Learning to play the guitar can be hard because the process inherently involves some misdirection. Initially, it seems like your fingers are doing the work. And they definitely do some work, as evidenced by the callouses you develop over time and the need for dexterity over the fretboard. But to truly make progress with the instrument, it’s your ears that need to be put to work. Vibes is an upcoming wearable that packs ear training technology backed by neuroscience research, so you learn to pick up on musical intervals, chords, and scales by ear.
Like many other startup founders, Philip Spivey was solving a personal problem when he set about developing the product. “After 18 years learning to play the guitar, I finally realised that I had plateaued and was stuck playing the same old songs,” he says. Inspiration came from an unlikely source: a BBC documentary on a device that allowed blind people to see by creating a pixelated image on their tongue using an array of electrodes. “This amazing device, and the brain’s ability to adapt and link the senses got me thinking about whether neuroscience could be used to accelerate and enhance musical ear training.”
As it turns out, the answer was yes – learnings from neuroscience could be applied to music instruction. Neuroscience research shows that there are two main methods of learning: repetition and association. According to Spivey, most ear training systems train their focus squarely on repetition. Vibes, instead, uses the method of association to help the brain form a connection between what you’re currently performing on an instrument with concepts such as intervals, scales, and so on.
The wearable device is meant to be worn on the forearm. To begin the ear training process a mobile app produces audible notes. At the same time, through a Bluetooth connection, the app triggers the wearable to produce a specific tactile stimulus on your inner arm. “This association, with a small degree of repetition, will help your brain in the future to recognise the same intervals or chords when you hear them in your favourite song, or in your head when you are improvising,” Spivey explains.
The associative learning technique is a result of the brain’s ability to connect a new stimulus–in this case the tactile stimuli from the wearable–with what you’re learning at that time. As Spivey puts it, “this is the concept of sensory augmentation and the merging of auditory and tactile senses enhances your ability to perceive music. ” The mobile app comes with a learning trajectory that takes into account the rate at which that enhancement occurs.
Vibes is currently under development. The product will be launched directly via the website at a price in the range of $90 and $140.
Prateek Jose is a writer and engineering undergrad from India with an unhealthy obsession for obscure historical trivia. Conversations about absurdist fiction and the technological singularity make his day. He’s already uploading parts of his brain to servers by writing for websites such as this one.