Pianists learn better by playing

Musicians’ muscle memory gave them superior recognition of incorrect notes

Instead of hearing a melody, learning to play a ditty makes people more familiar with it, a new study shows. The results, published March 12 in Cerebral Cortex, provide evidence for the brain’s enhanced ability to learn by doing.

Researchers from McGill University in Montreal and INSERM, the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in France, asked 20 skilled pianists to each learn 12 simple melodies by listening to them or by playing them. In later tests, the pianists were better at spotting a single errant note in a recording of a piece the musicians had played than at spotting a wrong note in a piece they had only heard. Electrodes monitoring the pianists’ brain activity revealed that hearing a wrong note in a previously played song activated parts of the brain that handle movement, as when the fingers strike the keys.

Physically doing a task sears its memory into the brain in a special way, the authors suggest.

After pianists from Lyon, France, learned a song by playing it, brain responses to an incorrect note were stronger. Caroline Palmer and Brian Mathias/McGill Univ.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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