The Practice Notebook

flutist Zara Lawler shares tips on learning music

New Category: Amateur Neuroscience


hands for amateur neuroscience

One of my favorite things about practicing and writing about practicing, is thinking about how the brain (ok, ok, MY brain) works.  There’s a fancy word for that which I just learned from an article in the New Yorker:  metacognition, or literally, thinking about thinking.

I like to think of myself as an amateur neuroscientist, and the practice room (and my own brain) as my lab.  (On a side note, it would be cool to have one of those yellow and black warning diamonds to hang up on the door that says, “Amateur Neuroscientist At Work.”) Over the years in my lab I’ve learned a lot about how my brain works, and what things I need to do to keep it working at its best. I’ve reflected on how my colleagues’ and students’ brains work, too.

I’ve recently had the gratifying experience of  discovering that actual neuroscience backs up some of my observations.  For example, in developing my memorization technique, I didn’t know about working memory as a scientific concept.  I merely observed that I could remember a phrase for the duration of a practice session and then it would be gone. It was only years later that I learned it has a name, and that people have studied it, and given it the names “working memory” and “channel capacity.”

Also, I’ve always had the sense that when you first learn something (like in the first stages of memorization), it just goes into the front of your brain.  To me, it literally feels like it’s right there, just tucked into my forehead.  Well, it turns out, that’s where working memory happens!  It’s mostly all in the frontal cortex, which is “the overhang of brain behind the eyes” (New Yorker, May 18 2009 p 31).  How cool is that?

All this thinking about thinking about thinking has led me to think (whew!) that a new category of post is in order:  Amateur Neuroscience.  You can click on it from the “Categories” sidebar at right and see all the posts organized under this topic.

three beakers

Let me clarify what I mean by “amateur.”  The vast majority of the writing that I have done about how the brain works is based on close self-observation, not on scientific study!  When I can back up a concept that I use with some actual science, I will note it, as I have with the New Yorker article citation above.

If you are looking for more actual neuroscience, let me point you to a few resources. In the interest of full disclosure,  my research on this topic has not been exhaustive, but I do have a few recommendations for reading. Should you have some books or sites that you’d like to recommend on the topic, please let me and the readers know via the comments section below.

Below are a few books and articles that I have found interesting, though none of them directly address the relationship of neurological ideas to the study of music:

And below, a list of sites and books that I have only dipped my foot in but look like they’ve got LOTS of cool information:

Three books worth checking out, about the study of music:

See you in the lab.

Photo Credits: Hands by Q U E E F, Beakers by skycaptaintwo

2 Comments to

“New Category: Amateur Neuroscience”

  1. On June 24th, 2010 at 4:15 pm Jonte Jones Says:

    You could also look at “Your Brain on Music” by neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin. The text book “Principles of Neural Science” is a very important work in the study and is also a good resource.

  2. On June 25th, 2010 at 5:41 pm admin Says:

    Thanks for the suggestions; I’ll check them out.

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