Previous research has shown that sleep facilitates skill acquisition by consolidating recent memories into a stabilized form. The way in which sleep benefits the acquisition of a musical skill, however, is unclear. This is because previous studies have not dissociated the extent to which sleep consolidates learned motoric patterns from the conceptual structure of the music. We thus designed two experiments in which pianists performed short pieces – designed to separate conceptual from motoric errors – over the course of a day. In Experiment 1, participants were trained in the morning and tested immediately, 12 hours, and 24 hours after training. While both motor and conceptual errors increased over a waking retention interval, only conceptual errors were significantly reduced after sleep. Moreover, individuals who reported spending more time “playing by ear” showed greater reductions of conceptual errors after sleep. A second control experiment, in which participants were trained in the evening and tested immediately – as well as 12 hours – after training, confirmed that the results from Experiment 1 could not be attributed solely to circadian confounds or to elapsed time since training. Together, these results suggest that conceptual and motor errors consolidate differently and interact with differences in practice style.

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