hands on piano keysHow fast can you recognize a song? Researchers at McGill University in conjunction with the Lyon Neuroscience Research Centre in France have observed that people who played a song later recognize the tune more quickly than those who only listened to it. The findings support the importance of learning by doing and may help inform educational practices for creating strong memories.

The participants were 20 experienced pianists from Lyon, France. For the study, they learned simple melodies either by listening to a song several times or by playing it. Afterwards, the researchers tested their ability to remember the melody by exposing the pianists to a version of the tune that contained some wrong notes or other small differences. During this part of the study, the participants’ brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG).

The pianists who learned the melody through playing it were able to identify the pitch changes and wrong notes more quickly than their colleagues who learned by listening. The EEG data showed that the musicians who had played the melody exhibited increased motor activity and larger changes in brain waves about 200 milliseconds after hearing the wrong notes, indicating that the brain is able to rapidly compare auditory stimuli with kinesthetic memories. In other words, a memory of movement was recalled more quickly than a memory of sound alone.

“This paper helps us understand ‘experiential learning’ or ‘learning by doing’, and offers pedagogical and clinical implications. The role of the motor system in recognizing music, and perhaps also speech, could inform education theory by providing strategies for memory enhancement for students and teachers,” said Brian Mathias, Ph.D. student at McGill who conducted the study.

This research is published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

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