I am interested in learning how best to learn a fine motor skill, in this case, playing a musical instrument. Presumably there are more or less effective ways to go about it.

Possible factors that I can think of include:

  • Practice schedule. e.g. how often? how long? time of day? how long does it take for the neural changes to occur? does it happen during rest?
  • Practice structure. e.g. include breaks? how long between breaks? how long should each break be? how many breaks?
  • Practice speed. e.g do something slowly first? how slowly? for how long? when to increase speed?
  • Practise focus. Are there things that are worth specifically directing attention to?
  • Non practise elements. Are there things that can be done outside of practising that help, e.g. visualisation? other exercises?

I appreciate that this is many questions rolled up into one, but my main point is how do I go about learning how best to learn fine motor skills, ideally outside of a teaching institution. Is there a good book on the subject? What even is the name of this subject?


1 Answer 1


I think the search term you're looking for is 'skill acquisition', but it's a super broad area. There's relevant stuff in memory, second language acquisition, sports science, and teaching surgeons surgery... it's all over the place.

There's a pretty sizeable literature looking just at music specifically, one review article that hits a few of the points you mentioned is this one: Hallam, S., Rinta, T., Varvarigou, M., Creech, A., Papageorgi, I., Gomes, T., & Lanipekun, J. (2012). The development of practising strategies in young people. Psychology of Music, 40(5), 652-680.

The references (and the people citing it) are probably as useful or maybe more useful than the specific results they present, although those are interesting too!

If you want something more pop-sci and readable with a bit of a human story The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin is a nice one. It's a personal story, not a scientific study, but not everything has to be an RCT, gotta generate hypotheses from some life experience first, right?

I think you might find that the main take-homes are pretty common sense... feedback is important, get lots of it and get it as close to real-time as possible, distributed practice schedules are better than cramming, and 'chunking' is super important, so focus on learning sensible `atoms', automatize them, and then combine them.

I know this answer only really scratches the surface of a huge area but anyway I hope it helps.


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