Intelligent Music Practice

Recent research findings about how the brain encodes and refines skill memories not only make the process of music learning more understandable and interesting, but also suggest ways to make practice a more positive and productive experience for musicians. We have conducted systematic investigations of music learning and procedural memory consolidation over the past 8 years.[i] Our own findings and the research of others over the past two decades have revealed important insights about the formation, refinement, and retrieval of skill memories. In this section of our website, we explain ways to set up effective practice for learners at all levels of experience and expertise, combining information from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and observations of expert musicians’ practice.

We present recorded examples of effective music practice that illustrate the connections between strategies that work and the underlying mechanisms of the brain that explain their function in human memory. We also describe the role of self-assessment and problem-solving in practice and illustrate ways in which even young learners can define practice in terms of matching musical intentions to outcomes. In particular, we emphasize how practice should integrate all components of music production, including expressive inflection.


[i] Robert A. Duke et al., “Effects of Early and Late Rest Breaks During Training on Overnight Memory Consolidation of a Keyboard Melody,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1169 (2009): 169–72, doi:NYAS04795 [pii] 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04795.x; Robert A. Duke and Carla M. Davis, “Procedural Memory Consolidation in the Performance of Brief Keyboard Sequences,” Journal of Research in Music Education 54, no. 2 (2006): 111–124, doi:10.1177/002242940605400203; Robert A. Duke, Intelligent Music Teaching: Essays on the Core Principles of Effective Instruction (Austin, TX: Learning and Behavior Resources, 2009); Duke et al., “Effects of Early and Late Rest Breaks During Training on Overnight Memory Consolidation of a Keyboard Melody”; Robert A. Duke and James L. Byo, The Habits of Musicianship: A Radical Approach to Beginning Band (Austin, TX: Center for Music Learning, 2008),; Robert A. Duke et al., “Focus of Attention Affects Performance of Motor Skills in Music,” 2005; Robert A. Duke, Amy L. Simmons, and Carla D. Cash, “It’s Not How Much, It’s How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and the Retention of Performance Skills,” Journal of Research in Music Education 56, no. 4 (2009): 310–321, doi:10.1177/0022429408328851; Amy L. Simmons and Robert A. Duke, “Effects of Sleep on Performance of a Keyboard Melody,” Journal of Research in Music Education 54, no. 3 (2006): 257–269, doi:10.1177/002242940605400308; Amy L. Simmons, “Distributed Practice and Procedural Memory Consolidation in Musicians’ Skill Learning,” Journal of Research in Music Education 59, no. 4: 357 –368, doi:10.1177/0022429411424798; Sarah E. Allen, “Memory Stabilization and Enhancement Following Music Practice,” Psychology of Music (2013); Carla D. Cash, “Effects of Early and Late Rest Intervals on Performance and Overnight Consolidation of a Keyboard Sequence,” Journal of Research in Music Education 57, no. 3 (2009): 252–266, doi:10.1177/0022429409343470; Carla D. Cash et al., “Effects of Model Performances on Music Skill Acquisition and Overnight Memory Consolidation,” Journal of Research in Music Education 62 (2014): 89-99, doi:10.1177/0022429413520409; Sarah E. Allen and Robert A. Duke, “The Effects of Limited, Restricted Music Practice on Overnight Memory Enhancement,” Update: Applications of Research in Music Education 32, no. 1 (2013): 67-73, doi: 10.1177/8755123313502350.