Your brain is amazing. It can learn to do all sorts of complex things like reading a book, riding a bike, and even playing the piano. All it takes is practice, right?
Not exactly. It takes practice and . . . sleep!
That’s right. You can practice all you want, but if you’re not getting enough sleep your brain can’t process what you’re practicing. In fact, for a skill like playing the piano, a short period of practice and a good sleep will get you further than a long period of practice without sleep!
How Does Sleep Help You Learn?
When your brain learns something new, there are two distinct steps that it takes. The first step is called acquisition. This is what happens when you first practice a new piano song. During acquisition your ability to perform goes up quickly at first, but then the rate of learning slows down. It’s as if you can only learn so many new things at once.
You can continue practicing, and your ability will continue to grow slowly, but the speed at which you improve won’t be nearly as impressive as when you first started out. In other words, if you are trying to learn a few new measures of a song, you’ll improve more in the first five minutes of practicing than you will in the next five minutes of practicing. So if you’ve been working on the same part of a song for five or ten minutes, it might be time to move on to another part, or even take a break. Don’t worry if you can’t get it perfect yet. Your brain is about to do something amazing.
This amazing thing happens while you’re asleep. It’s called consolidation.
Consolidation is the second step of learning. This is when your brain takes what you acquired and turns it into a stable memory. For most people, this process doesn’t happen while you’re awake. It happens while you’re asleep. In order for your brain to best consolidate memories, you need a good night’s sleep, which is 7-9 hours for adults, 9-11 hours for children. Some studies have shown that even a daytime nap can help consolidate memories, but the greatest improvement in ability comes after you have a full night of uninterrupted sleep.
After a period of sleep, your ability to recall what you’ve learned should jump dramatically. Your brain has stored what you’ve learned in a way that it can access the information quickly and easily. In fact, even if you don’t practice again for a day or even two, your brain will continue to consolidate the memory with every period of sleep and you’ll continue to improve! Of course you’ll improve even more if you do practice every day, but it’s nice to know that even when you take a day off your brain is still working to help you learn to play the piano.
Improve Your Learning With the Power of Sleep
The point is that you should be patient with yourself if you’re having a hard time learning something on the piano. Practice new music slowly and carefully, even if only for a few minutes. Then try it again the next day, after a good night’s sleep. You should see a big improvement in your ability to play.
So if sleep helps you learn, should you practice the piano right before bed? Not necessarily. According to a recent study, it really doesn’t matter what time of day you practice. What matters is that you get a good sleep before you try to recall what you’ve learned.
Good News for Musicians!
Do you want to know what else can help your brain consolidate memories?
Learning to play a musical instrument!
In another study, scientists found that people who had learned to play a musical instrument had an unusual ability. Their brains could consolidate memories while they were awake! Musicians can practice a task for a while, then take a break and come back to it hours later and show improvement! It’s as if all the time they spent learning and practicing their instrument taught their brain how to constantly consolidate memories. It’s just one more amazing reason to learn piano!
Happy practicing, and have a good sleep!