Trace decay vs. interference.
There are two schools of thinking regarding the cause of forgetting. The first, trace decay, came out of Ebbinghaus’s work. He showed that time was the primary cause of a loss of memory.
There have been other approaches to the question of memory and forgetting. Scientists such as F. C. Barlett used stories instead of word lists to look at the effect time had on memory. He would have subjects read brief stories and then test their recollection of those stories at various time intervals up to 6 months. Though Barlett initially set out his work as a criticism of Ebbinghaus , especially in his use of non-sense syllables; Barlett’s work showed similar types and degrees of memory loss as could be explained in Ebbinghaus’s work.
Another explanation for forgetting was developed in later years and that is the “interference theory”. Briefly, it states that material learned both before and after the target material interferes with the retention of the designated material. A typical example of this type of study would be the following: 3 groups of subjects, one learns the paired group of words A-B and C-D (car – dog and tree – road). The second learns A-B and A-C, and the third would learn just A-B. The groups would then be tested on their ability to accurately recall the various lists. The results typically were the A-B only group would do the best. The A-B and C-D group would do noticeably worse on their A-B list as well as their C-D lists. The A-B and A-C group though would do the worst over all. They would intermix their two lists. This is not unlike the problems we often encountered in repetitive sections in music where the repeated sections have slight variations. It is a common problem to intermix the sections, ultimately having trouble extracting one’s self from the section.
It is a common experience that repetition impacts memory. The more a passage is repeated on day 1 of practice, the better condition it is in when the next day’s work begins. But how much practice does it require to maintain “X” amount of material? How much retention is gain for each repetition? At what point does the diminishing returns outweigh the value of the additional retention?
Ebbinghaus did a series of double tests to find the answer to these questions. He learned 6 series of 16 syllable lists, repeating each list either 8, 16, 24, 32, 42, 53, or 64 times. The next day he repeated the tests, the results were remarkably consistent across all levels of study. Through the course of his study he found that it took an average of 31 repetitions to learn a list of 16 syllables. So the lists learned 8, 16, and 24 times were not learned to his standard of error free reproduction. However the 42, 53, and 64 repetition lists were significantly over studied for his standard.
The next day he relearned the lists and recorded the amount of repetitions and time it took to learn each list to his standard. The results across all lists was an average savings of 12.7 seconds with each test set of 6 lists falling within the narrow range of 12 and 13.7 seconds saved. The average savings per list (out of the 6) was 2.1 seconds and the average time it took to read a list was 6.6 – 6.8 seconds. On average, across the entire exercise he experienced a savings of one repetition for every three repetitions done the preceding day.
And as for the question of diminishing returns, the greatest savings occurred at the 42 repetition level. Some of this he attributed to: “An increase of the readings used for the first learning beyond 64 repetitions proved impracticable, at least for six series of this length. For with this number each test requires about 3/4 of an hour, and toward the end of this time exhaustion, headache, and other symptoms were often felt which would have complicated the complicated(sic) (I think the translation should have said “results”) of the test if the number of repetitions had been increased.”
So when your students asks “Do I really need to play it again????” You can say quite confidently: “Yes, Dr. Ebbinhaus says do it 42 times!” It is indeed true that repetition is the mother of all learning. In coming articles we will look at the effect of thoughtful repetition.
The first area of memorization Ebbinghaus looked at in his dissertation was the effect of the length of the list of non-sense syllables he learned. His first observation was that lists of 7 or fewer required just one reading to be reproducible by memory. This observation is later verified by other researchers as the usual size of the short term memory. The short term memory is often described as having the capacity of 5 – 7 “chunks” of information and lasting no more than 15 seconds.
As the number of syllables increased to 12 the average number of repetitions required for the first errorless reproduction increased to 16.6. Adding just 4 more syllables added nearly 14 more repetitions. The next addition of 8 syllables (24 total) added another 14 repetitions and the final addition of 15 syllables (39 total) added only 11 (55 total) repetitions.
Number of syllables/ Number of repetitions necessary for first errorless reproduction (exclusive of it)
in a series
7 / 1
12 / 16.6
16 / 30.0
24 / 44.0
39 / 55.0
While we could say that if the final group of 39 syllables had been learned in groups of 7 or fewer it would have taken far less effort to get to the first errorless reproduction, we will see in later parts of his dissertation the effect of practice on retention. Retention is the only thing which matters after all.
One of the very first studies in human memory applying scientific processes was published by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885 with the essay Uber das Dedachtniss (Memory, A Contribution to Experimental Psychology (English translation title)). Ebbinghaus used himself as the subject in his experiments in learning lists of non-sense words (from a list of 2300 words). Based upon his experiments he described three important theories which can be helpful today in understanding the learning process. They are: 1) interference theory in which earlier learning is covered over by later learning, 2) trace decay is where images or knowledge suffers changes which alter its character, 3) forgetting involves a “crumbling” of various components as opposed to a general obscuring.
Ebbinghaus used himself as the subject of his experiments because he wanted complete control of motivation factors and an awareness of any possible distractions from his experiments. After creating lists of three-letter non-sense words he would read them out loud at a steady rate of 150 per minute and consistent intonation usually emphasizing every fourth. He would continue to read the lists with periodic tests until he was able to reproduce the list without hesitation, a perfect reproduction of the material. He also controlled for external factors such as time of day and personal levels of distractedness. After doing thousands of tests, he performed statistical analysis on his results.
The ability of humans to store information is enormous, however the rate of retention, ability to accurately recall, and rate of forgetting varies greatly and is the area of greatest concern when we look at learning methods. Ebbinghaus examined the rate of rote learning he experienced with his lists. One question he sought an answer to was the effect of repetition on the rate of learning. What was the relationship between practice (repetitions) and learning; how did more practice effect the outcome? What happens when a list was learned a second time; what was the residual impact of initial work on subsequent efforts?
To find the answer to these and many other types of questions he employed lists of non-sense words and practiced them for 8, 16, 24, 32, 42, 53, or 64 repetitions. He would then relearn these lists the next day measure the results. “Learned” is defined as one successful performance of the material by memory. The use of non-sense words was to reduce or eliminate any associative characteristics with meaningful words. The purpose of the study was to look at the rote learning of non-associative and non-sense syllables.
After looking at the rates of learning 16 syllable sequences with 8, 16, 24, 32, 42, 53, and 64 reps he found an average saving of 12 seconds in the re-learning after 24 hours for each repetition. A single repetition of about 7 seconds of work saved 12 seconds of work the next day.
Ebbinghaus also looked at the rate of forgetting (his famous “forgetting curve). A 13 syllable list was re-learned after a 20 min break through 30 day interval. The forgetting metric is the difference between the numbers of reps for the first trial minus the number for the second trial expressed as a percentage of the first trial. The retention rate was found to be after 1/3 hr 60%, 1 hr 45%, 8 hr 35%, 24 hr 34%, 2 days 30%, 5 days 28%, and 30 days 25%. Most of the forgetting occurred within the first 24 hours and even after 30 days enough memory remained to reduce the time it took to relearn the list by 25%.
Ebbinghaus also looked at the position a word appeared in the list and the consequences of its serial position on retention and re-learning. There are two functions he found present. Recency is the recall of recently learned material and primacy is the recall of the first learned. First studied material benefits from the lack of conflicting material and increased rehearsal.
This is a study of purely rote learning of non-associative/nonsense information. It doesn’t show the retention of associative or meaningful material. It does however provide a baseline of learning. Rote learning is the most mechanical learning process and represents learning at its most basic level.
Ebbinghaus showed, through his careful testing of his most reliable subject, himself, a model of learning which still informs our thinking nearly 150 years later. We see the relationship between learning effort and forgetting and learning effort and retention.
In upcoming articles I will look at several aspects of his work which I found helpful in understanding some of the basics of human memory which were relevant to my study at the piano. I know that some of you may find this stuff as dry as dead bones, but I hope at least a few may share some of the AHAAA moments I had as I learned something about how I learn.
I recently re-read The Art of Practicing by Madeline Bruser. While the author occasionally would swerve into a more empirical mind set, much of the time was spent in what my great late friend Ralph Bus would have called the “ooo eee”. Being a bit more analytical and empirical in my thinking, I usually do not get much out of this “new age” approach to problem solving.
When I was much younger and feeling very intimidated by my classmates at college I asked “Why can they, and I can’t?” This question propelled me for most of the next 20 years to find the answer to that question. It was actually a very difficult subject to explore and find meaningful information. The vast majority of cognitive psychology research which I was able to find focused on language as a subject matter. The cognitive processes used in the study of music and the learning of an instrument are orders of magnitude more complex than learning a list of words. Only in the past decade or so has the field of music psychology begun to take shape. Yet, despite the difficulties in finding useful research which could shed some light on the learning of music, I was able to develop a pretty complex and nuanced understanding of the mechanics of learning music.
The human mind is a very complex electro-chemical machine and while most of its functions are still unexplainable,
enough is known to create a number of working models of the how and why of the human mind and memory.
Years ago I started to outline a book on this subject which I will use throughout this series. Some of the ideas I will present may strike you as too mechanical to be used in an artistic endeavor but becoming an efficient learner is no different than developing an efficient technique. We don’t hesitate to work on scales and etudes in the hope of having a better mechanical command of our instrument. It is very difficult to play artistically if you are fumbling around mechanically. Understanding how the human mind learns, retains, and recalls information will help us learn, retain, and recall our music more efficiently and effectively.
In the same way that concert artists often make very poor teachers because they often don’t fully understand how they do what they do or how they learned to do it, they may not be aware of how their learning processes may be unique to them, giving them a great advantage in learning literature. Through the course of these articles I will explore what science can tell us about how we learn, retain, and perform our music.
When I was a young student, my teacher insisted I first learn each hand separately and only then play both hands together. I found this more than a little frustrating. I always felt I had to start all over again when I put my hands together; all of the proceeding work with hands separate was a waste. Eventually in a pique of rebelliousness I quit playing with my hands separately, except for when I was asked to do so in a lesson.
I have often wondered about where the notion of learning each hand separately originated. I can picture a scenario like this: JS Bach tells CPE Bach he should pay extra attention to the right hand passage he continuously mis-plays. CPE tells his student he should play the right hand a couple times to fix a problem. Beethoven then tells his student Czerny that his right hand is very sloppy and he needs to fix it before the next lesson or he will use the ruler. Finally Czerny tells everybody to practice each hand separately.
So let’s break the cycle. The piano is a two handed instrument requiring a constant partnership between the hands. A good sight reader doesn’t run through each hand before playing, he just plays both hands immediately.
Now before you completely write me off as a crank, I will allow brief hands separate work but only in the interest of clarification of technical details and fingering. After that put them together!
For the last year and some months, I’ve been giving piano lessons to a young boy who is apparently very attention deprived in his everyday life. I came to this conclusion pretty quickly; at his “trial lesson” actually. This little boy had a mind of his own! He’d find everything he could to get himself distracted, he’d make strange squealing and squawking sounds whenever he played a piano key, he’d mock me counting beats, he’d talk back to me, he’d do things he was told not to do just out of spite, when I corrected him he’d say he didn’t do it wrong, and well, that’s just a general overview of all this little boy has done.
Sometimes I sit in lessons and repeat directions for him to get his hands ready to play over and over while he sits there in outward resistance and then 5 minutes later; he finally gives in and gets his hands ready. That should take 5 seconds, not five minutes! Almost every week it is the same thing in one variation or another. I am not sure which is harder; teaching this little boy or doing a triathlon! Certainly, much endurance is needed. Well over a year later, we are still only ¾ of the way through the Faber Piano Adventures Primer Level books. I am sure I have moved him along in them more than he has deserved too! And in case you’re wondering, he is not much better if his mother or babysitter is in the room.
By now, you’re probably asking me why I don’t just give up on this little boy. I have asked myself that same question for a long time… well, since I started teaching him. Something just keeps me going though. Part of me never wants to give up on anybody. I am kind of stubborn like that and I hold a lot of hope and a lot of faith that things will always get better or at least I will learn something great through it all. Part of me says “hey, it’s income!” What teacher doesn’t want a steady student filling a half hour of their week? And yet another part of me wonders if there is some way I could make some kind of difference in his life. This is the most compelling reason I stick with teaching my little misbehaved wonder. There has got to be SOMETHING that I can do for him. Well, I haven’t quite found that something yet, but I have realized that sometimes I just need to settle for the tiny little somethings that pop up once in a blue moon.
One thing I have learned is that my little friend suddenly gets really quiet and focused when he is given theory assignments to do right there in pianos lessons. I quit assigning them to be done at home this past summer because I realized this was what he was mostly interested in and now we do all his theory together right there on the piano bench. These have ended up being the most teachable moments. He still acts a little goofy, but most of his attention gets focused on getting correct answers and following the directions on the page. Oh how I wish he would follow MY directions! We’ll get there though. Baby steps, right?
That one little breakthrough just feeds my hope that more and bigger breakthroughs will come. Until then, call me crazy, but I think I’ll keep teaching this little guy. Maybe someday I’ll be writing an article about what a great scientist or engineer he has become. Maybe I’ll be bragging about something wonderful he’s done with music! Well, I won’t get ahead of myself, but you know what I mean.
I have found two meanings for this rule, one practical and one life changing.
First the practical. Left to our own devises we will start our work at the beginning and work our way to the end. Cognitive science explains some of the phenomenon we experience with this approach. The two primary challenges we encounter involve issues of interference and recency. Interference occurs when new or old material will block or interfere with recall. Sometimes the new material is similar enough to the old material as to create a conflicted memory. (This happens a lot in music!) Recency is the principle that we remember the most recent event better than older events. If we start at the beginning and play to the end we will remember the beginning well because it is the beginning and had our clearest focus; and the end almost as well because it is recent. But the middle is some kind of vague muddle of notes we know we played but have no idea what we did.
If you begin at the end and work backwards toward the beginning; first leaning the last measure and then the next to last measure, playing both; and then adding another measure and so on; each measure has a chance to be the beginning. Your retention of the middle is greatly enhanced.
A few years ago, while reviewing my repertory list I realized that I had learned about 1/3 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Into my silly head popped this notion that it would be a good thing to learn and play them all as preludes and postludes at my church. It took several years to complete this project of playing the entire set of sonatas sequentially. When I finally completed the project and had a chance to look back on my work and began to do it again, I had a profound sense of what the poet T. S. Elliot meant by:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
I say this as a lover of speed. I have worn out many metronomes in my life, not from throwing them out of frustration, but from use. I work meticulously to achieve my ambitious tempo goals and then exceed them by 10% to ensure ease. Yet all too often I get caught up on faster and forget there is more to music than speed. Many times there is a lot less music with more speed. Finding the balance between a tempo with brings life and one which crushes music is a constant struggle.
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