Musical Development and Brain Research

Music Education Research

How brain research can inform music teaching and musical development

Walter and Walter (2015) present a compelling argument of how brain research can inform musical development in musicians, particularly music students. Practice is important in musical skill development and there has been some major inroads into the understanding of musical skill development and expertise in musicians with deliberate practice. What is not fully understood is how the brain responds to varying amounts of practice. We do know the neural pathways in the brain will change with myelination leading to improved connectivity within the networks of the brain of highly trained musicians. Further research is needed so that teachers can use this knowledge to improve music teaching and help students develop musical expertise.


The notion of deliberate practice developed in the early 70’s from research of grandmaster chess players and their development of expertise (Simon & Chase, 1973).They found grandmaster chess players achieved their grandmaster status from spending an average of 10,000-50,000 hours playing chess and developing their skills. Following on from this, Ericsson et al (1993) proposed the role of deliberate practice for musicians. Their position is for musicians to obtain expertise in their chosen instrument, they will need at least 10,000 hours of practice and this must be informed, specific, deliberate practice.

The emerging area in the field of instrumental practice is brain research and how knowledge of the neural development of musicians is a key aspect in acquiring expertise. Neural pathways in the brain are initiated and strengthened when a new motor skill is learnt. Musicians rely heavily on refinement of motor skills. The repetition involved in motor skill development in musicians creates and enhances synaptic connections. Furthermore, these connections also receive increased myelin, which regulates and enhances the speed at which neurons carry their messages. Myelin is a coating and acts like a shield, preventing neuronal impulses from leaking. It also shields to neuronal pathways from interference. It is brain insulation.

Taking this knowledge into music teaching is a key factor to improve the processes and pathways towards expertise. Teachers and students needs to determine the correct practice actions and routines to ensure pathways and ensuing myelination occurs for appropriate and expertise-enhancing behaviours. This could mean the traditional time-based practice is not serving the correct purpose. Practice should be oriented to ensure appropriate movements, techniques, challenges, and attention to area of technique rather than just get faster or better as the sole aim of practice time. This may seem counter-intuitive for some who believe that practice time, no matter what happens during that time, is all that is required. This is a haphazard approach to musical skills development.

Deliberate practice and brain research can be a vital link in music education. Teachers need to ensure efficient and appropriate practice habits are developed. How a student practices matters. appropriate practice leads to appropriate and healthy synaptic connections. Deliberate practice accounts for some of the progress and variation among expert musicians and expert performance. New brain research suggests that musical success can be further enhanced with brain development and appropriate musical training via deliberate practice.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 363-406.
Simon, H. A., & Chase, W. G. (1973). Skill in chess. American Scientist, 61, 394-403.
Walter, D. J., & Walter, J. S. (2015). Skill Development: How Brain Research Can Inform Music Teaching. Music Educators Journal, 101(4), 49-55.

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