For sight-reading music, practice doesn’t make perfect

A basic type of recall may limit the benefits of experience

Here’s a harsh piano lesson: Years of tickling the ivories go only so far for those who want to sight-read sheet music fluently, a new study suggests. Aside from those painstaking hours of practice, a memory skill that pianists have little control over may orchestrate their performance.

Sight-reading is the ability to play sheet music on an instrument with little or no preparation. Any piano player who practices sight-reading for thousands of hours will get pretty good at it, say study coauthors Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and David Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing. But having a strong ability to keep different pieces of relevant information in mind while performing a task — known as working memory capacity — aids sight-reading regardless of how much someone has practiced, the psychologists report in a paper published online June 9 in Psychological Science.

In the researchers’ investigation, the best sight readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of piano practice over several decades.

Working memory appears to be a capacity that gels early in life and can’t be improved much by learning, the study suggests. High scores on working memory tests did not cluster among volunteers who had practiced piano playing and sight-reading the most.

Previous research indicates that working memory capacity varies from one person to another and changes little from childhood to adulthood, the scientists say.  

“Deliberate practice, although necessary for acquiring expertise, will not always be sufficient to overcome limitations due to a person’s basic cognitive abilities,” Meinz says.

When sight-reading, a piano player’s working memory capacity may determine the extent to which he or she can prepare for upcoming moves on the keyboard by looking ahead in a music score, Meinz and Hambrick speculate.

Psychologist Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto Mississauga agrees. IQ scores probably relate to sight-reading proficiency as well, he notes, since IQ tests tap into working memory capacity.

Schellenberg sees the new findings as a challenge to the influential view, championed by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University in Tallahassee, that expertise in sight-reading or anything else depends on skills acquired through extensive practice. Novices at a particular activity rely on general mental faculties, such as working memory, Ericsson argues. But after roughly 10 years of practice at a task such as sight-reading, he suggests, specific mental mechanisms for getting the job done emerge and general-purpose faculties are jettisoned.

Ericsson regards the new study as “not a fair test” of his hypothesis. Most musicians tested by Meinz and Hambrick — including those who had played piano for a long time — were not skilled sight readers, Ericsson asserts. So the study can’t address whether differences in working memory capacity limit the performance of expert sight readers, he says.

Meinz and Hambrick recruited 57 volunteers who had played piano for between one and 57 years. Their estimated hours of overall practice ranged from 260 to 31,096, and hours of sight-reading practice ranged from zero to 9,048. Two university piano teachers rated volunteers’ performance on six sight-reading pieces. A majority of players were rated as moderately good sight readers.

Four tasks assessed working memory capacity. On one, a math equation with an answer, as well as a word, briefly flashed on a computer screen. Participants had to say whether the answer was correct and remember the word for later.

Statistically speaking, working memory capacity actually shows a weak relationship to individual differences in sight-reading skill in the new paper, remarks psychologist Reinhard Kopiez of Hanover University of Music and Drama in Germany. In a 2008 study of 52 accomplished piano players — as opposed to the piano players with a broad range of experience studied by Meinz and Hambrick — Kopiez and a colleague found no link between working memory capacity and sight-reading ability.

Two motor traits unaffected by practice — an ability to tap two fingers rapidly in alternation and to press a computer key quickly in response to visual and acoustic cues — characterized effective sight readers in Kopiez’s investigation. Sight readers who can speedily translate perceptions into actions may have an advantage, the German researcher proposes.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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