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How Do we Learn

10 Nov. 2014 Posted by Danny Tryon

A Simple Way to Keep Music in Your Fingers When Practicing More Isn’t an Option


Nowadays, listening to music is easy.

For one, it’s everywhere. We have access to pretty much anything, anytime, and anywhere we want – on our computers, our phones, heck, even some of our TV’s.

It’s also super easy to fast-forward, rewind, and repeat music, so we can listen to sections or entire tracks over and over and over.

It’s easy to forget that there was a time not so long ago when this was much more difficult…

For instance, my mom likes to tell the story of all the times she had to go up and down the stairs to put the needle back at the beginning of the record so I could listen to my Suzuki songs. Of course, since most Suzuki songs aren’t terribly long, she’d get in a pretty good workout most days.

Cassette tapes weren’t much better. For one, it took time to sit there and wait for the tape to physically rewind. And you’d also have to guess how long to press the rewind button…too long and you’d overshoot the beginning of the song. Frustrating!

Despite all the hassles, my mom made listening to music a priority. There was music playing when I woke up. Music playing in the car during the ride to and from school (and this was before cars even had cassette players built in!). Music during rides to and from lessons. There was even music as I was going to bed at night for many years.

But was there any benefit from all of this listening? Is there any research which demonstrates whether it’s worth all the effort?


Learning by ear

A team of researchers led by pianist-turned-neuroscience researcher Amir Lahav sought to answer this very question.

They took 36 non-musicians, and set about teaching them how to play a 15-note musical passage by ear, on an electronic keyboard. Each participant practiced the passage until they reached a point where they were no longer making mistakes. On average, it took less than a half-hour or so for most participants to get to this point.

Then, they were split into three groups and brought back into the lab for three additional training sessions during the next week.

One group – the “passive-listening” group – had three twenty minute sessions (one per day) where they sat in a restful position with palms up (to discourage fingering along with the music), and listened to the passage over and over.

Another group – the “distracted-listening” group – spent three twenty minute sessions working on a challenging jigsaw puzzle while the passage played on in the background.

The third group – the “nature-listening” group – spent three twenty minutes sessions simply listening to nature sounds, while seated in a restful position.

Note that after the initial ~30-minute training session, they never again practiced the passage on a piano. They most some of them got was an opportunity to simply listen to the passage again.

A test!

A week after their initial learning session, all the participants returned to the lab for a final test – a single trial where they were to give their best (most accurate) performance of the passage.

The performances were evaluated on three basic criteria:

  1. Pitch (did they play the right notes?)
  2. Rhythm (at the right time?)
  3. Dynamics (with the target dynamics that were established in the learning phase?)

Wait, what?

Believe it or not, yes, it turned out that listening to music enhanced the retention of a passage of music – even in the absence of any further practice!

In terms of pitch accuracy, the passive-listening group played significantly more notes correctly than either the distracted-listening (i.e. puzzle/background music) group or the nature-listening group.

And with regards to rhythm and dynamics, both the listening groups outperformed the nature sounds group.

Interestingly, there was no significant difference in performance between the passive and distracted listening groups when it came to either rhythm or dynamics. Only pitch.


It’s true that these were untrained musicians learning relatively basic passages on a keyboard. However, there are some related studies which suggest that there really may be something happening in the brain when listening to music, that helps to consolidate learning.

For instance, a study of professional musicians found that simply activating the auditory part of a task also results in activation of the motor-related regions of the brain responsible for that movement.

More research is needed of course, but it does seem that listening to music could serve as a helpful practice aid, at least when it comes to the retention of music or in trying to polish off the rust and get an old piece back in shape.

Take action

So…are you preparing for a big competition or audition and have a ton of rep to keep in your fingers?

Or maybe you just need to learn a lot of rep in a short period of time?

Try putting on some recordings of these pieces in the background when you’re driving, going for a run, or cooking dinner. Or if you’re not in the mood to practice, put on a recording and listen instead. Perhaps even tap your fingers along with the piece, or mentally play it as you listen.

It can’t hurt, right?

I’m also curious – was it just me, or have you find listening to be a helpful adjunct to your physical practice as well?

Additional reading

More on Lahav and the broader applications of his work: A soundtrack for the body



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