Mind over the music? Cognitive Prompts Can Improve Music Practice | Nebraska today


Welcome to Pocket Science: an overview of recent research by Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to quickly learn the “What”, “So what” and “Now what” of Husker research.


Whether blowing to sing, directing fingers to strike keys and plucking strings, or combining them to play woodwinds and brass, musicians know the drill: practice alone may not make the tone perfect, but it’s crucial to ending on a high note.

Much of the focus on musical practice is about how much, not how. But research has indicated that a certain type of practice — deliberate, laborious, done in isolation — tends to produce the most improvements. Some musical psychologists have particularly argued for the importance of three cognitive skills:

  • Focused imagery, or mentally “hearing” an accurate representation of how a musical passage should sound;
  • Motor production or visualization of the physical actions necessary to produce sounds; and
  • Self-monitoring or comparing actual performance with a representation of ideal performance

So what?

Curious about the benefits of cultivating these skills, Steinhart Foundation Professor Emeritus of Music Robert Woody of Nebraska, conducted a study with 100 university students specializing in music. All 100 were invited to engage in a practice session, vocal or instrumental, aimed at improving a chosen aspect of their musical expression.

Before practicing, half of the students received a 650-word explanation of the three cognitive skills. They were also told that they would report on any thought processes related to those specific skills – and the overall effectiveness of their practice – after the session. The other students didn’t receive any 650-word prompts and were simply asked what they were thinking before, during, and after the practice session.

Woody finally categorized the students’ written responses into four facets of self-regulation and three strategies for effective practice. Students who received the cognition-focused prompt cited these facets and strategies a total of 144 times, while students in the control group referenced them only 24 times. The greatest disparities between groups emerged in the form of use of resources—metronomes, recording devices—incorporating guidance from instructors or mentors, avoiding distractions, and managing time effectively.

This gap extended to perceptions of the practice itself: 92% of cognition-enhanced students found their sessions effective, compared to just 65% of the control group. Previous research suggests that students who believe in the effectiveness of their practice are more motivated to engage in it.

Now what?

Since the results come entirely from self-reports, future studies could determine whether these reports and perceptions carry over to behaviors and performance, Woody said. If so, music teachers might consider introducing basic prompts before practice that encourage students to keep cognitive skills in mind.


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