The best way to learn piano: get enough sleep!

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

It’s not all about the drill: Forget endless scales and arpeggios – the best way to become a hotshot on the keyboard is to get a good night’s sleep. Researchers have found that the brain is far better at consolidating new skills when we are fast asleep.

Researchers looked at the brainwave pattern of 15 sleeping volunteers, who had earlier learnt a sequential finger-tapping task, similar to playing piano. For the first three nights they all went to bed at a normal time, with all subjects showing improvement after sleep.

On the fourth day they were taught the task on their weaker hand, to make it harder, and allowed just three hours of sleep, before being woken up and asked to do the test. The subjects showed vast improvement on first three nights, when they were able to get a good night’s kip. But the subjects were much less able to get to grips with it when they were not allowed to reach deep sleep.

On day four the subjects learned the finger-tapping task on their non-dominant hand (to purposely make it harder to learn). The subjects were then allowed to go to sleep for three hours and were again scanned with PSG and MEG. Then the researchers woke them up. An hour later they asked the subjects to perform the tapping task. As a control, six other subjects remained did not sleep after learning the task, but were also asked to perform it four hours after being trained. Those who slept did the task faster and more accurately that those who did not. On day five, the researchers scanned each volunteer with a magnetic resonance imaging machine, which maps brain anatomy, so that they could later see where the MEG oscillations they had observed were located in each subject’s brain.

In all, the experimenters tracked five different oscillation frequencies in eight brain regions – four distinct regions on each of the brain’s two sides. What was especially important about the delta and fast-sigma oscillations was that they fit two key criteria with statistical significance: they changed substantially after subjects were trained in the task and the strength of that change correlated with the degree of the subject’s performance improvement on the task.

So sum up – the amount and quality of sleep is equally important in the learning process as the time spent at the piano.

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