find is that you will be flitting between a chunk or group of that greater whole. You'll be looking at three and then five or four and four etc.

This is chunking. It's a way of us managing large volumes of data in our minds, and we pretty much do this with everything. Think about mobile numbers, addresses, speeches: we memorise them in groups and sometimes even rhythmical chunks (in the case of mobile numbers). We already do it to an extent when we learn music, it's common sense. It would be madness to simply play through a complex piece straight through over and over again from the beginning until you had mastered it – you need to break it down.

The fundamental principle behind it is that you can take strings of ‘low information' content (items such as numbers, letters, notes, objects, chords, rhythmical durations) and mentally recode them into a smaller number of ‘higher content' chunks, thus reducing the mental load.

However, what constitutes “low information” for an individual musician is subjective. For a beginning musician, chunking individual notes into groups of five is quite tricky. For someone who is a lot more experienced, chunking two groups of 12 bars of music together into one large chunk in their mind will be more relevant and useful, i.e the ‘A' section of a piece of music.

Using chunking in music practice.

How can chunking help you learn music? Well it can help with pretty much everything; breaking down a piece, breaking down soloing, breaking down ear training, composing, polyrhythms, sight reading… marketing your website.. anything.

When you don't chunk, you become overwhelmed. It's that simple. You become overwhelmed because you're trying to get more than 10 individual bits of information into your head at one time.

Complexity is and Illusion

But it takes planning and careful thought, chunking is not straightforward and the more complex the material or task the less it seems that you can deconstruct it. But if there's one thing you take away from this article is this: Complexity is an Illusion. It's not real.

Seriously, think about that for a second. Something is only complex when you haven't broken it down yet. Once you've broken it down it's no longer complex. But has the ‘thing' actually changed? In most cases no. It's just your mind that has changed.