Thursday, 30 October 2014

Curiosity and Learning

Ryan is a 7-year-old piano student in one of my classes, an adorable and exasperating little boy who is infinitely curious. He walks into the classroom and immediately starts firing off questions:

“What’s that sign?”
“When are we going to learn b minor?”
“What does that mean?”
“How do you write out this rhythm?”
“What does the middle pedal do?”

And so on, endlessly.  It’s both endearing and exhausting.  He is also, you might guess, sharp as a tack, eagerly retaining every piece of information I impart in class.

Not surprising, these two traits, curiosity and learning ability, are known to go together.  And a recent study published in the journal Neuron shows how they are connected on an anatomical level.  The researchers, led by Matthias Gruber from the University of California at Davis, gave people a stack of questions and asked them to rate how curious they were to know the answers.  Then, they put each person in an fMRI scanner to look at what parts of the brain were active while they were learning the answers to the questions.  While in the scanner, the subjects were shown one of the questions.  They then saw a picture of random person’s face, and then the answer to the question.  This was repeated for the whole stack of questions.  Later, the researchers tested whether the subjects had learned the answers to the questions, and found that, in each case, when the subject was most curious about the answer, he or she was most likely to remember it.

The interesting part of this study comes next:  the researchers also tested to see which faces the subjects remembered best. They found that subjects remembered faces presented after a curiosity-provoking question, but that faces presented after a low-curiosity question were not remembered well.  In other words, simply putting someone in a state of high curiosity increased their ability to remember all information, not just information the person was curious about.

The fMRI data in this study show that during states of high curiosity, there is increased activity in the midbrain, and in the nucleus accumbens, two areas of the brain known to be involved in motivation and reward.  Intrinsic motivation, our desire for knowledge, activates the same areas as external motivators.  The fMRI data also showed that the greatest memory benefit from curiosity occurred when there was co-activation of the midbrain motivation areas along with the hippocampus, a structure long known to be important for learning.  The researchers speculate that activity in the motivation pathways of the brain might drive increased activity in the hippocampus, and this co-activation is the anatomical explanation for why curiosity aids learning.

As a teacher, I find this result both fascinating and useful.  The take-home for me is that I can increase my students' ability to learn simply by calling on their curiosity.  Instead of just telling them information, I can ask them questions, get them wondering about the answers first, to activate those intrinsic motivation pathways.  If they’re wondering what the answer is, they’re more likely to remember it when I tell them, and they'll also remember other information I tell them at the same time.

As for Ryan, lately he’s dying to learn about 6/8 time.  What is it?  What does it mean?  I think I’ll keep him in suspense a little longer (since it doesn’t come up in the curriculum until after Christmas).  In this case, I don’t think curiosity will kill the cat; instead, it will prime the hippocampus to help Ryan remember what I teach him.

Gruber, M.J., Gelman, B.D., and Ranganath, C. (2014). States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron 84, 486–496.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Watch Me!

One of my grade 1 piano students is working on the piece The Snake by Renee Christopher and is having a hard time with the fingering, which is admittedly a little tricky in places.  In a recent lesson, I watched her struggle, and tried to correct her with verbal instructions:  “Start on finger one.  Tuck now! No, onto D, that’s it, now move finger 2 onto A…”  It was not actually very helpful for her.  So I stopped her, and instead said, “Watch me”, and played the passage for her.  She tried again, and there was definite improvement, but still mistakes.  So I played it for her again, and then she played it again, and we went back and forth a few more times until she had the fingering down.

Learning by observation is actually fairly common in musical training.  It’s less common in other fields, such as sports or physical therapy, but studies have shown that it is useful for all types of motor learning.  This struck me as kind of odd at first, because I tend of think of motor learning as something that only comes through practice.  How we can “practice” just by watching someone else?  The answer has to do with the way our brains are primed to imitate others.  There is a class of neurons known as “mirror neurons” which are active both when we perform an action, and also when we observe someone else performing that action.  In other words, for those neurons, observing a motor task is almost the same as actually performing the task.  When we make those neurons fire, the connections between the neurons get altered, enabling us to learn the movement just by watching.

And research studies have proven this.  Many studies use simple movements, such as moving your thumb quickly in a certain direction.  But even using this straightforward model, observation helps.  For example, a 2005 paper by Stefan et al. used stimulation of the primary motor cortex to cause people to move their thumbs.  Practicing thumb movements in a particular direction led to an increase in the acceleration of the movement in that direction.  The researchers showed that people who simply watched a video of someone moving their thumb in that same direction increased their movement acceleration almost as much as those who practiced the movement.  In contrast, a group that watched a video of someone moving their thumb in the opposite direction did not increase the movement acceleration.  The study showed that the motor cortex can be rewired just by watching movements, through the activation of mirror neurons.

How well can we learn movements just by observation?  In order to learn a movement, it’s pretty clear that just watching someone is not as effective as physically practicing – otherwise every armchair sports fanatic would be an expert athlete!  So how much does adding observation to our practice session help?  How should practicing and watching be combined?  In a study by Shea et al. (2000), participants had to learn to keep a dot centred on a screen in a video-game type of exercise.  The results showed that physical practice was superior to observation, but that a combination of physical practice and observation seemed to be even better.   Another study from the lab of Paul Anderson used the volleyball serve as a model and compared observation before physical practice with observations interspersed into the practice sessions.  The most effective strategy was to have participants observe serves before practicing, and then observe a few more during the early stages of practice.

And who should we watch doing the movement we want to learn?  An expert, who does the movement perfectly? Or someone who is learning themselves, so we can learn from their mistakes?  Apparently, the best scenario is when we have the opportunity to see both.  When we watch an expert, we make a mental model for how the movement is supposed to be performed.  But when we watch someone learning the movement, making mistakes and correcting them, we make a strategy for learning the movement.  Both are useful.

With this in mind, one approach for motor skill learning is “dyad practice”, where people practice in groups of two, taking turns practicing and observing.  Dyad practice has several advantages:  it minimizes fatigue, and maximizes time spent using equipment.  This approach is used in sports training, and in training surgeons and other professionals.

As a result of reading all this research, I’ve started demonstrating songs more to my students.  I always have, of course – the students should hear every new song before they head home to practice it.  But I haven’t always had the students watch me perform the song.  Usually, I have them look at the music while I’m demonstrating, so that they can make a connection with the music they see on the page and how it is supposed to sound when they play it.  But these days I to try to play it for them twice – once while they watch the music, and once while they watch my hands.  Let’s get those mirror neurons firing!


Rohbanfard, H., and Proteau, L. (2011). Learning through observation: a combination of expert and novice models favors learning. Exp Brain Res 215, 183–197.

Shea, C.H., Wright, D.L., Wulf, G., and Whitacre, C. (2000). Physical and observational practice afford unique learning opportunities. J Mot Behav 32, 27–36.

Stefan, K., Cohen, L.G., Duque, J., Mazzocchio, R., Celnik, P., Sawaki, L., Ungerleider, L., and Classen, J. (2005). Formation of a motor memory by action observation. J. Neurosci. 25, 9339–9346.

Weeks, D., and Anderson, L.P. (2000). The interaction of observational learning with overt practice: effects on motor skill learning. Acta Psychologica 104, 259–271.

Thursday, 8 May 2014


Learning to read notes on the staff is hard work for many students.  There are so many lines and spaces, and they’re so close together.  And it would be so much easier if the notes were in the same places in each clef.  But they’re not.  Our system of music notation may not be the easiest to learn, but it’s what we’re stuck with.

In the springtime, I always do a big flashcard push with my students.  Each child has flashcards that they are supposed to review daily, testing themselves by trying to name the note on the flashcard, and then checking the back of the card to see if they are correct. In class each week, I challenge them with “60 Second Club”; simply, each child has to see how many notes they can name in 60 seconds.  I have them keep track of their scores, and encourage them to try to improve every week.  Almost always, they love this challenge and are proud to be able to tell me how many notes they can name.

Of course, just being able to name the notes is not all that is required for good sight-reading.  But as a teacher, I know that this approach is effective in helping people improve their note-naming.  My students are generally very quick at naming notes, and I see a related improvement in their sight-reading abilities.

As a scientist, I wonder what the research is about flashcards – why do they work and what is the best way to use them?  Here’s what I found out.

Flashcards work because they are a method of testing yourself.  Just studying information, reading it over, whether silently or out loud, does not promote learning as effectively as a test.  Tests work well to promote learning because you have to try to recall the information.  Say you look at the following note:  
   and name it correctly as middle C.  This reinforces the link between the place on the staff and the name of the note.  But what if you don’t know the name?  Does making an error on a test promote learning of the correct answer?  Studies show that it does. In fact, making an error (like naming a note incorrectly) primes the brain to learn better immediately afterwards, even if the new information is completely unrelated to the error. 

Here’s another interesting finding about flashcards:  you shouldn’t remove cards that you can answer correctly.  That doesn’t seem to make sense – we naturally think that taking out the cards you know allows you more study time on the cards you don’t know.  But research has shown that this is not the best way.  A study by Nate Kornell and Robert Bjork showed that dropping flashcards once the material on that card was deemed to be learned led to worse performance on a test, whether the test happened right after studying or a week later. 

The researchers concluded that there were two reasons that dropping flashcards was ineffective.  The first is that the dropping of flashcards relies on students’ judgement of whether an item is really well-learned, and requires a decision about how well-learned something needs to be before it is dropped.  Students don’t usually decide to overlearn something even though there are proven benefits to overlearning.  In other words, people drop flashcards too soon.  Just because you can name a note right now doesn’t mean that you’ll remember it tomorrow.  If you keep practicing naming it, that will help you remember it better in the future.  The second reason that keeping well-learned flashcards in the rotation is best is that it helps to space out our learning.  There is a whole field of research looking at the Spacing Effect, but the main point is that trying to learn something all in a big block doesn’t work as well as when we take little breaks. In the case of flashcards, the flashcards that are already well-learned act as spacers between the flashcards that we are still learning. 

I will confess that I’ve often told my students to drop flashcards once they were well-learned, especially once they get into ledger line notes.  "Just do the hard ones, over and over", I’d tell them.  But no more.  Practice the whole stack, that’s the new way.  And I expect they’ll learn their notes even better.


Karpicke, J.D., and Blunt, J.R. (2011). Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Science 331, 772–775.

Karpicke, J.D., and Roediger, H.L. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science 319, 966–968.

Kornell, N., and Bjork, R.A. (2008). Optimising self-regulated study: The benefits—and costs—of dropping flashcards. Memory 16, 125–136.

Kornell, N., Hays, M.J., and Bjork, R.A. (2009). Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance subsequent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 35, 989–998.

Monday, 14 April 2014

In support of school band

In my family, spring means that it's time to look ahead to the following school year and try to figure out what activities to sign up for.  Should we continue with soccer?  Add a new sport?  Try a youth orchestra?  It’s always challenging to accommodate everyone’s interests while managing to not overschedule ourselves AND to stay within our budget.  We try to find low-cost activities and ones that are in our neighbourhood or near the children’s school. 

We’ve been increasingly grateful for the programs that are offered as options at the school itself.  My children have participated in cross-country running, track and field, school choir, and drama.  And this past year, Sophia, as a grade 5 student, was able to join the school band, playing the oboe.  It’s been great.  The school band is convenient – right at the school where we’re going anyway; it’s with her friends, so they get the pleasure of playing music together; and, to be perfectly honest, the price is right.  School band is free.  (Well, free-ish.  There’s a small fee, plus we have to rent the oboe, and buy the books and reeds.) And band is going well.  Her music teacher seems to be doing a fine job of herding all these 10-year-old kids, all with completely different music backgrounds and playing all sorts of different instruments, into a semblance of a musical ensemble.

So I was completely unimpressed to hear that the Vancouver School Board is proposing to eliminate their elementary school band and strings programs in an effort to save money.  Argh.

This is happening everywhere, I know.  Music programs are among the first to be cut when there are budgetary concerns.  The decision-makers can very clearly see that reading and math are good for kids, but many believe that the arts programs are “fluff”, dispensable.  So I thought I’d spend a little time today putting together a list of the strong scientific evidence for the positive effects of musical training on cognition and well-being.  Ammunition, if you will, for fighting in favour of music programs in the schools.

Before I get to that, I feel that should add a caveat.  While I definitely believe that musical training has cognitive benefits, that is not why I enrol my children in music lessons.  Music offers us an unparalleled access to joy, a vehicle for self-expression, and, by playing in a group, an opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  Musical training is a gift we give our children, like learning to read, or learning to understand the world around us.  It should be part of the educational program, so that no child is excluded from the multitude of benefits that learning to make music offers.

Benefits of Musical Training on Cognitive Function and Emotional Well-Being

Musical training enhances auditory processing, leading to better verbal skills and increased reading ability:

  • Musical training enhances brainstem auditory responses to both speech and music.  Musicians have better encoding of pitch information in speech, which is important for understanding what is being said, as well as the emotional content of speech. (Musacchia et al.,2007; Strait et al., 2009)
  • Musicians are better able to filter away background noise, and so can better encode and understand speech in the presence of background noise (Parbery-Clark et al., 2009)
  • Adults who had musical training as a child (but did not necessarily continue playing music as an adult) still have better brainstem responses to sound.  This indicates that changes in the brain in response to early musical training are long-lasting.(Skoe and Kraus, 2012)
  • Musical training protects against the normal age-related decline in auditory processing.  Older musicians show the same accurate processing of sounds as young people.  This effect of musical training is not limited to professional or life-long-musicians.  Even a few years of musical training during childhood had a protective effect on auditory processing in seniors, even 50 years later.  (Parbery-Clark et al., 2012; White-Schwoch et al., 2013)
  • University students with musical training before the age of 12 had better verbal memory  than people with no musical training (Chan et al., 1998)
  • Children  with at least 3 years of musical training performed better on vocabulary tests than children with no musical training.There was a positive correlation between duration of musical study and performance on test; in other words, the longer the child had studied music, the more likely she was to do well on the vocabulary test. (Forgeard et al., 2008)
  • A six-month study on 8-year-olds found that children given music lessons improved their reading abilities more than children given painting lessons (Moreno et al., 2009).
  • In 4- and 5-year-old children, music skills were found to correlate with phonological awareness and reading development. “Music perception appears to tap auditory mechanisms related to reading”. (Anvari et al., 2002)
  • In university students, the ability to recognize differences in pitch contour (shape of a melody) correlated with reading ability.  “Acoustic perception constrains the development of phonological skill and literacy acquisition”. (Foxton et al., 2003)
  • Improvements in verbal skills were seen in 4- to 6-year old children after only 20 days of musical training using a computer program.  (Moreno et al., 2011)
Musical training leads to increased spatial and mathematical abilities:

  • Orchestra musicians perform better than non-musicians on a task of 3-D mental rotation.  Imaging studies showed this mental task was accompanied by activation in Broca’s area in addition to the regular activation in visuospatial areas of the brain. (Sluming et al, 2007)
  • Children given 6 months of piano training had improved spatial-temporal reasoning abilities and were faster at learning proportional math concepts taught in a video-game format. ( Graziano et al.,1999)
  • Cheek and Smith (1999) report that grade 8 students who have had at least 2 years of private music training score better on the mathematics portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills than students with no private music training.  In addition, they found that students whose lessons were on a keyboard instrument have better math skills than those whose music lessons were not keyboard related. 
  • Musicians doing mental math use different parts of the brain than non-musicians:  there is more activation in the left fusiform gyrus (used for shape processing) and the left prefrontal cortex (which is the site for working memory). (Schmidthorst and Holland, 2004)

Musical training leads to improvements in executive function:  attention, discipline, and working memory:

  • Children given twenty sessions of musical training over a month showed an improvement on an executive function task testing working memory and response inhibition. (Moreno et al., 2011)
  • Young adults who were musical performers showed better performance than non-musicians on two tasks measuring executive function. (Bialystok and Depape, 2009)
  • Professional musicians perform better than amateurs on the Stroop test, a measure of selective attention and cognitive flexibility. (Travis, 2011)
  • Musical training leads to improvements in working memory (Bergman Nutley et al., 2013)
  • Musical training can be used to offset the decline in executive function that can occur with aging.  Seniors given six months of piano lessons had significantly improved scores on executive function test of planning and working memory.  (Bugos et al., 2007)

Musical training has a small effect in increasing overall IQ:

  • A year-long study in Toronto showed that children who were given musical training had a slightly greater increase in overall IQ compared children who were not given music lessons. (Schellenberg, 2004) 
  • High school students studying music have better grades in virtually all subjects (Cabanac et al., 2013)

Making music improves mood, decreases levels of stress hormones, and boosts the immune system:

  • Choir singers, after rehearsing, have increased levels of immune system markers, decreased levels of stress hormones, and better mood. (Beck et al., 2000; Kreutz et al., 2004)
  • Singers after a singing lesson report feeling more joyful, relaxed and energetic. (Grape et al., 2003)
  • Drumming therapy decreases blood levels of stress indicators and increases immune system indicators (Bittmann et al., 2001)
  • Musically-trained university students had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol before a math exam compared to non-musician students, suggesting that musically-trained students more emotionally stable. (Laohawattanakun et al., 2011) 
  • Non-musicians showed improved mood (using a questionnaire) after singing in a group for 30 minutes(Unwin et al., 2002)

Anvari, S.H., Trainor, L.J., Woodside, J., and Levy, B.A. (2002). Relations among musical skills, phonological processing, and early reading ability in preschool children. J Exp Child Psychol 83, 111–130.
Beck, R.J., Cesario, T.C., Yousefi, A., and Enamoto, H. (2000). Choral Singing, Performance Perception, and Immune System Changes in Salivary Immunoglobulin A and Cortisol. Music Perception 18, 87–106.
Bergman Nutley, S., Darki, F., and Klingberg, T. (2014). Music practice is associated with development of working memory during childhood and adolescence. Front Hum Neurosci 7, 926.
Bialystok, E., and Depape, A.-M. (2009). Musical expertise, bilingualism, and executive functioning. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform 35, 565–574.
Bittman, B.B., Berk, L.S., Felten, D.L., Westengard, J., Simonton, O.C., Pappas, J., and Ninehouser, M. (2001). Composite effects of group drumming music therapy on modulation of neuroendocrine-immune parameters in normal subjects. Altern Ther Health Med 7, 38–47.
Bugos, J.A., Perlstein, W.M., McCrae, C.S., Brophy, T.S., and Bedenbaugh, P.H. (2007). Individualized Piano Instruction enhances executive functioning and working memory in older adults. Aging & Mental Health 11, 464–471.
Cabanac, A., Perlovsky, L., Bonniot-Cabanac, M.-C., and Cabanac, M. (2013). Music and academic performance. Behavioural Brain Research 256, 257–260.
Chan, A.S., Ho, Y.C., and Cheung, M.C. (1998). Music training improves verbal memory. Nature 396, 128.
Cheek, J.M., and Smith, L.R. (1999). Music training and mathematics achievement. Adolescence 34, 759–761.
Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Norton, A., and Schlaug, G. (2008). Practicing a musical instrument in childhood is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning. PLoS ONE 3, e3566.
Foxton, J.M., Talcott, J.B., Witton, C., Brace, H., McIntyre, F., and Griffiths, T.D. (2003). Reading skills are related to global, but not local, acoustic pattern perception. Nat. Neurosci 6, 343–344.
Grape, C., Sandgren, M., Hansson, L.-O., Ericson, M., and Theorell, T. (2003). Does singing promote well-being?: An empirical study of professional and amateur singers during a singing lesson. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 38, 65–74.
Graziano, A.B., Peterson, M., and Shaw, G.L. (1999). Enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial-temporal training. Neurol. Res. 21, 139–152.
Hyde, K.L., Lerch, J., Norton, A., Forgeard, M., Winner, E., Evans, A.C., and Schlaug, G. (2009). Musical training shapes structural brain development. J. Neurosci 29, 3019–3025.
Kreutz, G., Bongard, S., Rohrmann, S., Hodapp, V., and Grebe, D. (2004). Effects of choir singing or listening on secretory immunoglobulin A, cortisol, and emotional state. J Behav Med 27, 623–635.
Laohawattanakun, J., Chearskul, S., Dumrongphol, H., Jutapakdeegul, N., Yensukjai, J., Khumphan, N., Niltiean, S., and Thangnipon, W. (2011). Influence of music training on academic examination-induced stress in Thai adolescents. Neurosci. Lett. 487, 310–312.
Moreno, S., Marques, C., Santos, A., Santos, M., Castro, S.L., and Besson, M. (2009). Musical training influences linguistic abilities in 8-year-old children: more evidence for brain plasticity. Cereb. Cortex 19, 712–723.
Moreno, S., Bialystok, E., Barac, R., Schellenberg, E.G., Cepeda, N.J., and Chau, T. (2011). Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function. Psychological Science 22, 1425–1433.
Musacchia, G., Sams, M., Skoe, E., and Kraus, N. (2007). Musicians have enhanced subcortical auditory and audiovisual processing of speech and music. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A 104, 15894–15898.
Parbery-Clark, A., Skoe, E., and Kraus, N. (2009). Musical experience limits the degradative effects of background noise on the neural processing of sound. J. Neurosci 29, 14100–14107.
Parbery-Clark, A., Anderson, S., Hittner, E., and Kraus, N. (2012). Musical experience offsets age-related delays in neural timing. Neurobiology of Aging.
Schellenberg, E.G. (2004). Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychol Sci 15, 511–514.
Schmithorst, V.J., and Holland, S.K. (2004). The effect of musical training on the neural correlates of math processing: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study in humans. Neurosci. Lett 354, 193–196.
Skoe, E., and Kraus, N. (2012). A little goes a long way: how the adult brain is shaped by musical training in childhood. J. Neurosci. 32, 11507–11510.
Sluming, V., Brooks, J., Howard, M., Downes, J.J., and Roberts, N. (2007). Broca’s area supports enhanced visuospatial cognition in orchestral musicians. J. Neurosci 27, 3799–3806.
Strait, D.L., Kraus, N., Skoe, E., and Ashley, R. (2009). Musical experience and neural efficiency: effects of training on subcortical processing of vocal expressions of emotion. Eur. J. Neurosci 29, 661–668.
White-Schwoch, T., Carr, K.W., Anderson, S., Strait, D.L., and Kraus, N. (2013). Older adults benefit from music training early in life: biological evidence for long-term training-driven plasticity. J. Neurosci. 33, 17667–17674.