CMS Mid-Atlantic

Lois Svard, DMA
Professor of Music Emerita
Bucknell University

The Neuroscience of Teaching and Learning Music


For more information about subjects covered in the neuroplasticity portion of the talk, go to Categories in the right-hand column of this blog site, and scroll down to  Neuroplasticity, Learning and memory, Memory, Practice, Music cognition, and Sleep.  (Information about exercise is found under Learning and memory; terminology for kinds of memory in music is found under Memory.)

And below are links to books, articles, websites and videos – some of which I mentioned during the presentation, and others that I didn’t mention but that may be of interest:

CMS Webinar     

A Musician’s Guide to the Brain:  what we need to know and why


Allen, S. (2012).  Memory Stabilization and Enhancement Following Music PracticePsychology of Music, 41(6), 794-803.

Cedernaes J. et. al. (2015). Short Sleep Makes Declarative Memories Vulnerable to Stress in Humans.  Sleep, 38(12), 1861-1868.

van Dongen, E.V., et. al. (2016).  Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increases Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval.  Current Biology, 26(13),1722-1727.


Eckart Altenmüller and Wilfred Gruhn.  1997,  Music, the brain, and music learning.  Chicago: GIA.  A study concerning declarative and procedural teaching styles.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young.  2012. The Woman Who Changed her Brain.
Arrowsmith-Young changed her brain long before the term plasticity was in use, transforming herself from a child with extreme learning disabilities to an adult with above normal cognitive skills.  A fascinating read!

Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel.  2014.  Make it Stick: the science of successful learning

Benedict Carey.  2014.  How We Learn:  the surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens
Neither the Peter Brown nor Benedict Carey books are about music, but musicians can make use of the information.  Both look at recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines to show how much we think we know about learning is wrong.  Both give techniques for more productive learning and memory.

Roger Chaffin, Gabriela Imreh, and Mary Crawford.  2012.  Practicing Perfection:  Memory and Piano Performance.    Part of a research series intended for both psychologists and musicians, this book details how an experienced pianist organizes practice, identifies stages in learning, characteristics of expert practice, and practice strategies.

Daniel Coyle.  2009.  The Talent Code:  greatness isn’t born. it’s grown. here’s how
This book is about extraordinary levels of talent, and how they occur.  Coyle is really talking about the myelination of axons in the brain, although he rarely mentions the term.

Norman Doidge.  2007.  The Brain that Changes Itself: stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science.
All about neuroplasticity; a collection of case histories detailing stories of individuals who have changed their brains – and their lives – under extraordinary circumstances.

Kay S. Hooper.  2005.  Sensory Tune-ups: a guided journal of sensory experiences for performers of all ages.    The journal provides a guide for exploring and developing the kinesthetic, visual and auditory senses, to incorporate them more fully  in learning and performing.

Daniel Levitin.  2006.  This is Your Brain on Music:  the science of a human obsession. The best-selling book about how we experience music and why it plays such a unique role in our lives.

Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde.  2011.  Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions.  I mentioned this during the talk.  Some great magicians allowed these neuroscientists to study their techniques for tricking the brain.  

Julie Jaffee Nagel.  Nagel has two degrees in piano from Juilliard and a PhD in psychology from the Univ. of Michigan.  In her clinical practice, she works with musicians suffering from performance anxiety as well as other issues.  Her book  Melodies of the Mind  (2013) is an exploration of “the power of music to move us when words fall short.”  Check out her blog about performance anxiety on her website.

Rebecca Shockley.  1997.  Mapping Music: for faster learning and secure memory
Written for piano teachers and students, but the ideas apply to any musician.

Websites     Website developed by Rebecca Shockley and flutist Melissa Colgin about visual mapping for music.

Neuroscience for Kids   Website from the University of Washington.  Aimed at kids, but great for everyone.

Mind mapping – a technique popularized by Tony Buzan
Images shown in the presentation—mind-mapping.html


Mirror Neurons

In the right-hand column on this page, scroll down under Categories and click on Mirror neurons to find eight posts that discuss mirror neurons in greater detail.  Additionally, you can find more information about Chia-Jung Tsay’s visual studies on this site at:  Are you listening to the music – or watching the performer?;  Are you listening or watching? part II;  and Now from a jury member.


Marco Iacoboni. 2008.  Mirroring People:  the science of empathy and how we connect with others.    A fascinating book about one of the great neuroscience discoveries of the past 20 years.

Gregory Hickok. 2014.   The Myth of Mirror Neurons:  the real neuroscience of communication and cognition.  An alternate view of mirror neurons.  Although Hickok agrees that mirror neurons exist and that they are important in observation, he thinks the claims have been overblown in terms of their role in empathy, language, and autism.


Svard, L. (2010).  The Musician’s Guide to the Brain:  how to use brain science in the study of music.  MTNA e-journal.   February 2010.   (Discussion of mirror neurons)

Tsay CJ.  (2013).  Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA  110(36): 14580-14585. (The reference list in this paper is an extensive list of research about the primacy of the visual.)

Tsay, CJ.  (2014).  The vision heuristic:  Judging music ensembles by sight alone.  Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 124: 24-33.


Three-year old Jonathan conducting 4th movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The Art of Piano:  Great Pianists of the 20th Century   You Tube link.  This is also available as a DVD through Amazon.

The Art of Conducting:  Great Conductors of the Past.    DVD seems to be currently unavailable.

Piano Legends:  Chick Corea Host

Simon Rattle conducts 6 Berlin school orchestras

Simon Rattle conducts John Williams: Indiana Jones


presented at the
College Music Society Mid-Atlantic Conference
Towson, Maryland
31 March 2017