Practice Makes Perfect

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 6, 2008

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When you are listening to a recording or hearing a live performance of someone playing your primary instrument, do you feel yourself at a heightened state of attention? Are you more likely to listen extremely carefully for nuances of tone quality, intonation, and musicality? Do you almost feel yourself fingering imaginary notes on your instrument? Does this happen spontaneously when you happen to walk into a restaurant or theatre and hear the sounds of your instrument wafting through the air? On the other hand, if you happen to be a trombone player or saxophonist, for example, do you feel the same level of sensitivity when listening to a bassoon or violin concerto? Most likely not, and now there is research that provides support to this theory.

A recent study authored by assistant professor of Music at the University of Arkansas, Elizabeth Margulis, along with colleagues from Northwestern University, peered into the reaction of the neurons in the human mind to musical impulses via MRI scans. The study included classically trained violinists and flutists who listened to recordings of familiar Bach Partitas performed on their own instruments as well as on other instruments and found that “there were more extensive and complex neural responses to music played on their instrument of expertise than on another instrument.” The expected result, according to Margulis in an online article in Health News (, was that “the difference between the two groups should be minimal. Both have a lot of experience with classical music.” The responses, however, were significantly different, as the MRIs indicated that “many more areas of the [participants] brain were engaged” when listening to their own instrument.

This study differs from others that have compared and contrasted people with musical training and those without, and showed differing reactions in their brains. Margulis’ study supports the concept that training and “practice, practice, practice” is what ultimately improves performance, rather than a genetic predisposition towards musical ability. This data certainly counters the widely held notion that many of us have taken as a truth, which is that if your grandparents, parents, and siblings were fine musicians, you were more likely to become a capable musician, as well. Studies like this may eventually provide insight into improved methods of teaching students with all types of backgrounds and skill levels.

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