A Review of Implicit and Explicit Learning Strategies in the Development of Motor Skills and its Application To Teaching Instrumental Technique

Frequently in online conversations, and sometimes in person, a discussion about teaching instrumental technique to music students gets broken down into two extreme ends. The more popular, exemplified by Arnold Jacobs’ so-called “song and wind” approach, is that when a musical goal is kept first and foremost in mind that instrumental technique will fix itself. A second, more controversial approach is to teach the music student about the process of playing an instrument and consciously practice the motor skills needed for good instrumental technique. Scientists who study human performance call the former an “implicit” approach to learning a motor skill where as the later is known as an “explicit” approach.

There has been a fair amount of published research investigating and comparing these two teaching methods. One of the most widely published authors on this topic is R.S.W. Masters. In a number of studies Masters (1992, 2000, 2009, 2011) tested subjects who were taught various skills (golf putting, for example) through implicit instructions (goal oriented) as opposed to explicit instructions (learning the “rules” on how to putt correctly). Such research, replicated with different tasks by others, suggests that when these two approaches are used exclusively that the implicit instructions provide better results. Implicit learners were also found to perform the task better when subjected to distracting stimuli or situations designed to provide a stressful situation.

However, this research may be misleading and there may be some methodological flaws in Master’s research. For example, test subjects who were taught an explicit approach to learning a motor skill were generally presented with instructions all at once, as opposed to breaking down each step of the process into manageable chunks where each individual step is mastered before moving on to the next step. Other authors (Willingham and Dumas, 1997) found that a year after receiving implicit instruction on a task subjects performed no better than a control group that had no instruction at all, however some attempts to replicate this research has produced conflicting results.

A further issue in interpreting this research is that most teachers and coaches don’t separate their instructions into such an  false dichotomy between these two extreme approaches. Rather, most individuals employ a combination of implicit and explicit instruction. Researchers using transcranial magnetic stimulation to map brain regions demonstrated that implicit practice showed gradual activity in areas in the brain associated with explicit learning as well, until subjects achieved explicit knowledge of the task when brain activity returned to its base line (Pascual-Leone, et al., 1994). Similarly, Willingham and Goedert-Eschmann (1999) point out that while functional MRI studies indicate that motor skill development may be purely implicitly or explicitly developed, their experimental study showed that when presented with a random task, subjects in the explicit group demonstrated similar sequential knowledge to those in the implicit group.

Other research suggests that a combination of implicit and explicit learning may make for the most effective method for motor skill development. Lola, Tzetzis, and Zetou (2012) conducted a study comparing four groups’ abilities to make important decisions while serving a volleyball. Their analysis showed that all groups improved over time, excepting the control group who simply performed the assessments. The implicit group outperformed the explicit group, however the group that was instructed through a combination of the two was faster and more accurate than both. Mazzoni and Wexler (2009) investigated a similar research question and also found that subjects who engaged in both implicit and explicit motor control during assessments performed without degradation compared to groups that used explicit or implicit control alone.

One difficulty in interpreting this information for the music teacher is that most of the scientific literature on this topic deals with either an athletic skill or on some task designed to test the performance of motor skills (such as a random button pushing task). However, there has been some research conducted specifically looking at how music students learn instrumental technique best.

Rosenthal (1984) conducted research looking at the effects modeling and verbal instructions had on expert musician’s abilities to perform a challenging passage. She found that the group given a model only outperformed groups given only verbal instructions, both a model and verbal instructions, or practice only. Rosenthal’s research would appear to support above mentioned studies that find implicit learning to be superior to explicit learning. However, Rosenthal’s results conflict with other research showing the combination of both may provide the better results than an implicit or explicit approach alone (Mazzoni and Wexler , 2009 and Lola, Tzetzis, & Zetou, 2011). Kennell (1989) devised an experiment that used a similar approach to Rosenthal’s yet found slightly different results. Using three different experimental treatments, his results suggested that the effectiveness of a teaching strategy may be related to the context of the situation. He hypothesized that instruction marking critical features would be best for reminding students of skills they have already learned, demonstration would be more beneficial for learning new concepts, and task manipulation best for building new skills (Kennell, 2002, p. 249).

Making specific recommendations for music pedagogy based on the currently available research is challenging for a variety of reasons. The first issue that must be taken into account is that most of the available research explores either tasks associated with sports or tasks specifically designed to measure motor control. It is likely that the results of most of these studies will also apply to the motor skill development needed for musical technique, however the lack of research that specifically looks at musical skills makes it difficult to be certain that this is the case. Much of the research relied on visual stimulation, rather than aural stimulation, and it is possible that this change in feedback can alter the benefits or drawbacks to teaching strategies.

While implicit learning has the consensus supporting its benefits over explicit learning, it should be noted that a lot of the recent publications have been done by a limited number of researchers, specifically Masters (8 publications cited in this paper) and Maxwell (5 cited publications). Additionally, replication of their research produced inconsistent results, in spite of later studies by Maxwell, et al. that attempt to correct for methodological issues and replicate their original work. Before these results can be accepted with widespread authority they will need to withstand more peer review and replication by other researchers.

Other areas of caution in applying this research to music instruction involve the ability levels of test subjects, the length of retention, and the specific nature of improvement on a motor skill. The majority of research comparing implicit and explicit learning uses novices as test subjects, yet much music education deals with students who have been studying their instrument for years or even decades. Some of the literature indicates that the type of instruction most effective depends on the particular stage of development a subject is in (Pascual-Leone, et al., 1994 and Willingham & Goedert- Eschmann, 1999) or the specific task being practiced (Lagarde, et al., 2002 and Kennell, 1989). These findings imply that musical instruction related to motor skill development needs to take the student’s current stage of development into account, as well as the specific skill being learned.

Very little research has been done investigating the longevity of motor skills beyond a single year, particularly in relation to expert performance. Wilson, and Roehmann (1992) do make note of research regarding injuries and disorders with expert musicians, such as focal task dystonia. Furthermore, it has been noted that issues such as embouchure dystonia typically manifest between the ages of 35 and 45 (Frucht, 2001 and Frucht, et al., 2009) Many individuals suffering from dystonic-like symptoms tend to be players who favor an implicit learning style (Kagarice, 2005). While implicit learning may show better short term effectiveness, prevention of injury or other related issues may be best done through the inclusion of explicit instruction in correct instrumental mechanics.

In spite of the difficulties applying this research to music pedagogy, there are two statements that can be made with some confidence. First, it is clear that implicit learning strategies make for a powerful tool and music educators must be aware of how to make effective use of it. Instructing through analogies and goal-oriented processes are already widely used in music instruction and is exemplified through the “song and wind” approach advocated by Arnold Jacobs. Secondly, evidence suggests that implicit and explicit learning work in conjunction and parallel with each other, as suggested by Donald Reinhardt’s “Pivot System” approach. Music educators should become familiar with the situations where explicit instructions have the most potential benefit and learn how to use it effectively. This will not only ensure that students progress quickly and perform well under the pressure of a concert or audition situation, but can also have potential benefits for long term health and technique maintenance among professional musicians.

Lastly, it would be beneficial for the field of music education for more emphasis on research methodology and to encourage high level research specifically in the area of the development of musical technique. In part due to the over reliance on teaching implicitly through analogy and emphasizing expression over technique, many teachers have a weaker background in the explicit understanding of how they actually play their instrument. Furthermore, the very people who can most benefit from an improved understanding of the development of musical technique through the balance of implicit and explicit teaching strategies are the ones who will need to lead the way if greater understanding of these findings can be effectively applied to music pedagogy. Speaking on this very issue, Wilson and Roehmann wrote:

Most Ed.D. and D.M.A. Candidates will never engage in experimental research; they will teach and perform and teach others to teach and perform. Because they are in a unique position to observe student performers at all levels of ability and all stages of life, they can make an enormous contribution to clinical research. . . Although not every teacher-performer would be inclined to take on such are arduous task, and fewer still might commit themselves to it for the long haul, some would – and the effort would make a difference.

(Wilson & Roehmann, 1992, p. 520-521)

You can download the full paper I wrote on this topic, including complete references here.

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