I’ve often thought that practice room culture in music schools is a bit like the gym. There are people around at all hours of the day, but you’ll see a consistent group of folks who train in the morning, a different group of folks who always work out in the evening, and a few dedicated gym rats who are there at both ends of the day (or maybe they never left???).
So here’s an interesting hypothetical. Let’s say that you could practice 2 hours a day for the next week. Would it be better to do 2 hours in the morning? Or 2 hours in the evening? Or 1 in the morning and 1 in the evening? Or does it even matter?
Well, a recent study provides some intriguing clues that might just change how you plan your day.
What we know
We already know two things.
Thing #1: Spacing practice out results in better learning and long-term retention than cramming it all together (everything you need to know in a 4-min video ).
Thing #2: Sleep enhances learning and long-term retention – i.e. your brain keeps “learning” even while you’re sleeping (everything you need to know in a 6-min video ).
So a team of French researchers (Mazza et al., 2016) wondered what might happen when the two effects were combined in a strategic way. Would this lead to even better learning?
AM/PM vs. PM/AM
Two groups of 20 participants were tasked with learning the French translations of 16 Swahili words. All 40 participants went through the same exact training, but there was one teensy difference.
One group (“wake” group) had their first study session at 9am, and their relearning session at 9pm on the same day. The other group (“sleep” group) had their first study session at 9pm, and their relearning session at 9am the following morning.
Session #1: Learning
The first thing everyone did was learn the words. The Swahili-French word pairs (e.g. nyanya-tomate) were presented to each participant on a computer, one pair at a time, for 7 seconds each.
Once they had seen all 16 pairs, participants were quizzed to see how many of the translations they could recall. Presented with just the Swahili word, they were asked to type in the French translation.
After submitting an answer, the correct translation would appear on the screen to confirm whether they got it right or not, and provide an opportunity to memorize the correct answer if they got it wrong.
If their answer was correct, they would no longer be quizzed on that word for the rest of the study session. But if they got it wrong, that word would go back into circulation and they’d be quizzed on it again until they answered correctly.
Session #2: Relearning
Twelve hours later, the participants came back to the lab for a second study session.
But first, they were tested on the 16 word pairs to see how many they could recall from the previous study session. As you probably guessed, the sleep group did better, recalling 10.3 translations, vs. 7.45 for the wake group.
Next, all the participants practiced the list until they could get all 16 translations correct – in a row – without an error.
So here’s where things start to get interesting…
The researchers kept track of how much practice the participants needed to get all 16 translations correct. The sleep group got to perfect recall in about half the time that it took the wake group (3.05 cycles through the list vs. 5.80 cycles). Plus, every single participant in the sleep group got a perfect score within 5 attempts, whereas 75% of the wake group needed more practice.
Well, duh, right? The sleep group got more items correct to begin with, so it makes sense that they would need less time to study the remaining words. At least, that’s what I thought too, but the researchers took a look at the participants in both groups who performed about the same on the relearning test, and found that those who slept still got to a perfect performance faster than the folks who stayed awake (3.27 times through the list vs. 5.09 times through the list).
So not only did sleep lead to a higher level of performance after the same amount of practice, but when participants returned to the same material, it helped them reach the desired level of performance in half the time?
This would imply a huge time and effort savings. Because if we can hop into the practice room in the morning, and work a piece back up to a higher level than it was the day before in half the time it would normally take, we could use that extra time and energy to do so much more detail work, or spend time on other repertoire.
And with regards to memory, it gets even better.
One week later…
A week later, the participants came back to the lab and were tested to see how many of the French translations they could correctly recall.
Believe it or not, with no further practice, the sleep group was able to recall 15.20 (out of 16) of the translations. In fact, 60% of the participants got all 16 correct.
The wake group recalled only 11.25 of the translations. And none of them were able to recall all 16.
6 months later…
A full half a year later, the sleep group continued to out-remember the wake group (8.67 correct vs. 3.35).
Which I think is pretty remarkable since I can’t even remember important stuff from 6 months ago unless I write it down. And that’s assuming I can remember where I wrote it down…urgh.
One additional wrinkle
There were also another 20 participants (the control group), who did all the same stuff as the sleep group, except for the relearning training (where they had to go through the list until they could get all 16 correct). I bring this up, because their results suggest that it wasn’t just sleep that resulted in vastly better performance. It was a combination of sleep plus the relearning session bright and early in the morning.
Why would this make a difference?
Well, it’s an educated guess based on previous research, but it’s likely that a day’s events and activities can cause interference with whatever it is that you study in the morning. Whereas if you study in the evening, and then sleep shortly thereafter (it defeats the purpose if you stay up late to play Mario Kart and cram for a chemistry midterm), it minimizes interference and also gives you the benefit of the memory processes that sleep enhances.
This means, for instance, that if you have rehearsal at 10am, it’s important to get to bed early, wake up earlier and put in an hour before rehearsal, so all the stuff you do during rehearsal doesn’t interfere with all the work you did the night before.
Memorizing word pairs is indeed a different kind of knowledge (“declarative” or factual knowledge) than working out the kinks in a tricky shift (“procedural” or “how-to” knowledge). But we know from other studies (like this interesting one on musicians) that learning continues overnight for procedural memory too.
You might be an AM practicer. Or a PM practicer. But it looks like there could be some pretty rad benefits of becoming a PM/AM practicer instead. Perhaps this would mean working on newer, more challenging things in the evening, and then following up in the morning to take it a step further. Or reading through new rep in the evening, and returning to it in the morning to make sure it sticks. Or spending time on the most important thing on your list very last in the evening, but making it the first thing you start with in the morning.
It might be inconvenient, but if you could get even a fraction of the benefits from this study in your musical learning, it seems like it’d totally be worth splitting your daily practice time into a PM and AM session, instead of cramming all of it into one single part of the day.
(Oooh, so does this mean science says I shouldn’t bother practicing in the afternoon? Ha! Nice try. That’s totally where my mind went too, but I don’t think you’re going to convince anyone.)
Mazza, S., Gerbier, E., Gustin, M. P., Kasikci, Z., Koenig, O., Toppino, T. C., & Magnin, M. (2016). Relearn Faster and Retain Longer. Psychological Science, 27(10), 1321–1330. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797616659930