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You are here: McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind > Publications > Optimizing Music Learning: Exploring How Blocked and Interleaved Practice Schedules Affect Advanced Performance

Christine E Carter and Jessica A Grahn (2016)

Optimizing Music Learning: Exploring How Blocked and Interleaved Practice Schedules Affect Advanced Performance

Frontiers in Psychology, 7:1251.

Repetition is the most commonly used practice strategy by musicians. Although blocks of repetition continue to be suggested in the pedagogical literature, work in the field of cognitive psychology suggests that repeated events receive less processing, thereby reducing the potential for long-term learning. Motor skill learning and sport psychology research offer an alternative. Instead of using a blocked practice schedule, with practice completed on one task before moving on to the next task, an interleaved schedule can be used, in which practice is frequently alternated between tasks. This frequent alternation involves more effortful processing, resulting in increased long-term learning. The finding that practicing in an interleaved schedule leads to better retention than practicing in a blocked schedule has been labeled the “contextual interference effect.” While the effect has been observed across a wide variety of fields, few studies have researched this phenomenon in a music-learning context, despite the broad potential for application to music practice. This study compared the effects of blocked and interleaved practice schedules on advanced clarinet performance in an ecologically valid context. Ten clarinetists were given one concerto exposition and one technical excerpt to practice in a blocked schedule (12 min per piece) and a second concerto exposition and technical excerpt to practice in an interleaved schedule (3 min per piece, alternating until a total of 12 min of practice were completed on each piece). Participants sight-read the four pieces prior to practice and performed them at the end of practice and again one day later. The sight-reading and two performance run-throughs of each piece were recorded and given to three professional clarinetists to rate using a percentage scale. Overall, whenever there was a ratings difference between the conditions, pieces practiced in the interleaved schedule were rated better than those in the blocked schedule, although results varied across raters. Participant questionnaires also revealed that the interleaved practice schedule had positive effects on factors such as goal setting, focus, and mistake identification. Taken together, these results suggest that an interleaved practice schedule may be a more effective practice strategy than continuous repetition in a music-learning context.

music performance, practice, learning, music training