Tuesday 20 December 2011

A Grain of Salt

Studying music makes you smarter, right?  If you believe every research study that’s ever been done, music training increases your IQ, makes you better at math, enhances verbal memory, general verbal ability and non-verbal reasoning, improves fine-motor control and motor learning, increases vocabulary and reading ability, enhances visuospatial cognition, and improves executive function.

Musicians, especially classically trained musicians, are generally thought to be smart.  And music and math “go together” so that people who are good at one are good at the other.  These ideas are so frequently touted that many people just assume they are true, without really looking at the evidence.

There have a been a fair number of research studies looking at the question of how musical training affects other abilities.  What I’d like to make clear today is that not all studies are created equal. 

How would you study it?
Imagine you want to test the hypothesis that studying music increases your IQ.  There are two main types of study that you could use.  The first (and weaker) type of study is correlational. Usually the study works something like this:  you would recruit a group of people with musical training (often university students studying music), and a second control group of people with no musical training.  Both groups take an intelligence test.  You expect that the group with musical training would be found to be smarter, and if they are, the conclusion would be that musical training increases your IQ.

Correlation and causation
But have you really shown that?  Correlational studies like this should have an important disclaimer:  the study doesn’t actually prove that musical training makes you smarter.  Scientists like to say that “correlation does not imply causation”.  What this means is that a correlational study shows only that:  a correlation.  The study shows that there is some kind of relationship between musical training and increased intelligence, but it doesn’t show what that relationship is.  There are several possibilities:
1)  Musical training makes you smarter
2)  People who are smarter are more likely to take and continue with musical studies
3)  Both musical training and increased intelligence are caused by some third unknown variable (such as family income, or competitive personality, or strong parental support).

Do you see how correlational studies are kind of weak?  There are a lot of studies in the literature that are conducted this way, because it’s easy to do.  But the studies don’t necessarily tell us all that much.

Longitudinal studies
So what is the better way to do this study?  The second type of research study you could do is a longitudinal study.  This type of study takes two groups of people and follows them over time to see how musical training alters other skills.  You would recruit people for the study and divide them into two groups.  One group would receive music instruction and one group would not.  You give the subjects an IQ test at the beginning and end of the music instruction, which goes for a defined period of time.  Ideally there would be no difference in test scores between the two groups at the beginning of the study, but at the end of the study, the group with musical training would outperform the control group.  The conclusion would be that the musical training has caused the difference in performance on the test, and this would be a much stronger and believable conclusion.

Dividing up the groups
There are a number of issues to consider in this type of study.  The first is:  how are the participants divided into the two groups?  There are different ways of doing this.  One way is to divide them completely randomly, which might seem like it would be the best, but what if you accidentally ended up with all the smartest people in one group?  Then you would find a difference in IQ before you even started the experiment, and that would make your study kind of useless.  If you have a large number of participants in your study, you're probably okay with a random division into groups, because chances are it will work out okay, but if you have a small number of people, you need to be careful about this.

Another option is completely non-random:  you recruit a group of people who were about to start receiving musical training anyway, and then you recruit a group of control people who match them first group in IQ.  This option has the advantage that you don’t have to give the musical training; the subjects were already going to do that.  Of course, the disadvantage here is that by taking away the randomness, you may be preselecting people in your musical training group that have some other variable you can’t control for.  For example, maybe the people in the musical training group have a higher income, which is why they can afford music lessons, and this may affect the way intelligence develops over the course of the study.

The third option is called pseudo-random.  You recruit people, give them the initial intelligence test, and then divide them into two groups in such a way that the two groups are evenly matched for initial intelligence, and also matched for other variables like age, family income, etc.

No matter how you split up your groups, there are other problems to be overcome with this type of study.  The main one is a kind of trade-off.  You want the study to run for as long as possible to ensure the biggest difference between the two groups.  If you only give one week of musical training, you’re less likely to find an effect on IQ.  But if the study runs for too long, you run into other difficulties. First of all, it’s expensive because you have to provide music lessons for all that time.  And second, you start running into problems where people drop out of the study, usually from the group receiving music instruction.  People do drop out of music lessons; it’s a big investment in time and not everybody is willing to make the commitment to daily practice, once they see how much work is involved.  So you have fewer people in your music-training group.  You might think this is not a big deal, but there’s another issue here.  If people who are less inclined to study music drop out, then you are left with people who naturally more inclined to study music.  Maybe these people are more intelligent to start with.  Or there is some other factor (like level of parental support) that could contribute to both continuing with musical training and also increased intelligence.  You see?  If too many people drop out, you lose your randomness.

The Bottom Line
I hope this discussion gives you some perspective on studies about the effects of musical training.  It’s actually hard to design and implement a really good study.  But then, what effect does musical training really have?  What can we believe from all the research that is out there?

I’ll discuss this research more in future posts, but it seems to me that there is pretty clear evidence that musical training improves verbal abilities, probably because music and speech both involve auditory parts of the brain.  And improved verbal abilities enhance reading skills.  A recent study also showed that musical training improved executive function in children.  I haven’t seen any good evidence that musical training improves math or spatial skills.  As for overall IQ, some studies have shown that musical training increases IQ, but some have not seen this increase, so I conclude that the effect is probably quite small.

Does studying music make you smarter?  Maybe a little.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

A Lot More Than 10 Percent!

Have you ever heard that you only use 10% of your brain?  I don’t know where that idea came from, but it’s definitely wrong.  At any one time, you are using many, many parts of your brain at once, certainly more than 10%.  Even doing nothing activates circuits in brain known as the default mode network, which is most active when we are daydreaming, lost in space.  Only 10% of our brain?  That idea is completely bogus, as are a number of other things you think you know about the brain.

Listening to and playing music probably uses more of the brain at once than most other activities we engage in.  Research has shown that listening to music recruits a number of different areas of the brain.  However, it’s been tricky to tease apart which parts of the brain do exactly what in processing music, since it’s almost impossible to completely separate the different components that make up music.  And besides, if you try to whittle music down to a single component (i.e. rhythm or pitch or timbre), is what you’re left with really music?  Does the brain respond the same way to stylized lab-produced sounds as it would to a real musical excerpt?

A recent study from a Finnish research group has tried to answer these questions by combining computer-based acoustic feature extraction with fMRI analysis of people listening to a tango by Astor Piazzolla

The results support much of the research that has been reported in the past, in terms of which parts of the brain are activated by specific aspects of music – timbre, rhythmic pulse, key, etc.  But the findings also show that the areas activated are more widespread than previously thought, and there are also areas that are activated during music listening that didn’t seem to correlate with any of the features specifically studied.  What these parts of the brain are doing remains to be seen.  Also, and not surprisingly, listening to a real piece of music activated emotional centres of the brain more than in other studies using less naturalistic stimuli.

Timbre was found to activate widespread areas of temporal cortex, especially on the right side, as well as cognitive parts of cerebellum.  Music with complex timbre deactivates the default mode network, meaning that it grabs our attention and the parts of our brain that make our mind wander get turned off.

Interestingly, motor and somatosensory areas of brain were activated, even when just listening to music.  The subjects were all trained musicians, and it has previously been shown that listening to music can activate motor areas, as if we are unconsciously thinking about actually playing the music we hear.  The somatosensory areas may be activated due to mirror neuron activity.  These areas are activated when hearing sounds made by others’ actions.

Overall, it is clear from this study and from previous research that listening to music activates large brain-wide networks of neurons.  Performing music must activate even more of our brain:  areas for planning and controlling movements, somatosensory areas for bodily feedback, and visual cortex for reading music, at the very least.  No wonder musical training is so good for your brain:  it’s a like full-brain workout.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Opening Night Jitters

Tonight is opening night.  I can already imagine it:  the theatre is full.  From the wings I can hear muted pre-show conversations, the rustle of programs, laughter.  The house lights go down, and the tension in my stomach tightens; my intestines feel like knots.  I start to sweat, and hope my shaking is not visible.  As the opening music begins, I walk onto the stage.

 The Cast of Another Elfing Musical. Photo by Jon Snow

I’m appearing this week in an amateur musical theatre production.  Six sold-out shows in a small theatre.  I get to sing, dance, act and play the flute.  And though my body shows its instinctive stage-fright responses, I know I will be fine.  I’ve been through this before.

Performance Anxiety
Stagefright, known to scientists and doctors as “performance anxiety” results from an overactivation of a part of the brain called the amygdala.  This walnut-sized collection of nuclei located deep in the temporal lobe of the brain is responsible for emotion, and the emotion is does best is fear.  Fear, after all, is what stagefright is all about.  We’re afraid we’re going to play wrong notes, be out of tune, forget what to play altogether, and most of all we’re afraid of looking like a fool.  Afraid of being judged and coming up lacking. 

Role of the Amygdala
The amygdala is closely connected to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system, itself responsible for keeping our bodily systems on an even keel.  When we experience fear, the amygdala tells the hypothalamus to activate the sympathetic nervous system, leading to the well-known “fight or flight response”.  Our heart-rate increases, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, we perspire.  Blood is directed away from our extremities, gut and skin, and towards the large muscles of our arms and legs, so we’re ready to run or fight if necessary.  The adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which act to mobilize glucose into the blood so we have an easily accessible source of energy.

The fight or flight response may be useful if our fear is the result of an encounter with a grizzly bear, but in the case of stagefright, it’s hard to see how it can help us.  Altered breathing just makes more problems for singers and wind instrumentalists.  Lack of blood to the fingers hampers skilled movements of pianists, violinists and other musicians.  And shaking doesn’t help anybody perform.  From this point of view, fear is a maladaptive response to performance.

Fear alters your brain chemistry
However, fear has an effect not just on our body, but on our brain too.  As well as activating the sympathetic nervous system, fear increases the levels of noradrenaline and glucocorticoids in the brain.  These chemicals can have both positive and negative effects.  Many musicians feel that a little bit of “performance jitters” gives them a heightened awareness, an extra edge that helps them perform better.  Studies have shown that the combination of noradrenaline and corticosterone improves memory and attention.  Moderate levels of stress have been shown to lead to extra vigilance and alertness, and increased cognitive processing speed. 

Fear and stress can certainly have negative effects on our brain, too.  Many of these maladaptive fear responses are mediated by the prefrontal cortex.  Fear inhibits our working memory and decreases our behavioural flexibility.  We’ve probably all experienced that feeling of panic when fear makes us completely forget everything we’re supposed to be doing.

Panicking and Choking
When I mentioned to a friend that I was planning to post about stagefright, she handed me a book off of her shelf.  It was What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell, and she recommended a particular chapter that talks about the difference between panicking and choking.  These are two different responses cause people to fail in stressful situations. 

When people choke, they start to think too much.  For musicians and athletes, this is a recipe for disaster.  As I discussed in a previous post, much of what we learn during our music practice goes into implicit memory, meaning we’re not consciously aware of the sequence of movements we’re making.  But sometimes under stressful conditions, we over-think, and start trying to use our explicit memory of how to play, which isn’t very good.  Our performance falls apart; we choke.

Panicking, on the other hand, is when the mind goes blank.  Instead of thinking too much, we are unable to think enough.  Obviously, this can also be a huge problem during music performance.  If my mind goes blank tonight right at the beginning of my solo, I’m in big trouble.

Combating Stagefright
Stagefright falls into the anxiety family of mental disorders.  For many, it can’t really be called a disorder – a few butterflies in the stomach before performing is normal.  But for some, stagefright is a serious problem, impairing their musical performance and perhaps discouraging them from becoming serious musicians.  Several studies have looked at the prevalence of stagefright and found that it is a widespread problem, but not much discussed.  Many professional musicians are prescribed beta-blockers, which act to block the effects of adrenaline.  Others option include the of use yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mental imagery to counteract stagefright.

The studies that I read about the prevalence of stagefright all basically boiled down to the same thing:  it would be good for teachers to talk to their students about stagefright and ways to combat it.  When I was a teenager, I had an excellent flute teacher who taught me some simple meditation exercises as a way to relax before performing.  My students have a recital coming up at the end of January, so I’ll be thinking about what I can do to help them mentally prepare (and you’ll likely see another post on this topic around that time).

As a performer, I find that what helps me the most is, quite simply, being prepared.  If I feel that I know my music inside out and upside down, I’m less likely to stress about performing.  And on that note, I think I’ll go do a little practicing for tonight’s show.  And this evening at the start of the show, I’ll close my eyes, take a deep breath, and just go do it.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Choice as a motivator

Practice, memory, intelligence, talent… we can discuss these as much as we want, but I think that the most important element of musical training is motivation.  People who are motivated to play music will practice regularly and get better at playing.  If you’re good at playing, you’re going to want to do it more, which results in more practice.  It’s a positive feedback loop.  On the other hand, if you’re not motivated to play music, you won’t practice very much, and you won’t be good at it.  This will not make you want to play more, and sets up a negative feedback loop.

External rewards
Practicing music is hard work for everyone, and we could all use external motivators from time to time.  This is especially true for children.  Getting “good” at playing music is a long-term reward and children do not have the self-discipline required for that kind of delayed gratification.  So parents and music teachers offer incentives and rewards for practice:  a sticker for a certain number of days or minutes of practice, a trip to a concert for a certain number of weeks of good practice.  In my house, your daily piano practice will earn you 15 minutes of coveted computer play-time.

But it’s interesting and useful to consider what leads to motivation and why. 

Reward centres in the brain
Rewards lead to activation in certain regions of the brain:  there are reward centres in the midbrain, nucleus accumbens, caudate nucleus, and orbitofrontal cortex. These areas are activated by pleasurable stimuli:  good food, money, sex, rewarding exercise, and listening to music we enjoy, among many others.  These types of pleasures lead to the release of endorphins and other endogenous opiates, which activate the reward circuitry of the brain.  These natural brain chemicals are related to drugs such as morphine, which explains why narcotic drugs also activate the pleasure centres of the brain.

Choice is a reward
A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science  (Leotti & Delgado, 2011) reports that the ability to choose is a reward in itself.  The anticipation of getting to choose something activates parts of the brain that are involved in the reward and motivation pathway.  This study used a simple key-press experiment in which the participants sometimes got to choose which key to press, and sometimes were told by the computer which key to press.  Pressing the key led to a random monetary reward, with the “choice” key-presses and “no-choice” key-presses leading to the same overall reward.  However, the participants felt as if they were more rewarded when they got to choose which key to press.  The researchers looked at which areas of the brain were activated during the key-presses and found that areas of the brain associated with reward were more activated when the participants got to choose which key to press. 

The implication is that people see activities where they get to choose something as inherently more valuable than activities where they do not get to choose.  We all like to feel we have control over our lives, as much as possible, and having that control activates the pleasure centres of our brain.

Choice increases the perceived value of whatever is chosen
Having a choice is motivating, but here’s a second point about choice that’s worth noticing:  when we choose between two things that are similar, we are more likely to think that what we chose is even better than we first thought.  This was first shown in the 1950’s by a researcher who asked housewives to rate kitchen appliances, and then choose between a pair of them.  When later asked to rate the appliances again, the housewives had increased their preference for the appliance they selected, and decreased their rating for the appliance they didn't select.

This “choice-induced re-evaluation” has been shown repeatedly in different studies.  In 2009, Sharot et al. showed that after people had chosen something (in this study it was a hypothetical choice of vacation destination), there was an increase in activity in the caudate nucleus, an area of the brain implicated in motivation and reward.  This meant that after choosing something, they derived even more pleasure from it. 

How can we apply the power of choice in musical training?  Motivation is a critical element of musical training.  Any way we can increase motivation, we should take advantage of it! 

Use the power of choice
As teachers and parents, we can take advantage of the power of choice to increase students’ motivation.  Parents can give students the option of when to practice, and in what order.  Teachers can let students choose from a list of two or three pieces when selecting repertoire.  This opportunity to choose is a reward in itself and also will make the students like the chosen piece more.  As we have seen, it will be natural for them to re-evaluate the piece as more pleasurable once they have chosen it.  If students start out liking the piece more, they will practice it more. The more they practice, the better they get at playing it, and this makes them like it more, setting up the positive feedback loop that we’re looking for.

After musing and reading about choice as a motivator this week, I realized that this is actually a fairly common tool in a parent’s arsenal.  Right now my 6-year-old is going through a phase of aggressive rebellion (at least, let’s hope it’s a phase).  Recently, I convinced him to get into the bath but when the time came to wash his hair, he absolutely refused.  “I got wet all over and that’s good enough”, he insisted.  Instead of fighting, I played the “choice” card: “Would you like Mummy’s shampoo, or Daddy’s, or here’s a new kind that’s passionfruit flavour. Mmmm, it smells good”.  It worked like a charm to defuse the power struggle.  He was happy because he got to choose, and he liked the fruity shampoo even more once he had chosen it.

This week, I'll offer him a choice in his piano repertoire and I’m willing to bet he’ll like to play whichever piece he chooses.  I can almost see his caudate nucleus lighting up.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Mixing It Up (Part 2)

Imagine 41 beginner clarinet students, about 11 years old.  Their task:  learning three new short melodies over three days.  Half of the kids practice one melody every day, turning to a new melody the next day (“blocked practice”).  The other half of the kids practice all three melodies every day, in a random fashion.  The researcher records their practice sessions, and also has them come back 24 hours later to test how well they have learned the melodies.  What do you think?  Which group learns the melodies better?

Contextual Interference
As I discussed in my last post, studies have shown that practicing motor tasks in a blocked fashion leads to better performance during the practice sessions, compared to random practice.  However, retention is better when tasks are practiced in a random fashion.  What this means is that our long-term memory is better for tasks practiced in a random fashion.  This is known as the contextual interference effect.

However, most of the research that has looked at this effect is based on simple laboratory tasks.  In real life, tasks involve complex sensorimotor feedback and have multiple components that we have to control at the same time.  This is particularly true in music practice.  Practicing music involves visual cues from the music we’re reading, somatosensory feedback from the positions and actions of our joints and muscles, and auditory feedback from the sounds we’re creating.  We have to pay attention to pitch, rhythm, tone quality, evenness, dynamics and articulation.  In a complex task like this, does the contextual interference effect still apply?  Is it stronger or weaker?

The Clarinetist Study:  Stambaugh (2011)
For the clarinetists discussed above, the contextual interference effect seemed to be slightly weaker.  The researcher, Laura Stambaugh, found that both groups made about the same amount of mistakes, but the speed at which the two groups played the melodies differed.  During the first half of the trials of each melody, the group practicing in a blocked fashion was able to play faster than those practicing in a random fashion.  For the second half of the trials of each melody, the random group was able to play faster.  And when tested 24 hours after the end of practice, the random practice group played significantly faster than the blocked group.

From Stambaugh (2011). Journal of Research in Music Education 58:368

In other words, the blocked group initially seemed to learn better, since they were able to play faster, but the advantages of practicing in a random fashion became apparent even before the end of the practice sessions.  In the classic contextual interference studies, random practice led to worse performance throughout practice, so Stambaugh's result is a little different.  There are a couple of possibilities for this difference:  it could be just because the practice was split over three days, or it could be because in this study the participants are children rather than adults.  Other studies using children have found that the contextual interference effect is not necessarily the same for children. Some studies have found that children do not necessarily perform better while practicing in a blocked fashion compared to a random fashion.  It's a good reminder:  We need to be cautious in applying the results of psychological studies done on adults.  Because children’s brains are still developing, they may not operate in the same way, and so the lessons learned from adults may not apply.

Worth the Effort
In any case:  Stambaugh’s clarinetists confirm that mixing up the order of our practice sessions may be worth the effort.  I think this is particularly true for certain types of practice.  When students are preparing for exams and have to be able to play scales in a number of different keys, practicing these in a random fashion is definitely effective.  It can be hard to convince our brains to change between key signatures, so practicing making this switch would certainly help. 

When students play for me during lessons or classes, they (or their parents) will often say that they “played it better at home”.  And I’m sure it’s true.  Partly this is due to nerves at the lesson, but I also think a large part of the reason students play worse in class is because at home, they play the piece several times, not just once like they do in the lesson.  Probably the first time they play the piece in a practice session at home, it’s not a lot better than what they play for me.  By the third or fourth time playing the song through at home, it’s pretty good.  But at the lesson, they only get to play once.  And this is true for exams and performances as well.  If students practiced more in a random fashion, they would play better the first time.  Performance, whether at an exam, recital or a lesson, is always in a random fashion, and we need to be ready for that.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Mixing it Up!

I’ve enjoyed the comments and feedback generated by my last post about spacing of practice sessions.  I think the most valid point was that students are pretty much going to practice at times that best fit their schedule, no matter what the teacher suggests.  And this is okay; the best practice plan is the one that the student will actually stick to. Another comment that’s worth relaying is that many advanced musicians, especially string players, need a long warm-up to get their bodies ready to practice the hard passages, which makes it more time-consuming and less practical to split practice sessions up.

Target Practice
Still, for my young students, I think I’m going to try instituting something I’ll call “Target Practice”.  I’ll give them a couple of sticky-notes with bulls-eye stickers on them.  Each day in their practice they will pick the two most difficult bits of their songs (a bar or two, say), and label them with the sticky-notes.  Then, they should come back for a second mini-practice session at a different time of day, and play just those labeled bars 5 times each.  I’ll let you know how this goes and whether they actually do it.  And I’m going to try it myself.  I’ve been practicing the flute a lot lately, for an upcoming show, and there are a couple of almost unplayably hard bars that could really use some extra work. 

Here’s something else to think about:
While researching the spacing effect, I ran across a most interesting study about organization of practice sessions.  In this classic 1979 study (by Shea and Morgan in 1979) participants learned three similar motor tasks, which consisted of using their hands to knock over targets in a certain order.  There were two groups:  Group A practiced each motor task in a block, then moved onto the next task, while Group B practiced the tasks in a random order, with the three tasks all mixed up, something like this:

As you might imagine, Group B made more errors while practicing than did Group A.  The surprise result came when the two groups came back to be tested on the tasks 10 days later.  Group B, who had practiced a in a random order, performed better than Group A, who had practiced in a blocked order.  In other words, random organization of practice material led to worse performance during the practice session, but better learning overall.

Contexual interference
Researchers believe that this is because mixing up the tasks during learning makes the learning harder; psychologists call this contextual interference. It improves learning because when we practice in a random fashion, we have to use alternate cognitive strategies to learn the tasks.  In other words, we have to think harder, and that makes us learn better.  Random-ordered practice is harder, requires more neural processing and therefore recruits more brain areas.  This leads to stronger retention.

What does this mean for music practice?
These contextual interference studies lead to some interesting conclusions about how we might structure our music practice sessions.  The standard practice method is for us to practice our scales, then move on to arpeggios and other technical exercises, and then practice our pieces in a blocked fashion, meaning we practice one piece until we’re done with it for the day and then move on the next piece.  And while this way of organizing our practice leads to better performance during our practice session, it may not be the most effective for overall learning.  For maximal learning, it seems we should mix up our practice material:  practice one piece for a short time, then our scale, then another piece, then the arpeggios, then back to the scale… etc.  This is a bit of a revolutionary idea, because it is not how we normally practice.

Before we change all our practice schedules…
The downside to random practice is that it might not be as satisfying to practice this way, because our performance during the practice session would be worse.  Therefore, I certainly would not recommend this for students who are struggling or already disheartened by their level of achievement.  It might work well to start the week out practicing in a blocked fashion, to gain a sense of mastery over new pieces, and as the week goes on, transition to a random organization of practice material.

As a teacher and as a musician, I want to know:  is it really worth the effort to reorganize all our practice material?  Just how much benefit would there be to practicing in a random order rather than blocked?  Are there any studies that show the effects of random organization of musical practice?  In fact, there is a recent study looking at exactly this, and that is what I’ll blog about next time…

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Spacing Effect

Which do you think would lead to better piano playing:  practicing one day a week for three hours or practicing 6 days a week for half an hour a day?  In both cases the total time spent practicing per week is the same (3 hours).  For most people, this is a no-brainer: we always suggest once-a-day practice.  It seems most logical to space out the practice sessions to once a day to promote better learning.  We know from experience that this works.

The Spacing Effect
There is a well-known psychological phenomenon called the Spacing Effect, where people learn better if learning sessions are distributed across time, compared to learning in one big massed session.  This was first shown in the late 1900’s, and has been extensively studied since then.

But why does it work? Why isn’t it just the total number of hours you spend learning something that determines how well you learn it?  There are a couple of different answers to this question.  The first is that fatigue and attention span limit the useful length of a practice session.  It’s just not reasonable to expect someone to practice for three hours solid and expect them to be putting in the same amount of mental and physical effort at the end that they were putting in at the beginning.  Also, there is evidence that when we are repeating something right away, we naturally do not pay as much attention the second time.  And, as I’ve discussed, attention is critical for learning

Spacing of Practice Promotes Synaptic Plasticity
The second, and perhaps more scientifically interesting answer, is that the physical processes in the brain that lead to learning seem more activated by spaced training sessions.  When we learn something, the connections between neurons, known as synapses, get stronger, making certain patterns of neuronal firing more likely to happen.  This synaptic plasticity involves cascades of chemical interactions between molecules in the synapse.  When we interrupt practice sessions with gaps, the chemical interactions are more strongly activated, making the synapse stronger.  From a psychological standpoint, the spacing effect works because retrieving a memory makes the memory stronger.

Optimal Spacing of Practice Sessions
Practicing once a day for 30 minutes definitely makes more sense than practicing once a week for 3 hours.  But would it be even better to practice twice a day for 15 minutes?  Or three times a day for 10 minutes each time?  What is the optimal spacing of our practice sessions?  I’m personally very curious about this, but there are no clear answers to these questions. However, it seems to me that the optimal length and spacing of practice sessions will be determined by the material that needs to be practiced.  A beginner student might benefit by practicing her short pieces in two-minute sessions, while an advanced student needs to spend more time at each practice session in order to really “get into” the practice and make some improvements. 

Rubin-Rabson (1940)
But I’d still really like to know if practicing twice a day would benefit musicians more than practicing once a day, even if the total time spent practicing were the same.  Is it better to have a night’s sleep between practice sessions, so sleep-dependent consolidation of the memory can occur? Or would it be better to practice in two or more sessions per day to try to maximize the spacing effect?  The only research paper I could find on this particular question was a study from 1940 by Rubin-Rabson.  In her study on memorization, experienced pianists practiced some pieces, either in one practice session, in two shorter practice sessions within one day, or in two short practice sessions over two days.  Which practice regimen led to better learning?  She tested this by having the pianists come back two weeks later and relearn the pieces.  Those who had practiced on two separate days had the easiest time relearning the pieces, those who practiced two sessions on one day were in the middle, and those who had used one massed practice session had the hardest time relearning.  The conclusion was that spacing out the practice sessions promoted better learning.

The spacing effect in daily practice
The problem with this study is that it is hard to apply the results to our regular daily practice.  How often do we learn a piece in one practice session and then have to play it two weeks later with no practice in between?  What I really want to know is if I should suggest to my students that they split their practice into two sessions per day, practicing each piece in both sessions.  My guess would be that their performance would improve more quickly.  Has anyone tried this?  I’d love to hear your comments.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Music Training and Executive Function

I’m going to take a break here from the neuroscience of practicing to discuss a new paper published this month in the journal Psychological Science.  But before I get to the paper, I’d like to tell you about one of my students.

Meet Ellis

Ellis, a scraggly-headed 6-year-old with intelligent brown eyes, is sitting on my piano bench for "solo time" during his weekly piano class.  He’s a smart little guy, and I’ve been teaching him since he was three and a half.  He plays very well for his age, and seems to like piano, despite a tendency to try to distract me into chatting instead of listening to him play.

We’ve just started learning the key of F major, and he struggles to remember that in his new songs, every B should be B flat.  It’s remarkable to me that as he plays, I have to remind him at every single B.  “B FLAT!”, “No, that should be flat”, “FLAT! FLAT!”  Why can’t he get this in his head?  The next week, Ellis gets most of the B’s right, but a few B naturals still sneak in.  His mother shrugs and shakes her head.  Then I hear him play a piece he’s been working on for several weeks, in C major, and I am stunned to hear him adding in B flats!  What is going on here?

Ellis is having a hard time with rule switching.  Ever since he started playing the piano, the rule was that when he saw a B on the page, he played a B on the keyboard.  Simple.  Now we’ve changed that rule.  In F major, when we see a B in the music, we have to play a B flat.  And then when we change back to a song in C major, B means B natural again.  The rule keeps switching. 

Executive Function
Rule switching is one of group of higher cognitive skills collectively known as executive function or cognitive control, and which reside in the prefrontal cortex, right behind your forehead.  Executive function includes three main skills:  working memory, which is keeping things in mind in the short-term, inhibition (i.e. self-control), and cognitive flexibility, which includes rule-switching.  The prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to fully develop in children, which explains why kids have a hard time controlling their behaviour (they’re still developing that self-control), and also explains Ellis’s problems with rule-switching.  Executive function in children is a predictor of success in school, even more so than IQ.  

Musical Training improves Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function
In a paper published this month, researchers at York University led by Sylvain Moreno compared the effects of music training and visual arts training on verbal intelligence, spatial intelligence, and executive function.  They ran a summer camp for two groups of 4- to 6-year-olds, with one group receiving two hours a day of music training, and the second group receiving two hours of visual arts training.  The music curriculum included instruction on pitch, rhythm, melody, singing and music theory including note-reading.  The visual arts curriculum included instruction on shape, colour, line, dimension, and perspective.  The researchers figured that music training might enhance language skills, while visual arts training might enhance spatial skills.  What they found was that only the music training led to improvements in verbal skills and executive function, and neither training enhanced spatial skills.

Why does music training improve executive function?
I’ll talk about the effect of music training on verbal skills another day.  It’s interesting and relevant, but today I’m more interested in the effect of music training on executive function.  The task used to probe executive function in these children tested both working memory and inhibition.  The researchers suggest that music training uses parts of the brain that control executive function, and this is why the training improves these skills.  Studying music requires concentration, memorization, and attention, and enhances these skills in children.  That enhancement can then transfer to executive function in general. 

I’ve long thought that music training must improve executive function, simply because it requires the use of executive function.  This study looked at the effects of short-term, beginner music training in a classroom setting. Just imagine how much executive function improvement results from daily instrumental music practice!  Children learn self-discipline, use focused attention, working memory, and, as we have seen, rule-switching.  Music study constantly stretches the limits of these brain functions, making them stronger and more capable.  And these cognitive abilities are useful for a huge variety of life-tasks, including schoolwork.

Ellis will eventually get the hang of switching between key signatures, and by doing so, will increase his general ability to rule-switch.  This strengthening of neural circuits in his prefrontal cortex will give him an advantage in many aspects of life.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Sleep and Memory Consolidation

One year, when I was a teenager, my high school put on the musical Cabaret and I was volunteered into the role of pianist for the show.  I was handed a huge binder containing a piano reduction of the orchestral score and told to go to it.  I accompanied rehearsals, helped weak singers learn their parts, and played in the pit orchestra.  And what was extremely clear to me was that I was not actually a good enough pianist for the job.  That music was hard!  I wasn’t experienced enough to be able to figure out what bits to play and what to leave out, and so struggled along trying to play every single note.

At the end of each day, I would fall into bed exhausted, and every night I would dream I was playing the piano.  Not just some random dream where I was playing: in every dream I was sitting at the piano, looking at the music for Cabaret, actually expending mental energy to play the notes in front of me. 

Sleep and Learning
I hadn’t thought much about that time-period in years, but when I read a recent paper, it all came back to me.  The paper, written by Simmons and Duke in 2006, looked at the role of sleep in solidifying memories.  The researchers taught a simple piano melody to two groups of volunteers.  One group learned the melody in the morning, and was tested to see how well they played it in the evening.  The second group learned the melody in the evening and was tested in the morning.  The results were striking:  the second group (tested in the morning) showed a huge improvement in performance compared to the night before, while the first group showed no improvement.  The only real difference between the groups was that the second group had had a night’s sleep. 

Data from Simmons and Duke (2006).  PM/AM refers to the group that practiced in the evening and was retested in the morning (after sleep).  AM/PM refers to the group that practiced in the morning and was retested in the evening.

Sleep enhances memory consolidation
This study is just one of a number of recent studies showing the role of sleep in memory consolidation.  Consolidation is an important stage of memory formation, in which recently formed memory traces are made resistant to interference, strengthened, and anatomically rearranged in the brain.  Studies have shown that for motor memory, there is definitely consolidation happening during non-REM sleep (the deep sleep when we’re not dreaming).  Sleep deprivation blocks memory consolidation and so sleep-deprived people do not show an improvement in performance the next day.

Role of REM vs. non-REM sleep
But let’s step back a second… I just said that consolidation definitely happens during non-REM sleep, when we’re not dreaming.  But at the beginning of this post I was talking about how much I was dreaming about piano practice.  So what’s the relationship?  Well, non-REM sleep has been shown to be critical for motor sequence learning, when we’re learning a pattern of movements, like learning a particular new song.  So sure, when I was struggling with the piano score for Cabaret, I was learning new songs, and that required non-REM sleep.  But there was so much new music that I was also learning how to sight-read better.  That’s not a new motor memory, that’s a new skill.  Skill learning like that is a form of sensorimotor learning, where we have to take sensory input and translate it into the appropriate motor response.  And that type of learning requires REM sleep, the sleep in which we're dreaming.  When people are intensely learning a new skill or immersed in a new language, the proportion of time they spend in REM sleep has been shown to increase.  And depriving people specifically of REM sleep inhibits their learning.

Playing difficult music day in and day out, like I did with Cabaret, is an intensive learning situation, and probably the repeated dreams I experienced were related to memory consolidation during REM sleep.  I literally was practicing in my sleep.

All of this is to say that sleep (both REM and non-REM) is absolutely critical for stabilizing and improving memories.  Just by sleeping, you can improve your music performance. Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis is probably the best thing you can do to improve your ability to learn.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Deliberate Practice and the Role of Attention

Deliberate Practice is most effective
Thinking about playing music while you’re playing music is a good start, but what really makes practice most effective is to always be striving for improvement.  Our goal should be that each practice session consists of deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice is an idea from K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, who studies how people become experts at something: 

In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance.
                        -Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Romer (1993)

This idea of deliberate practice is relevant because sometimes students (or their parents) assume that it would be better just to play for fun most of the time, instead of spending time practicing seriously.  A parent might say to me, “Little Matilda is so musical and just loves playing the piano, so I don’t want to squelch her enthusiasm by making her play scales”. And of course enjoyment of playing is important, and there is value in spending time improvising or just “noodling” on the piano, but if students really want to improve as pianists, deliberate practice is the most effective way. 

Playing “just for fun” does not make you a better musician
A 1996 study by John Sloboda and his colleagues compared five groups of children who were or had been taking music lessons.  The highest-achieving group consisted of children who were at a special music school, the second group included children who had applied but not been admitted to music school, the third group was children who had considered applying to the school, the fourth group were “regular” children taking music lessons, and the lowest-achieving group was children who had played an instrument in the past but had quit.  When Sloboda looked at how much time children in the different groups had spent practicing, there was a clear correlation between the hours they had practiced over their lifetime, and the quality of their playing.  By age 13, children in the high-achieving group had practiced twice as many hours as the children in the second group, and more than five times as many hours as the children who subsequently gave up playing their instrument.  
From Sloboda et al. (1996)

There is a very clear correlation between hours spent in serious practice and the level of playing.  In contrast, when Sloboda looked at how much time had been spent playing “for fun”, there was no correlation.  The high-achieving group did not spend significantly more time playing previously-learned pieces, improvising, or fooling around on their instruments.  It was hard practice, with their attention focused on improving their playing, that led those children to be better musicians, not playing for the sheer enjoyment of it.

Why is deliberate practice better than just playing music?
You might think (and we often do think this) that simple repetition is enough to make us learn.  If you play a tune enough times, you’ll eventually know it well, whether or not you were paying full attention while you were playing it, right?  Well, yes and no.  You can learn something up to a certain level of proficiency without giving your full attention, but it takes a lot longer, and you won’t master it to the same level you could if you were really focusing on learning. 

The difference at the level of the brain seems to be based on the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which plays an important role in learning.  When we are paying attention to something, a part of the brain called the basal forebrain is activated, and releases acetylcholine into the appropriate parts of the brain for learning that particular task.  Neurons that are active and have acetylcholine released onto them will be more plastic and this helps us lock in our memories of whatever we’re paying attention to.

Deliberate practice, that is, paying attention to your practice and focusing on improvement, is the most effective way of learning to play music.

Ericsson KA, Krampe RT  Tesch-Römer C (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Sloboda JA, Davidson JW, Howe MJA, Moore DG (1996).  The role of practice in the development of performing musicicans British Journal of Psychology 87:287-309.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Explicit and Implicit Memory in Learning Music

Welcome to “Training the Musical Brain”, a blog combining my interests in neuroscience and music pedagogy.  I believe that neuroscience, psychology and related areas of research have a lot to tell us about the affects of music on the brain, and about the best ways to optimize our musical training. 

I’m going to start off the blog by giving a summary of a talk I gave this fall at the Music for Young Children (MYC) Conference, in Princeton, B.C.  The topic was “The Neuroscience of Practicing”, a subject dear to my heart because my passion for neuroscience began with an interest in memory and learning, and that lead me to pursue a degree in neuroscience.  Because the talk was long, I’ll split it into a number of blog posts.

Practicing is the way we learn, the way we store facts, events or skills in memory.  You might think that your music teacher is doing all the teaching, and that the learning that you do is passive (you just sit there and absorb what she says, right?) but it doesn’t work that way.  Learning is an active process on the part of the learner, and the teacher’s main job is as a guide.  It is during your practice time that most of the learning happens.

There are two main types of memory systems:  explicit memory and implicit memory, and studying music uses both of them.  Explicit memory is memory for facts and events:  when we learn that the key signature of G major is F#, this is stored in explicit memory.  Implicit memory, on the other hand, is the memory for skills and habits.  We use a lot of implicit memory in playing the piano.  When we learn a new scale or a new piece of music, we practice it until we can play it without too much conscious effort.  We don’t have to think about every single note every time we play it.  Implicit memory is sometimes called motor memory or muscle memory.  I don’t like this last term because it implies that the memories are stored in your muscles, which they are certainly not.  Motor memory involves a part of the brain called the cerebellum, which has a role in linking sensory input to motor commands.  In this way, the cerebellum takes the sensory feedback that you get from playing the piano (like the way the piano keys feel, how you have just moved your fingers and arms, and the sound that you have just produced) and links it to the motor command that was just sent out to the muscles.  It also links it to the next command that will be sent, so that a whole sequence of motor commands and sensory inputs is linked together in memory.

When we perform music, we need to use both implicit memory and explicit memory.  Many pianists have had the experience of playing the piano using implicit memory only; it seems like the hands can play the piece without any input from the brain!  That’s actually not true: unconscious parts of the brain like the cerebellum and basal ganglia are telling the motor cortex what commands to send to the muscles, but it feels like the brain is not involved because these are unconscious processes.  The downside of this automatic type of playing is that often pianists find that if they start thinking about what they’re playing, they make a mistake and are unable to continue playing the song.  What’s happening here is that the conscious parts of our brain are sending commands to the motor cortex that interfere with the commands coming from the cerebellum, and so we get mixed up.  The solution to this problem is that we should not let the performance of a piece get too automatic.  How can we accomplish this?  The best way is to form explicit memories of the piece alongside the implicit memories.  For instance, you could analyze the chord structure of the piece and memorize that, so you would know what chord you should be playing at each moment.  Or you could form an explicit memory of what notes you should be playing at the beginning of every fourth bar (or each phrase).  Or whatever works for you.  The key thing is to at least have some explicit memory of the song, even if it is just every few bars, that way if you lose your automatic train of thought, you have an explicit landmark to go back to, so you can get back into the song and continue playing.

This was my first main point of the talk:  When learning music, it is important to form explicit memories along with implicit memories.