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I've seen studies that show exercising over a certain amount per day results in diminishing returns.

Are there any research papers, studies, etc. that investigate if there are minimum amounts of time required or points of diminishing return for musical practice?

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3 Answers 3

There's no research that I'm aware of which provides what I think you are looking for, which is a clear guideline on how much practice per day is needed to provide what results.

But there is some research on the topic. The most general indication of the research results has been that there is a much stronger correlation between time spent practicing and results. This correlation seems to be real and present, but confirmation of other long-held beliefs, such as the importance of talent, has been lacking. Although there is also some evidence that suggests practicing earlier in life is worth more than practicing later in life, due to neuroplasticity. In addition, there is evidence that the quality of practice is underrated as well.

The commonly-mentioned (and sometimes disputed) rule of thumb, espoused by writers such as Malcolm Gladwell, is that it seems like 10,000 hours is a good measurement of the time it takes to master a skill, and that most people are unable to invest more than 4 or 5 hours of good practice per day. This jives with my own experiences enough that I view it as a useful guideline.

However, not everyone plans on mastering their instrument to that extent.

If you use this as a guideline, then the following results hold true:

30 Minutes Average Daily Practice:

1 Year: 182 hours | 10 Years: 1820 Hours | 50 Years: 9125 Hours

1 Hour Average Daily Practice

1 Year: 365 hours | 10 Years: 3650 | 25 Years: 9125 Hours

2 Hour Average Daily Practice

1 Year: 730 | 10 Years 7,300 | 15 Years: 10,950

3 Hour Average Daily Practice

1 Year: 1095 | 5 Years: 5475 | 10 Years: 10,950

4 Hour Average Daily Practice

1 Year: 1460 | 3 Years: 4380 | 7 Years: 10220

Notes

  • 10,000 hours is an arbitrary target, but arbitrary targets are good.
  • More is better. More than that is better too. Total practice time is probably the strongest factor correlating with instrumental proficiency.
  • As you can see, you can scarcely have any chance of hitting this 10,000 hour target in your lifetime without at least 30 minutes of daily practice time.
  • For the average casual learner in private instrument instruction, 30 minutes a day is a pretty good outcome. Few will practice more than this, and many will miss this target.
  • The practice schedules which lead to faster outcomes also have a more exponential learning and growth benefit. That's because once you reach a certain level of playing ability, it's quite hard to advance meaningfully in the span of 30 minutes. In other words, there's a minimum amount of time needed just to reinforce what you know and prevent you from slipping backwards. And also there is a sort of economy of scale here when you practice alot because your focus is on music. Usually your tools, resources and supporting environment are stronger. You have put more attention on your equipment, you are more efficient at learning new things and using the existing resources. There are alot of benefits.
  • As you can see, even with an extremely rigorous practice schedule, you can't possibly hope to do it overnight. No matter who you are, it will probably take a long time. For this reason, your approach should be realistic. You need to be able to invest lots of practice time over your life, despite demands from work, school and family. For this reason it is uncommon to meet people practicing more than an hour per day unless it's part of their job. 2 hours per day is a pretty virtuous practice schedule for the average working person.
  • In high-pressure environments of aspiring professional musicians, you will hear people mention 8-hour daily practice schedules. However, this is usually pretty limited and short-term. There is also some research that has suggested there's an upper limit to how much good practice you can get in any given day, around 4-5 hours. Again everyone's different, but my experience among the more dedicated musicians I know is that 4 hours a day of average practice time approaches the upper limit that you can sustain for a long period and really get growth. Coincidentally this is a similar number to a few example Olympian training schedules I've seen.

More Reading

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Geoff Calvin, Talent is Overrated

There is more but if you read these books (which are sort of pop-social-science overviews), you should be able to find references to real research if you want to follow up on it.

However you slice it, this is a complicated process with many factors. The finding that the highest level of performers have invested a certain level of practice hours, or use certain methods in their practice, is a way for us to shape and guide our own objectives. It is by no means magic. However, even though we lack a clear formula it would be foolish not to take advantage of what information we do have, however fuzzy or anecdotal. The hard truth is if it means a lot to you, you had better practice alot.

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This Harvard Buisiness Review article is one step closer to the original research: hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert/ar/1 –  Dave Aug 4 at 13:37
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This TEDx talk youtube.com/watch?v=5MgBikgcWnY puts some perspective on the 10,000 hours idea -- basically that 20 hours gives you some proficiency at a specific skill (of course being a world class musician requires >500 distinct skills). I'm not sure which research this speaker is basing his conclusions on. –  Dave Aug 4 at 13:46
    
You put some interesting points in your answer. I would only say that it contradicts when it says that more practice is better and more than that is better too and then you say that there's an upper limit to how much good practice you can get in any given day (which there is). Some music therapists i've heard of say it's 3 hours per day. But what's more important than how many hours you practice is what is the frequency of your practice. Brain should receive the most constant stimuli as possible for learning something. Best to practice 5 minutes every 1 hour than 4 or 5 hours on sundays. –  Alejandro Iglesias Aug 6 at 16:12
    
@AlejandroIglesias That's a good point. But from my experience, I think of that upper limit not as a hard limit but as a point of diminishing returns. After that, you can still keep practicing and making incremental gains, at least in my experience. So more is still better. But there are practical reasons why you can't get to that "10,000 hour" milestone in three years (8*365*3=8760), but you would still probably be substantially better than if you invested 5*365*3=5475 in the same time. –  Grey Aug 6 at 16:26
    
@Grey i agree on it not being a hard limit as you say. On the other hand, the "10000 hour" isn't a "hard" or "fixed" goal either. I think one thing is to make a daily study plan arranged for better learning, and other is to try to estimate when you'll reach a far-future goal making calculations based on a number. [continues...] –  Alejandro Iglesias Aug 6 at 18:12

The oft-quoted 10,000 hour rule is for virtuoso musicians and professional athletes. You can get to a professional level of musicianship by practicing 2000 hours or less, provided that you practice with full attention.

The key isn't how much you practice so much as how much you practice with full attention. For more information see http://lifehacker.com/5939374/a-better-way-to-practice.

I became a good guitar player by practicing 30-90 minutes a day over the course of two years. But I created my own study plan and I practiced in 5-30 minute chunks during the day with full attention.

I learn new stuff all the time. Josh Kaufman, author of the book, "20 Hours" boils the process down to its essentials and talks about how you can grasp a new skill in 20 hours of practice. His rules are:

  • Deconstruct the skill
  • Learn enough to self-correct
  • Remove practice barriers
  • Practice at least 20 hours (in a month)

You won't be a virtuoso, but you will be amazed at how fast you learn. This is what makes me what Josh calls a "learning junkie": when I hit that first plateau after that first amazing learning curve, I get strongly tempted to learn something new so that I can make fast progress again instead of banging my head against the wall.

For what you do after the first 20 hours, check out this highly detailed article by a guy who learned the MIT’s four-year computer science curriculum in one year: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2013/05/10/learn-anything-in-less-time/

The executive summary of the 3500-word article is:

  • Take your learning goal, and craft it into a compelling, obsession-worthy mission.
  • Find material to learn from, structure it into a flexible curriculum.
  • Define feedback mechanisms to constantly direct your future learning efforts and ensure high-intensity, active recall.
  • Test and enforce a schedule that is sustainable over the entire lifetime of the project.
  • Develop a long-term retention strategy (formal or informal).
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I noticed that the last paragraph of your post was a direct quotation from the article, so I put it into a block quote. –  Bradd Szonye Aug 4 at 23:21
    
Thanks, @bradd! –  Kevin Johnsrude Aug 4 at 23:54

The trouble trying to give a good answer to this question is the question it brings up - what constitutes 'practice'.

At some point in a half hour, 2 hr, 3hr. session, other factors will emerge, such as mental fatigue and physical tiredness.The mental part is just too subjective in that we all have different thresholds of concentration, which after all, will be the main limit on productive practice. This will vary not only individual to individual, but day to day for one person, and other factors like time of day, season, etc.

Then we need to consider physical fitness. Maybe not so much sitting at a piano as much as balancing on the butt playing drums, or standing holding a violin, etc.Tiredness is bound to kick in at some point, particularly during a long practice session, and at this point the practice becomes, well, pointless to a degree.So continuing for longer - is it practice ?

It has been said that quite short practice times are beneficial, as they are more productive than slogging away. But that again varies tremendously person to person.

So with all that, it could make progressing to being an excellent player vary dramatically. That's without bearing in mind that some folks are innately gifted, so maybe they have a good head start ?

Then there's the 'how do I practise?' Some teachers, myself included in the early days, just said 'go off and learn this and that'. Then it struck me that actually we're not born knowing how to 'practise'. So a lot of a practice session could be unproductive. "I've played it 20 times and I should know it by now" needs addressing, and done properly will affect the progress time considerably, I'd have thought.

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