Musicians spend a large portion of their lives practicing their instruments and learning how to do complicated movements with their hands, arms, mouth, and feet. Neuroscientists have learned a lot about how the brain works and learns new skills. Musicians can use this knowledge to find ways of making practicing more efficient and effective.
The human brain is composed of 86 billion neurons that communicate with each other to enable us do (or not do) something (Azevedo et al., 2009). The way neurons talk to each other is largely through synapses, which are tiny gaps between individual neurons. Essentially, when one neuron wants to send a message to another one, it releases neurotransmitter (a chemical signal) into the synapse. Receptors on the other neuron pick up this chemical signal, which causes an electrical change in that second neuron so it can pass on the message (or stop the message dead in its tracks).
The brain is also made up of different areas whose neurons are specialized for different types of information. One very important area for learning and executing motor skills is the primary motor cortex. This area is activated for every voluntary movement, whether it is a skilled action like playing the Prokofiev Flute Sonata, or an ingrained automatic action like walking. As a musician learns a new piece of music or a new playing technique (such as circular breathing), the synapses in this brain area change: the synapses that relay the information on how to play something correctly get strengthened, while those that send erroneous or irrelevant messages get weakened.
To understand how this works, think of a garden hose that someone has punched several large holes in. Some of the water will go down the hose and out the nozzle, but most of it will run out of the holes. This is analogous to the brain at the beginning stages of learning something new: the water running out the holes is all the wrong and irrelevant messages the brain is sending to the fingers or embouchure. On the other hand, when the holes in the hose are plugged, all of the water goes out the nozzle. In the brain, this is analogous to the synapses that relay the right messages being much stronger than those sending the wrong message. The brain accomplishes this through changing the number of receptors on the receiving neuron and/or the amount of neurotransmitter released by the sending neuron. The more receptors or neurotransmitter, the more likely the next neuron will get the message and pass it on.
These changes are just the beginning, and since they occur on such a microscopic level, they are relatively easily undone. As learning continues, not only do the synapses involved get strengthened, but new synapses are formed between neurons that were not connected before. In addition, when a group of neurons (called a neuronal pathway) continue to communicate in the same way over and over, the brain realizes that this pathway must be important, so it supercharges it, wrapping up a portion of the neuron (called the axon) in a substance called myelin. Myelin is a fatty sheath that allows the electrical signals to be passed on faster, like insulating a wire to enable it to conduct electricity more efficiently. When a pathway becomes supercharged, the resulting action feels automatic. In fact, neuroscientists have found that professional musicians have more myelin in motor pathways (and other pathways related to playing) than non-musicians do (Bengtsson et al., 2005).
So what all of this means is that every time musicians practice or learn something new, they are actually changing their brains. If a passage is learned incorrectly, to use the hose analogy, it would be as if one of the holes was so big that most of the water was going out of the hole, rather than the nozzle. In order to correct the mistake, the hole would have to be closed before the water would go in the right direction.
In brain terms, this means one group of synapses would have to be strengthened while also weakening another, rather than simply strengthening the message. That is twice as much work, and unlike a real hose where a patch would solve the problem, in the brain, it is like patching up the hole with mud. Every time water runs through the hole, some of the mud is washed away, making the hole bigger again. Even worse, it is possible to supercharge an incorrect pathway by playing something incorrectly so many times (or playing with poor technique for many years) that it makes the faulty way an automatic habit, which is much more difficult to undo.
Many students practice by starting at the beginning of a composition, playing until they make a mistake, and then either starting over again or fixing the mistake and moving on. The problem with this approach is that even though a player may know he has made a mistake, it does not matter to the brain. Water has been allowed to run through that erroneous hole, making it that much harder to close.
Many teachers will tell students that in order to fix a problem, they should play it correctly 10 times. Imagine a scenario, however, in which a student plays a part correctly twice, then wrong once, right once, wrong three times, etc., so that by the time the student has played it 10 times correctly, it has also been practiced 10 times incorrectly. The student has accomplished exactly nothing, and the hole is exactly the same size as it was before. All the student has done is wasted time.
In order for a passage to feel reliable, it has to be played more times correctly than incorrectly. A much better approach for fixing problem spots is to have a serious consequence for doing it incorrectly. I encourage my students (and myself) to practice a problem spot a minimum of five times in a row correctly, with in a row being the most important part. So, if they do it correctly twice, but then play it incorrectly on the third try, they have to start over again at zero. If they have done it four times in a row, they really do not want to mess up on that fifth time and have to start all over again. Having a consequence for getting it wrong makes them focus in a different way and forces them to concentrate on exactly what they have to do to get it right every time. This plugs up that erroneous hole and also helps them identify exactly what to focus on to play the passage correctly in performance.
Sleep and Learning
People tend to discount the importance of sleep to learning. Matthew Walker and his colleagues in Boston have done a number of experiments on motor learning during sleep with some surprising results. (Walker, et al., 2002, 2003, 2005)
Their basic experimental setup involves three groups of people. The first group gets taught a finger-tapping task at 10:00 AM, which they then practice and are tested on multiple times throughout the day. The second group gets taught and practices the same task at 10:00 AM, but they do not get tested on it again until 10:00 PM. Then, they are sent home to sleep and tested the next morning at 10:00 AM. The final group is trained on the task once (either at 10:00 AM or 10:00 PM; the timing does not matter) and has their first and only retest at 10:00 AM the next morning.
What they found is astonishing. The first group improves gradually throughout the day at a predictable linear rate. The second group shows the same linear increase during the day, but when tested the next morning, there is a large jump in their performance (measured by faster sequence execution with better accuracy). The same result is seen in the group that was only trained once and then was retested for the first time the next day. Both groups get better overnight, even though all they do is sleep. (Everyone was instructed not to practice when they went home.) Even more surprising, there is absolutely no relationship between how much better a person got during daytime practicing and how much better they got after sleeping. Researchers have concluded that this result means that practice-dependent learning and sleep-dependent learning are independent processes.
This does not mean, of course, that if students do not practice, they will get better just by sleeping. It does mean, however, that they should not underestimate the importance of sleep in learning, especially when something is brand new. Knowing this can help musicians use practice time much more efficiently. For example, when there is a lot of music to learn and not a lot of time to practice it, practicing for 10 minutes a day is much better than wood-shedding for two hours the day before the next lesson or rehearsal. Practice sessions over a number of days means that there are more nights of sleep for the brain to process the new music or skill rather than just one night. This means that fewer hours of actual practice are needed and the result is superior.
Even when musicians are learning a new piece in which there is ample time to practice, keeping the role of sleep in mind can also help them practice more efficiently. Since the amount of daytime improvement and learning after sleep are not related, spending hours and hours on a challenging fast passage in the first few days of practicing is not as efficient as getting it fluent at a slower tempo and then leaving it until the next day. The next day, not only will they be able to play it faster, but they will spend much less time getting it to a faster tempo than they would have the day before.
The effects of sleep are difficult to study, but in this case, researchers think they know how it works. Sleep is divided into two broad types: REM sleep and non-REM sleep (or NREM sleep). During what is called Stage 2 NREM sleep, electrical brain events occur that are called sleep spindles. During a sleep spindle, there is a huge burst of electrical activity in a population of neurons that causes massive amounts of calcium to enter those cells. Calcium is what causes all the changes discussed earlier, from strengthening and weakening synapses, to making new synapses. Sleep spindles reach peak intensity late in the night and have been shown to increase following motor learning during the day.
The study by Matthew Walker and his colleagues also found that the percentage of improvement after sleeping strongly correlates with the amount of time the person spends in Stage 2 NREM sleep in the final quarter of the night, precisely when sleep spindle activity is at its peak. This finding also highlights the importance of getting enough sleep while learning something new. A full night of sleep was defined as eight hours in this study, and it was only the last two hours that were really important for learning. Getting a full night’s sleep may be even more important that people realize.
Another way to learn music and improve is mental practicing. Many musicians who have never tried mental practicing often think that it cannot possibly work. It seems unlikely that one could get better at doing something just by thinking about doing it. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and his colleagues at the NIH conducted a study in which they looked at the effects of mental practicing, resulting in very exciting conclusions (Pascual-Leone et al., 1995).
In their study, they had two groups of people (all non-musicians) learn to play a five-note scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-fa-mi-re-do) on the piano in sixteenth-notes at quarter note equals 60. Both groups practiced two hours a day for five days, but one group was only allowed to practice mentally. This group was not even allowed to move their fingers. Every day at the end of the practice session, everyone was tested to see how well they could play the scale. This was the only time the mental practice group got to actually play the keyboard.
As easy as this would be for any trained musician, regardless of instrument, it is quite difficult for people with no musical training. At the end of the first day of practicing, both groups had a very hard time playing steadily, and they would often play their fingers in the wrong order. After practicing for five days, however, the group that got to practice on the piano every day could play the scale perfectly. After five days, the group that only practiced mentally could play it at the same level that the physical practice group achieved after three days. The mental practice group was then allowed to practice at the keyboard for two hours, after which they could play it perfectly. This is amazing if you think about it. No one in the mental practice group had ever played piano before, but after only two hours of actual practice preceded by mental practice, they could play a scale perfectly and steadily, something the physical practice group could only do after practicing for 10 hours.
That is not the most astounding part of the study, however. In 1995, another group of researchers found that the area of the brain that controls the fingers on the left hand of string players (the hand that plays the instrument) was much larger than in non-string players (Elbert et al., 1995). This was not the case for the right hand fingers (which control the bow) or the thumb of the left hand (which just helps support the instrument). The idea that the brain changes in response to how we use our bodies is now well established (brass players, for instance, have larger lip areas in their motor cortices).
In the study on mental practicing, the researchers hypothesized that the area of the brain that controls the fingers would get bigger over the course of the study. As expected, they found that in the group that practiced on the piano every day, the portion of the motor cortex corresponding to the fingers got progressively larger. However, they also found that this area of the motor cortex got larger in the mental practice group as well, to an almost identical extent. This means that not only did the mental practice group learn a completely new task just by thinking about doing it; they actually changed the very physical structure of their brains. Think about that for a moment: it is not possible to change the size of a room just by thinking about it. However, practicing by imagining the physical motions involved can actually change the very structure of the brain.
This finding obviously has major implications for how musicians think about practicing. Often musicians are faced with the problem of not being able to practice as much as they want or need to, either due to injury or because they do not have access to an instrument or a place to practice. At these times especially, practicing mentally could be very beneficial. As a supplement to normal physical practicing, mental practicing can help musicians improve much more quickly. Listening, singing, and moving, as well as just thinking about the music away from the instrument will lead to improvement. Once musicians actually play what they have practiced mentally, it often takes far less time to get it to the desired level than if they had only practiced physically. The more vividly one can imagine all the physical movements, the pitches, the tone quality, and so forth, the more beneficial mental practicing is. If there is no mental representation of how to do something, trying to do it will not be as successful because the body will not have the instructions it needs from the brain.
The brain is changing all the time, especially when musicians do something on a daily basis as complicated and demanding as playing an instrument. Hopefully, knowing this and knowing the ways in which the brain must change before something can be played well will help in organizing and planning practice time. Practicing is an art, just as much as performing is, and practicing intelligently and in ways that derive the maximum benefit from our brains’ natural abilities will only serve to enhance our artistry as musicians.
Azevedo, F.A., et al. (2009). “Equal numbers of neuronal and nonneuronal cells make the human brain an isometrically scaled-up primate brain.” Journal of Comparative Neurology 513(5): 532-541.
Bengtsson, S.L., et al. (2005). “Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development.” Nature Neuroscience 8: 1148-1150.
Elbert, T., et al. (1995). “Increased cortical representation of the fingers on the left hand in string players.” Science 270(5234): 305-307.
Pascual-Leone, A., et al. (1995). “Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills.” Journal of Neurophysiology 74(3): 1037-1045.
Walker, M.P., et al. (2002). “Practice with sleep makes perfect.” Neuron 35(1): 205-211.
Walker, M.P. and Stickgold, R. (2004). “Sleep-dependent learning and memory consolidation.” Neuron 44(1): 121-133.
Walker, M.P. (2005). “A refined model of sleep and the time course of memory formation.” Behavioral and Brain Science 28(1): 51-64.