Saving for Later

Stick a pin in it – Saving these websites for later.

I keep a running list of articles, websites, leads that I want to investigate further. Here are some of the most interesting ones I have found lately.

I’m saving the article on the Hurrian Hymn for a more comprehensive look at the role of music through history.  The Hurrian Hymn is the oldest record of written music in the West. Written in cuneiform 3400 years ago, the clay tablet indicates pitches to be played on an ancient harp. On this website, you see the stone tablet and hear the Hurrian Hymn played on a recreation of the 9-string lyre.

Our Bones Talk To Our Brains

Our bones create osteocalcin, but when the bones fail to produce enough it can cause problems with blood sugar, anxiety, depression, and difficulty on spacial logic tests… at least for mice. Some of the speculation about the findings suggests that exercise can help maintain bone density. I wonder if the authors of this study have heard about this next study.

Protein Responsible for Linking Memory and Exercise

We know that exercise is good for memory. (See the Healthy Brains blog article and How We Learn blog article for more.) Now scientists have discovered a protein that may be responsible for creating new cells and connections in the brain. Muscles release this protein, called cathepsin, during exercise. Somehow the cathepsin travels to the brain and helps form memories. I thought that the link between memory and physical fitness had more to do with elevated oxygen levels or giving the brain different tasks, but it appears there may be another explanation.

Science Says Silence Is Important for Memory, Learning, and Emotional Health

Add a few more hours to my day, please. In addition to exercising vigorously, I also should be spending significant amounts of time in silence to optimize my brain function.

Singing Changes Your Brain

I’m saving this to share with my church choir as we dive deeper into the mystery of music and spirituality. Bottom line: join a choir! And I’ve got the perfect one for you…

Want to ‘train your brain’? Forget apps, learn a musical instrument

Another article on the many benefits of playing a musical instrument, including greater brain power and better emotional processing. Also discusses the benefits of musical training for people recovering from strokes or struggling with dyslexia.

Science Has Great News For People Who Can’t Sing

The voice is like any other muscle: use it or lose it. But fear not! Even if you’ve “lost it” or never had it, the voice can be trained at any time.

“Music education has loads of scientifically proven benefits: It improves reading and verbal skills, raises IQ, helps in learning new languages, slows the effects of aging, betters memory, enhances self-confidence and so much more. Singing in particular has great physical benefits too. It’s an aerobic activity that increases blood oxygenation, improves heart health and exercises core muscles.”

TED talk on practicing


What do marching bands, music competitions, and playing classical music in the dark have in common? Memorization.

Performing musicians are asked to memorize music from time to time. Memorization is often required for competitions and is useful for making a piece more musical. While memorization may seem difficult at first, with practice it becomes easier. And there are some advantages to memorization: when we are free of the dots on the page, we can listen more carefully and respond more musically.

Cognitive scientists have long understood the necessity of memorization in the learning process. In 1917, Arthur I. Gates embarked on a project to find out the right ratio between study (reading from a book) and memorization. [“Recitation As a Factor In Memorizing”] Gates found that 1/3 study and 2/3 recitation from memory is optimal. What does this mean for musicians? If you’re trying to memorize something, play it while looking at the page once and try it from memory twice.

My students, especially the ones in marching band, ask for help memorizing music. Different skills are useful in different contexts. Because marching band is the most common need for memory with my flute students, we will consider how different memory skills are best suited to the music in the pregame show (“Star Spangled Banner,” the fight song, and the alma mater.)

There are THREE types of musical memory:

  1. finger memory
  2. aural memory
  3. visual memory

looking through the lyre

Let’s consider each one in greater detail.


I am able to play my high school fight song, even though I graduated 20 years ago. I can pick up my flute and without even thinking about it, my fingers will begin going through the motions. I’ve probably played the fight song thousands of times during football games, basketball games, and band practice. The patterns are drilled into my fingers forever. Finger memory is a physical memory and it requires little conscious effort. This kind of memory is embedded in the mind through many repetitions. If properly strengthened, finger memory can be very reliable, especially in stressful situations. Finger memory is learned through playing the piece many, many times.


Grab your instrument and play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” starting on the note F. After a couple of tries, you were probably able to play it pretty well. “Twinkle” is a tune that most people know how to sing. When you worked out the song by ear on your instrument, you heard it in your head then matched the pitches to the sound coming out of your instrument. You may have had to move up or down pitches until you found the right one, but it was easier on the second try. Aural memory is useful when finger memory fails and we need to get back on track. This type of memory is especially useful when playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” which has a lot of tricky intervals. If your finger memory fails, you can use your ear to guide you to the right note and you’ll be back on track quickly.


You don’t need to have a photographic memory to use the skill of visual memory to aid in learning a piece of music. The tune for my high school’s Alma Mater was a bit unusual. I never learned the words. But it was mercifully short. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine what the printed sheet music looked like: the typeface of the title, the layout of the staves, and the starting notes. The visual memory is so strong that even now, I can still read parts of the music by bringing up the image. Visual memory is critical for memorizing difficult transitions, changes, or anything that is unusual. Take a mental picture of the music and read the notes from the inside of your eyelids! This type of memory can be very strong, but it can’t be used for long pieces of music. It’s most helpful for small sections.


By understanding and carefully using all three types of memory, you are less likely to forget. It’s not wise to rely on one type of memory. Rather, it’s best to have “memory redundancies” by using two or three strategies at all times.  Pay special attention to the form of the music. Repeats are like freebies because once the memory is stored, it can be recalled easily a second or third time. Add an additional memory strategy in places where the music changes or becomes difficult.

Memories get stronger with use so keep testing your memory in regular intervals. You will find that the more you play from memory, the easier it will become. The neurons need time to both encode the memories and retrieve them so don’t hurry the process. When music needs to be memorized, start early and test your memory often.

But here’s the good news: your brain has an incredible amount of memory available. In the book How We Learn, Benedict Carey offers some encouragement.

“Everything we have deliberately committed to memory–the multiplication table, a childhood phone number, the combination to our first locker–is all there are for good. …(There) is more than enough (memory capacity in our brains) to record every second of a long life, cradle to grave. Volume is not an issue.” (pp. 36-37)

To learn more about the science of the brain and music, please check out my other blog posts: Brain Imaging On MusiciansHow We Learn book reviewThe Musician’s Brain.

“Alive Inside” film review

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. 2014 film by Michael Rossato-Bennett.

At a recent family gathering, a cousin told me about a film she had watched the night before. She dared me to view it and not cry. Since it seemed to fit in with the research I’ve been doing lately on music and the brain, I thought it would be a good addition to the bibliography. It’s hard to make me cry. Challenge accepted.

About five minutes into Alive Inside, I was weeping. A stone would be moved by watching this.

You can watch the trailer on YouTube with this link.

Alive Inside is a documentary about social worker Dan Cohen’s determination to help the elderly with music therapy. In the film, we watch as Cohen talks to Alzheimer’s patients, most of whom remember nothing about their childhoods or are in catatonic states. These are people who have literally forgotten who they are.

Cohen, who is the founder of the non-profit Music and Memory, works with elder care centers across the country. He seeks grants to buy iPods and headphones. After conducting interviews with patients, he creates a playlist of music specific to that individual. In the film, we see elders “come alive” before our eyes as they listen to the music. Memories miraculously reappear. Words, language, singing are spontaneous. The body moves, even dances, walkers flung to the side of the room.

We don’t need science to tell us that music touches our minds and bodies on a very deep level, but research on the brain continues to confirm it. In the film we learn that “when we are young, music records itself in our motions and emotions. Luckily, those are the last parts of the brain touched by Alzheimers.” Music somehow reconnects the physical and emotional parts of the brain, releasing memory. Elders with dementia can feel increasingly isolated, but music makes them “flow” again. Music provides a link to “living in concert with each other and our own selves.”

The film Alive Inside challenges us to look at the way we treat older adults in our culture. Hiding elders away in nursing homes and filling their bodies with pharmaceuticals may not be the best choice. Dan Cohen and filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett suggest that an inexpensive iPod may be life-changing.

A link to the movie’s website is here. Have your tissues ready.

[For more information on music and the brain, check out my blog posts Brain Imaging on Musicians, Essential for Being Human, The Musician’s Brain, and How We Learn.]

How We Learn – applications for musicians

I just finished reading How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey, 2014.

From a musician’s perspective, it has obvious applications for practice.How We Learn

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I totally geek out on brain science. It really blows my mind (ha!) reading about the new research on our grey matter. I am savoring Benedict Carey’s book and carefully sifting through it to find wisdoms for the practice room. Let’s begin with a quote from the book:

“If the brain is a learning machine, then it’s an eccentric one. And it performs best when its quirks are exploited.”

In my work with music students, I have found that the best practice techniques are the ones that are unusual or humorous. For more on this topic, please check out my posts “Articulation Game,” “Rhythm Silliness,” and “Practicing Upside Down.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The book begins with a discussion of how we learn at the neurological level. As scientific study of the brain is aided by new methods, our understanding of memory is deepened. Author Benedict Carey delves into new research on how the brain makes and stores memories. It appears that there are two sides to memory: storage and retrieval. While the brain has plenty of room to store all of our memories, not all of them can be retrieved. In order to retain information, the retrieval system must be strong. It is strengthened and made faster with use.

Some of the research on how the brain learns confirms what we already know, but some is truly new and revolutionary.

Research on Learning May Change How We Practice

  1. Practicing in frequent, short sessions is better than a single long practice. It’s more productive to have three 20 minute practice sessions than a single one hour practice. Similarly, music practice should happen everyday. Your teacher will notice if you do all of your practicing the night before the lesson because your retention of the information will be low.
  2. Memories are encoded with snippets from our environment. It will come as not surprise that we can recall things best in the same place we learned them. If I had a nickel for every time a student has said, “But I played the music so much better when I was practicing at home,” I’d be rich. In the teacher’s studio or recital hall, the conditions are different than the practice room. Musicians should either try to create situations similar to the performance while in the practice room (dress shoes, imagining the stage, etc.) or vary the practice environment (different locations, different times of day) to take advantage of the “context effect.”
  3. Repeating something a set number of times does not make you learn it. The number of repetitions is not important. You must practice correctly and deliberately. (See my blog posts on “Hearing vs. Listening,” “Research on Effective Practice Skills,” and “Concentration Exercises.”)
  4. Testing is good for learning. Yes, you read that right. I know that there is a huge backlash against “teaching to the test,” but the testing Benedict Carey purports in this book isn’t a high-stakes national standards test. Long range studies show that frequent testing can help retain skills (p. 93). For musicians, I would like to argue that performances are “tests.” Maybe we can even think of weekly lessons as “retrieval practice.” You can create additional opportunities for performance. More ideas on finding performance opportunities can be found in the blog posts “Motivation: Parenting and Practicing” and “Motivation: A Teacher’s Perspective.” Flash cards are a proven strategy for improving memory. I have a great “Scale Game” that uses flash cards and a neat game to learn scales quickly.
  5. Take a break. The mind continues to work on problems after you have stopped actively thinking about them. Sometimes a creative solution to a problem will come to you in a flash of inspiration. However, “people don’t benefit from an incubation break unless they have reached an impasse.” (p. 128) So when you’ve worked really hard on a difficult piece of music and you’re feeling frustrated, go for a bike ride, take a nap, or do some math problems. The distraction might be what you need to get unstuck.
  6. Set goals. There are many reasons to set goals – I will talk about some of those reasons in a future blog post – but for learning, goal setting is important because it focuses the mind on the problem. This book describes the goal-oriented mind as having “tuned perception.” We are better able to zero in on the solution, and block out the unimportant information, when the goal has been set and we allow for “percolation.” If your goal for the week is to fix technical problems in a sonata, you may pay extra attention to the scale in the same key as the sonata or spend more time on a technical exercise related to the same difficulties.
  7. Vary your practice. Several studies have shown that motor skills are enhanced by practicing an activity many different ways. Not only will the skill be learned better but it will be able to be transferred to similar situations. It’s important also to make sure you practice different kind of exercises – scales, etudes, theory, improvisation – not just a single repertoire piece. “The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us not only see the distinctions between them but also to achieve a clearer grasp of each one individually. The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition.” (p. 164) My blog posts “Woodshedding: Grouping Game” and “Rhythm Spinner” offer some suggestions to help you vary your practice.
  8. Get plenty of sleep. We’ve only begun to understand how important sleep is to learning and future research will undoubtedly uncover more insights on the different stages of sleep, but scientists know that rest is important. Benedict Carey says, “I think of sleep as learning with my eyes closed.” (p. 212) Naps are showing promise in memory consolidation and integration. Just as eating a balanced diet will keep your body healthy, getting ample sleep is good for your brain.

What does research say about memorization?

How We Learn also looks at research on memorization. Granted, the scientists who create these experiments are asking subjects to memorize words, but I think that it is equally applicable to memorizing music. Psychologist Arthur Gates has spent his career trying to discover a good rule for the most efficient way to memorize. He asked the question how much time should be spent studying and how much time should be spent reciting? He found that the best ratio was 1/3 time studying and 2/3 time reciting. [Arthur I. Gates Repetition as a Factor in Memorizing (New York: The Science Press, 1917).] So, if you are trying to memorize a piece of music, play it with the music once and then twice trying to remember it without looking at the music. I’ll have more to say about this and the three types of memory in a future blog post.

It will take me time to integrate all of the information in How We Learn, but I find it seeping into my teaching already. At lessons this afternoon, I suggested that a student vary her practice routine in advance of a big performance.

A seed is planted. I’m curious how it will grow.