Practice, Practice, Practice May Not Be The Fastest Way To Carnegie Hall

Practice. Practice. Practice: image via missrockaway.orgPractice. Practice. Practice: image via missrockaway.orgThe music student asks a successful violinist, "What's the fastest way to Carnegie Hall?"  The violinist answers... "Practice. Practice. Practice."  That's what musicians and language learners have been doing forever!  But a recently published study by Northwestern University School of Communication suggests that practice may not be the fastest way to learn perceptual skills or to treat impairments related to perceptual skills.

The purpose of this study was to find out the fastest and most effective method for students to learn the perceptual skill of distinguishing the pitches of different tones. Volunteers between the ages of 18 and 30 were placed in four learning groups.  They had normal hearing and no previous experience with psychoacoustic tasks.  

Two of the groups were trained 20 minutes per day for a week to distinguish between a 1,000 Hertz (Hz) tone and a lower pitched tone.  The first of the two groups were not given any competing tasks to accomplish, but the second of the two groups were trained for 20 minutes of tone differentiation followed by another 20 minutes of exposure to the tones while they worked on solving an unrelated puzzle.

The first group showed no learning gains.  But the second group learned to differentiate the pitches as fast as a third group who were exposed to the pitch discrimination training for 40 minutes, with no other tasks assigned.

Even though the fourth group was exposed to the pitch differentiation training for 40 minutes while performing a non-related second task, it showed no learning gains.

Back-to-back 20 minute training were more effective than sessions presented 15 minutes apart and after four hours, a second training served no learning purpose at all.

The study, Enhancing Perceptual Learning by Combining Practice with Additional Sensory Stimulation, is published in today's issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.  These findings may lead to new learning and therapy methods in language and music.  It also suggests that there still may be hope for adults trying to learn a second or third language!