Learning while we sleep

Memory for newly learned music skills are enhanced during post-training sleep.

Allen, S.E. (2013) Memory stabilisation and enhancement following music practice. Psychology of Music, 41(6).

Participants in this study either completed a single task (Melody A) or two tasks (Melody A and Melody B) during the 1 practice session. The participant group which learnt only 1 melody (Melody A), then slept overnight.The following  the participants in this group morning replayed this melody. The results showed they had the greatest improvement effect. The participant group who learnt Melody A and Melody B in the training session, replayed Melody A the following morning after overnight sleep, showed decreased improvement in their ability to perform Melody A. The suggestion is that practising a new skill (Melody B) interferes with the skill consolidation during post-training sleep.


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Offline-learing, or learning when not performing the task such as during sleep, is an important area for instrumental music teachers to understand. Sleep has been shown to to be necessary for memory consolidation. During sleep, the brain needs to select the most important stimuli encountered during the day and encode this information. Further research in this area is beginning to uncover the way music is learned, stored, refined and retrieved. It is believed that tasks of a similar nature such as learning two melodies in the same practice session, compete for the same neural resources to effectively consolidate the new skill following practice. There is some suggestion that the proximity or closeness of the two tasks interferes with the learning.  Thus, multiple musical tasks or instructions during lessons may actually interfere with the learning, storing and refinement of skills of students.

There are many variables to further explore such as length of sleep, quality of sleep, the experience of the participants, and motor skills acquisition, however, one thing that has always stuck with me from my undergraduate training was a university lecturer who’s mantra was “teachers talk too much”.

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