This weekend I decided to master a song I recorded. The last time I spent time mastering a recording was well over a month ago. Before, I had no idea how to use an equalizer - I looked up a bunch of videos and tutorials, but after a few hours stopped trying because it was taking too long to figure out.

When I went to master the song today, I just started flying through the equalization process for each track like I had been doing it for years (and the quality of the sound was improved, so I must have been doing something right). I have no clue how I 'just knew' what to do, considering that I've never actually done anything like it before, with the exception of the 3 hours I spent on it a month ago.

Is there a word or expression for suddenly knowing how to do what you didn't before? Presumably, some amount of time has passed between the first attempt and subsequent attempts.

This is similar to gaining insight into a problem after sleeping on it, but with a practicable skill.

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    BTW as you probably know Chris being involved with music, there are many, many, many current and historical reports from famous musicians, pianists, etc., pointing out that they feel they (to paraphrase) "never had to learn" and they were simply "learning something they already new" or "already knew everything as soon as they were about to be taught it." This phenomenon is common for (a) musicians and (b) in our era, computer programmers. (This can indeed veer to a re-incarnation vibe.) It could be your feeling leans to this? (Rather than "scientific" "subconscious learning, let's say.)
    – Fattie
    Sep 21, 2014 at 9:24
  • @JoeBlow Actually yeah! For a lot of things that I do, especially when it comes to music and language (grammar and syntax, specifically), as well as programming (less often than the other cases), I feel that I don't really need to 'learn' anything to know what to do with it. I taught myself how to play guitar and piano not by reading books, but just listening and copying. I kind of have a 'jack-of-all-trades' skill level in a lot of different areas without having the need to practice those skills... I guess that could be linked! This takes part in why I asked this question :) Sep 21, 2014 at 9:31
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    I believe in your case you have accessed - already have - all that knowledge from a different reality, and you're just here in this reality to give people pleasure by using these skills. But if I said that people would think I'm a fruitcake ;-)
    – Fattie
    Sep 21, 2014 at 9:45
  • @JoeBlow Don't worry, I'm on the same page ;) Sep 21, 2014 at 9:48

11 Answers 11


The terms

subconscious learning


subliminal learning

are essentially the phrases for what you mean - I don't know if there's a better single-word.

(Simply google for literally 10,000s of both Real Scientific mentions of this, and Crass Commercial mentions, trademarks, etc, eg .. http://www.realsubliminal.com/how-subliminal-learning-works http://effortlessenglishclub.com/subconscious-vs-conscious-learning

Finally: I believe there's a lot of research in to issues like "How many hours per day should concert pianists practice?" where the answer is along the lines "surprisingly the hours when you stop practicing and do something else are where you Actually Learn", etc. So perhaps you could pursue that type of field and find some neat terms being used.

Also Chris as I mention in a comment, it's common that (whether today or historically) some famous musicians have taken the point of view that they "never had to learn", were simply "learning something they already new", or "already knew everything as soon as they were about to be taught it." (This can indeed veer to a sort of mystic re-incarnation vibe.)

An example of this from an extremely popular bestseller of the "new-age" era is the actress and musician Leslie Parrish's explanation of her musicality in her boyfriend Richard Bach's bestseller "Bridge across Forever"...

"But there is one funny thing. Music that's no later than Beethoven, than the early 1800s, it's as if I'm relearning, it's easy, I seem to know it at first sight. Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart-like meeting old friends. But not Chopin, not Liszt . . . that's new music to me."

It could be your feeling leans to this? Rather than "scientific" "subconscious learning, let's say.

So, I'm pointing out there's kind of TWO phenomenon along the lines you ask, Chris,

(A) "scientific" for want of a better word, subliminal learning, which you can find studies about and so on

(B) particularly since you mention music, the phenomenon where certain musicians have reported they "already knew it" - which can be a little "new age", if you will.

So, I don't have exact terms for those two, A/B, but I'm just adding that as a kind of clarifier!

For another more specific suggestion (example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep-learning ) you could possibly use the term


in a related way. You could say something like:

"It's so weird, I worked with the desk once, months ago, and never thought about it again. Then today - I'm a master of it with no further effort. It's like hypnopedia or something!"

(BTW, as always with wiki, I don't know if some idiot just made up "hypnopedia" out of fresh air to make that page look good, or, if it is really used widely.)

Hope it helps!

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    Very good answer, this is more or less what I was thinking of when I asked the question! While the other answers are good, they didn't quite catch my original meaning, as you have in your answer. Although I can only imagine that @RegDwigнt's answer will be useful for future readers, I didn't necessarily have an intuitive understanding of equalization techniques in audio processing. I read up on how to do it, gave up, then just knew how to do it at a later day. This was my intended meaning, so I'll mark your answer as correct :) Sep 21, 2014 at 9:41
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    You, Joe Blow, should learn how to use commas in direct address.
    – Robusto
    Sep 21, 2014 at 14:09
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    Hypnopedia is about having some stimulus applied to you while you're sleeping, under the theory that you will remember the stimulus when you awake. This isn't that. This is perhaps an example of synthesizing knowledge over a long period of time (yes, likely in one's sleep). I'd attribute it more to muscle memory than anything else. Sep 21, 2014 at 19:11
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    Well, except for one tiny detail: you certainly don't get muscle memory without "actively practicing the skill." As a musician I can attest to that.
    – Robusto
    Sep 22, 2014 at 10:50
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    @Mitch As I've mentioned before in other comments, his answer was closest to my intended meaning. I did not accept his answer for the hypnopedia aspect, but rather the subliminal/unconscious learning aspect. Remember, this is my question, and I know what I meant when I asked it. Joe came closest to what I was trying to describe, so he deserves the correct answer. I have upvoted other answers as well, because they will be useful to other users who don't have my exact meaning in mind, but have useful terms nonetheless. The community can judge by votes, I judge by the accept marker. Sep 24, 2014 at 1:22

Congratulations, you have grokked it.

grok (transitive, slang) To have or to have acquired an intuitive understanding of; to know (something) without having to think

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    Have not heard that word in decades. Sep 21, 2014 at 3:10
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    How completely and totally bizarre. I have never heard "grok" used to mean anything other than simply "really well understands" as in the classic "I grok perl". There is nowhere at all in Heinlein it is used to mean anything other than "understood". Anything on a wiki can be dismissed, but they have dug up some person Leslie Anthony who referred in passing to "grok" as "to denote intuitive understanding". It would seem that (1) she is hopelessly incorrect, but also (2) "intuitive understanding" has little connection to the question at hand, "subconscious learning"
    – Fattie
    Sep 21, 2014 at 9:09

You could say that you learned it by osmosis:

an ability to learn and understand things gradually without much effort

  • This is the closest to what the OP is asking, IMO. +1
    – Robusto
    Sep 22, 2014 at 11:01
  • @Robusto Actually I didn't practice equalization gradually; I tried it once a month ago, then suddenly just 'knew' how to do it this weekend when I tried again. I never actually tried again during that month-long period, so the accepted answer is more accurate ;) however, this is also a very good term to describe how I tend to learn :) +1! Sep 22, 2014 at 15:18
  • @Chris: Then you needed to phrase the question better. There is nothing in it that suggests you are undergoing the learning process through the act of sleeping, however tortured a case the accepted answer makes.
    – Robusto
    Sep 22, 2014 at 15:48
  • @Robusto The question was phrased fine. I never said anything about sleeping, nor did I accept the currently-accepted answer because it was about sleep learning. I accepted the answer for subconscious/subliminal learning, not the hypnopedia; those two do not necessarily require sleep, and I never mentioned nor meant for "sleeping on it" to be the intended meaning. Sep 24, 2014 at 1:20
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    Hi Robusto. You're being a bit ridiculous. It couldn't be more obvious, the well-known phenomenon the OP is describing. (When you study something intensely, forget about it, and "suddenly" you have it in your fingers.) Osmosis is an extremely useful and excellent suggestion, but is well-known, used commonly, and means something different. The meaning of osmosis simply couldn't be clearer - to slowly draw from a source (almost always meaning, from being around say a terrific teacher or perhaps business leader, etc).
    – Fattie
    Sep 24, 2014 at 6:07

You can also use expressions like get the hang of or get the knack of

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    But you only get a hang of something after one or more attempts. The idiom, have the knack fits better IMO as it expresses an inborn quality, ability, a natural flair.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 21, 2014 at 8:01
  • Hi ML. Just building on what I just said to Robusto. The phenomenon the OP comments on couldn't be more straightforward and well-known. You could say it's the "sleep on it" phenomenon. (Actually I've just realised that's another very relevant term here.) : You study something hard (so, maybe you're trying to learn to use Mecanim or master a musical passage for your band). Maybe you're not getting it. You completely forget about the issue for awhile, and then surprisingly it's all there an you've "got it".
    – Fattie
    Sep 24, 2014 at 6:10

There is a technical term for this which is latent learning. This describes the learning which occurs some time after a performing an action where the brain appears to organise and process the information received on a subconscious level so that the next time it is required it is more readily available.

More on latent learning


On a more formal ground, you are referring to a case of knowledge assimilation that takes place also at unconscious level.

Learning, according to Ausubel's assimilation theory, occurs through development of new cognitive structures that will hold newly acquired information. Cognitive structure, a central term in his theory is defined as:

  • the “individual's organization, stability, and clarity of knowledge in a particular subject matter field at any given time”) and it is “hierarchically organized in terms of highly inclusive concepts under which are subsumed less inclusive subconcepts and informational data”.)

Source: www.etec.ctlt.ubc.ca


You are experiencing a real phenomenon called familiarization. It enables you get get a certain level of competence through simple exposure to tasks rather than an in-depth study.

  • Hey Gary, fascinating do you have any examples of usage of that perhaps by academics in the field or whatever?
    – Fattie
    Sep 21, 2014 at 9:26

Maybe you just needed to sleep on it. The expression sleep on it is describing some processes happening inside our brain during sleep, scientists are still researching exactly how it works.

Those few hours you spent trying and not grokking it may have left some impressions in your brain that you just needed a good night's sleep to fully process. You may not have needed to wait so long. Based on what I have heard about the process, it is the first night's sleep that made the difference, and had you tried again the following day, it may have worked out just as fine as it did a month later.

So, regarding the common phenomenon of "sleeping on it" and suddenly getting "the answer". If you consider the most famous cases (say, usual example, benzene snakes ) the situation is usually:

struggling with difficult problem -> the "sleep on it phenomenon" -> solution.

That's not quite what the OP is saying. The OP is describing the well-known phenomenon:

working on some new skill -> "forget about it for awhile" -> surprisingly you have gained the skill.

Nevertheless this is, evidently, a very close phenomenon. For example, the OP may use it in a sentence like this: "Much like when you 'sleep on it' and suddenly have the solution to a problem, I just 'forgot all about it' for a few weeks, and then the skills seemed to all be there as if from nowhere."

  • I know about 'sleeping on it' in the context of problem solving - you are stuck on a problem (mathematical, theoretical, etc.), then sleep on it, and your brain (magically?) gives you insight into how to work out a solution. I was asking for a similar term, but in the context of a skill (proficiency in a task), rather than problem-solving. But they are highly related, I presume. Sep 21, 2014 at 9:32
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    @ChrisCirefice As far as I know the same process applies in both cases. But I am no expert in that field.
    – kasperd
    Sep 21, 2014 at 14:24
  • Ah! This is the best answer here. @ChrisCirefice, I do believe this is perfect in your case. Great work kasperd. Chris, you situation is a little different: normally, as it classic cases of "sleep on it" .. actually I'm going to boldly edit this answer.
    – Fattie
    Sep 24, 2014 at 6:12
  • Incidentally OP I think I have a fantastic example I have to dig up, it's a video of Paul McCartney (he was in an old band called 'The Beatles" - they were from England) describing what you are talking about to the "T". There's also an interview somewhere of prince (apparently he's obsessed with practice scales on the guitar) explaining that he "forgets about it" for awhile to "make it come". Anyways enough of this question!
    – Fattie
    Sep 24, 2014 at 6:22

Defined by Oxford Dictionaries

A special or instinctive aptitude or ability for doing something well:
she had a flair for languages

Google Books has 28,600 results results for the phrase, she had a flair for

One such example:

While he was logical and businesslike, she had a flair for the artistic, even though she had no formal education. When he would start a serious sentence, she would finish it with the innate intuition of a poet, even though she hadn't written a line of poetry in her life


For this type of thing I would use the phrasal verb to pick something up. And I'd probably add a modifier to suggest vagueness:

I don't know how I learned it, but somehow I picked it up.
I didn't really study it, I just picked it up as I went along.

That's an active verb, but there's also a good passive one. To come to:

At first I couldn't do it at all, but after a while it just came to me.

The third expression I thought of was the same colourful expression Frank H. has suggested in his answer:

Nobody really taught me how to do it, I guess I just learned it by osmosis.


Perhaps you soaked it up. A bit like the osmosis that Frank H. mentioned, but more casual.

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