Friday, February 25, 2022

Learn Better: Brain Research and Music Learning

This blog post provides additional information and references for a Presentation I gave at the 2022 International Conference for Saxophone Paerformance and Pedagogy on February 25, 2022, an online conference hosted at the University of Florida.

Session Abstract
This session explores music learning in the context of brain research conducted in the areas of cognitive load theory and motor learning. Key principles drawn from the research are applied to difficult passages performed by students in order to achieve rapid skill acquisition.

Movement and the Brain
The body's motor control system is quite complex.

Musicians routinely call on the brain to coordinate extremely precise physical movements, informed by continuous visual and auditory input.  Almost the entire brain is used in this process.

Cognitive Load Theory
Studies in the area of cognitive load theory have shown that our brain can really only process a very few items of information at once.  The most recent studies have found the effective limit of cognitive brain load to be 3 or 4 items at a time.

- Reduce the load on the brain by avoiding unnecessary tension and movement.

- Reduce cognitive load by breaking passages into 2-, 3-, or 4-note groups. Group easy parts: scale/arpeggio fragments, major seconds. Look for patterns: contour, shapes, harmonic/chromatic progressions.

- Stay relaxed. repeat, repeat, repeat.  Do it again tomorrow, and the next day.


Clark, R. , Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. San Francisco: Preiffer.

Clark, R. & Mayer, R. (2007). Elearning and the Science of Instruction. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Cowan, Nelson. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24 , pp 87-114

Dubec, Bruno. (2011). The Brain, Top to Bottom.
Chapter on "Body Movement and the Brain"

Medina, John. (2008). Brain Rules.  Pear Press. Seattle.

Sweller , J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G. & Paas, F.  G. W. C. (1998). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design.  Educational Psychology Review, Volume 10, Number 3, 251-296.