I have vivid memories watching Liberace masterfully and playfully tickling the ivory on his ornate pianos as a child of the 70′s. I was always amazed by the ease in which he played. Was he born with this gift? He obviously practiced thousands of hours. But was there something else, another piece to the puzzle of his musical genius? Perhaps, he had great working memory.
A recent study looked at piano player’s ability to sight read a new piece of music. It was published in journal Psychological Science and demonstrated that while practice, practice, practice, leads to great musical performance, that working memory capacity, plays an important role in the level of performance that can ultimately be achieved.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers he shares the body of research that shows regardless of the skill or activity, that over 10,000 hours of consistent practice is required to achieve an expert level of proficiency. Incidentally, Mozart is one of the musical geniuses highlighted in this fascinating discussion. While practice makes perfect, cognitive function must be at a sufficient level to engage and excel at the task, as in the example of the pianist. With that said, cognitive function, working memory in this case is not something which is fixed. What your capacity is today, can be increased, dramatically, to help you excel in all areas of life, including musical performance.
Working memory is of great interest to me, largely because it is becoming increasingly recognized as one of the fundamental cognitive abilities that is key to unlocking our full potential. This is not new information. This is a discovery my father made some 35 years ago, and has fervently pursued since, developing methods to expand working memory and sequential processing ability. Work that I have continued at Advanced Brain Technologies through our BrainBuilder® neurosoftware program which assesses and trains these abilities.
I am pleased to see the research community taking such interest in working memory and look forward to seeing more studies linking cognitive function to musical ability in the future. For you musicians perhaps you may consider some targeted working memory training to accompany your practice and advance your performance to an entirely new level!
Read more about the research linking working memory to musical performance.