Practice Can Be Less Than Perfect: Working Memory May Limit Musicians' Sight-Reading Skill

Article excerpt

Here's a harsh piano lesson: Years of tickling the ivories go only so far for those who want to sight-read sheet music fluently, a new study suggests. Aside from those painstaking hours of practice, a memory skill that pianists have little control over may help orchestrate their performance.

Sight-reading is the act of playing sheet music on an instrument with little or no preparation. Any person who practices sight-reading for thousands of hours will get pretty good at it, say study coauthors Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and David Hambrick of Michigan State University in East Lansing. But a strong ability to keep different pieces of relevant information in mind while performing a task--known as working memory capacity--aids sight-reading regardless of practice, the psychologists report in a paper published online June 9 in Psychological Science. The best sight readers combined strong working memories with decades of piano practice, the researchers found.

Working memory appears to gel early in life and can't be improved much by learning, the study suggests. High scores on working memory tests did not cluster among volunteers who had practiced piano playing and sight-reading the most.

Previous research indicates that working memory capacity varies from one person to another and changes little from childhood to adulthood, the scientists say.

"Practice ... will not always be sufficient to overcome limitations due to a person's basic cognitive abilities," Meinz says. …