Think back to a time when you were practicing your instrument. Maybe there was a deadline for a gig, maybe you and your band were about to record, or maybe you just wanted to cover one of your favorite songs. You opened up the music for the very first time and spent hours and hours working through the parts, riffs, solos, etc. And then, after what probably felt like an eternity, it might not have seemed like you made any of the progress you wanted at all! This feeling can be discouraging and is often the reason many of us stop playing all together, but does provide a necessary amount of context for the days of practice to come.
Whether you’re a guitar player, drummer, bassist, violinist, pianist, vocalist, or a musician from any walk of life, the first day of learning a new piece of music can feel slow, challenging, and even frustrating at times. But have you ever noticed that on the start of the second day of practice, your playing has improved significantly and the music feels way more familiar than you had expected? Why is that?
As a guitarist who spends a lot of time playing progressive and technical death metal, I’ve come across this phenomenon countless times. For a lot of us, often times the newest thing we’ve been practicing is the most difficult because we’ve spent the least amount of time with it. Because the act of practicing is a way to establish new neural connections within your brain, the more time you spend familiarizing yourself with a piece of music, the stronger the connection to the habits and skills you are forming. So why does this night between practice sessions make such a noticeable difference in our ability to learn?
I spoke with Sivan Cotel, Co-Founder of Stonecutter Spirits in Vermont about this very subject. He received a master’s degree in Cognitive Psychology at Wesleyan University before changing fields, and gave some wonderful insight into this branch of memory and sleep studies. Below is our conversation:
In your experience, can you explain the broad connection between learning new music and memory?
“From a technical perspective, “learning” and “memory” are often considered one and the same. There are many types of memory, from the time during which we retain information (for example, short-term vs. long-term memory) and in the types of information remembered (physical memory of skills, episodic memory of events, factual memory, etc.). In general, you can think of “learning” as the process of acquiring and developing memory; it’s the way in which the brain takes experiences and translates them into something stored for a period of time. In a less technical context, people usually think of “learning” as specifically about things that you study — so in that context, learning in music could be developing muscle memory for physical instrument skills or it could be learning the structure of a song from sheet music or in a band practice — all of those are relying on your brain’s memory systems to process and store new information to be used later.”
What role does sleep play in memory acquisition when it comes to music?
“Sleep is integral to many aspects of brain function, especially when it comes to learning and memory. Sleep is generally thought of as the time in which your brain gets to sort through experiences of the day, process and store the ones that are important to save, and toss the ones that are more ephemeral. Specifically, lack of sleep has been shown to damage the retention of information you were trying to learn. So in school, pulling an all-nighter is never desirable, but if you had to do it it’s probably better to do it for writing a paper than it is for studying for a final. Same comes to music — if you’re learning new material or working on new skills, all other things being equal, sleep (vs. lack of sleep) is going to be an important time for your brain to process everything you learned that day.”
Is it possible for the human brain to produce “false memories”, and if so, is there any connection with this and learning?
“Absolutely! What’s amazing about memory, both fascinating and also scary, is that the act of recalling memory is also at the same time reconstructing the memory. That means that your brain can get it wrong, sometimes because it’s putting the pieces back together in the wrong way but a way that makes more sense to us (even if inaccurate). For example, we have a strong tendency to remember things in a more coherent way than they actually occurred — we remember them in a way that’s easier to explain after the fact. In a musical context, sometimes that could be used as an asset. Let’s say you’re studying one of your heroes’ guitar solos and trying to learn it note-by-note. A month later, you end up playing it for the first time in a while and you realize you’ve changed some of the lines in little ways — but the changes also work too (and might even be the changes that you like more). You might have been memorizing the solos to start, but then you were also learning to understand the theory behind what the player was thinking and doing (using this scale or that scale, following this pattern or that pattern); later, when you reconstruct the solo, you’re relying on your knowledge of the building blocks of what was being played and may end up “rewriting” parts in ways that are totally coherent but not actually accurate.”
What are some tools and habits people can develop to make learning new music easier?
1. Attention is the key to long-term retention. Pay attention, focus while you’re working on it, and avoid distractions. Don’t be doing other things, don’t be watching TV or chatting with friends, don’t allow your attention to be divided.
2. Practice makes perfect, but don’t get stressed and overdo it. Better to work on something for a while, get to a point of comfort, and then take a break and get a good night’s sleep. If you try too hard, not only might that backfire, but it’s also not fun. And music should be fun!
3. When learning new music, try to do more than memorize. See if you can deconstruct the theory behind why something works. If you can understand why it works, it will be much easier to memorize the specific parts. (Imagine trying to memorize a paragraph in a foreign language you don’t speak, compared to memorizing the same paragraph in English. You’ll experience the first one as just random sounds and that’s much harder to retain accurately!)
What are some common mistakes people make when practicing new music? Are there habits that can hinder the rate at which we learn?
1. Make sure to come back to something and keep working on it. If you worked hard on it on Monday, then tried it Tuesday and found you remembered everything perfectly, but your gig is on Saturday….make sure to keep spending little bits of time on it during the week! Just because you had it right on Tuesday doesn’t mean it won’t fade without further practice.
2. You’ll learn new material better if you’re sober while working on it.
How do past musical experiences (i.e. childhood musical influences, instruments we’ve practiced on, etc.) affect our ability to learn new music?
“Learning music in different types of ways can be very complementary, and could make you a better musician overall. For example, studying one instrument as a kid might help you on a totally different instrument later, and putting them all together will probably help your comprehension of what’s actually going on in the music. Take guitar vs. piano — they’re just totally different instruments. You could get pretty good on guitar without ever really needing to understand sharps and flats — they’re just not particularly relevant to how a fretboard is laid out. But try playing the piano without understanding the white vs. black keys! Different skills are easier or harder on different instruments, and becoming proficient on multiple might help you avoid holes in your skillset.”
It’s no secret that getting a good night’s rest is key for memory formation, and the very act of sleep allows the brain to be able to convert short-term memories into long-term memories more easily. According to this 2014 issue of Science, researchers Guang Yang et al. found that when studying the brain activity of mice who had slept after learning motor tasks, small “spines” had formed on some of the dendritic branches of the neurons in their brains. The spines correlated to the physical representation of a memory, and the neurons themselves grew and retained these spines better when the mice had rested after learning the task. Such physical connections are also apparent in the brains of humans.
In terms of music, there are of course many different approaches that you can employ to practicing your instrument more effectively; one of which actually being without your instrument. One of our favorite musical YouTubers, Adam Neely, has an excellent video on this very topic below:
The night between practice serves as the time for your brain to ingest, process, and organize all the new information it took in during your conscious hours of the day. There is a myriad of different ways to become more effective at practice, but getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most crucial parts of proper memory retention. Whether the riff you’re learning is just too sick, or the solo section shreds too hard, just keep at it and remember to get some shut-eye after the fact. The unconscious parts of rest are just as important as the conscious ones when you’re practicing, and who knows, maybe you’ll be the master of it by tomorrow. Sleep tight!