Thursday 29 November 2012

Feeling the Beat

It’s a Thursday morning, and I’m leading a Music Circle Time at the local drop-in playcentre.  The kids are enthusiastic and adorable: mostly one- and two-year-olds, some infants, and a handful of older preschoolers, all eager to sing, dance, jump, twirl, tap and shake.  I run through a repertoire of fun songs that all involve some kind of movement.  Even for sit-down songs with no obvious actions (like “Old MacDonald had a Farm”, for example), we clap or tap to the beat.  This keeps the kids engaged, but more importantly, it activates their sense of rhythm.  Literally, they “feel” the beat of the music.

If you stop to think about this phrase, “feeling the beat”, you might find it a bit odd.  Listening to music is something we do with our hearing, not our sense of touch, right?  Surely we don’t actually feel the beat any more than we can smell the colour in a painting.  In fact, that’s not entirely true.  A recent study (Huang et al., 2012) published in PLoS ONE looked at how we use different senses to “feel” the beat in music, and found that we can perceive musical beat and meter with both hearing and touch, and not only that, but the two types of sensory information are integrated together in the brain. 

Before we get into this, let me explain what I mean by meter.  Music almost always has a regular beat to it, and when we listen to these beats, we hear them grouped into patterns of strong beats and weak beats.  A slow waltz, for example, will have a pattern of strong - weak - weak, strong - weak - weak, etc.  This is known as triple meter.  A march would have a pattern of strong - weak - strong - weak; this is duple meter.  Studies have shown that even if the music is generated such that it doesn’t actually contain strong and weak beats, people will impose a meter upon the music and think of it as either duple or triple meter.

In the Huang study, the subjects had to identify whether they thought the meter of a rhythm was duple or triple.  This identification was based either on the pattern of accents put into the rhythm (i.e. some beats were made to be louder and sound or feel like strong beats), or based simply on whether there was generally a note or a rest where we would expect the strong beat to be.  The subjects were able to tell easily whether the rhythm was duple or triple when the rhythm was presented as an audible series of notes (i.e. using hearing) or when the rhythm was presented as a series of taps on the subject’s hand (i.e. using touch).  This is not a new result – previous studies have shown that we are quite good a recognizing rhythm using touch (although, interestingly, not with vision).  

Where this new study showed something really interesting was when the subjects had to recognize the meter using both hearing and touch.  In this part of the experiment, some of the beats were presented as audible notes, and some of the beats were presented as taps on the hand.  The subjects had to integrate both modalities in order to identify whether the meter was triple or duple.  And the study showed that they could, although it was easiest to identify the meter if all the strong beats were presented in a single modality, e.g. all the strong beats were taps on the hand and the weak beats were audible notes.  If the two different modalities of sensing rhythm were given information that interfered with each other (i.e. the notes going to touch felt like duple meter, and the notes going to hearing sounded like triple meter), the subjects had a much harder time figuring out what meter the combined rhythm was in, showing that the two types of inputs interact to a great extent.  The auditory information tends to be dominant, having a greater influence on meter perception than touch.

This study reminds me of a classic paper published in the journal Science in 2005, from Laurel Trainor’s lab.  This classic study used metrically ambiguous music (i.e. could be interpreted as duple or triple), and had infants bounced to the beat in either two or three.  Then the music was played back to the infants with accents added so that it was clearly either in duple or triple meter, and the infants preferred the meter in which they had been bounced.  The researchers concluded that this effect was probably due to vestibular (balance) input interacting with auditory input.  The main point was that body movement plays an important role in rhythm perception.

All of this suggests that in order to help students with their rhythm and meter, we should take advantage of the integration of auditory musical information with movement and touch sensation.  This works just as well with older students as it does with my little ones at the playcentre.  The more senses we can enlist to help students feel the beat, the better.

For instance, the teacher could play the piece while the student marches, bounces, dances or moves in some way to the beat.  With younger children, the parents can bounce them on the strong beats.  This leaves the movement to someone who presumably can feel the meter.  Having the children move on their own may be useful but if they are not feeling the beat already, asking them to move may not improve it.  There are other options, rather than having the students get up and move:  the student could sway to the beat while playing, or nod their head.  Movement of the head strongly activates the vestibular system, so this is probably a better reinforcer of meter than having the student just tap their foot.  That being said, clapping and tapping are also useful, although having the student move their whole leg (“walking” their feet while sitting down) is more effective than just tapping, since the bigger the movement, the better.  The teacher or parent could also tap the beat on the student’s shoulder while they are playing, remembering to accent the strong beats.  In this way, they are receiving both touch and auditory information about the meter.

I’m sure there are many other ways to incorporate touch and balance into our daily interactions with music.  I’d be interested in other ideas – please share what works for you!


Huang, J., Gamble, D., Sarnlertsophon, K., Wang, X., and Hsiao, S. (2012). Feeling Music: Integration of Auditory and Tactile Inputs in Musical Meter Perception. PLoS ONE 7, e48496.

Phillips-Silver, J., and Trainor, L.J. (2005). Feeling the Beat: Movement Influences Infant Rhythm Perception. Science 308, 1430–1430.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Learning in Your Sleep

Imagine climbing into bed, turning off the light, and shutting your eyes.  As you drift off to sleep, a small machine monitors your brainwaves, and when it indicates that you have entered a stage of deep rest known as slow-wave sleep, a Mozart sonata begins to play softly.  You’ve spent a solid hour practicing this sonata during the day, and while it plays repeatedly during your slumber, the memory trace laid down in your brain during that practice session becomes reactivated in both the auditory and motor parts of the brain.  In the morning, unaware of your nighttime “practice session”, your performance of the sonata is significantly improved.

I would normally be highly skeptical of this type of claim.  It reminds me of that scene in Huxley’s Brave New World where children listen to history lessons in their sleep, instead of having to go to school.  It sounds like new age mumbo-jumbo to me.

Except that this exact type of learning effect has been shown by researchers at Northwestern University and published in this month’s issue of Nature Neuroscience.  The experiment was straightforward:  Sixteen people learned to play two short melodies on the piano, and then had a 90 minute nap.  When they entered slow-wave sleep, one of the melodies was quietly played twenty times.  After the nap, performance on the melody that had been played during the nap was significantly improved compared to the melody that wasn’t played.

This study brings together two interesting aspects of music learning.  The first is the role of sleep in aiding learning.  Previous studies have shown that memory consolidation during sleep is an important source of improvement between practice sessionsThe second aspect is the importance of sensorimotor integration in learning to play an instrument.  During practicing, our brains learn to associate the sounds we produce (the auditory feedback) with the movements that lead to those sounds. The auditory and motor parts of our brains become more highly linked, so that just hearing a song that we know how to play activates motor parts of the brain, and just making the movements associated with playing a song (like pressing the keys of an unplugged keyboard) causes auditory parts of the brain to light up.  This is why hearing the music in our sleep can cause improvements in our motor performance:  the replaying of the song reactivates the auditory memory, which simultaneously reactivates the motor memory, strengthening both these memories and their association with each other.

So, am I going to start listening to piano music in my sleep?  I’m certainly considering giving it a try.  There are a few possible caveats to the potential gains here.  First, music might interfere with sleep.  In the research study, there were a couple of subjects who did wake up while the music was playing, so this could definitely be a downside.  Another issue to consider is that the music should probably be played during slow-wave sleep, as it was in the research study, to have maximum effect (although the effects of playing music during other stages of sleep have yet to be examined).  Most people (myself included) don’t keep track of when they are in deep sleep.  However, there are iphone apps that claim to monitor stages of sleep (usually these aim to waken you during light sleep) and these could potentially be adapted to trigger music during deep sleep.  A third issue is that the effect on music motor learning might simply be a bias instead of an absolute gain in learning.  What this means is that listening to one song might improve performance on that song at the expense of other songs being learned.  In the research study, the melody that was played during sleep improved 7.9%, while the other melody only improved 2.6%.  Meanwhile, for people who didn’t have either melody played during their sleep, both melodies improved about 4.4%.  Perhaps there is a limit to how much improvement can happen during sleep: listening to the one melody caused it to be improved but maybe also caused the other melody to improve less.

In any case, it sounds like a fun summer project and I do have a couple of piano pieces I’m trying to learn, so why not?  Sweet dreams!


Antony, J.W., Gobel, E.W., O’Hare, J.K., Reber, P.J., and Paller, K.A. (2012). Cued memory reactivation during sleep influences skill learning. Nature Neuroscience 15, 1114–1116.

Friday 1 June 2012


Whew!  May and June are crazy months for me.  As the end of the school approaches, it’s time to focus on finishing up my piano classes for the summer.  Last weekend saw my year-end piano recital, and this week I teach my last classes and lessons, except for those students who have exams at the end of June.  In addition, these months are the time when I have to look after my least favourite part of music teaching:  the shameless self-promotion, trying to fill my new classes for the fall.  My musical theatre group’s summer show opens in two weeks (unbelievably soon!), and I am scrambling to memorize lines and master dance steps.  And on top of all that, it’s time for me to start preparing for the summer university course that I teach, “Elements of Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology”.  I’ve been lining up guest lecturers, comparing textbooks, and starting to review my notes and presentations. 

All of this is by way of explanation for the recent dearth of posts here on my blog.  I have a post that’s been two-thirds finished for weeks now, and I really will get around to those last few paragraphs soon.  And since I’m in the process of reviewing all of neuroanatomy, you can expect posts this summer discussing specific areas of the brain, how they work, and their role in music-making.

In the meantime, I wanted to point out this excellent blog post by Jonah Lehrer (whose fascinating new book “Imagine” is one of several that I am halfway through reading).  His post describes a new research paper looking at what parts of the brain are active when we are deciding whether or not a task is worth the effort we are expending.  I won’t describe the research in any detail, because Lehrer does such a good job, but it turns out that there are specific parts of the brain (left striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex) that receive more dopamine in people who are more willing to persist with a difficult job, and different parts of the brain (the insula) that receive more dopamine in people who give up easily.

This observation struck a chord with me because I’ve been busy researching about the topic of “Motivation and the Brain” for a talk I will be giving to the B.C. Music for Young Children teachers in the fall.  The question of how to motivate students and encourage them to practice well and regularly is a never-ending one for most music teachers.  My experience as a teacher and a parent has been that the hardest challenge that students need to overcome is their own desire to just go and do something easier.  Practicing music is hard work, and the immediate rewards may be small, so it’s hard for students to stick with it, every practice session.  But it’s harder for some than for others.  Even between my own two children, the difference in “stick-to-it-iveness” is astonishing, and directly related to their different levels of success at playing the piano.  What I find remarkable is that we can now relate this aspect of personality to levels of neurotransmitters in specific parts of the brain.

The more important issue, to my mind, is whether there’s anything we can do to encourage the growth of persistence as a personality trait.  Can we learn to have higher levels of dopamine in the appropriate structures in the brain?  Perhaps if we can wheedle kids into practicing enough, they will learn to see the connection between the work and the reward; the neurons in the reward pathway will become rewired to reinforce those parts of the brain making the decision about whether practicing is worth the effort.  Certainly children can become more willing to work hard over time, but it’s difficult to know how much of that is learned and how much is simply brain development with age.  My nine-year-old is much more focused and hard-working about her piano practice than she was several years ago, but I’m pretty sure it’s not because of anything I’ve done to encourage her; she’s simply older than she was.

It’s something to ponder, and I’ll definitely have more to say here about motivation before I’m ready to give my talk in the fall.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Music for the Little Ones

Am I ready for piano lessons?

I’ve been asked before, many times, at what age I think children should start musical training.  And I know that what people are really asking is “When should we start piano lessons?”  But really, musical training starts as soon as a child is able to hear: in utero, before the child is even born.  Because the initial part of musical training is all about listening to music.  A baby’s brain is learning how to make sense of sounds.  This is true for speech, environmental sounds, and, of course, music.  It’s unclear how much babies can hear in the womb, or what sense they make of sounds, but babies are certainly born able to understand pitch and rhythm.  And as they listen to music over the first few years of their lives, they become “enculturated”, meaning they learn to recognize and enjoy the basic norms of the music of their culture.  For example, children enculturated to Western music prefer tonal music over atonal, and can recognize when out-of-key chords are inserted into songs.

Baby Music Classes?
But what about taking actual music classes – at what age is that really worthwhile?  Should parents just listen to music at home with their infants and toddlers, or is there extra benefit from taking a music class?  A recent paper from Laurel Trainor and colleagues at MacMaster University in Ontario describes research showing that babies gain a lot from participating in music classes.  The 6-month study looked at infants who were 6 months old at the beginning of the experiment, and 12 months old at the end.  The babies were split into two groups:  one group participated, along with their parents, in a music class (including movement, singing, and playing rhythm instruments), while the second group participated (again with their parents) in a play-based class where music was playing in the background.

This study showed three main results:

1) The babies who had attended the music class for six months more strongly preferred tonal music over atonal music compared to babies in the play class.  This indicates that music classes had helped the babies become more enculturated; they had a better understanding and preference for Western tonal music than the other babies.

2) Musical tones were processed differently by the brains of babies who had attended music class.  This was shown by EEG recordings, which use electrodes pasted on the babies' heads to measure brainwave activity.  Actively participating in a music class led to the babies being better able to process musical sounds.

3) Parents of babies who had attended the music class reported that their children had more positive social interaction with them, were easier to soothe, and showed more smiling and laughter, compared to reports from parents whose babies participated in the play classes.

 Definitely ready for rhythm instruments

Wednesday mornings are one of my favourite times of the week.  I teach a class called Music Pups, in which I get to sing, dance, twirl, jump, play rhythm instruments and just be generally silly, with a group of adorable little ones and their happy parents.  I’ve been teaching this class for years, ever since my son was a baby, and I love it.  So I didn’t need to read a research paper to convince me that music classes for infants are worthwhile.  Even the littlest ones babble along with the music, and shake instruments, and laugh and coo when their mothers dance with them.  The class is designed for a mixed age: babies to four-year-olds.  I’ve had children who have taken the classes over a number of years and so I’ve been able to watch their musical development.  It’s amazing to see these toddlers begin to sing along easily with their favourite songs, to echo back (on pitch!) little musical phrases, and to beat their drums in time to the music.  Some of these kids are now my piano students and it’s obvious that the early music classes give them an edge.  But more than that, this type of music class helps reinforce a love for music and give the children an early taste of what music teachers really want to impart to their students:  the joy of music-making.

Trainor, L.J., Marie, C., Gerry, D., Whiskin, E., and Unrau, A. (2012). Becoming musically enculturated: effects of music classes for infants on brain and behavior. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1252, 129–138.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Linking movement and sound

Lately my 6-year-old has been difficult about his piano practice.  His new trick goes like this:  I say something along the lines of, “Okay, why don’t you start with The Wild Horseman today?”

He shoots me a rebellious look and replies. “Fine, I’ll play The Wild Horseman”.  He puts his hands in the correct starting position, and proceeds to sing the entire song, note perfect, while moving his fingers over the correct keys, but not pressing them down.  He then grins saucily at me.

I put on my “mom” voice.  “Very funny.  Now play it properly, with your fingers, not your voice.”  What I don’t tell him is that this is actually not a half-bad way of practicing. 

Practice forms mental representations of the music
When we practice music what we’re actually doing is forming a mental representation of the song.  When we play it for the first time, we read it note-by-note (or maybe chord-by-chord, if we’re more experienced), but as we practice, we stop having to focus on the individual notes, and instead they become encoded in our brain as a whole sequence of notes. Once we have practiced the song enough, we just have to start it, and the notes  follow one another, like beads on a string. This is true for both the movements we make while playing and the sounds that are produced, because we form both a motor representation of the song AND an auditory representation of the song.  That is, we learn the movements we need to make, and we learn what the song sounds like.  These two representations are closely tied together in our brains and they support each other.  Scientists have a special name (don’t they always?) for this connection between the movements we make and the sensations that are produced: “sensorimotor integration”.

Imagine playing your favourite piece of music on an electronic keyboard.  Now imagine playing it with the keyboard turned off, so there is no sound.  It would be much harder, wouldn’t it?  We need that auditory feedback to help keep our motor program running properly.  In fact, the best way to hit all the right notes on the soundless keyboard is to play a mental soundtrack of the song while performing the movements.  This works because the parts of our brain that store and produce the motor pattern are intricately linked to the parts of our brain that listen to the sounds we produce by playing.  And these auditory parts of the brain are activated during mental imagery of music.

The connection between movement and sound works the other way around too.  It’s been shown that if you are listening to a piece of music that you know how to play, motor parts of your brain are activated, as if you were playing along.

Sensorimotor integration aids musical memory
A recent paper from McGill University explores the role of sensorimotor integration in musical memory.  The researchers, Rachel Brown and Caroline Palmer, had pianists learn short melodies in one of four different ways:  1) by simply listening to them, 2) by practicing the songs on a soundless keyboard  3) by practicing them on a keyboard with sound or 4) by practicing them along with recorded version of the songs, but unable to hear their own playing.  The pianists were then tested to see whether they recognized the melodies from among a pool of other melodies they had to listen to.  Pianists were also tested to see how good their auditory and motor imagery was. 

The researchers found that practicing without any auditory feedback (i.e. on a soundless keyboard) made it quite hard to recognize the melodies after.  It was much worse than normal practicing (which was the best), practicing with a recording (2nd best), or just listening to the tunes (3rd best).  However, pianists with good auditory imagery were the most successful at recognizing melodies they had practiced without sound.  In other words, if the pianists were better at mentally “singing along” with their soundless practice, they were better able to recognize those tunes later.

Direct auditory feedback makes for the strongest sensorimotor associations
Another interesting result from this paper came from comparing practice where the movements and sounds were either “strongly coupled” or “weakly coupled”.  Strongly coupled meant that the pianists could hear their own playing, so there was a complete and direct connection between the movements the pianists made and the sounds they heard.  In weakly coupled practice, the pianists could not hear their own playing, but they heard a recorded version of the melody.  What this meant was that as long as they played exactly correctly (in terms of both pitch and rhythm), the sounds they heard were connected to the movements they made.  But if they hit the wrong key on the keyboard or were a little slow in their rhythms, this was not reflected in the sounds they heard.  What the researchers found was that strongly coupled practice made for stronger memories of the melodies than weakly coupled practice.  The conclusion was that direct feedback of the effects of the movements seemed to be required for the strongest auditory-motor associations. 

Practicing the mental representation 
My son, while intending to be silly, is practicing his mental representation of the melody by singing it.  And moving his fingers at the same time practices his representation of the motor task of playing the song.  What’s lacking is the direct feedback: if he makes a mistake with his fingers, it won’t result in a wrong note in his singing.  So if he makes a lot of mistakes, this isn’t going to help his motor representation.  But since in this case he’s playing a song that he actually knows quite well, it’s not a terrible way to practice (and certainly better than not practicing at all!)

Another way to think about this type of “practicing” is that it’s a good way to warm up the brain for the physical practicing of this song.  In fact, a really good warm-up might just be to sit and look over the music and imagine playing it, thinking about how the hands would move and what the song would sound like.  This is mental practicing… but I think that’s a topic for another post.

Brown RM, Palmer C. Auditory–motor learning influences auditory memory for music. Memory & Cognition. 2012. Available at: Accessed April 23, 2012.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Cellular Mechanisms of Learning

In a comment on a recent post, BusyB asked if I had read the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.  I had not at the time, but quickly requested it from the good ol’ Vancouver Public Library.  The author has a pretty straightforward premise:  to get good at something, you have to engage in what he calls “deep practice”, and this increases your talent by causing the growth of myelin in your brain.

What do I think about this?  I’ll talk about talent and practice (and the inevitable nature-vs-nurture question) at a later date, but today I want to talk about what happens in our brain when we learn something.  Let me say right off that I find Coyle’s claim that skill-building equals myelin growth such a gross oversimplification that I literally cringed every time myelin was mentioned.  The book was peppered with repeated sentences such as “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits”.  And, really?  It’s just not that simple.  Sorry.

Let me back up and tell you a little bit about neurons and synapses and myelin and what we think happens to them during learning.

Neurons in a nutshell
You probably know that neurons are brain cells, and you have billions of them in your head and spinal cord.  Neurons “talk” to one another electrically through specialized connections called synapses.  Here’s a schematic view of two neurons (one blue, the other green) connected by a couple of synapses.

The axon is the part of the neuron that carries electrical impulses away from the cell body.  At the end of the axon, there are specialized endings where the electrical signal gets transferred onto the dendrites of another neuron.  These are the synapses.  In most neurons, the axon is wrapped up in an electrical insulator made of a substance called myelin.  Electrical impulses travel faster down axons that are insulated, and so the presence and amount of myelin on an axon alters the neuron's ability to transmit electrical signals.

Learning makes stronger connections between neurons
That’s, in a very small nutshell, how neurons work.  And although I’ve only shown two neurons in my diagram, every neuron is connected to many, many other neurons, forming a complex spider’s web of neuronal circuits.  Almost everything that happens in our brains comes down to circuits of neurons transmitting electrical signals.  So when we learn something new, or get better at doing something, what happens in our brains is that the neuronal circuits responsible for that fact or skill become stronger, better able to communicate with one another. 

There are several main ways in which this can happen:
1)  The synapses themselves become stronger and so transmit the signals more reliably
2)  New synapses form, so the neurons are more strongly connected
3)  Myelin growth leads to faster transmission of the electrical signals down the axon, and better timing of neuronal signals.

The synaptic mechanisms (numbers 1 and 2 above) have been studied in excruciating detail (or at least that's how it feels to people like me who have spent years in nitty-gritty synaptic research) and scientists as a group are slowly getting a handle on how changes in synapses happen and how this helps us learn things. 

Neurons that fire together wire together
Here’s how scientists think that learning works:  The basic idea is that every thought is encoded by the firing of a specific group of neurons, all connected in a circuit.  So a particular circuit fires when we think of the note middle C, for example.  And there’s another circuit that fires when we picture a note on the first ledger line below the treble clef staff.  When we learn that this position on the staff corresponds to middle C, both of these circuits fire at the same time.  And when neurons fire at the same time, the connections between the neurons get stronger.  The synapses get stronger, and/or new synapses form.  This means that the next time we fire the circuit that means “note on the first ledger line below the staff”, the circuit that corresponds to “middle C” is more likely to fire.  Neuroscientists have a saying for this:  "Neurons that fire together wire together”.  From a learning standpoint, it means that we have learned to connect those two ideas by physically altering the way the neurons in our brain are connected.

These changes in synaptic strength very clearly happen when we learn something, whether new facts or new skills.  Synaptic changes are an important part of learning during development, and relearning following brain injury.  There is a ton of research showing this.  The fact that Coyle doesn’t even mention these types of mechanisms as taking place during learning is kind of ridiculous.

Myelin and Learning
So what about myelin?  Does myelin growth aid in skill learning, as Coyle purports?  The answer, based on scientific research, is “probably”.  There are correlational studies showing that people who are more skilled at certain tasks (like reading, or playing music) have greater myelination in areas of the brain related to those tasks.  In particular, musicians have a larger and more myelinated corpus callosum, the axon bundle that connects the two halves of the brains.  This is especially true for musicians who began their musical training before the age of 7, which makes sense, because the myelination of the nervous system is something that occurs throughout childhood and is not complete until a person is in their mid-twenties.  Myelination of neurons during learning in adults is still a controversial idea, and research in this area is on-going.  I’m interested in this line of research, especially the thought that the amount of myelin helps to co-ordinate the arrival of signals from different neurons.  Perhaps myelination plays a greater role in learning of skills compared to learning of facts (implicit vs. explicit learning), but I was not able to find any evidence for this in the scientific literature.

What do I think about The Talent Code?  I agree with the (rather obvious) idea that hard works leads to the acquisition of skills, but I think there are better and more interesting books that address this topic (this one, for example).  However, I think the scientific side of his book is weak, oversimplified and kind of misleading.


Bengtsson SL, Nagy Z, Skare S, Forsman L, Forssberg H, Ullen F. (2005) Extensive piano practicing has regionally specific effects on white matter development. Nat. Neurosci. 8(9):1148-1150.

Fields RD. (2008) White matter in learning, cognition and psychiatric disorders. Trends Neurosci. 31(7):361-370.

Schlaug G, Jäncke L, Huang Y, Staiger JF, Steinmetz H. (1995) Increased corpus callosum size in musicians. Neuropsychologia. 33(8):1047-1055.

Ullén F. (2009) Is activity regulation of late myelination a plastic mechanism in the human nervous system? Neuron Glia Biol. 5(1-2):29-34.

Friday 30 March 2012


(Photo credit:  L. Gaertner)

After a busy couple of weeks, spring break is over.  The kids are back in school, and I can finally get some writing done.  I have five sweet hours to myself each weekday, a large chunk of which I spend sitting in front of the computer, with one eye on the clock to make sure I get out the door by 2:30 to go and pick up my munchkins.  But some days, by about 2:00, I’m tired of working, and give myself a reward for good behaviour:  I can play some music before leaving.

Before I sit down at the piano or pick up the flute, I usually set myself an alarm, or else I will be late leaving the house.  Once I start playing, other thoughts go out of my head.  I’m focused on the music:  getting the right notes, the right tone, the exact timing to elicit the feeling that needs to be expressed.  Time seems to stand still, and at the same time pass without me even noticing.  I am in a state of flow.

The idea of flow was popularized by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his 1990 book Flow:  The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  He describes flow as a mental state in which we experience a sense of deep enjoyment by feeling in control of our actions.  Despite absorbed concentration, we feel a sense of effortlessness.  Our sense of time may be altered.

Two types of activity that are often reported to lead to flow are sports and music, but flow can be experienced during any number of different activities.  What is required is that the activity is challenging for us, but we have the skills to match the level of challenge.  In other words, what we’re doing is hard, but not too hard.  Csikszentmihalyi puts it well:  “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act”.

Csikszentmihalyi describes other characteristics of activities that can induce flow:  there are clear goals and immediate feedback.  All of these characteristics are found in the task of making music.  It’s a challenging activity, but as long as the music we’re playing is not too difficult, we have the skills to perform well.  There are clear goals (the right notes, the right rhythm) and immediate feedback (we can tell if we’ve played a wrong note).  Music-making is also a flexible activity.  As our skills improve, we can play music which is increasingly difficult, so that the challenge level can always match our skill level. 

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, musicians are prone to this sense of flow, also described as peak or optimal experiences.  A 2011 study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition described the frequency of flow experiences in professional and amateur musicians, and found that professionals experience flow about twice as often, and this usually occurs while they are playing music.  This study did not look at flow in non-musicians, but I would guess that non-musicians, on average, experience flow even less than the amateur musicians.  The authors of the study point out that the professional musicians may have been motivated to continue in their musical career because they experienced flow, or it could have been that the years of musical training and their skill level allow them to experience flow more.  It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, isn’t it?  However, we do know that musical training improves executive function, which means that musicians are better at having focused attention, a key element of flow.  This may make it easier for musicians to experience flow.

Another study, published in 2005, surveyed the experience of flow in 90 classical musicians.  The authors, Bloom and Skutnick-Henley, report that musicians are most likely to enter a state of flow when they exhibit high levels of self-confidence when playing, and have a strong desire to experience and express their feelings through music.

The sense of enjoyment that so many of us derive from making music is a key motivator for musicians.  I want to play music all the time because it makes me feel good.  It allows me to let go of my worries and burdens for a time.  And I want to improve as a musician so I can continue to have challenging and interesting music to play, and feel a sense of accomplishment.

As a music teacher, it’s important for me to try to help my students find this sense of flow in their music playing.  I think that too often we hurry students from piece to piece, so they are always working on songs that are a little too hard. After all, that’s how we develop new skills, by continually pushing ourselves to play songs that are more and more challenging.  But practicing difficult music is definitely not the same as simply playing music for enjoyment.  If a student is working through a new piece, constantly making mistakes and correcting herself, it’s probably not very satisfying.  This is not a situation that is likely to induce a state of flow.  After she’s worked on this song for a few weeks, she will have mastered the song (and the new skills involved), and then when she plays it, the level of challenge will match her skills.  It is at this point that she can achieve that sense of flow. She can play with self-confidence, stop worrying about getting the notes right and focus on the underlying expression in the music.  Unfortunately, what usually happens when a piece is mastered is that the music teacher says that the piece is “done” and that the student can stop playing it.

I think we need to help students seek out that sense of flow.  We should encourage them to keep playing pieces that they play well.  (This is also a good way to keep a current repertoire of “party” pieces for when students are asked to play for people on the spur of the moment).  Perhaps every practice session should start or end with a few minutes of playing “for fun”, pieces the student has previously mastered, or maybe a little improvisation.  Or perhaps after 5 or 6 good days of practice in a week, the last day could be devoted to playing anything the student wants, as a reward for good work. We should try to cultivate the habit of playing music for the sheer joy of it.

And now, my weekly blog post done, I’m heading to the piano.  But first, I’d better set an alarm.


Bloom A, Skutnick-Henley P. (2005)  Facilitating Flow Experiences Among Musicians.  American Music Teacher 54(5):24-28

Csikszentmihalyi M. (1990) Flow:  the psychology of optimal experience.  HarperCollins, NY.
Travis F, Harung HS, Lagrosen Y. (2011) Moral development, executive functioning, peak experiences and brain patterns in professional and amateur classical musicians: Interpreted in light of a Unified Theory of Performance. Consciousness and Cognition. 20(4):1256-1264.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Hands Together

Not long after I started writing this blog, I received an email from one of my piano moms asking why it is that we always start by learning new songs “hands-separately”.  That is, I usually tell the kids to learn the right hand part and the left hand part separately before they try to play them both at the same time.  This mom is an occupational therapist and, as such, part of her job is to help people learn or relearn movements.  And she knows that there is a whole field of research showing that when we practice only a part of a movement task, or when we practice a movement out of context, it doesn’t always translate to good performance of that movement in the whole task.  What this means for pianists is that playing the right hand by itself is not really the same as playing the right at the same time as the left hand.  So why do we practice hands-separately?  To be honest, I have my students practice like this because that’s the way I learned to play the piano.  Practicing songs hands-separately is standard procedure for pianists, but is it really the best way?

Splitting our attention
There are two different aspects to playing hands-together that make it particularly difficult.  The first is that when we play piano with both hands, the right hand part and the left hand part are competing for our limited attentional resources.  For each hand, we have to figure out what key(s) on the piano to play and what rhythm to play for each note, in addition to details like dynamics and articulation.  There’s only so much attention to go around, so it’s hard to focus on all of that for both hands.  Attention is a key part of learning, so if we split our attention between the two parts, they will be harder to learn than if we practiced just one part at a time.  That is, it might take longer to learn the piece if we only practice hands-together, because we just can’t focus on all the individual details.  If we are learning only one part at a time, there is still lots to focus on, but it’s more manageable than trying to spread our attention among all those different aspects of the music for two separate piano parts.  Once we’ve learned one part on its own, it becomes more automatic, and we don’t have to use as much attention while we’re playing it.  So from this point of view, it absolutely makes sense to learn each hand’s part separately, and then put them together.  And this is clearly why the hands-separate approach is so popular.

Inhibiting the other hand
The second thing going on when playing hands-together is interhemispheric communication.  In general, the left side of the brain controls the right hand, and the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left hand.  However, the two hemispheres talk to each other, and what usually happens is that one hemisphere inhibits the other.  When we play with our left hand, our right motor cortex is active, and it not only sends motor commands to our left hand, but it also sends commands to the left motor cortex, telling it not to move the right hand.  And vice versa when we play with our right hand.

 This occurs because humans have a natural tendency for mirror movements:  when one hand moves, the other hand automatically mirrors its movements. This is seen in infants and young children, but as we develop motor control, we learn to stop these mirror movements:  the motor cortex of each side of the brain gives off axons that travel through the corpus callosum (the thick fiber band that connects the two sides of our brains) to inhibit the motor cortex of the other side.  This interhemispheric inhibition is particularly pronounced when we’re only using one hand.  In other words, if we are playing the piano with only one hand, our motor cortex is inhibiting the motor cortex of the opposite side.  So, if we’re practicing only the right hand part of a piano piece, we’re probably learning to inhibit the left hand.  And when we learn the left hand part by itself, we’re probably learning to inhibit the right hand.  Is it any wonder then, that when we go to play the song hands-together, it’s still really difficult?  Perhaps all this hands-separate practice is a little bit counterproductive.

So, hands-separately or hands-together?
The question, from a practical standpoint, is how do we balance these two issues?  Do we learn our songs hands-separately first so we can maximize our attention on each part while we’re learning them, or do we learn them hands-together from the beginning so that we can minimize interhemispheric inhibition?

Research that specificially addresses this issue is surprisingly scarce.  There are a couple of old, old music studies that do look at exactly this question:  Is it better to learn piano pieces hands-separately or hands-together? 

Hands-together practice is more efficient
In a self-study published in 1933, Roberta Brown learned 3 pairs of piano pieces.  In each pair, she learned one piece by starting hands-separately, and one by practicing hands-together.  She found that it was more efficient, and also more enjoyable, to practice using the hands-together method.

Rubin-Rabson’s study from 1939 also concluded that practicing hands-together was more efficient, with one hands-together playthrough of a piece equivalent to practicing the right hand part twice, and then the left hand part twice (rather than equivalent to practicing once with each hand, as you might expect).  This implies that hands-separate practice is inefficient.  However, the subjects in this study were trained musicians, able to learn the pieces to a fully memorized level in two practice sessions.  If the pieces were more difficult to learn, I think that would increase the amount of attention required for playing hands-together.  In that case, the hands-together method might lose some of its advantage.  Also, Rubin-Rabson points out that speed of learning is not the most important goal; clarity and precision of playing are also key, and seem to be improved by practicing hands-separately.

There is one other study that I read that points to an answer to the hands-separately or hands-together question.  It’s a paper authored by Robert Duke and colleagues.  In this study, a number of pianists were given an excerpt to practice, and the researchers looked at what sort of practicing behaviours were used and what led to the best performance.  One of the conclusions was that the best performances came from pianists who played hands-together early on in the practice session.  

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any more recent studies on this issue, and the standard method of learning piano pieces is still the hands-separate method.

Here’s my conclusion from all this morass of information:  I suggest that we encourage students to start playing their pieces with both hands as soon as possible.  If a new piece is difficult, it may be beyond the attentional limits of the student to play it hands-together immediately – this will just lead to frustration.  In that case, the student could play through each hand's individual part (or focus on tricky bits in each hand), and then try again hands-together.  Or perhaps practice just the left hand alone, and then try with both hands.  This approach has the advantage of limiting inhibition between the two sides of the brain, and also stretching the attention capacity of the mind.  The more we try to play hands together, the better we get at paying attention to all those notes at once.  This can only help our hands-together sight-reading abilities.

I think the bottom line is that, although there’s certainly value in hands-separate practicing to focus on details, we don’t really improve at playing hands-together by practicing hands-separately.  This is definitely a different approach than the one I was taught with, and it’s not really what I’ve been doing with my own students.  But I’ve also noticed that my own children are always eager to play their pieces hands-together before they know them well hands-separately, because it’s more satisfying to hear both parts at once.  And we could argue that satisfaction in playing is really what it’s all about.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.


Brown RA. (1933). The relation between two methods of learning piano music. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 16:435-441.

Duke RA, Simmons AL, Cash CD. It’s Not How Much; It’s How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills. Journal of Research in Music Education. 2009;56(4):310-321.

Hiraga CY, Garry MI, Carson RG, Summers JJ. (2009) Dual-task interference: attentional and neurophysiological influences. Behav. Brain Res. 205(1):10-18.

Rubin-Rabson G. (1939)  Studies in the psychology of memorizing piano music.  I.  A comparison of the unilateral and the coordinated approaches. Journal of Educational Psychology. 30(5):321-345.

Vercauteren K, Pleysier T, Van Belle L, Swinnen SP, Wenderoth N. (2008). Unimanual muscle activation increases interhemispheric inhibition from the active to the resting hemisphere. Neurosci. Lett. 445(3):209-213.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Imagining music

I’m walking the kids to the bus-stop when my 9-year-old, Sophia, inquires, “You know how you can hear songs in your head?” 

“Uh-huh.”  (The song on endless loop in my head at that moment is, annoyingly, the children’s song Do you know the muffin man?)

“Well, can you hear two notes at once in your head?”

I pause to imagine a perfect fifth, which, true to my early 80’s musical training, always sounds like the opening notes of the Chariots of Fire theme. “Yep, I can hear two notes at once.  Or more.  I can hear a major triad.  Or a minor triad.”

The kids both look as if they’re listening to something I can’t hear, and, nodding, they confirm that they too can hear triads in their minds.  Sophia still looks puzzled, though.  She cocks her head to the side and asks, “We can’t sing two notes at once, so why can we hear two notes at once?”

As with many questions the kids ask me, I’ve never thought about that before.  What the kids and I are discussing (and doing) is a form of auditory imagery.  I’ve blogged before about involuntary musical imagery, or earworms, but what we’re talking about here is voluntary musical imagery, or what many musicians call audiation, the purposeful mental reconstruction of musical sounds.  The ability to audiate is an important skill for musicians.  If we can hear a song in our heads, we can use this representation to help us learn how to play it.  If we don’t know how a song “goes” then it’s much harder to tell if we’re playing incorrect notes.  Audiation is especially useful during sight-reading.

But what about the two-notes-at-once question?  Our vocal cords are not able to produce more than one note at a time, but that doesn’t mean our brains can’t represent two (or more) notes at once.  In fact, research has shown that when we hear music in our minds, the parts of the brain that are activated are very similar to those activated when we hear music. 

It’s tricky to study audiation because there is no systematic way to prove that it is actually occuring – it’s all in the person’s mind, after all.  A classic type of study was conducted by Kraemer and colleagues in 2005.  They put subjects into an fMRI scanner and played them excerpts of familiar and unfamiliar songs.  This activated the primary auditory cortex and auditory association cortex of the listeners.  To induce audiation, the songs were then replayed with silent gaps replacing short sections of music.  In the familiar songs, the silent gaps led to activation of these auditory areas.  The participants confirmed that during the gaps in familiar songs, they could hear a continuation of the music in their mind.  The researchers concluded that the activation in the auditory areas of cortex was the source of the audiated songs.

Because we can hear two notes at once, we can also imagine two notes at once, using our versatile auditory association cortex.


Kraemer DJM, Macrae CN, Green AE, Kelley WM. (2005) Musical imagery: sound of silence activates auditory cortex. Nature 434(7030):158.

Friday 24 February 2012

Musical Cognition

I’ve just finished reading Henkjan Honing’s Musical Cognition:  A Science of Listening.  Although I had low hopes for another book about how we process music, written for the layperson, I found it to be a little gem of a book, with bite-sized, digestible chapters. 

And many of the chapters did require a bit of chewing and digestion.  The book is indeed written for the layperson, eschewing jargon and complicated figures, but that does not mean that Honing assumes (as many authors seem to do) his reader to be uneducated or slow-witted.  On the contrary, Honing allows the reader space to consider and contemplate as he carefully but conversationally guides the reader through such knotty problems as “What is music” and “How do we recognize beat and meter in music?”, referring to his own research and that of others to describe approaches to answering these questions.  I admit that I didn’t always feel like thinking that hard, but it was well worth the effort.

In the end, one of main points of this book is that we are all trained listeners, with a lifetime of experience at listening to music.  The "illiterate" listener, lacking formal musical training, is almost as good at listening to and understanding music as a professional musician, but is not able to put names on all he hears.  What the illiterate listener lacks is mostly musical vocabulary.

Far from being the fluffy read I anticipated, this book was thoughtful and thought-provoking.  I’d love to sit down with Honing and discuss the questions raised in this book over several cups of coffee.