Welcome to “Training the Musical Brain”, a blog combining my interests in neuroscience and music pedagogy. I believe that neuroscience, psychology and related areas of research have a lot to tell us about the affects of music on the brain, and about the best ways to optimize our musical training.
I’m going to start off the blog by giving a summary of a talk I gave this fall at the Music for Young Children (MYC) Conference, in Princeton, B.C. The topic was “The Neuroscience of Practicing”, a subject dear to my heart because my passion for neuroscience began with an interest in memory and learning, and that lead me to pursue a degree in neuroscience. Because the talk was long, I’ll split it into a number of blog posts.
Practicing is the way we learn, the way we store facts, events or skills in memory. You might think that your music teacher is doing all the teaching, and that the learning that you do is passive (you just sit there and absorb what she says, right?) but it doesn’t work that way. Learning is an active process on the part of the learner, and the teacher’s main job is as a guide. It is during your practice time that most of the learning happens.
There are two main types of memory systems: explicit memory and implicit memory, and studying music uses both of them. Explicit memory is memory for facts and events: when we learn that the key signature of G major is F#, this is stored in explicit memory. Implicit memory, on the other hand, is the memory for skills and habits. We use a lot of implicit memory in playing the piano. When we learn a new scale or a new piece of music, we practice it until we can play it without too much conscious effort. We don’t have to think about every single note every time we play it. Implicit memory is sometimes called motor memory or muscle memory. I don’t like this last term because it implies that the memories are stored in your muscles, which they are certainly not. Motor memory involves a part of the brain called the cerebellum, which has a role in linking sensory input to motor commands. In this way, the cerebellum takes the sensory feedback that you get from playing the piano (like the way the piano keys feel, how you have just moved your fingers and arms, and the sound that you have just produced) and links it to the motor command that was just sent out to the muscles. It also links it to the next command that will be sent, so that a whole sequence of motor commands and sensory inputs is linked together in memory.
When we perform music, we need to use both implicit memory and explicit memory. Many pianists have had the experience of playing the piano using implicit memory only; it seems like the hands can play the piece without any input from the brain! That’s actually not true: unconscious parts of the brain like the cerebellum and basal ganglia are telling the motor cortex what commands to send to the muscles, but it feels like the brain is not involved because these are unconscious processes. The downside of this automatic type of playing is that often pianists find that if they start thinking about what they’re playing, they make a mistake and are unable to continue playing the song. What’s happening here is that the conscious parts of our brain are sending commands to the motor cortex that interfere with the commands coming from the cerebellum, and so we get mixed up. The solution to this problem is that we should not let the performance of a piece get too automatic. How can we accomplish this? The best way is to form explicit memories of the piece alongside the implicit memories. For instance, you could analyze the chord structure of the piece and memorize that, so you would know what chord you should be playing at each moment. Or you could form an explicit memory of what notes you should be playing at the beginning of every fourth bar (or each phrase). Or whatever works for you. The key thing is to at least have some explicit memory of the song, even if it is just every few bars, that way if you lose your automatic train of thought, you have an explicit landmark to go back to, so you can get back into the song and continue playing.
This was my first main point of the talk: When learning music, it is important to form explicit memories along with implicit memories.