You’re a passionate musician. You are focused and excited to put in the time needed to improve on your instrument, but making time isn’t always easy.

Do you sometimes stay up late just to squeeze in some practice, then wonder if morning would be a better time for learning?

Or do you occasionally decide to stay up all night to work on new material, but then wonder if it was a good trade-off?

Although the picture of a passionate, driven musician furiously working away all night long is a romantic image, the hard truth is you’ll need regular and adequate sleep to achieve your best as a musician.

Sleep Research

Research tells us that the amount of sleep you get directly correlates to how effectively you learn, and affects you in three ways. Firstly, a sleep-deprived musician has a limited ability to focus and maintain the high level of attention needed for acquisition of new skills and facts.

Your best practice sessions will consist of deliberate practice: mindful and focused. Simply put, worthwhile practice sessions will be a mental workout and you simply won’t be prepared for massive acquisition of information if you’re sleep-deprived.

Secondly, sleep itself plays a role in the consolidation of memory, the essential step during which acquired memories become stable. You worked hard to get the skills and facts into your short-term memory, but if you don’t get to sleep, your mind will struggle to lock them away for the long term.

Recall is the final step in the memory process: the ability to access information after it has been stored. Only memories that were successfully acquired and consolidated are available for recall. When low on sleep, your overworked neurons struggle to coordinate information properly. On top of difficulty learning new material, you’ll have increased difficulty recalling previously learned skills and information and applying previous knowledge to new problems.

More Side-effects of Sleep Deprivation

Having too little sleep affects learning by slowing down acquisition, consolidation, and recall of memories.

How else could you be affected by staying up too long?

Research finds that cognitive function will also be diminished the longer you stay up. That means your ability to solve puzzles and figure things out will decrease. You won’t be able to judge consequences clearly, so sleepy time is not a good time to make important choices or operate a vehicle. Some time when you are wide awake, make the choice to get practicing done before bedtime.

Attention span is also going to suffer when you’re low on sleep. Deliberate practice requires sharp focus to constantly evaluate your performance and set micro-goals for making consistent improvement. An hour of sloppy practice is less valuable than ten minutes of super-focused practice. An hour of focused and deliberate practice is even better!

Here’s another reason you shouldn’t operate a vehicle when you’re feeling sleepy: your reaction time is diminished. It might not be a good time to operate your instrument either – you’ll need quick communication between your brain and body to read, interpret, and play new music. If you just can’t seem to get your brain to communicate with your fingers, it’s because the neurons connecting them are begging for a rest.

That’s not all.

Your mood will be affected by sleep deprivation. It’s possible that playing easy music for hours uplifts you and helps keep you cheerful. That’s great. But if you are hoping to use late night hours for deliberate practice, it’s going to feel like work.

Deliberate practice leads to great improvement but is likely to be frustrating, challenging, and demanding. Agree to only put yourself through such trials when you have the energy to keep your mood positive.

There’s one more big reason to avoid sacrificing sleep for practice time. Your general health and immune system both suffer from sleep deprivation. That extra hour or two gained each day by cutting back on sleep won’t seem like such a bonus when you are forced to spend a whole day in bed feeling sick.

Still not convinced? Watch this fascinating TED talk on the importance of sleep:

Early to bed, or night owl: As long as you get enough sleep (TED talk)

Chronic Sleep Deprivation

Hopefully by now you’re convinced that you don’t want to be the sleep-deprived musician. Do you think you know one?

“Mr. Wakeful” is the guy who prides himself on consistently sleeping only five hours each night instead of the 7.5 or more hours recommended for adults.

He claims to get extra work done while the rest of us are asleep. What he doesn’t know is that only a few hours after rising each morning, his cognitive functions already start to dissipate.

He fuels through the day with caffeine and willpower, but his mind and body are too fatigued for focused learning and remembering. He might not notice that he’s not at his best; this feels like the norm for him.

Mr. Wakeful has more hours each day to work, but his progress is slower and his work is lower quality than it would be if he had slept an adequate amount.

He doesn’t even realize he’s not achieving his highest potential. He has inflicted himself with a case of chronic sleep deprivation.

Fatigue, daytime sleepiness, clumsiness and weight issues will plague Mr. Wakeful, in addition to the cognitive troubles we listed. Not the recipe for becoming a great musician!

Night Owl or Early Bird?

“Ms. Owl” on the other hand is not chronically sleep-deprived. She generally gets 8 hours of sleep each night.

The interesting thing is that she loves to stay up late, but she sleeps in every day. Why? Perhaps she loves the quiet, late hours with no distractions. For her, late night is when she feels motivated to get some good work done.

Some scientists say the preference for being a night owl or early bird is embedded in our genes, others think it is part of the circadian clocks we develop.

Either way, the important thing for Ms. Owl is that she has a regular, consistent, and ample sleep schedule. She can stay up late without getting sleep deprived because that’s her routine.

For someone who is an “early” bird type, they can consistently wake up early and avoid deprivation by going to bed early. Is the night owl better than the early bird? Debates are still raging, but everyone agrees that in either case, sleep deprivation is a big downer.

In one research study to pit night owls against early birds, participants were given analytical and insightful problems to solve. While analytical problems were solved during optimal times, insightful problems that required creative thinking were best solved during the less preferred hours! That means Ms. Owl is productive at night but has bursts of creativity during the morning, and the early bird had his genius ideas in the evening!

What About You?

If you are an average person, accustomed to sleeping and rising and an average time, will one late-night jam session affect you? How about just an occasional all-nighter?

The good news is that if you do not carry a sleep deficit, you can recuperate within a day from an occasional few hours lost. While you can’t actually bank sleep hours to count when you want them, being well-rested before staying up late will help you recover more quickly.

During your late night session, all the effects of fatigue listed could start to show up! Simply put, you might be putting in practice hours that aren’t making the impact you’re hoping for. You won’t be at your best for learning and remembering what you spent all that work time on.

You figure out the chords, you learn the fingering, you play it twenty times. What if the next time you practice, instead of picking up exactly where you left off, you have to re-learn some of those same skills? Is it worth it!?

If you’re working away diligently and start to notice feelings of fatigue or some difficulty focusing, stop and sleep. It’s more than worth the time.

If you go for an all-nighter, all of the negative effects of sleep deprivation come into effect and linger for the entire following day or longer. You should definitely not operate a vehicle or plan any important performances for the day following an all-nighter. A short morning nap can help you muddle through recovery day, but you will certainly not be ready to perform. Never pull an all-nighter before an important audition!

Instead, plan a regular sleep regimen with at least 7 hours/night and schedule practice time so it won’t interfere.

You’ll be your best musical self and get the most from your practice time!


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