Submitted by Tatyana Roytshteyn
A few years ago, I was working with a young student on his first piece requiring opposing articulation between the hands. We worked through tiny sections of the music painstakingly tracking every movement of the fingers and carefully making sure that one hand held the note down to connect while the other lifted the note for non-legato. We repeated these movements in slow motion, moving slightly forward, retreating and trying to move ahead again. At this stage I usually tell my students that their fingers are like unruly children that need direction from the teacher, parent or conductor (the brain) in order to work well together. The student’s mom, a neurologist, was watching the whole process and at some point, exclaimed, “He’s building neural pathways right now that didn’t exist before!” As the neural pathway is developed, the instructions from the brain travel to the hands faster, and the action becomes easier, more automated. I had, of course, witnessed this development often in my teaching over the years, but hadn’t realized how much brain plasticity came into play. We focus much of our teaching attention on repetition of tasks, developing hand independence, speed and strength, but what is happening in our brains to produce these complex actions? Can that knowledge be used to aid our teaching?
The brain and music connection is a topic for some fascinating reading. Some scientists believe that our language abilities developed from a so called “proto language, a musi-language which stemmed from primate calls and was used by the Neanderthals; it was emotional but without words as we know them” (Mithen, 2005). The evidence for this theory stems partially from the brain development of Homo sapiens. The visual cortex of our species is smaller than that of the great apes, while the areas of the brain responsible for auditory processing are larger. This variation in brain development “heralded a shift to an aesthetic based on sound, and abilities to entrain to external rhythmic inputs” (Trimble and Hesdorffer 2017).
Studies have shown that music has a profound effect on the brain, not only emotionally but physically as well. The rhythmic entrainment of motor function can aid in the recovery of patients with stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury (Thaut 2005). There is also evidence to suggest that music can decrease the frequency of seizures in children with epilepsy (Bodner et al, 2012).
Over the course of the last year I’ve continued reading, researching and veering off on various tangents. One article or research paper would spawn multiple offshoots, each interesting and worth pursuing. Finally, I arrived at research focused on the neuroscience of metacognition and the role that tip of tongue states (TOTs) play. Metacognition is “thinking about thinking” and TOTs are commonly used in metacognitive research. That feeling of not being able to remember a word even though you’re certain you know it? That’s a TOT. It turns out that TOTs aren’t simply memory blocks. They are more likely metacognitive triggers, activating the brain’s monitoring system and spurring us to action. Current research shows that TOTs happen with greater frequency in instances where retrieval is more likely, thus prompting us to try harder.
Metacognitive strategies are not new in the world of music education, many teachers report using them and much research has been written on the topic. However, when students are interviewed on the success of these strategies, many report a feeling that they weren’t instructed on them sufficiently. A multiple case study from 2017 by Barbara Colombo and Alessandro Antonietti concluded: “Data supported the notion that teachers use metacognitive strategies during their teaching practice, but students are not aware of this because a metacognitive focus on strategies, as well as a strong emphasis on monitoring, appears to be lacking.” What are we to make of this? If teachers are employing metacognitive strategies, then why aren’t students retaining these skills and what is “monitoring”?
The brain areas involved in metacognitive thinking are the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). The ACC “is activated during mismatched conditions, such as during feedback to high confidence errors and low confidence corrects.” In other words, this brain area alerts us to a mismatch between expectation or confidence and actual performance. The result is a metacognitive experience that “leaps into consciousness" and allows us to correct course. The authors of this study (Butler, Karpicke and Roediger 2008) also found a “hyper-correction effect”. They observed a “greater recall of correct answers to questions that were initially answered incorrectly with high confidence. So, the greater the discrepancy between what we think we know, and what we actually know, the better we can retain the correct information once it is discovered. The DLPFC, on the other hand, is associated with error suppression. The ACC activates the “ghost in the machine” monitoring system and in turn propels the DLPFC to suppress future errors. TOTs therefore are “metacognitive feelings” that monitor what we potentially know and drive us to keep attempting retrieval in the face of frustration.
In scientific literature, TOTs are generally presented in terms of language recall, but could they be applied to music as well? Could we harness this natural human monitoring ability to aid independent learning? I sifted through my teaching ideas and approaches to solving various common difficulties and one example stood out. When teaching similar sections or phrases with different endings, I often use contrast practice (practicing the sections back-to-back to identify where the similarities end, and differences begin). Nearly every time the students are surprised at their fingers strong desire to automatically jump to the section they know best, even when they are attempting to play the contrasting one. If a piece is larger in scope and has multiple similar sections, I ask the student to label them (1,2,3,4 etc.) and jump to each out of order. This usually works quite well for untangling the structure (provided they follow through and practice like this at home, but we’ll get back to that later).
After combing through multiple TOT studies, I began to wonder, I began to wonder, what if we were in essence forcing a TOT to happen? Students felt certain that they knew the individual sections and couldn’t figure out why the errors kept occurring (high confidence). They were surprised to learn that as a result of knowing one section better, their fingers were automatically leading them astray (mismatch between expectation and ability). This forced them to analyze the piece deeper (monitoring) and pay attention to those particular sections in future performances (error suppression as a result of monitoring). When this approach is applied consistently with every piece, year after year, the students do eventually learn to recognize potential trouble spots independently.
The ACC and DLPFC correlations were further explored by a study involving music students at the University of Hanover. The authors (Maria Herrojo Ruiz, Hans-Christian Jabusch and Eckhart Altenmuller) found that highly trained student pianists were able to continuously monitor an ongoing performance, predict mistakes before they occurred and adjust accordingly. They concluded that the ACC functioned as the monitor, sending signals to the DLPFC to initiate corrective action when necessary. They also found that pianists with a higher degree of synchronization between these two brain regions were able to suppress the volume of an incorrect note more efficiently thus making it less noticeable.
It seems that the key to successful learning strategies and performance lies in the development of a strong connection between the two brain areas involved in metacognition, the ACC and the DLPFC. The difficulty lies in helping students develop this skill to the point of self-driven monitoring, analysis and correction. At this point in my teaching I try to encourage these habits by asking lots of targeted questions to nudge my students toward analyzing their practice and involve the parents to continue at home in the same vein (this is where we come back to quality of practice outside the lesson). However, I also look forward to exploring this topic further and hopefully applying more neurologically-based strategies that take advantage of our natural metacognitive abilities.