Just sleep on it!

TiredMy last semester of college was difficult.  My senior recital was scheduled for late March, I had grad school auditions, a tough course load, was teaching quite a few students in the school’s prep division, and of course was practicing a lot of hours for my senior recital.  One evening as I was trying to memorize the Bartok Sonata after a particularly trying day, I was so tired I put my head down on the piano and drifted off.  As is the case in many music schools, the practice room doors all had small windows so other students could look in to see if anyone was using the room.  I have no idea how long I was out, but I was awakened by a couple of voices saying “wonder what she’s doing.  Must be a new way of memorizing.”  Turns out they may have been more right than they, or I, knew.

As long ago as the 1920s, researchers found that memory retention was better after a night of sleep than after an equivalent amount of time awake.  They concluded that was because the brain wasn’t receiving any sensory input during sleep.  But in the past few decades, researchers have discovered that sleep isn’t a single physiological state.  They have been studying the role of specific stages of sleep in memory development and retention and discovered that the various stages of sleep may each contribute in a unique way to memory consolidation.

More recently, researchers have been looking at what happens with memories for motor skills after a night of sleep.  There have been several studies that show that memory formation continues after you have finished practicing a motor skill.   Sarah Allen, a researcher at Southern Methodist University, has conducted one of the first studies to look at whether sleep enhances the learning process for musicians.  Her subjects were sixty undergraduate and graduate music majors at the University of Texas at Austin.  Their major instrument was something other than the piano, and although they had some piano skills, no one was advanced.

She divided the sixty students into four groups of 15.  Each student learned one or both of two melodies in an evening practice session during which they were monitored for speed and accuracy.  All subjects went home to sleep and came back in the morning for a retest.  The first group learned a 13-note melody that we’ll call melody A.   The second group learned melody A, but then also learned melody B, which was a similar 13-note melody.  The third group learned melody A, then melody B, but reviewed melody A before going home, and the fourth group learned melody A, went home to sleep and came back in the morning to learn melody B and to review melody A before the retest.

The results are fascinating.  The students in the first group, who had learned just the one melody, showed over 11% improvement in speed and accuracy the next morning.   So while they were asleep dreaming about something else, the motor skills to play the melody they had just learned continued to improve.  Pretty amazing!   Surprisingly, the students in the second group, who had learned both melodies A and B, showed no improvement in either one.  Learning two melodies seemed to cancel out the overnight gain for both.  But for Allen, the most surprising, and perhaps most important result of the study concerned the third group.  They had learned both melodies but then reviewed the first melody (A) at the end of the practice session, and they showed the same improvement in melody A after sleep as the first group – over 11%.  The students in the fourth group, who learned A at night, B in the morning and then reviewed A, were similar to the second group in showing no improvement of anything.

Allen cautions against reading too much into this study.  After all, the subjects were learning a single, very short melody line, not a complex piece of music.  But I think it’s interesting to think about and to perhaps try some experiments.  Most of us don’t practice just one piece of music during the day.  We’re always trying to cover multiple works in limited practice time.  Who wouldn’t want to be able to improve while sleeping?   So whether you practice in the morning, afternoon, or evening, why not spend some time before you go to bed reviewing a piece, or section of a piece, that you find particularly difficult.  Then go to bed and “sleep on it.”

15 responses to “Just sleep on it!”

  1. Nancy Cook Avatar
    Nancy Cook


  2. Douglas Avatar

    Now you tell me! btw, I was in the lamentable group E for that study–we were unable to find our way back to the room the next morning…

    1. LS Avatar

      Hi Doug, Good thing there really wasn’t a group E! There were a few outliers, though. Guess you would have been one of them. Cheers!

  3. loren.amacher@facebook.com Avatar

    I bet these results will hold up. I found much the same, when I was doing a lot of exam-writing. All- nighters, ‘cramming’ of any kind, were counter-productive, but an evening review of a specially difficult section, then a good night’s sleep, at least 6 hours, was effective. The sleep quality may well be critical. Research on teens indicates that they should be getting at least 8 solid hours nightly, and that insisting that they be in class real early simply means that early morning lessons are not learned well. “The Brain at Night” is a very good summary of ‘sleeping’ brain function, and like an over-stressed teenager, I’ve forgotten the author. It’s worth the effort to find it. Dreaming, it seems, is the brain’s way of discarding information and reorganizing new – at least in part, but ‘there are miles to go before we sleep’ – my apologies to Robert Frost!

    1. LS Avatar

      It’s wonderful to have a neurologist weigh in! Thanks, Loren.

      1. loren.amacher@facebook.com Avatar

        I looked it up. Seems I had the title wrong. Author is Andrea Rock, and the book is The Mind At Night. Cheers! L.i

        1. LS Avatar

          I had done a quick search and hadn’t found it so thanks for clarifying.

  4. Rosalyn Richards Avatar

    This reminds me of a passage from a book “The Great Within: Unleashing the Power of Your Subconscious Mind” by Christian D. Larson.

    “During sleep the conscious ego withdraws from the circumference of the mental circles and enters the mental field within; that is, the subconscious. While the mind is in a state of deep feeling the conscious ego acts partly upon the conscious side of mind and partly upon the subconscious; it is possible, therefore, while in that state, to impress upon the subconscious what we think or feel in the conscious.
    To secure the best and the largest results from every mental action the conscious ego should, during the waking state, act constantly both upon the conscious and subconscious. To be in constant touch with the limitless powers of the within will add remarkably to the capacity as well as the quality of the faculties that may be in use, and every conscious desire will enter the subconscious at once, so that an immediate response may be secured, if required.”

  5. Paavali Jumppanen Avatar
    Paavali Jumppanen

    From my perspective as a performing concert pianist, I can certainly verify the findings of that study. My own “research” conducted at my concerts, many of them after too little sleep, have shown similar trends. Lack of sleep has so far been the almost the best way to guarantee some embarrassing memory laps in performances, second only to actually not learning the repertoire properly.

    1. loren.amacher@facebook.com Avatar

      Hi, Paavali! Maybe, with an abundance of solid sleep, you wouldn’t even need to learn the repertoire! Maybe not. (:>).

    2. LS Avatar

      Great to have verification from someone who performs all the time!

  6. Lyle Sanford Avatar

    This sort of overlaps something I’ve been thinking about. Having never played brass I taught myself French horn starting in my mid 50’s and this past spring in my mid 60’s played in a local production of the Brahms Requiem. Not having a deep background on horn, knew the only way to do it was to submerge myself in the music, starting months ahead. In the month or so before the performances tried to work on technical stuff every day – but every night ran through sections and then whole movements playing with a CD. I had those themes, phrases, shapes, sounds and rhythms floating through my head off and on 24/7, but especially just before sleeping. Reading your post I had the realization that all those night practice sessions set me up perfectly for the effects you’re talking about – and it helped me understand why it was I came to “know” that music so very well and deeply. From now on will pay particular attention to what and how I practice in the evening.

    1. LS Avatar

      Delighted to know when a musician’s actual experience playing music confirms the research done in a lab. Thanks Lyle.

  7. loren.amacher@facebook.com Avatar

    Something has just occurred to me. I’ve done a lot of singing in my 74 years, much of it solo, but a lot of complex choral work requiring a lot of practice and concentration. But I do not recall EVER dreaming that I was singing. Now, I must admit that I never dreamt about anything in the operating room, either. Lois, have you ever dreamt about performing? Paavali?

    1. LS Avatar

      Yes, I have, and most performers I know dream about performing – sometimes playing brilliantly, sometimes with things not going well, and those are performance anxiety dreams. More on that another time.