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Can you Sleep Your Way to Becoming Mozart?


Musicians are credited with an acute ability to memorize lengthy pieces of music and then reproduce them with grace and beauty.  But how do they do it? How do they remember every single note and every single rest so perfectly?  Many studies in the past have investigated the role of memory in learning.  They have shown that, even after practice and rehearsal, memory does not stop consolidating, even if we are not consciously aware of this happening.  Consolidation is the process in which the brain gathers all the information you are practicing or rehearsing, packs it together, and sends it to the long-term memory.  This means that even after we stop actively trying to practice something, our brains keep on working to rehearse the information and store it in our memory for the long haul. Research has found that memory consolidation usually happens on larger scales during sleep.  However, many studies have also found that a factor that interferes with memory consolidation is learning multiple novel tasks.  Interference is where one process you engage in disrupts the consolidation of another process.  For example, you may learn how to drive a boat, but then have to learn how to drive a car, but the instructions you received when learning to drive a boat may get in the way of you learning new rules for driving a car.  Interference is a big problem for consolidation because it confuses your brain so that it doesn’t know which information to retain in its memory vault. Researchers found that learning a second novel task after a previous one would interfere with the consolidation of the original task, even after sleep. Allen’s study investigated to what extent sleep had an effect on the consolidation of memory for a target, musical task, if two other tasks were also learned in the same training session.

Allen recruited 60 music majors from The University of Texas at Austin.  All the students were at the same skill level, they all had no more than two years of undergraduate piano lessons, and no more than three years of private piano lessons.  Allen had four experimental groups to see how learning a second melody would affect the memory for the first, target task.   The first group only practiced the target melody A, and then returned the next day for a brief test on that melody. This group was important because it wanted to test the effect of memory consolidation without any interference of another melody.  The second group practiced melody A and then a second melody B in the session, and then returned the next morning to be tested on melody A.  This group was important because it wanted to test the effect of interference before a night’s sleep and see if it had any impact on memory consolidation.  The third group practiced melody A and melody B and were tested on melody A at the end of the session, and then again the next morning.  This group was important because it wanted to see the effect of retesting melody A, before sleep, on memory consolidation and see if it had any impact on interference and how the participant performed on the morning test. The fourth group practiced melody A, then returned the next morning and learned melody B before being tested on melody A.  This group was also important because it really looked at the effect of interference the day after sleep to see if it had an effect on memory.

In the experiment, Allen had the participants come in to the studio for the evening session, and practice the melodies with their non-dominant hand for 12-30 second blocks.  They were asked to play the melodies as quickly and accurately as possible.  They then were told to get a good night’s sleep and avoid playing a musical instrument until the next morning when they returned for the morning testing session.

The results showed that the first group displayed significant improvement in their performance when tested on only melody A the morning after.  This finding is important because it shows that without learning any interfering melodies, the participants could remember melody A very well.   The second group showed no improvement in their performance when comparing their morning test on melody A to the end of the previous day’s training session.  This finding is important because it shows that with direct interference from the night before (ending the session learning melody B), they could not perform as well on their test the next morning. The third group showed significant improvement in their performance when comparing their morning test to the end of the night session. These results showed that by testing melody A again briefly at the end of the session after learning melody B, the supposed interfering effects of melody B that would show up during sleep, never actually did interfere with the testing of melody A.  This finding was important because it showed that even after learning another melody, the interfering effects could be subdued and lead to similar effects as the first control group. The fourth group had no improvements in their performance the next day, because by learning melody B right before they were tested on melody A, the memory of melody A was obscured so that none of the effects of sleep consolidation occurred.

Allen’s study shows us that sleeping does, in fact, have an impact on memory consolidation.  Sleeping helps us store our memories and motor skills. The participants that only studied melody A and were tested in the morning, did significantly better than those that learned both melodies and were tested in the morning.  However, this study does also show us that when you learn something also has a big impact on whether or not you remember it.  Those that learned melody B the night before didn’t show any interference when tested on melody A the next morning, but those who learned melody B in the morning, did significantly worse on the test.  So, the next time you are thinking of pulling an all-nighter to study for a test or concert, go to sleep instead, and then practice again in the morning.  Just practice until bedtime and then snuggle up under the covers and let your brain go to work!


To read the original paper click here.



Allen, S. E. “Memory Stabilization and Enhancement following Music Practice.” Psychology of Music 41.6 (2013): 794-803.



Categories: Memory Tags: ,
  1. May 9th, 2014 at 02:27 | #1

    As a person who generally stays up late and considers herself a night owl, this post was quite informative. I often have the debate with myself whether or not I should stay up late and continue studying or instead go to sleep and then wake up early to finish. According to this study, sleep seems like the most beneficial option. However, does practicing music trigger different areas of memory? I wonder if while sleeping, the brain is more likely to consolidate auditory memories rather than verbal or written ones. Another question I had pertaining to the specifics of the study is why participants were told to use their non-dominant hand while practicing the melodies? I believe that this would make learning the melodies more difficult, but I’m uncertain as to whether or not it is a desirable difficulty for the participant that will enrich memory and learning.
    I found it quite interesting that the time at which you learn something has a great impact on your memory. In the study, those who learned melody B at night had no interference when being tested on melody A the following day. My assumption is that attention came into play. Maybe since the participants learned melody B at night, their attentional capacity was at a shortage. Attention has a finite capacity, which means that in this study melody B might have not been fully processed because the participant had “no attention left.”

  2. May 9th, 2014 at 13:56 | #2

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. Being a college student, we all find ourselves trying to multitask and learn 20 different things all at once. I really found this blog post to be informative about how time of interference affects memory. I definitely see that studying just melody A and sleeping is the best option, but for me, I always have more than one thing to study. The most informative results of this piece was the third group. The result found that testing melody A at the end of the lesson negated the effects of the interference of melody B when testing Melody A in the morning . Retrieval practices are most beneficial to remembering Melody A in the presence of retroactive interference Although this blog is about the importance of sleep in ability to remember, I think an important aspect of this study is its support of the use of Retrieval practices to increase memory.

    I also would be very interested to see how proactive interference affect the ability to remember Melody B in a future study. How does time between learning melody A and B affect the participants ability to remember either A or B? Does it take longer to learn melody B aka more attentional resources after learning melody A in comparison to just learnign melody B alone without interference.

    I think it is very well written. I like the beginning and how you tie everything back together at the end. Nice Job!

  3. May 9th, 2014 at 16:23 | #3

    I found this post really interesting and I wish I had seen it earlier as I just pulled an all nighter to write a paper!! Like McKayla I too stay up late. When I study for an exam, am writing a paper or doing homework, I would rather stay up late to finish it so that I know it is done, than wake up early in the morning to finish it. However, this article may make me change my study habits, as this really shows the power that sleep can have on memory and learning.
    One question I do have from this article though is about this idea of not learning the melodies together because of interference. In the section we learned about testing, we learned about interleaving and how mixing up your material is actually extremely beneficial because it allows you to not just be memorizing things in order in your short-term memory, but to actually take the time to learn it and commit it to your long-term memory. Interleaving also includes spacing, so it allows you to create more variability in your associations and cues so you can remember better. So is it better to interleave or not, like in this case? I wonder if this difference is due to the type of information you are committing to memory, because in this study it is a melody versus learning information for a test? Maybe interleaving would only be beneficial if it was the night before, because there was no interference when the participants learned melody B the night before, but there was interference when they learned it the morning of?
    I will definitely take this into account next time I study, and know that I should not stay up all night the day before an exam to study and that I should get some sleep so it will improve my memory. I also now know that I should not try and learn new information the morning of an exam, because it will only create retroactive interference making it harder for me to remember what I have been studying.

  4. May 9th, 2014 at 16:40 | #4

    Very interesting article. I’ve never really thought of sleep as consolidation of memory; I just viewed it as something that slows decay of memory. What I also found interesting was the fact that the group who learned melody B in the morning (after learning melody A the day before) performed poorly on the test for melody A. While two songs have a higher chance of interfering with each other, I wonder to what extent this is true between two subjects of study. For example, this year I have both a Latin final and a Classic Literature final back-to-back. If I were to finish studying Latin the night before, get a good night’s rest, study Classics in the morning, and then take my afternoon Latin final, would my Latin grade be affected negatively? While the potential for interference between two songs and two tests is probably huge, I can’t help but wonder if my grades could be affected by this. I’m not too concerned though, as I’ve been distributing study sessions for both subjects over the week, unlike how the songs were learned.

  5. May 9th, 2014 at 23:15 | #5

    Fascinating topic certainly. As an insomniac I have a lot of trouble with the build up of data that suggests that sleeping has such a great impact on memory and sleep. Since coming to college I have been much better about forcing myself to go to sleep rather than pick up a new project and I believe it has helped greatly with my mental faculties. I didn’t notice it until I had a bad streak of sleepless nights and saw my grade go down despite using the same study methods. The only question I would ask with your article is about the musical aspect. I wonder how much the physical aspect of playing a piece of music effects things. Certainly when I practice a tune a lot I get worse at some point of practicing due to fatigue. I usually find that this fatigue is only solved by a night’s sleep. Be interesting to know if that played any role. Also, I wonder where the “memory” for playing these pieces is really happening in the brain. How connected to the motor cortex. Be interesting to really understand music virtuosity in a physical sense, as well as a psychological.

  6. October 22nd, 2015 at 00:07 | #6

    I loved this post! As a musician, I love learning anything and everything about music and what impacts how we learn it. I was particularly interested in the part of the study that gave participants Melody A, then Melody B, then tested them on Melody A before sending them away for the night, only to find that their performance on Melody A significantly increased the next morning. This reminded me of the discussion we had on the research conducted by Muter (1980). He suggested that the Brown-Peterson task, which determined the duration of short term memory, is actually an underestimation of the rate of forgetting because his findings suggest that testing people gives them an incentive to hold onto the information they’re being tested on and, therefore, they are less likely to forget it. I wonder if Muter’s findings could be applied here, in that testing participants the night before gave them an incentive to remember it for the next day, and they performed better because of this. Interesting stuff!
    I also wonder if something should be said about muscle memory here. I know from experience that muscle memory is vital in music—if you did not remember where to put your fingers on your violin, or how far to extend your arm for different trombone slide positions, or where to move your fingers along the piano keys, you would have to relearn every time you went to play your instrument. Muscle memory is also an important component of remembering songs. When you play a song enough times, you can remember exactly where and when to move your fingers/arms to make the song sound the same way each time (I can still remember how to play a song I learned freshman year of high school because I played it so often). To say it another way, learning a song eventually switches from a controlled to an automatic process, but it takes practice for that process to become automatized (something studied by Posner and Snyder in 1975). I am just wondering how much muscle memory played into participants’ ability to remember, because it could be argued that participants with better muscle memory would be able to perform better in these tests because they have more experience and practice remembering. I think that it is possible that accounting for differences in muscle memory could yield different results. Maybe future studies will look into this! Thank you for posting!

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