In Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination (1997), Robert Jourdain briefly discusses how pianist Glenn Gould "practiced a good deal in his mind", so much so that by age twenty-seven Gould had "calculated that he had played the fifth Bach partita roughly five hundred times, mostly while driving or walking around town" (p. 229). If Gould, one of the world's legendary concert pianists, often made use of mental practice away from the piano, it is natural to assume that mental practice can be an effective tool in learning musical material. In this paper I will examine several studies done on mental practicing, investigating how effective it is in comparison to physical practice.
Let us begin by setting the conceptual bounds of this research. According to Clark (2011), mental practice (MP) is the "cognitive rehearsal of a task in the absence of overt physical movement" (p. 472). Cognitive rehearsal, in turn, is a skill that "involves imagery in several modalities: visual (pianists "see" their hands on the keyboard), motor/kinesthetic (they "feel" the keyboard and finger motions), as well as auditory" (Zatorre, 2005, p. 11). Based on these definitions, one could assume that when Gould was practicing in his head, he was probably imagining the following: the written music or his hands on the piano keys (visual); his fingers playing a piece and the feel of the keys (motor/kinesthetic); and the sound of the music, including the melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, dynamics and other particulars of the piece (auditory imagery).
Jourdain (1997) describes "musical imagery" as "a sort of 'perception' in the absence of sensation" (p. 164). He says that imagery "occurs" in the same areas of he brain that process stimuli, such as the visual cortex for visual imagery and the auditory cortex for auditory imagery (p. 163). In regard to auditory imagery, Zatorre (2005) discusses how "neural activity in auditory cortex can occur in the absence of sound ... and that this activity likely mediated the phenomenological experience of imagining music" (p. 9). In other words, many of the same areas of the brain that are active when Gould actually practiced the piano were also active when he imagined practicing in his mind.
If the same areas of the brain are active during mental practice (MP) as in physical practice (PP), does this mean that MP can be as effective as PP? One study by Miksza (2005) examined the effectiveness of MP on the performance skills of high-school trombonists. The results showed no significant improvement in the participant's overall performance abilities; however, they did confirm results from previous MP studies (Coffman 1990; Ross 1985), which found that MP and PP combined may be as effective as PP alone (Miksza, 2005 p. 9). This is an interesting finding which suggests that MP is a valuable mode of learning that would allow musicians to effectively practice away from their instruments, as well as prevent over-use injuries. While Miksza's study suggests the validity of mental practice, it did not result in any significant evidence to support the idea that MP improves overall performance skills. Miksza points out that his study did not examine the "long-term advantages" of MP. He proposes that musicians "who focus on developing detailed mental representations for an extended period of time may have more success using them in performance" (p. 10).
Another study by Cahn (2008) looked at undergraduate jazz students. They were split into MP, PP and combined MP/PP groups. They were given the task of transposing and performing a melodic pattern (3175) over a given chord progression. The aim of the study was to measure the effectiveness of MP when practiced for various proportions of time (p. 186). Like Miksza, Cahn also found that there was no significant difference between PP and combined MP/PP groups (p. 187). What is interesting about this study is that it involved the MP of a transposed pattern over a chord progression, not just in the MP of a written piece of music. Cahn states that "since the task may have been more related to the cognitive task of continuously 'figuring out' what notes to play rather than the motor action of how to execute them, and since MP has been found to be more effective on cognitive tasks than motor tasks (Feltz and Landers, 1983), the non-significant differences found between PP and MP may be partly attributed to this contrast between the cognitive and the motor elements of the task" (Cahn, 2008, p. 187). We can conclude from this study that MP may be a more effective tool for tasks that require transposition or analysis than for the practice of physical movements (this seems intuitive).
A third study by Highben and Palmer (2004) investigated the effects of auditory and motor imagery in the practice of unfamiliar pieces by adult professional and college-level pianists. Four groups were used in this study: 1) A Normal practice condition where pianists were told to practice and perform a given piece; 2) A Motor Only practice condition where pianists played the piano without any auditory feedback, imagining the sound of what they were playing; 3) An Auditory Only practice condition where pianists were instructed to hold their hands still while imagining their fingers moving to a recording of the test-piece; and 4) A Covert practice condition where pianists were tested on Motor-only and Auditory-only practice. The results of this study showed that the Normal practice condition (PP) group was the best at remembering the pieces they practiced, with the Covert practice condition (MP only) group faring the worst (p. 63-64). While PP carried out by the Normal practice condition proved to be most effective, this study did find that the Auditory-only practice group showed that MP had an impact on learning. Highben and Palmer (2004) state: "Whereas previous studies demonstrated the overall efficacy of mental practice in music performance (Coffman, 1990; Ross, 1985), these findings suggest specifically that auditory forms of mental practice aid performers' learning of unfamiliar music" (p. 64).
Of the studies I discussed in this essay, Miksza (2005) and Cahn (2008) concluded that MP in combination with PP is as effective as PP alone. Highben and Palmer (2004) add that it is specifically auditory mental practice that is the most effective form of mental practice in learning new material. While all these studies show that MP alone is not as effective as PP, they all seem to point to the idea that MP is still an important skill that should be nurtured in musical education. In my own training, MP was never discussed as a valid form of practice, although I have naturally found found myself practicing in my head when I'm away from the piano. Sometimes I use mental imagery to imagine a "performance" of a piece I am learning or composing, and at other times I recall a recording I have heard or work out improvisational patterns much like was described in Cahn's study. Although I engage in MP from time to time, I have never used it in a systematic way. I now wonder how much stronger my musical imagination could have become if MP was discussed and made use of in my musical education. I also wonder if MP was made use of more in mainstream education, if studies might find participants with stronger mental imagery abilities, and results that rate MP higher in efficacy.
Cahn, D. (2008). The effects of varying ratios of physical and mental practice, and task difficulty on performance of a tonal pattern. Psychology of Music, 36(2), 179–191.
Clark, T. (2012). Imagining the music: Methods for assessing musical imagery ability. Psychology of Music, 40(4), 471–493.
Coffman, D. (1990). Effects of Mental Practice, Physical Practice, and Knowledge of Results on Piano Performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 38(3), 187–196.
Highben, Z., & Palmer, C. (2004). Effects of Auditory and Motor Mental Practice in Memorized Piano Performance. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, (159), 58–65.
Hird, J.S., Landers, D.M., Thomas, J.R. and Horan, J.J. (1991). Physical Practice is Superior to Mental Practice in Enhancing Cognitive and Motor Task Performance. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 8, 281–93.
Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. HarperCollins.
Miksza, P. (2005). The Effect of Mental Practice on the Performance Achievement of High
School Trombonists. Contributions to Music Education, 32(1), 75-93.
Ross, S. L. (1985). The Effectiveness of Mental Practice in Improving the Performance of College Trombonists. Journal of Research in Music Education, 33(4), 221–230. doi:10.2307/3345249
Zatorre, R. J. (2005). Mental Concerts: Musical Imagery and Auditory Cortex. Neuron, 47(1), 9–12.