Friday, 20 November 2015

Get moving: exercise improves motor skill learning

What if I told you there’s a way to improve your practicing efficiency and get healthier at the same time?  It’s true:  recent research has shown that moderate exercise right before learning a motor skill improves learning.

The study, published this month in the journal PLoS ONE, had three groups of people learning a motor skill task that involved using a force transducer to move a cursor through a kind of maze on the screen.  One group had to run on a treadmill for 30 minutes right before learning the task, the second group also ran on the treadmill but then got a one-hour break before doing the maze task, and the third group had a leisurely walk instead of exercising.

The researchers found that the people in the running group were the best learners, while the people who just walked or who ran and then rested learned at about the same rate.  The researchers actually looked at two different kinds of information about how the people learned:  the number of errors they made, and the speed at which they completed the task.  These two aspects of performing a motor skill are usually inversely related.  Think about playing a complicated piece of music:  if you play it slowly, you will make fewer mistakes.  If you play it quickly, you’ll make more mistakes.  This is known as the speed-accuracy trade-off, and it applies to pretty much everything we do.  So does exercising before learning alter the speed or the accuracy of the motor skill, or both?

The study found that the speed at which people moved the cursor on the screen was not affected by exercising.  Instead, people who exercised right before the learning the motor skill made fewer errors than those who didn’t exercise.  In other words, exercising increased accuracy but not speed of the motor skill.

Why does exercising help learning?  It’s been known for a while that, in general, exercise increases neuroplasticity – the capacity of the brain to change.  It’s thought that exercise increases the levels of hormones and growth factors that foster the chemical changes underlying learning.  But most of the previous studies have looked at the effect of exercise on declarative memory, the memory for facts and events, rather than motor learning.  Here we can see that exercise also boosts motor skill learning, the kind of learning that we do when we sit down to practice our musical instruments. 

So you might consider going for a run or a bike ride before your daily practice session.  We all know exercise is good for us, but it’s also good to know that it’ll help us learn our scales and pieces better.


Friday, 6 February 2015

Music for Learning

How many elements can you name in order?  (Source:

My children are driving me crazy.  They are listening, over and over, to a song that lists all the elements of the periodic table to the tune of the Can-Can by Offenbach.  Repeatedly.  Unceasingly.  Again and again.  They enthusiastically sing along, trying to commit every word to memory.  It’s all in the cause of good learning, but still, I’m going cross-eyed.  Even when the music finally stops, it’s still going in my head, on endless loop.

On the other hand:  my kids are memorizing the periodic table of the elements!  I should, just maybe, quit complaining and be geekfully grateful for their eager efforts to improve their minds.  I also love that they are able to do this because the information is set to music. 

The use of song as a mnemonic device is well-known and we’ve pretty much all used this technique, starting with singing the ABC song to learn the alphabet.  Many university students make use of songs to memorize facts; I recommend it to my neuroscience students.  I even own a copy of The Biochemists’ Songbook by Harold Baum, which is a whole book of songs designed to make learning the metabolic pathways easier.  All of this suggests that wrapping information up in music makes it easier to remember.  But is that really true?  And, if so, why?

There are a number of possible reasons that remembering a song is easier than remembering a list of information.  The first is that presenting information as a song provides a temporal structure.  It turns a jumble of unordered information into a sequence, with one idea leading to the next in a particular order.  Imposing structure on information is a key way to improve recall.  A research study by Wanda Wallace in 1994 showed that text is better remembered when set to a simple, repetitive melody than when spoken.  She discusses the idea of sequential recall, and describes how it works:  when we learn information always in the same order, one piece of information cues the next piece in the sequence.  Also, connecting each bit of text to a particular part of the melody means that even if you forget one part of the text, the music will help cue the next line of text.

The second idea as to why music helps us remember information is that the structure of the music provides clues as to the words.  For instance, the shape and rhythm of the melodic line tell us how many syllables should be present in the words that go with it.  This is redundant information:  both the words and melody tell us how many syllables should be present, and so it makes it easier to remember. A study in 2008 by Purnell-Webb and Speelman looked to see whether the reputed effects of music on memory for text were due to melody or rhythm, and whether the music needed to be familiar to the listener to be most effective.  They found that learning text to a familiar tune or rhythm conferred a memory advantage over spoken text, and concluded that it is the rhythmic aspects of the music that help people remember the words, by providing temporal structure and redundant cues, as discussed above. 

Some researchers, however, dispute the effect of music on memory.  If we have to learn both text and music at the same time, this is more information to learn and should make it harder.  There are indeed some studies showing that spoken text is in fact easier to remember than sung text , especially if the melody is novel and non-repetitive.  Even in the studies where music does enhance memory, the effect is pretty small.  And yet, we've all used music to help us learn facts.  Why are the experimental results so different from our real-life experience?  I believe this discrepancy is due to the fact that in the laboratory, the number of repetitions is controlled:  the subjects in the experiment listened to the spoken information the same number of times as they listened to the sung information.

The real strength of using music to remember information is that people love music.  Listening to a lively song about chemistry is infinitely more enjoyable than listening to a dry recitation of all the elements in the periodic table, so we’ll listen to it more.  In short:  music adds motivation. In an article entitled, "Is Memory for Music Special?", Matthew Schulkind suggests, that “the ‘special’ power of music as a mnemonic device may be that it fosters excessive rehearsal”.  In other words, putting the information into a song makes it more fun, so we practice it more.

This is certainly the case with the periodic table song.  My children are unlikely to spend much time repeating a spoken list of chemical elements, but they beg me to allow them to access YouTube so that they can sing along with the video.  I relent, and while the music of Offenbach swells around us, they dance around the living room, chorusing:  “There’s hydrogen and helium, then lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon everywhere, nitrogen all through the air…"

I sigh, but smile smugly on the inside.  These kids are going to ace chemistry when they get to high school.  Thanks, Offenbach and AsapSCIENCE!


Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Visual Crowding

Which looks easier to read?
It’s the same every year.  Every fall, a few weeks into piano classes, I introduce my Sunbeams 3 class to the Preparatory Repertoire book from the Royal Conservatory of Music.  I’m always excited to get to this point with my students; after months and months playing from the Music for Young Children books, they are ready to start on the Royal Conservatory pathway, heading off towards exam certification and the satisfaction of being able to say “I have my Grade x piano”.  I try to convey this excitement and sense of a new beginning to the children, and I see that I’ve piqued their interest, but when I open the book to show them the first piece they will learn, the response is always the same:  Silence.  Widened eyes.

I know what they’re thinking. 
“It looks hard, doesn’t it?” I ask them.  And it does.  The RCM music really does look a lot harder.  It’s not, though.  These pieces are not more difficult than the music these children already play. 

I open their current Sunbeams 3 book and place a page next to the RCM prep book for comparison.  I ask the students to tell me why they think the new music looks harder.  They all gaze it for a moment, and then one child will realize:  “It’s written smaller”.

Aha!  When things are written smaller, they seem harder.  Just knowing this fact helps the kids understand that this book isn’t going to be more difficult to play.  But unfortunately, the smaller print does actually make this music harder for the children to read.

As I discussed in my last post , when we read music, we fixate our eyes on a particular note, reading it, and also reading the adjacent notes that are in our peripheral vision.  Then we quickly flick our eyes forward and fixate on another note further along the page.  It’s this business of reading in our peripheral vision that’s problematic. 

Take a look at the example below.  Focus your eyes on the dot in the middle.  You can read the single letter on the left with no problem, correct?  But what about trying to read the middle of the three letters on the right?  That letter “b” on the right is much harder to read because the letters on either side interfere with our perception of it.  This is the visual crowding effect, and it has been shown to occur for all visual perception, whether of letters or musical notes on a page, or for other objects. 

When we read a page of music, our ability to take in a lot of notes at one fixation is limited by crowding.  The further the notes are from our point of focus, the more they are susceptible to crowding. Reading musical notation has a further crowding problem that doesn’t exist in text reading:  the lines of the staff themselves act to crowd in the vertical direction.  Compare these two notes, one with flanking staff lines, and one without.  Can you see if the note is on or off of the line?  When there are flanking staff lines, it is much harder to tell.

Interestingly, a study using exactly this kind of visual test has shown that trained musicians have learned to overcome some of the effects of crowding.  People who are expert music readers are better able to read crowded notes in their peripheral vision.  It’s as if their spatial resolution for music notes is increased compared to non-musicians.  The authors suggest that when we practice reading music, we build a better representation of the visual musical elements in our brains, which then helps our perception of the notes on the page.  The more we read music, the less crowded the notes seem.

But my students?  They are not yet expert music-readers.  I’ve noticed that when the sheet music is hard to read, the children rely on their ears to learn the piece, and ignore the written music.  This will not improve their music-reading skills. 

  My kids still need their music to be well-spaced, so that adjacent notes don’t interfere with each other.  It’s not so much that the notes need to be bigger, but they need to be less crowded, both horizontally and vertically.  In fact, when I compare the RCM Prep book with the MYC materials, what I notice is that the horizontal spacing is actually the same.  What’s obviously different between the two books is the spacing between the lines of the staff.  The only way to reduce the vertical crowding is to make larger spaces between adjacent notes and between the lines of the staff – in other words, print it bigger.  I think a larger print encourages our young students to keep reading the notes, rather than relying on their ears to learn the music.  If the notes are printed bigger and less crowded,  students are better able to perceive the subtle differences between adjacent notes, making it more worthwhile keeping their eyes on the page to decode the musical notation. 


Levi, D.M. (2011). Visual crowding. Curr. Biol. 21, R678–R679.

Pelli, D.G., Tillman, K.A., Freeman, J., Su, M., Berger, T.D., and Majaj, N.J. (2007). Crowding and eccentricity determine reading rate. Journal of Vision 7, 20–20.

Wong, Y.K., and Gauthier, I. (2012). Music-reading expertise alters visual spatial resolution for musical notation. Psychon Bull Rev 19, 594–600.