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Working memory and practice: in music and conversation

August 6, 2010


  • If you want to develop something,
  • learn something,
  • get a new skill,
  • keep things alive,
  • maintain your abilities…..

You have to practice. But you also have to WANT IT! You need the mind-set in place.

Athletes, dancers, singers, actors, carpenters, dressmakers, chefs, antique dealers, customer service providers, writers, musicians… all have to practice. Some do it at the level of obsession.

Some fortunate people can just play the piano “by ear” (but probably can’t read music?). Others seem to have a natural talent which takes them in a particular direction and they gain expertise. We are all different but we all have the capacity to develop some level of expertise but it takes time, commitment and PRACTICE.

Even if you want to partake in “successful aging” you have to adopt the mind-set and you have to practice.

Musicians and working memory

Sight reading a new piece of music is an important and complex skill for musicians. When sight reading, musicians aren’t reading the notes their fingers are currently playing, they are looking ahead to read the notes that are coming next. And they are predicting what may be coming next.  Working memory is the ability to keep relevant pieces of information active in your mind. Pianists use working memory when they read music.

Importantly, music like language has a grammar which consists of rules that specify which notes are likely to follow other notes in a piece of music.

Conversationalists and working memory

Conversationalists are doing the same thing. When we converse our interaction is ruled-based, and we tend to follow the other person meaningfully. We use this well practiced capacity which we have gained over decades to predict the direction and thread of the conversation. Like musicians we use our working memory in conversation to keep relevant pieces of information active in our mind when we converse with our friends or neighbours.

Practice and an aging working memory

Over decades we have become well practiced in conversation, but as we become middle-aged working memory may start to fail us.

  • The limited capacity of normal working memory can become even more limited.
  • Some words just do not get into working memory to keep the conversation going e.g.The “tip of the tongue” experience.
  • As we get older a reduced social life can prevent practicing our conversational skills and abilities.

Successful aging

Get yourself a mind set that allows for practice in important areas in your life as you age. Hobbies, areas of expertise, a social life, driving, keeping fit, reading, being curious, or even a computerised game program if that is your choice. But remember the importance of practice.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2010 1:54 am

    Creativity and using both sides of the brain certainly appear to have dramatic effects on longevity and pleasure as we age. I love the idea of starting a business, too, maybe with the results of your artistic “practice.” I would love your thoughts on the possibility of entrepreneurship way post retirement. Running your own business certainly takes energy, but money and art are great sources of inspiration for both sides of the brain. I am writing a sequel to my book, Creativity Unwrapped, focused on the retiree 9so-called), and would really appreciate your thoughts.

    • October 4, 2010 9:49 am

      Virginia, what a great question! I shall give it deep thought and get back to you later. At the moment I am selling my rural home and eco-garden of 28years in order to be closer to my family. I have bandicoots under the house, blue wrens and whistlers in the native garden, kangaroos in the bottom paddock and many fruit trees in the orchard. The creativity of nature never ceases to amaze me!

  2. Iona permalink
    October 27, 2010 9:12 pm

    As a musician and career of an elderly parent, you’r article really hit the note (no pun intended) and practising has been a huge part of dealing with the forgettfulness of my mother. I found a great brain training course, free at the moment called Brain Tune and we got sent 6 days of free brain training. It gave us a lot of laughs which have been rarer and rarer, and now we do brain training every day, jsut as I have to practise the piano every day to maintain my skill, practising Brain Tune every day has helped enormously with my mother’s memory. Hopefully it will help some of your readers too.
    Try Brain Tune for Free Memory Help & Brain Training

    • October 28, 2010 11:02 am

      Good news Iona!
      Does your mother drive? She would love the Insight program which helps specifically with driving.

      • Iona permalink
        December 6, 2010 9:11 pm

        Hi again, yes she does still drive but only locally these days, I will get straight onto the Insight program and hopefully it will help her to keep driving a bit longer. The other really good resource I’ve been using is a book about understand ing memory and how it works, why we forget etc, and also about dealing with Alzheimer’s – I found it really helpful in guiding me what to expect when dealing with my It is really easy to read and I am constantly going back to it to look up mroe ways I can help Mum and more things I can do for her. It also comes with a free bonus book which I use all the time too. I’ll put the link in for you, I’m off now to check out the Insight program.
        Free bonus book about dealing with Alzheimer’s

  3. December 4, 2010 8:12 am

    I just posted on neuroplasticity – this is a great post that I’ll be sharing on my facebook page.

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