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Whenever I'm learning something new on the piano, I'll usually

  1. learn the basic notes and rhythm of a section of the song (several measures, maybe a full page depending on the complexity / tempo, etc).
  2. Practice that section for a little while. Depending on the complexity / length of the section (once again), this could be around 30 - 90 minutes. Usually I do this in the evening, near the time when I'm going to sleep.
  3. At this point, even if it's a little sloppy, I stop for the night and go to bed.

9 times out of 10, I feel much more comfortable with that section when I play the piece the following day than I did when I stopped the night before - I seem to have improved over night. I no longer have that "rushed" feeling you sometimes get when you're trying hard to make sure you don't miss any notes; the section just flows much better.

I'm interested in hearing whether others have experienced this (I'm thinking so based on the last sentence in this answer by @Kyle Brandt) and, if so, what is this phenomenon (e.g. is there a name for it, what causes it, etc.)?

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I think this is a special case of a more general phenomenon; I've found that the same thing happens to me when programming (wake up and fix bug almost immediately), or playing games (going back to that frustrating passage after a few days of trying hard in vain and nailing it) -- or sometimes doing research. I'm not sure how on-topic the subject of the causes is, but I'm definitely interested in hearing more on that from more qualified people. –  Anthony Labarre Oct 28 '11 at 13:54
    
@Anthony Good point! I think I may have experienced this in other areas as well - I just notice it more in my piano playing. –  jadarnel27 Oct 28 '11 at 14:23
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There is ongoing scientific study into this phenomenon. See this wikipedia article for a little more info: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_and_learning –  vjones Oct 28 '11 at 14:59
    
I've noticed in many areas as well, including attention span. I put off a music history paper… perhaps a little longer than I should have… but instead of staying up all night to finish, I went to bed and got up earlier to finish. I was able to retain my concentration, and in fact seemed to connect the ideas I'd read about the day prior much more easily than as I was digesting them. It's an interesting phenomena, but I believe it's also one of the theories for why sleep evolved: to give our brain time to form and cement connections learned during the day. –  Josh Fields Oct 28 '11 at 18:16
    
I now think this question may have been a little off-topic, considering it's more of a general, psychological thing - but I appreciate all your comments! –  jadarnel27 Oct 31 '11 at 0:39
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1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Before I start, in my opinion, this goes into the realms of learning psychology, which I am not an expert on in any way, but I'll have a go.

As explained to me by a teacher once in regards to studying and revision, when you learn something, it immediately goes into your short term memory. As you continue your initial practice, it becomes a little more solidified within that memory, but not entirely to the point where you can reproduce it perfectly immediately. In fact, the longer you work at something within a session, the more damaging it becomes, as what you initially placed in your short term memory starts to change.

Then you go away and do something entirely different, or sleep. This allows your brain to transfer it over into your longer-term memory, and by doing so allows it to analyse it and 'sink in,' allowing the brain to become familiar with how whatever it is should be done (be it revised information, a guitar solo or a musical piece)

An example of this in my experience is that I regularly, after finishing an essay on a challenging subject, wake up in the night with the feeling of a point that I had made within the essay being completely wrong or off the mark, and when I go back to edit it later on, it is indeed out of place.

Subsequently, when you go back the next day and do it again, it flows much more naturally, as your brain has had chance to become more familiar with it in the interim.

This makes sense to me, and I see it working regularly. Hope this helps!

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Thanks for the answer! I hadn't really considered the wider application of this phenomenon, I had only paid attention to it in music. –  jadarnel27 Oct 30 '11 at 4:41
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That makes a lot of sense when you think about it logically. After all, when you learn something, you're essentially creating or strengthening pathways in the brain-- those things don't grow instantly, it takes time for them to develop. The most optimal way to learn something, thus, is short daily sessions, as opposed to a few very long sessions. I think this is true regardless of discipline. –  Nicholas Flynt Nov 1 '11 at 4:17
    
I've seen a few research articles that support the basic idea of this. Generally you do better on tests if you study and get a good nights sleep vs cramming all night. –  cadmium Dec 10 '12 at 22:24
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