When we practice, we often have to repeat material to refine our skills and learn repertoire.

But by now, you’re probably aware that too much repetition, especially in a single sitting, can actually cause regression. So, where should the line be drawn? How can one cultivate musicianship through repetition and avoid staleness?

The answer is through spaced repetition.

What is spaced repetition? Well, it’s a method of practicing something over time instead of in one block of time. Learning something once and then setting it aside won’t commit it to your memory! The benefits of spaced repetition encourage stronger memory formation because of the principle of forgetting and retrieving. When you revisit material you are learning, a neural reconstruction takes place and leaves a deeper impression on your mind.

Consequently, here’s how to implement spaced repetition into your music practice!

1. Begin practicing a problem area or new piece, committing it to your short-term memory

It’s not necessary at this point in time to attempt any kind of mastery. You’re simply introducing what you want to learn to short-term memory.

However, this doesn’t mean you can slack off! To begin, you need to analyze your practice and identify what you want to improve. Practice deliberately to actively supervise your performance (in real-time, but also via recordings). Take the time to really listen to what’s happening while you practice, so that you can know exactly what went wrong when you make a mistake.

An easy and modern way to do the above-mentioned is to use ModacityModacity guides you through the deliberate practice flow, so you can quickly record, listen back, and figure out what you need to improve in a single sitting.

2. Repeat what you are learning within the range of your short-term memory

Research has shown that you should revisit whatever you are trying to learn right around the time you would forget it.

Because of this, spaced repetition can often be frustrating because it involves more frequent failure and more mental effort, but the rewards are well worth this extra effort.

In terms of musical practice, drills concerning skill-based endeavors are crucial, though they can create an illusion of competence. Just because you played something without errors the day before doesn’t mean you have fully grasped it.

3. Wait 24 hours before practicing the what you are trying to learn again

Just as Ulrich Neisser once said:

“You can get a good deal from rehearsal,
If it just has the proper dispersal.
You would just be an ass, to do it en masse,
Your remembering would turn out much worsal.”

The best thing you can do for your memory is to not mindlessly repeat a section that will never get any better in one sitting. You could practice something maybe 10 times or less then move on without going back to it. Do the same thing the next day with the same section. After two or three days, your mastery of whatever you are trying to learn will have improved. After that, make sure you space your practice of each item properly.

Here are some recommended time gaps for when you’re revisiting already learned material you’re trying to commit to your repertoire:

  • First repetition: 1 day
  • Second repetition: 7 days
  • Third repetition: 16 days
  • Fourth repetition: 35 days

Another way to practice spaced repetition within a shorter time frame is to interleave your practice. Think of it this way: You have thirty minutes available for practice and have decided to work on three different passages. So, you can divide up and alternate practicing these passages in this manner:

  • Passage A—four minutes
  • Passage B—three minutes
  • Passage A—three minutes
  • Passage C—four minutes
  • Passage B—five minutes
  • Passage A—three minutes
  • Passage C—six minutes
  • Passage B—two minutes

4. Repeat steps 2 and 3

However, once that happens, don’t put it aside forever. This is the second principle of the “Forget to Learn” theory: The greater the drop in retrieval strength, the greater the increase in learning when the memory is accessed again. You’ll need to come back to the material at regular intervals for an extended period of time to get the full benefit.

Furthermore, if you are trying to commit a piece to repertoire over a set period of time, here are some suggested time gaps:

  • 1 week – Revisit within 1 – 2 days
  • 1 month – Revisit after 1 week
  • 3 mo – Revisit after 2 weeks
  • 6 mo -Revisit after 3 weeks
  • 1 yr – Revisit after 1 month

The efficacy of spaced repetition comes from the deliberation of waiting and then repeating it within the right time frame. If you dedicate yourself to practicing in this fashion, within a few days what you are trying to improve will start to solidify. And eventually, if you keep practicing in this way, you’ll be able to gain full mastery!

Marc Gelfo

Marc Gelfo

Marc has been practicing music for 30+ years. After applying cognitive science & computer science to French horn, Marc became an internationally touring symphony musician. His experience includes teaching and performing with thousands of musicians around the world, including the San Francisco Symphony.