Skip Navigation

Learning, forgetting, and relearning

Learning, forgetting, and relearning

Published on October 5, 2021

Learning, forgetting, and relearning

By Dr. Sean Hutchins

Learning music takes a lot of work. Complex mental and motor skills are painstakingly practiced over weeks, months, and years for musicians to be performance-ready; even basic skills like scales need to be reinforced regularly. Sometimes, though, children just won’t have the time they need to devote to practice. Whether life’s other activities get in the way or a global pandemic shuts down most interpersonal contact for over a year, there are times when your children can’t keep up with their practice. During these periods, they can sometimes forget what they had previously learned. But how much do they actually forget? And how easy is it to recapture their learnings?

Forgotten memories not really forgotten

It turns out these questions were of primary interest to one of the very first psychologists. Before Freud, Skinner, or Pavlov, Hermann Ebbinghaus was one of the first people to seriously study learning, memory, and the mind. Using just one subject – himself – he measured how long it took to learn strings of nonsense syllables, how long it took to forget them, and how long it took to relearn them after forgetting. He was the first to show that our memory decays exponentially over time, with most “forgetting” happening within the first 20 minutes after learning something. This decay levels off after about a day.
However, he also showed that forgotten memories were not quite forgotten — there was still a subconscious trace of the initial learning. When it came to relearning a forgotten list of syllables, that process was substantially easier than the initial learning process itself. Ebbinghaus also showed that overlearning was an effective way to counteract this forgetting curve; that is, the extra repetitions of practicing something that is already memorized helps to diminish the amount we forget over time.

Practice is never wasted

What this means for students is that practice never goes to waste. Even if they have taken time off, relearning forgotten skills, pieces, or concepts is significantly easier than the initial learning process. And the extra practice they put into common skills like scales and arpeggios helps to overlearn these concepts, making them more resilient against forgetting those skills. Just like riding a bike, you and your child might be surprised at how easy it is to get back up to speed in music.

Dr. Sean Hutchins is a neuroscientist and the Director of Research at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from McGill University, studying music and the mind. His current work examines the role of musical training and experience on cognitive and linguistic abilities.