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Pianists learn better by playing

Musicians’ muscle memory gave them superior recognition of incorrect notes

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11:04am, March 12, 2014

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.

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