Thursday, 19 January 2012

“Fast” and “Slow” Learning

Every once in a while, I take a step back from working with my students and notice just how far they have come since they started studying piano.  That adorable five-year-old learning to harmonize her scales was (just yesterday, it seems) a chubby three-year-old who struggled to coordinate her fingers to play three different notes in a row.  The focused eight-year-old determined to get the hang of using the sustain pedal used to be an overly-bouncy five-year-old who had a difficult time playing with two hands. Part of their progress is developmental, of course, but mostly it is due to their daily practice and commitment to learning music.

Fast vs. slow learning
When we practice a musical instrument (or other motor skill) over a long period of time, there are actually two types of motor learning going on.  The first is “fast” learning, which happens on a timescale of minutes to days, and is characterized by automatization of specific motor tasks.  This is the learning that we see when a student gets better at playing a particular piece of music.  It is likely due to changes in synaptic strength in particular brain regions. Scientists see a decrease in brain activity as fast learning occurs. 

In contrast “slow” learning occurs over weeks to years and is seen as gradual improvements in performance.  This is the learning that we see over the long-term, when students get better at playing overall, so they’re able to master more difficult repertoire.  It depends on reorganization of areas in the brain, and the recruitment of additional brain regions for certain tasks.

We can illustrate the difference between these two types of learning by comparing a beginner musician with an experienced musician.  Imagine the two musicians are given the same piece of music to learn, a piece of intermediate difficulty.  For the beginner, the piece would be extremely hard to play, because she would not have the basic motor skills needed to perform it.  For the advanced musician, the piece would be less difficult, because she would already have learned “how” to play.  The difference between the two musicians is in the amount of slow learning that they have done.  The experienced musician has motor patterns laid down in her brain that allow her to more-or-less effortlessly convert the written music to movements which cause the correct sounds to be produced.

If both musicians practiced this piece, they would both get better at playing it, through repetition of the specific movements required to play the piece.  This is fast learning.

Brain changes in fast and slow learning
Studies have shown that fast and slow learning involve changes in different parts of the brain.  Susan Landau and Mark D’Esposito at UC Berkeley performed a fascinating study that was published in 2006.  They compared the brains of pianists and non-pianists performing a finger-movement task while undergoing fMRI scans, to see what parts of the brain were being used.  This study looked at slow learning that had already happened in the brains of the pianists, by seeing how their brains were different from non-pianists.  And it also looked at fast learning, by seeing how the brain of each individual changed as the participants improved at the task.

What they found was that the pianists used several areas of the brain that were not used by non-pianists, most notably the caudate nucleus (part of the basal ganglia, thought to be involved in motor planning) and parts of the parietal lobe, which is known to be involved in integration of sensory information, and has been previously shown to be activated during music playing.  During their years of musical training, the pianists have recruited these extra regions of the brain to be used during finger movements.

For fast learning, the study showed that brain activity decreased as participants learned the task.  This was particularly true for activity in the premotor and supplementary motor cortex.  What this means is that our brains have to work hard at a new task.  We can feel this, because new tasks seem effortful.  As we repeat new tasks, the areas of our brain responsible for planning and organizing our movements don’t have to work as hard – some of their burden has been shifted to automatic memory processes.

Memory representations
If we learn new but similar tasks over a period of weeks to years, we learn to use different strategies, involving different parts of our brain.  A lot of this involves “chunking” – grouping thoughts or movements into chunks.  For example, instead of  playing a C and an E and a G, we just play a C triad.  Our brain thinks of it as one entity instead of three separate notes, and this representation is much more efficient.  There’s also a motor representation of this: when I think of a C triad, I can imagine playing it and it’s a one-step hand movement.  My brain has a motor pattern already set up to play a C triad, and this uses a lot less brain power than reading each note separately and converting it into movements of each finger.

Teachers guide slow learning
Students (especially children) tend to focus on fast learning:  they just want to get better at playing each particular song.  They realize that their playing is improving generally, but they are not thinking about what path their slow learning should take.  This is what I, as a teacher, need to be aware of:  where is their slow learning taking them?  The teacher’s role is to guide the student's overall motor development.  A given student might need to practice playing in a particular key, or using four-note chords, or playing lots of octaves, so that these hand positions and characteristic movements will become part of their repertoire of motor patterns.

My students are gradually learning motor strategies and memory representations for musical paradigms, and this slow learning is what is turning them into better pianists.


  1. Our brain also reacts when it comes to e-learning courses and interactive learning platforms which also helps individuals in their learning mechanism.

  2. Hi Tara,
    Really enjoy this post on "slow Learning" which is a pet topic of mine. (see I'm not a musician, but I feel like my brain has been forever altered by the experience of dancing to music every day.

    Thanks for your thoughts.