Monday, 17 October 2011

Attention in Music Practice

A quick aside before I start today’s topic: I’d like to send a big two-fold thank-you to my MYC colleague Wendy Chan for directing many of you towards this blog, and also for the design of my beautiful header and background.  Her assistance and encouragement have been instrumental in getting this blog off the ground.

In my last blog post, I described how explicit (conscious) and implicit (automatic) memories are both important for performing.  In today’s post, I want to emphasize that practicing should always be conscious and deliberate.  If we are playing music on automatic pilot, that is not actually practicing.  The reason for this is that attention is required in order to learn anything. 

A less effective method of practicing

Distraction limits our ability to learn
A study by Nissen and Bullemer in 1987 showed that if our attention is distracted while trying to learn a skill, we learn much more slowly, if at all.  The study used a motor task where people had to press one of four buttons depending on where a light flashed on the computer screen.  The lights flashed in a certain order, so after a while people learned where the next light would flash and got faster at pressing the correct buttons.  This was an implicit learning task because at first the people didn’t even notice that there was a pattern to the light flashes, but they nevertheless were faster at pressing the buttons.  The researchers asked a subset of people doing this task to do a second task at the same time:  they heard a series of high and low tones and had to count the number of low tones.  This group could not focus their attention on the flashing-light/button-press task.  They were much slower at responding to the light flashes, and they did not get faster at pressing the buttons because they did not learn where the next light would flash.  Distracting them with a counting task completely blocked their ability to learn the motor pattern.

This distraction effect definitely applies to practicing music.  If your mind is not on your practicing, you are kind of wasting your time.  There is a quote I love by the flutist Trevor Wye, who says:  “It is almost useless to spend your allocated practice time wishing that you weren’t practising”.

Internal vs. External Focus of Attention
Well, then what exactly should we be thinking about while we’re practicing? What should we direct our attention towards?  Research in a number of different fields has shown that an external focus works better than an internal focus.  An internal focus directs our attention towards the workings of our own bodies:  how we’re moving our fingers, arms, lips, etc.  With an external focus, we’re thinking instead of the results of our movements.  The effects of internal vs. external focus have been studied extensively in sports performance.  Thinking about where we’re aiming our golf ball leads to a better swing than thinking about how we’re moving our arms to swing the golf club.  For music this would mean that focusing on the sounds that we’re producing is more effective than thinking about how we’re moving our fingers. 

A recent study in the Journal of Music Education has shown exactly this effect.  The researchers, led by Robert Duke, taught music students a short keyboard passage, and instructed them to practice it and to make the notes as even as possible.  The students were told to focus on either on the movements of their fingers, the movements of the piano keys, the movements of the piano hammers, or the sounds they were producing.  The result was that those focusing on the sounds were the most even, while those focusing on their fingers were the least even.  The more external the focus during practice, the better the performance.

Data from Duke et al. (2011). 

This idea is directly applicable to music students.  I often tell my students to be sure to listen to themselves.  They especially need this reminder for practicing technical exercises such as scales, which can be rote and boring for younger students (and older ones too!).  However, trying to make these exercises sound as beautiful as possible is a good way to focus attention on the exercise and lead to consistent improvements in evenness and tone.

Why does this work?  Well, when we play exercises or songs we know well, we already have the movements stored in implicit memory.  When we focus our attention on the movements, that conscious effort interferes with the automatic execution of the motor memory.  However, if we focus on the results of the movements, that effort seems to fine-tune the motor memory, leading to a better rendition of the scale or song.

I’ll have more to say about attention in the next post, but the main point today is that focused attention is a critical component of music practice, and that, in general, we should focus on improving the sounds we produce.


Nissen MJ and Bullemer P (1987). Attentional requirements of learning:  Evidence from performance measures. Cognitive Psychology 19: 1-32

Duke RA, Cash CD, Allen SE (2011). Focus of Attention Affects Performance of Motor Skills in Music. Journal of Research in Music Education 59(1): 44-55.


  1. Awwww Tara, you're welcome. It was my pleasure to assist and I'm so glad you have this blog up and running. I can't wait to learn more!!

  2. Very interesting post! This applies to more than music, I would imagine. When I'm perfecting my freestyle stroke, I will think more about the overall objective of going fast, rather than thinking of how my arms are positioned. Also, my practise of midi files is wrong too... Should be paying more attention rather than playing the files while I'm running! Thanks, Dr. Tara!

  3. You are my second witness to new ideas I'm learning concerning the brain and how we learn best. My brother, Dr.Ingo R. Titze, is currently writing a book driving these same insights home for voice teachers.
    Here are my summaries of what he tried to get through to me.
    Now comes the part of putting these ideas on the front burner of my own brain while teaching.

  4. You're right, Obsessive Researching Mommy (can I call you ORM?). These ideas apply to learning pretty much anything, and have been demonstrated a lot in research on sports performance. And I would guess that listening to your midi files while running limits your improvements in your running and that you don't learn the songs as well as you would if you were focusing solely on the music. I'll have more about attention in the next post, particularly about "deliberate practice".

    And BusyB, your brother sounds like he's completely on the same page as me. I'd love to read his book once it's done!

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  5. Sometimes, for me, getting students the music they want entails me transcribing a particular pop song for them, that involves a lot of decisions for me about trying to be true to the original melody so the students can play along with the track (key, rhythm, register, etc) or transpose the piece to an easier key and with a simplified rhythm which will enable them to play it more easily. Sometimes giving them a very difficult transcription which is clearly beyond their current abilities is an excellent motivator, and sometimes it isnt, every student is a unique individual who responds to a wide range of positive or negative reinforcements- some will rise to the challenge and work their butts off to be able to conquer the piece and some will curl up in a little tearful ball and quit. One parent came up with an excellent motivator for her daughter (who was a very commercially minded girl), she paid her $5 for every day that she practiced on her own for 30 minutes or more- but at the end of the week the child had to pay for her lesson herself. Pretty quickly the student realized that if she practiced 7 days a week she would be turning a $10 profit weekly, and promptly doubled her efforts at home. Everyone is different, and part of our job as teachers is learning what makes each pupil tick, and helping them develop good discipline which will reward them with a wealth of achievements, both in music and life. This is the way we do it at my studio, anyway...

  6. Thanks for your post. I've been thinking about writing a very comparable post over the last couple of weeks, I'*probably keep it short and sweet and link to this instead if thats cool. Thanks. free music to download

  7. Thanks Dr. Tara. This insight will help especially in the boring practice of scales.

  8. Thank you for this post. It's very informative. Learning to focus on one task while tuning out the many distractions vying for attention is a crucial life skill that some students are missing. AddAll XR

  9. Thank you for sharing this! What you have shared is very helpful and informative. Would love to see more updates from you.

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