A Simple Practice Scheduling Hack That Couldn’t Possibly Be as Effective as It Seems

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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?


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.

Yes, but…

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

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

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15 Responses

  1. Great article. But it would have been a more thorough study if they had also included AM/AM and PM/PM groups. Do you know if this or any other study included such groups along with AM/PM and PM/AM groups?

    1. The test was centered on whether sleeping soon after a session aided retention, and it seems pretty solid to conclude that it does.
      Like you, looking forward to other experiments!

    2. I’m not aware of anything quite like this which has specifically compared those additional combinations. The theory and previous studies do point in the direction of what this study found, but I think Deanna (below) hits it on the head with the idea of considering the content of our practice sessions too. We don’t always necessarily come back to the things we worked on in the previous session and work them up to a higher level, but it seems like this could be a helpful way of approaching our practice sessions, no matter what time they happen to be.

  2. Even more important than the times, I wasn’t even aware of structuring my practice to have a “review session” and a “learning session.” What a great idea to break up my sessions and give me more direction!

    I always did prefer getting in early to get a solid warm-up and work in score any rehearsals, so turning it into a “review session” should be an easy tweak. I like getting in and warming up before anything else in my day starts and messes with my focus. If I’m just starting in the afternoon, I feel like something is off. Thanks for the great suggestions!

  3. This is how I would study for my weekly anthropology quizzes in college. I would look at the quiz/study guide as I was getting ready for bed and then the next morning I would study it again during breakfast. I got 100% on every quiz and it made studying for the midterm so much easier because I remembered 90% of the material. 🙂

  4. Since I live with others late night practice is normally out of the question, but I did try this for learning tricky rhythms and found it very effective.

  5. I knew about sleep after practice, and so night, but not the “next morning” part. It makes sense and I’m going to try it. Thank you. 🙂

  6. I don’t really understand how a warm-up would fit into all of this. Would it have a bad impact on my progress if I warmed-up well first thing in the morning?

  7. When my kid was just born and I didn’t have time to practice during the day, I would even just listen to the recording of music while looking at the score and sheet music or read the music with a practice mute one at late night(1 am!). The next morning, I send him to the daycare and I arrive at our rehearsal early to review. That worked out pretty well. I still do this type of practice schedule and it has been very productive for me.

  8. I’m a bit confused about how this study (about learning new words) translates to (ongoing) music practice. I see that some people have made the leap, by thinking about defining practice sessions as learning/review. But I don’t think I could work like that long-term. Say, for example, I am preparing for a recital or an exam and my pieces are about 80% ready. Which aspect of my practice is ‘learning’ and which is ‘review’? It’s all a continuum and overlapping, isn’t it? Anyone got any ideas? Would it be just the little corners and difficult bits that I still stumble over that I should look at at 9pm? (Also, I hate the idea of practising so late at night and have sensitive family members).

    1. That might work – though I think this sort of practice split would be more for learning actual new rep. And interleaved practice and “cold” recorded runthroughs would probably be more useful for preparing performance-ready rep in the last weeks leading up to a performance.

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