Mind over music? Cognitive prompts may improve music practice

· 3 min read

Mind over music? Cognitive prompts may improve music practice

Pocket Science: Exploring the 'What,' 'So what' and 'Now what' of Husker research
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Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing
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Welcome to Pocket Science: a glimpse at recent research from Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to quickly learn the “What,” “So what” and “Now what” of Husker research.


Whether expending the breath to sing, directing fingers to strike keys and pluck strings, or combining them to play woodwind and brass, musicians know the drill: Practice alone may not make pitch-perfect, but it’s crucial to finishing on a high note.

Much of the focus on music practice narrows to how much, not how. But research has indicated that a certain type of practice — deliberate, effortful, done in isolation — tends to yield the most improvement. Some music psychologists have especially advocated for the importance of three cognitive skills:

  • Goal imaging, or mentally “hearing” a precise representation of how a musical passage should sound;
  • Motor production, or visualizing the physical actions needed to produce sounds; and
  • Self-monitoring, or comparing actual performance with a representation of the ideal performance

So what?

Curious about the benefits of cultivating those skills, Nebraska’s Robert Woody, Steinhart Foundation Distinguished Professor of Music, conducted a study with 100 university students majoring in music. All 100 were asked to engage in a practice session, vocal or instrumental, aimed at improving some chosen aspect of their musical expression.

Before practicing, half of the students received a 650-word explanation of the three cognitive skills. They were also informed that they would be reporting on any thought processes related to those specific skills — and the overall effectiveness of their practice — following the session. The other students received no 650-word prompt and were asked simply to report what they were thinking about before, during and after the practice session.


Woody ultimately categorized the students’ written responses into four facets of self-regulation and three strategies for effective practice. Students who received the cognition-focused prompt cited those facets and strategies a total of 144 times, whereas students in the control group referenced them only 24 times. The greatest disparities between the groups emerged in the form of using resources — metronomes, recording devices — incorporating the advice of instructors or mentors, avoiding distractions and effectively managing time.

That gap extended to perceptions of the practice itself: 92% of the cognition-prompted students judged their sessions to be effective, compared with just 65% of the control group. Prior research suggests that students who believe in the effectiveness of their practice are more motivated to engage in it.

Now what?

Given that the findings came entirely from self-reports, future studies could investigate whether those reports and perceptions carry over to behaviors and performance, Woody said. If so, music teachers might consider introducing basic pre-practice prompts that encourage students to keep cognitive skills in mind.

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