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.)?

  • 4
    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. Commented Oct 28, 2011 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. Commented Oct 28, 2011 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
    Commented Oct 28, 2011 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. Commented Oct 28, 2011 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! Commented Oct 31, 2011 at 0:39

4 Answers 4


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!

  • Thanks for the answer! I hadn't really considered the wider application of this phenomenon, I had only paid attention to it in music. Commented Oct 30, 2011 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.
    – Blank
    Commented Nov 1, 2011 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. Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 22:24

Yes. Very often a good practice session of hands-seperate, ultra-slow etc. playing doesn't produce a fluent, up-to-speed performance. Until the next day! Just resist the temptation to rush into a sloppy performance before the ingredients are ready. You'll find it hard to un-learn all those fluffs.


The famous mathematician Henri Poincare, who laid the foundations of general relativity, also noted a similar phenomenon with regard to his mathematical work. You might take a look at his book The Foundations of Science, Chapter Mathematical Creation.

Also, cited from this site:

At any moment we are aware of only a fraction of what goes on in our brain. Poincaré was quite aware that creativity requires a period of conscious effort followed by a period of rest. Our unconscious mind keeps working on the problem behind the curtain. As a consequence sometimes a solution, or at least a good idea, will emerge apparently out of nowhere. A period of concerted effort to check the idea and put it in a form that is understandable to others is then necessary. Poincaré’s contemporary Albert Einstein may have expressed this most succintly when he said that “Creativity is the residue of time wasted”.

EDIT: The famous polymath John von Neumann, who invented Game Theory, laid the mathematical foundations of Quantum Mechanics, built the atomic bomb and developed modern computers

[...] believed that much of his mathematical thought occurred intuitively; he would often go to sleep with a problem unsolved and know the answer upon waking up.

(the quotation is from the linked wikipedia page)

EDIT: Probably related might be the following study: Reading and doing arithmetic nonconsciously.


That's sort of what "muscle memory" is about: doing things semi-automatically without explicit investment of effort, after the brain used sleep and dreaming for compacting and transferring short-term pattern memory into more efficient memory not reliant on conscious supervision. A good part of it is mechanical in the form of motor skills and sequences, but there are also purely mental activities (like reading, equation and other problem solving) that are compressed out of conscious control in that manner.

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