You’re learning a new piece of music. It's tricky, and so requires a deft touch. How can you master it more effectively? Well, sleep might be the key. Research has shown that there is a strong connection between sleep and consolidating newly-acquired motor skills – a core requirement in learning and mastering any musical instrument. In this blog, we look at how resting your brain, through sleep, can lead to tangible improvements in your musical practice and performance.
Playing a new piece of music involves learning an unfamiliar pattern of fine motor skills. It is well understood that - as most musicians have experienced - the accuracy and speed of those new motor skills tend to improve quickly to start with, as the brain physically adapts to, and improves, the relevant neural patterns. What is less obvious, and less well understood, is how the learning process can continue after practice - including when musicians are learning completely different pieces or skills.
What is 'Consolidation'?
When it comes to mastering a piece of music, a crucial element is the concept of 'consolidation'. This unconscious process, which is fundamental to memory and learning, takes place in the brain after a practice session. During this period, which can last up to six hours, our new motor memories solidify and become resistant to deterioration. Consequently, the motor skills needed to play the relevant piece with the required speed and accuracy become hard-coded and repeatable.
Sleep can play a pivotal role in the consolidation process. Practice sessions separated by sleep result in a significant enhancement of motor skills compared to sessions which are not separated by sleep. This principle formed the basis of an insightful research paper entitled 'Effects of Sleep on Performance of a Keyboard Melody’ published by Amy L. Simmons and Robert A. Duke in 2006.
The fascinating aspect of the consolidation process is that it can also be interrupted. Trying to learn similar tasks, anywhere between the fourth and sixth hour after practicing the original piece, can interfere with the cognitive consolidation of the original piece. So musicians should avoid overloading themselves with too many similar tasks, and also get as much rest as possible, during this key period after finishing a practice session.
The Effect of Sleep on Musical Practice
In their research study, Simmons and Duke tested the idea of sleep-enhanced consolidation with a group of music students. Previous studies in this area had involved the participants learning relatively simple tasks or skills. In this case though, the students - all of whom were trained musicians but not experienced pianists - were asked to learn a 12 note piano melody with their non-dominant hand. The research found that students who slept between successive practice sessions demonstrated significant improvements in accuracy, compared to those students who did not sleep between the sessions.
Some other interesting aspects of the results were:
- the variations in performance speed and temporal evenness: a number of the participating students exhibited improvements in performance speed and evenness after sleeping between practice sessions, while others did not - suggesting to Simmons and Duke that further investigations in this area would be necessary; and
- that the participants performed just as well during morning practice sessions as in their evening sessions; in line with existing research, Duke and Simmons felt the students’ performance was less affected by the time of day, but more by the enhanced consolidation of their new motor skills while they were asleep.
The overarching theme of the results was that sleep between practice sessions greatly enhanced accuracy, potentially improved performance speed and evenness, and boosted the overall efficiency of the cognitive process. This was consistent with the existing body of research evidence showing that performance of motor skills is directly enhanced by sleep-based memory consolidation. However, the study by Duke and Simmons was thought to be the first demonstration of consolidation-based enhancement of motor skills in a specifically musical context.
Implementing Sleep-Based Consolidation
So how do we - as musicians - best use this information? Here are 3 simple things that you might want to try, based on the research undertaken by Duke and Simmons:
- Sleep between practice sessions: regular sleep between practice sessions can significantly boost the consolidation of your motor skills and therefore the development of your music skills.
- Stagger learning similar tasks: avoid learning similar pieces during practice sessions that are scheduled close together. Specifically, if you can, try to leave a gap of at least six hours between learning similar pieces or skills. This will avoid any interference with the consolidation process for each new set of motor skills.
- Practice at the end of the day: planning your music practice nearer to the end of the day means that the sleep-enhanced consolidation process can start while you rest for the night.
The research by Duke and Simmons presents a slightly different perspective on musical practice - sometimes, the best way to improve is to step back, rest, and let your brain work its magic. It is a reminder that efficient learning is not about cramming as much as you can into a practice session. Instead, it's about understanding how our brains work and using that knowledge to optimise the learning process. So, next time you sit down for a practice session, remember to plan for a good night's sleep afterwards. It could be the key to unlocking and developing your musical potential.