How Musicians Use Their Brains



I. The Brain

The Brainstem and the Cerebellum

The Limbic System

The Cerebral Cortex


Use It or Lose It


II. Memory

Brain Activity

Learning Style Preferences

Memory Techniques


III. The Brain and Music

The Beginner

Melody, Harmony, Structure

Automatic Translation

The Memorisation Needs Structure



IV. Practical Tips

State of Mind

The Environment

Physical Health





The cerebellum, brainstem and limbic system are responsible for the essential aspects of being alive. Thinking and learning belong to the cerebral cortex and it has more neurons than any other part of the brain. It controls decision making, organization, personal memories, language and the perception of music or nature. The way the cerebral cortex functions separates human beings from animals. It is divided into two hemispheres, the right and left brain and these are connected with the corpus callosum. Women have a better connection between these sides than men because their corpus callosum has 23% more nerves.

In every other way, these two hemispheres are totally separated and are a mirror image of each other. The left hemisphere rules the right side of the body and vice versa. The right arm is connected with the left hemisphere of the brain and the left arm to the right hemisphere.


Both hemispheres have four lobes of which the frontal lobe or frontal cortex is the largest. This part makes decisions, makes plans and is responsible for targeted behavior. One could compare it with the conductor of an orchestra.

The picture above indicates where the neurons are located according to their function. An interesting part is the sulcus centralis. This is a separation between the motor and sensory parts of the brain. In the picture, they are referred to as skeletal muscle movement and sensory information. For musicians, fine muscle movement is extremely important. When and why do we give our muscles the signal to move? The primary motor cortex fires to initiate the actual movement, but before that, the premotor cortex decides how the movement will be carried out or it can decide not to act at all. When there is no action, the activity in the premotor cortex will still happen. For example, we can have a conversation and say a four-letter word in our mind, but for the outsider, nothing happens.

The premotor cortex can be compared with Asterix who is clever and makes decisions, and the primary motor cortex as Obelix, who does the actual job. Asterix has an action repertoire based on experience which is located in the premotor cortex, where there are many action centers controlling our movements.

Our senses are not equally represented in the neocortex. This homunculus sculpture compares the corresponding size of our tactile senses and here one can see, for example, that the knee has fewer receptors than the tongue. In the motor cortex, one can find a similar distribution of areas. It is likely that for musicians these parts of the  somatosensory cortex and the motor cortex are even more developed and therefore proportionally larger. (Note: The idea of the cortical homunculus was created by Wilder Penfield (1891-1976)




 The human brain is composed of approximately 100 billion neurons. Most of them are situated on the outside of the cerebral cortex near the skull. The many connections between the neurons are located under the cortex. In the picture, you see two connected neurons. A neuron receives its information from its many tentacles which are called dendrites. With an increased amount of dendrites, the neuron receives more information. A signal is passed through via an axon and a synaptic cleft to the next cell (postsynaptic cell). When we learn, new connections are being made. Learning is therefore a biological event: something actually grows or changes when we learn something.

The brain is a system that, despite the different functions of each part, is able to work as a whole. Research has shown that when certain parts of the brain become damaged, other parts take over the functions of the damaged parts. An example of this is when the unused sight region of a blind person’s brain starts to develop touch reception, which can be applied to reading Braille. When blindfolded, even after a few hours, our impaired ability increases, but other senses like hearing could be improved in the same way. Brain plasticity, also known as neuron plasticity or cortical remapping, is a term that refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. Up until the 1960s, researchers believed that changes in the brain could only take place during infancy and childhood. By early adulthood, it was believed that the brain’s physical structure was permanent. Modern research has demonstrated that the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in order to adapt to new experiences, learn new information and create new memories.



Our brain is a constantly changing mechanism that determines who we are. It is not only the product of the genes we are given at birth, but it becomes incredibly plastic because of what we do and the environment we are in. Either consciously or unconsciously, we are creating new connections between neurons in a high-functioning brain that is full of dendrites, axons and glial cells. It can be compared to muscles that function better when you train them. The left and right hemispheres have to work well together and in doing so they can increase brain capacity five to ten times. Stress or fear makes the brain unable to function well. This is clear when one forgets a PIN at the money dispenser. The first time we make a mistake, we create tension which probably affects the second and third attempts, which also fail. However, a few minutes later, the number suddenly pops up without making the effort to think about it. The same thing happens with names or words. Knowing how the brain works and guiding it can help us enormously in efficiency.




II. Memory


Brain activity can be measured in cycles per second (Hz) and when we are relaxed, the frequency is lower. This is how we are able to increase our intuition because we use the deeper layers of the unconscious brain. We can divide brain activity into four wave groups: Beta, Alfa, Theta and Delta waves. Beta waves reach up to 30 cycles per second and this is the “working” state in which we are able to discuss things and to react quickly. The range of Alpha waves is between 7 and 13 Hz and research has proven that the optimum frequency for learning is 8.83. This is exactly the same wave frequency as the electromagnetic field of the earth! At this frequency, we feel relaxed, but we are alert and comfortable.


The American speed reader Sean Adam always attaches EEG electrodes to his brain while training to see his brain’s entry into the Alpha waves range. When he is reading 2,000 words a minute, his brain registers the Alpha waves and when he is reading only 200 words per minute, the brain becomes more active with Beta waves. This proves that at 200 words per minute, his brain starts thinking about other things besides reading. When we are studying or learning it is clearly important to concentrate on only one thing at the time. (Note:  An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test that measures and records the electrical activity of your brain. Special sensors (elektrodes) are attached to your head and hooked by wires to a computer) 



One of the most important things for the high functioning of the brain during practicing is maintaining a high level of engagement. Essentially, we learn the most practicing pieces that are the most interesting to us. The second most important element is repetition, which allows the musical and technical process of our practicing to be stored in the memory. Being able to play through a piece is just the beginning; mastery comes after much repetition.

Another important feature is the goal we set for our practice session: what we are planning to achieve and how much time we require. As each day is different, it is advisable to keep your planning flexible, but with a preference for studying interesting material. For many people, their concentration peaks are at 10 AM and 5 PM; these are the ideal periods to do the most difficult work. We can divide the physical practicing into three categories: new pieces, repertoire pieces and daily exercises or technique. 

New pieces require the most concentration and therefore should be studied in the morning. When the next study session starts, it is best to review what was studied in the previous session, especially when memorizing music. I suggest setting aside the end of the day for your own performance of the pieces you are working on. This provides an opportunity to play as beautifully as possible with complete concentration in order to see what still needs to be done, and, more importantly, to inspire yourself with new musical ideas. This is the moment where you will have to “go with the flow” and find a balance between the rational things you have learned, the expressive, emotional beauty of the piece, and the technical or physical control. A 30-minute workout at the beginning of the day, like jogging, swimming or biking, results in a far better functioning brain throughout the day.

Here is an example of a daily schedule: 












For an optimum practice session, it is important to make sure that there are no distractions. This pertains both to mental distractions and also to the practice environment itself. The brain uses oxygen and glucose transported by our blood. When engaged in high-level thinking, the frontal lobe will need almost all of the blood circulating in the brain (which is 1 liter per minute). Due to our innate survival instinct, our eyes will constantly scan our surroundings for danger and this energy diminishes the learning process. Try to remove work that needs to be done, turn the telephone on silent and create a comfortable working space with good, fresh air. Research has shown that working on a clean desk in an office increases productivity by 12%.

Memorizing is a process that places information within a context. Through associations, many aspects come together such as melody, fingering, notation, harmony, analysis, touch receptors, movements, body, view surrounding, musical expression and many more unconscious factors. Memorizing is a conscious action, but we need to be aware of unconscious intrusion of extraneous events or information. For example, motor memorization needs a great deal of repetition, but we cannot be sure that it is being stored correctly. What we do know is that everything will be stored, even wrong notes or movements. Therefore the biggest challenge is to work as perfectly as possible. I once saw a documentary with John Williams while he was practicing guitar. It struck me that he did not make any mistakes! I realized that I was accustomed to practicing my mistakes. John Williams seemed to have a more positive approach, taking everything at a slower tempo and trying to achieve an exact and perfect performance. It is a fact that the tempo of music in our mind is very flexible. A mistake at a fast tempo is probably also a mistake at a slow tempo. But playing at a slower tempo gives the brain the feeling that it is easier, and so it relaxes. When there is a small passage that goes wrong constantly for the same reason, this passage will succeed only if it is taken a bit more slowly.

Finally, I want to emphasize the power of studying without the instrument. Visualization automatically demands excellent concentration and is more focused on the music because of the lack of physical problems with the instrument. Visualizing your playing is especially good for memorization and creativity. The best way to test whether you have mastered a piece is if you can play it completely in your mind with every single element.



Paganini told Max Schottky in his years of glory: ‘If you think that I have been practicing a lot, you’re mistaken. Since three months, that is during my illness I didn’t take my violin even once’. 





Our brains are a flexible, ever-changing representation of who we are. By knowing how the brain functions, we can improve our capabilities and even change who we are; we are in a way, a reflection of our brains. (Note:  see the book: ‘We are our brains’ by the author Dick Swaab)

Using the natural memorization path (NMP) and a balanced use of the two brain hemispheres, we can make our brains work up to ten times more efficiently. This is how a musician can enhance his talent to develop his musical and creative potential. The development of this potential can be diminished if the musician’s tools, sight reading, harmony and analysis are not internalized to such a degree that they become automatic.

Memorization is a process that requires the efficient use of these tools. Implementing this advice may require changing attitudes and habits to begin a life-long learning process based on interest, beauty and joy.

It is important to realize that our minds act based on their previous experiences. Our brains sort and store information depending on how experiences are embedded in context. We can actively give direction to how the brain grows. The phrase “use it or lose it” implies that our actions lead to who we become and how we develop. What we do is what we become. Our tastes can expand and change positively by going to excellent concerts, drinking better wine, reading inspiring books, but also by the friends we have, lifestyles we lead and even the countries where we live!

  The brain is like an inexhaustible library, preferably with the best books and as many different books as possible. This is your knowledge and your total being. Memory is the retrieval of books, which calls for a creative way of storing information with many associations. For this, the natural memorization path (NMP) is ideally suited.





Jan-Willem van den Brandhof

Gebruik je hersens, Verba, 2006


Oliver Sacks

Musicophilia, Meulenhof, 2007


Joshua Foer

Het geheugenpaleis, Bezige Bij, 2011


Dick Swaab

Wij zijn ons brein (We are our Brains), Contact, 2011 


Tony Buzan

Master your memory, Pearson Education, 2006


Anthony Robbins

Je ongekende vermogens, NLP, Kosmos, 1988, 2005


Margriet Sitskoorn

Het maakbare brein, Bert Bakker, 2011


Joachim Bauer

Waarom ik voel wat jij voelt, Archipel, 2009


Timothy Gallwey

The Inner Game of Tennis, Pan, 1974


Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Musik als Klangrede, Bärenreiter Verlag, 1982


Robbert Dijkgraaf

Vroeg beginnen, NAW 5/11 nr. June 2, 2010


Dr. G. C. Kop

Mens en muziek, Broekmans en van Poppel, 1974


Betty Edwards

Leer tekenen, Bigot en van Rossum, 1983



Watch your thoughts, for they become words

Watch your words, for they become actions

Watch your actions, for they become habits

Watch you habits, for they become your character

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny


Ajahn Chah of Wat Nong Pah Pong, a Thai monk



The Limbic system 


Another part of our brain is the limbic system, which is referred to as the mammal brain. This part is responsible for homeostasis, or the maintenance and care of the body’s metabolism. It regulates body temperature, blood pressure and blood sugar. It is thanks to this part of the brain that we can keep a constant temperature in warm or cold weather, unlike reptiles.

The most important part of the limbic system is the hypothalamus. It is the size of a small bean and its function is extremely complex. It regulates eating, drinking, sleeping, being awake, body temperature, chemical balance, heart rhythm, hormones, stimulation of the hypophysis, sex and emotion!

Three other important parts of the limbic system are the hippocampus, the amygdala and the thalamus. The hippocampus (shaped like a sea horse) is important for saving information. Recent memories are primarily saved here and later placed in the cerebral cortex for long-term memory storage. The amygdala is responsible for uncontrolled emotional reaction, e.g., if you are suddenly scared by a snake, which you realize a moment later is just a piece of wood. In some cases, we have to react very quickly before we have time to “think it over,” but this reflex can be life saving. The thalamus is the gateway to the cerebral cortex. All of the information from our senses arrives here and the thalamus organizes it like a secretary separating what is important from what is not.

       The Cerebral Cortex

       The most recently developed part of the brain is the cerebral cortex, also called the neopallium, neocortex or the thinking cap. It occupies 80% of the brain’s volume. Althoughit would cover approximately two square meters if laid flat, it is so tightly folded that it only has a thickness of 1.5 to 3 mm. This tight folding gives  increased isolation which makes the whole system more reliable and leaves it at less risk of short circuiting.

Due to modern scans, there has been a huge development in brain research. For a long time, there has been a misunderstanding that only 10% of the brain is used. Today’s MRI scans, however, show that the whole brain demonstrates activity.

The Brain is my second favorite organ (Woody Allen)

When our brain is in the state between wakefulness and sleep, Theta waves are registered. When we are asleep, our brains are in the range of Delta waves and this is the state in which the mind organizes information. Tests have shown that when we sleep directly after working on a problem, the mind demonstrates activity in the same area of the brain whether sleeping or awake. Thus a problem is often solved more quickly when we “sleep on it.”



“Learning by heart” is an ancient expression which comes from the belief that it was the heart that directed our bodies. Aristotle believed that the brain’s only purpose was to cool the blood. Our modern brain is 100,000 years old and is organized to maximize our chances of survival. It is designed to find food and to easily remember and recognize faces, stories and songs. For safety and procreation we needed to socialize and for this the brain is uniquely developed. All of these qualities can help us enormously in memorizing music. 

Memory athletes are able to learn the order of cards in 30 decks within an hour. They use images and colors or they imagine routes and make associations between these routes and the cards. For example, a story is much easier to recall than a series of numbers. I will go into this in more detail later.

Hearing a song even once is often enough to have it settle in our brains and in our memory. For musicians, this is a very practical tool for memorization! By using our brain’s natural gifts, we can learn more easily, more quickly and, above all, with much more enjoyment.

How have great musicians achieved their high level of musicianship? After interviewing several renowned musicians, it became very obvious that they are using their brains to their full potential! For some of us, learning to use the brain efficiently will mean a change from traditional practicing routines, but my hope is that this research will be helpful.


In this essay, I will first look at the brain itself and try to understand how memory works. In Chapter III, I will attempt to show how important this understanding is for musicians. Finally, I will provide some practical tips for a high-functioning brain to learn and memorize music. Everything we do is a reflection of what our brain tells us to do, so why not use it to its maximum potential and try to expand its amazing capacity?

I. The Brain

A quarter of the energy we consume is used by our brains and yet the brain is only 2% of our total body volume! It is the most complex system we know, soft like butter and with a weight of approximately 1,350 grams. The brain can be divided into three parts.


The Brainstem and the Cerebellum



The oldest parts of the brain are the brainstem and the cerebellum. These parts are also referred to as the reptilian brain. The cerebellum plays an important role in motor control (coordination, precision, accurate timing, equilibrium, posture and motor learning). The main function of the brainstem is the conduction of all information relayed from the body to the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum (and vice versa). It is involved in cardiovascular system control, alertness, awareness and consciousness.

There are three kinds of neurons: those which come from our senses, connecting neurons and neurons which activate our muscles. The neurotransmitters bridge the synaptic clefts through a chemical process. Thus, the neurons do not actually grow together, allowing the whole system to change and adapt more easily. Maintaining high-functioning neurotransmitters is essential for optimal brain function.

Neurons that fire together wire together. Every experience we have, whether it is a feeling, a thought, a sensation – and especially those that we are not aware of – is embedded in thousands of neurons that form a network. Repeated experiences become increasingly embedded in this net, making it easier for the neurons to fire (to respond to the experience), and more difficult to unwire or rewire them if we want them to respond differently. This wiring is very beneficial when learning the name of a new acquaintance. 

This wiring can also work in a negative way. If a child is repeatedly yelled at, the net retains these experiences and is responsible for creating difficulties responding later in life when someone raises their voice to this person. When musicians renew their minds, have new musical ideas or learn instrumental techniques, this is all about creating new, healthy nets that fire together so that they can wire together.

Through an axon, a signal travels to the next neuron and this axon can be up to one meter or more! It must be well isolated so that the signal travels through the right path. This path is made of myelin, which is white in contrast to neurons, which are colored grey. The brain consists of white matter and gray matter.

Newly created neurons make the best connections and it has been demonstrated that it is in the hippocampus, where our short term memory is located, that most of these new neurons are created. The neuron connections (axons) are attached to glial cells that are the feeder cells of the neurons. After Einstein’s death, scientists examined his brain and observed that he had 400% more glial cells than the average brain.

Rosenzweig conducted tests with rats and demonstrated that rats in an environment with interesting and frequently changed toys demonstrated significant changes in their brains. The cortex becomes thicker and heavier with more neuron activity and more dendrites. These rats were also more social and easier to handle. Even older rats could achieve this brain change in only 3 weeks. Animals and humans have the capacity for a long-lasting flexibility or plasticity. (Note:  Mark Richard Rosenzweig (1922 –2009) was an American research psychologist who found in animal studies on neuroplasticity that the brain continues developing anatomically, reshaping and repairing itself into adulthood based on life experiences, overturning the conventional wisdom that the brain reached full maturity in childhood) Early researchers believed that neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons, stopped shortly after birth. Today, it is understood that the brain possesses a remarkable capacity to reorganize pathways, create new connections and, in some cases, even create new neurons. People with an active brain make more dendrites and consequently can compensate for the loss of neurons after the age of 25. This means that we have a wonderful opportunity and motivation to stimulate, excite and push our brains!


Edison, Goethe and Monet made their most important contributions to their respective fields between the ages of 70 and 80. Verdi wrote his opera Falstaff at the age of 90. And there are many more examples of this kind throughout history.

There are three learning style preferences:


  • Visual learning is predominant in about 70% of the population, which means that they learn best through seeing images, concepts, charts, etc.
  • Kinesthetic learning is favored by 20% of the population who prefer to touch, move and experience while learning.
  • The other 10% of the population prefers auditory learning, which means that people learn using sound, music and the spoken word.


Everyone has a combination of these three styles but usually one is predominant. All senses are active during learning or memorizing and much of the information is stored unconsciously.

The term “memorizing” refers to active study in order to reproduce, but memorizing is also an unconscious process. So when we play a piece that we studied a long time ago, it is very possible that images of the study room, social situation, smell, etc., will present themselves in association with the music. The same thing happens when you smell something which you suddenly associate with, for example, the home of your grandparents. Our brains are full of associations.

When our modern brain developed 100,000 year ago, it perfectly suited the circumstances of that time. We were living in small groups and needed social interactions, and therefore it was advantageous to remember easy stories. Being able to remember images was a great help in finding food and having a good field of orientation. Therefore, we remember some things very easily like faces, tastes, routes and also music as a part of the social interaction. Music is an essential feature of the human existence and that is why when we hear a song we like, we will most likely recognize it easily the next day. This is why commercials use images, logos and rhyming texts together with jingles. The information stays in our minds easily and more completely when it is repeated often. I will refer to this as the natural memorization path (NMP).


Memory techniques used by memory athletes are based on the principle of association with something you remember easily (NMP). Here are two examples:

  • Techniques based on routes (Loci system)
  • Techniques based on words, stories and pictures 

  (Major system)


The Roman Room system, or Loci system, was already used by the Greeks and Romans and is especially good for memorizing speeches or lists. You have to use a place you know well like your own house. While walking in your mind through your house, you can place objects in fixed spots. These objects can be associated with keywords. Association is a basic principle of memorization. These associations or “mnemonics” are very helpful. These objects are preferably bizarre and instigate as many sensory responses as possible (sound, smell, appearance, emotion, etc.) for better memorization. One could imagine that behind the front door Madonna is sitting naked eating an ice cream. The hall smells like fire and a bulb lies broken on the floor, but it is still shining. In the kitchen, the dog is wearing a pair of shoes that belong to Charlie Chaplin. Translate this to your grocery list (ice cream, bulbs, new shoes) which then can easily include up to 20 items and with some practice and creativity, this route can be created within a few minutes. Much more information can be stored this way if you can use multiple locations (parents’ house, friend’s house, work, garden). 

It is more difficult to memorize numbers than words. There is a system that combines numbers with letters, which is called the Major System. Tony Buzan is a promoter and specialist of this field. In this system, only consonants are used. (Note: Tony Buzan (*1942) is the inventor of mind maps and the author of many books about memory)


0 = s, z, soft c

1 = d, t

2 = n (bipod)

3 = m (tripod)

4 = r (fouR)

5 = L (Roman 50)

6 = j, sh, soft ch, dg, Hz, soft g, csh

7 = k, hard c, hard g, q, qu

8 = f, v

9 = b, p


When two consonants are combined, one can create 99 words. This system of 100 words has to be learned by heart so that one can easily play with the numbers to make many more combinations. For example: Noah = 2, Key = 7, Bee = 9; double consonants are: Dad = 11, Tap = 19. Now you can expand and make more combinations: Dad was tapping on his key = 11, 19, 9. This system can be enlarged one hundred times with the Self-Enhancing Master Memory Matrix. This matrix will mean learning 100 extra words to connect with the first 100 (100x100=10,000). All of these words are the tools to work within this system. It requires a lot of practice, but it is also possible to keep it simple. For example 7,879 can be read as “cfcp” which would become coffee cup.




Memory can be compared to a library. In a library, there are organizational categories and new information (for example, a book) has to be associated with the correct category. Understanding what is happening is sufficient for basic categorization, but when you apply more effort, as we do while studying, it becomes more profound. New books in a library are not piled up randomly; they are categorized. This system works best with a large number of books because it will be easy to find a proper location for a new book and retrieving it will be quicker. In addition, the books are kept together based on their categorization so the best one can be chosen. Our brains work the same way: the more information we have, the more we are able to categorize and retrieve. Our neurons can make countless connections; they have a limitless capacity. Tony Buzan advises learning a great deal of basic information; for example, all the countries in the world with their capitols. Then when new information arrives, e.g., about Uruguay, this will attract our attention because we immediately connect it to something we already know, like the fact that Montevideo is its capitol. This connection is a very important element in our brains. The more references and interests you have, the more quickly you learn.

Evgeny Kissin said in an interview with Aangenaam Klassiek: “When I was younger, I played much more quickly. Now I need more time because I have much more information to express.”


Memory works best with an open, active and creative mind. A child learns very quickly because he is working primarily with the right hemisphere and therefore sees the world more as a kind of game. Also, a child is very motivated because everything is new (therefore interesting) and so he is able to concentrate more on one thing at the time. We learn in the right hemisphere and save this information later in the left hemisphere. Repetition helps a lot, which is what we see children doing all the time. We have the sense that we learn much more quickly when we are younger, but the fact is that later in life, we have much more on our minds and the best learning is done by concentrating on one thing at the time. I will discuss this in more detail in the chapter on practical tips.

Strength of mind is exercise, not rest (Alexander Pope)


III. The Brain and Music


What happens when a musician learns a piece of music? Perhaps we should first look at a beginner who has only a short history with the instrument. The first notes he plays are exciting: the amazing ability to put a finger on a spot and play a sound! Gradually new notes have to be discovered in order to play a piece. Every note has to be thought about and soon there are too many things to consider and the brain starts to work overtime. This is especially true with grownups and it is made worse because they are used to working primarily with the left hemisphere and it is increasingly complicated when things become difficult.

The next phase in learning is when many things become automatic with the fingers following the mind with fewer and fewer instructions. This is a very positive phase when the enjoyment starts. Children soon try to follow the melody in their minds and focus on the sound results. Both reading the score and technique are in the domain of the left brain; music belongs to the right side. As soon as score reading and technique are mastered, they become tools of the right brain.

The process of becoming a professional musician is based on learning the connection and associations of the notes within the musical structure. At first we have single, separate notes which seem to belong to a musical line when the separate notes become a melody. The brain has an easier time recognizing the information in this way than when it is confronted with countless difficult notes. This is where solfège comes in, the tool of recognizing the intervals. The melody is already settled in the brain, but now the ability to physically reproduce it is the problem. This reproduction of the melody can be solved, of course, by repetition, but it is not the most efficient solution.

Having perfect pitch gives one an enormous advantage. Perfect pitch means hearing a note and immediately knowing which one it is, just like seeing a color and knowing which one it is. It seems that all babies are born with perfect pitch but, at an early age, it disappears because it is not used and therefore we will “use it or lose it.”

The same thing happens in terms of harmony: first we start with separate notes and slowly the harmony is discovered. Again, this is easier for the brain because the notes are combined and harmonic sequences can be predicted, based on our repertoire of known harmonic patterns.

In the book of Dr. G. C. Kop, Mens en Muziek, there is a discussion of a study done with ten professional piano players who were asked to complete a piece of which the last page was missing. All of them played a similar ending. Somehow well-trained professionals know how music usually “goes.” This is based on three important facets: melody, harmony and structure.

It is not surprising that these are amongst the most important subjects in every conservatory. Their importance is, however, often underestimated because there is the option of playing music on “automatic pilot.” For memorization, solfège, harmony and analysis are the musician’s essential tools in the translation of the music stored in our minds. The inner voice (NMP) reproduces a piece of music and with the activity of playing the actual instrument, it comes to life. This is where the two brain hemispheres have to work well together. Too much thinking can destroy the musical flow. Sometimes a player is stuck and cannot go on, but is still capable of singing the music. This is an example of where the translation from the music in the mind to the playing of the instrument falters. To overcome this problem, we have to learn a technique which allows us to translate automatically. Jazz musicians are very good at this technique and entertainers who play by ear can also do incredible things. Without even knowing what key the piece is in, musicians who play by ear can simply pick up a guitar or sit behind a piano and easily accompany songs. It is an easy task for them, almost a game, and this is something for many classical musicians to really admire.

The important element here is when analyzing the melody and knowing which harmony you are playing becomes second nature. In this way, one can play without too much brain interference and still feel that everything falls into place. It is like a painter who knows automatically how to mix colors to get the exact one; or the chef who knows how to cook or analyze the taste in his mouth.

It is especially complicated for instruments with notes that are not played on fixed places for the musicians to know which note is being played and to what harmony it belongs. On the piano, every note is always in the same spot and therefore chords are easy to recognize. On the guitar or violin, each note can be played in a different location and it is clear that players sense the position of their hands and the fingering instead of being aware of what note they are actually playing. However, for memorization, this situation is much more difficult. Memorization needs structure: knowing what note is being played, to what harmony it belongs, where it belongs within the structure of the piece and how it fits into the musical context with other musicians. Having these things clear provides a way of playing in which everything falls into place. Good memory practice is not only placing the finger in the right spot but having many more musical associations and more information that make the playing feel natural. It could be compared to speaking. What we say is the message we want to express and the words come out by themselves; there is no time or need to think about grammar or language; these tools are simply there. Therefore, the more associations we have, the smaller the chances are of having a blackout while playing.

In Chapter II, I compared the brain to a library. It is, of course, very important for every specialist to have a great deal of knowledge and experience in their field. A baby is born having hardly any musical knowledge. This will come over the years and if the baby has musical talent, the knowledge will be obtained quickly. Some people think that musicians are lucky and that they are just born with this gift. This is not true. It takes a great deal of effort to obtain a large library of musical knowledge and mastery of the instrument. It is said that it takes at least 10,000 “flight hours” to become very good at something. Becoming a musician takes many hours of good practicing!


When Vincent van Gogh decided he wanted to become a painter, he was 27 years old. He felt that he had the gift to be a painter and started practicing. This drawing of a carpenter when Van Gogh was only 27 shows problems he still had with proportion. Two years later, he drew this mourning woman and had clearly overcome this technical problem. This later drawing shows incredible expression and power. To achieve this technical mastery, Van Gogh had to train his brain to be capable of enlarging his mental-technical “library” and build a large repertoire of how to handle each specific situation in his premotor cortex.

A new kind of neuron, called a mirror neuron, has recently been discovered and caused a revolution in brain research. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when a human acts and when a human observes the same action performed by someone else. This causes us to feel empathy and provides us with the capacity to judge somebody only by looking at their facial expression. Will I get a raise? Does she love me? We can see the answers in a purely automatic way; we mirror the other person’s feelings and we are instantly able to read their thoughts. This is why we can cry during a film or feel the pain when close friends hurt themselves. The game of mirroring is very human and even babies react to it. They have not yet learned to control their actions and so they imitate what they see. When feeding a baby, the parents use mirror neurons to encourage the baby to open his mouth by opening their own mouths. This mirror system is crucial in every culture because of this automatic imitation. Without thinking, we take over habits, words, fashions, tastes, etc.

Accumulations of mirror neurons are found in the action centers of the premotor cortex. This is where we create a repertoire of actions. This means that our environment and what we experience influences our actions without us “thinking.”


Use It or Lose It



It seems that if there are more dendrites and more glial cells, the brain is more productive. If one compares a healthy brain to a brain with Alzheimer’s disease, it is clear that lower functioning has a direct correlation to the amount of neurons, dendrites and glial cells present.



When we start studying a new piece of music, the notes seem somewhat chaotic. With experience, we look for patterns and we learn to separate notes into melody, harmony and musical structure. Every single note becomes a part of the whole. This also includes bigger structures such as movements, complete concert programs, performance styles, and culture context. Beside this, technique and personal feelings are implicated. What starts as many random, single notes becomes a unit after practicing.






For developing good memory and artistic creativity, two things are very important:

  • Using the brain as efficiently as possible 

  (see next chapter).

  • Having a very large “library” at our disposal 

  (neuron connections).


The brain is capable of much more than we realize. In his book Musicophilia, the neuroscientist Oliver Sachs presents many examples of patients who have suffered accidents in which their brains were damaged, but who developed wonderful new talents or abilities as the result of the damage to their brains. He postulates that we all have these amazing abilities somewhere in our brains, but we are unable to initiate them or reach them under normal circumstances.





IV. Practical tips



State of Mind


Relaxed brains can perform miracles. Einstein laid the foundation for his theory of relativity while daydreaming in a field and looking up at the clouds. There is also a wonderful Chinese saying: “Are you in a hurry? Sit down and relax.” Being exposed to too much stress blocks the brain from learning anything.

It is important to learn how to use the full capacity of the brain: it is a goldmine of possibilities. Everyone of us is different, if only because of the immense variety of neuronal connections that are possible (100 trillion, which is 1,000 times the amount of stars in the Galaxy). Everyone has their own artistic qualities.

In his diary, Hector Berlioz wrote about a dream in which he heard the most beautiful symphony and the next morning he was able to recall the complete first movement; it was in A minor. (Note:  Berlioz decided not to compose this composition because of a lack of time and the costs of organizing a premiere. The dream came back the next day even more strongly, but after that it vanished from his memory) The Dutch composer Jo Sporck surprised himself when he discovered that he had unconsciously copied a selection of Dmitri Shostakovich’s work. In principle, we are all able to have similar experiences, but we just have not developed these abilities.


you can lead a horse towards water, but you can’t make it drink 



The Environment


Human beings are social creatures with a natural capacity to feel empathy. We like to belong to a group and have a need to be appreciated. Therefore, the environment we are in is of great importance for the development of our brain. Our goal is to become what we wish ourselves to be, but peer pressure is something to be aware of. We have to find a balance between our own personalities and our need to fit in with the group.

Here is where the mirror neurons from Chapter II come in to play. Just by looking at someone, we begin to get a feeling about his thoughts. The same mirror process is at work when we listen to music. It moves us and we feel the emotion the music expresses as if it is our own. For example, when we hear a beautifully played musical phrase, we store it in our acting repertoire of the premotor cortex. The next time we are playing music ourselves, this phrase could be an option we reproduce from our repertoire. This automatic collection of examples presents us with many options in our creative repertoire. Agustín Barrios Mangoré, the great Paraguayan guitarist, was quoted as telling us to “bathe in the fountain of culture.” This means that listening to music, going to concerts and playing new material, will all enlarge the creative options for our memory and for the repertoire of our action neurons.



Physical Health


Good physical health is essential for a well-functioning brain. Research has shown that after an exercise program of ten weeks (jogging, running, swimming or other forms of exercise), our intelligence learning rate and the overall amount of brain activity is significantly increased, while depression and anxiety are decreased. Meditation and yoga have also been proven to have a very positive effect on our concentration, memorization and relaxation.

When practicing, alcohol should be avoided. It makes the body feel relaxed and calm, but the memory will work less effectively and we become less self-critical. Alcohol also affects our motor skills, breathing, reaction time, temperature regulation and appetite, as it affects different neurotransmitter systems.


Taking breaks during study sessions is important for preventing injuries, but also for renewing energy and refreshing the mind. A ten to fifteen minute rest is enough. When feeling sleepy, a power nap has proven to be very helpful as well. It is known that Leonardo da Vinci, Edison, Napoleon and John F. Kennedy took a number of short naps during the day of about twenty minutes each and then went back to work. They each had an enormous amount of energy and often had only three to five hours of sleep at night.


Many thanks go to:

Royal Conservatoire The Hague

Laura Young, Barcelona
Doctor Frans de Groot, Goirle NL 

Edison having a quick nap at the lab

The chief function of the body is to carry the brain around (Edison)