The Power of Not Sleeping?


The Power of Not Sleeping? Sleep has a tremendous impact on our physical and mental health. No sleep may have an even greater inverse effect.

After a night of restless, little, or no sleep, you may have experienced difficulty in remaining steady and consistent while playing through a piece or exercise even if you did not feel sleepy during those moments. You might make surprising little errors here and there. Or you might lose your place and have a tougher time than usual finding your way back. Although the precise extent and nature in which sleep in particular is responsible for any learning deficits remains debated, highly task-dependent, and subject to numerous other factors. it is clear that lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on cognitive performance. Just a single night of sleep deprivation considerably reduces hippocampal function, which impairs the ability to commit new experiences to memory and imposes a cognitive handicap on the mind. [1]

In one study, the average working memory span of those who were sleep-deprived dropped by nearly 40% compared to the control group. [2]

Moreover, sleep not only aids in visual memory processing, but also in auditory learning. Delayed learning in auditory pitch memory has been shown improved only after sleep, regardless of when during the day the person first tested and how much time awake had elapsed. [3] Sleep thus has a crucial influence on auditory skill learning, something invaluable to a musician. A lack of sleep adversely affects speed and accuracy in basic cognitive processes and higher order processes involving executive functions. [4] As Dr. Stephanie Haun explored in her previous article, these processes can play an important role in motor skill performance. Another study outside of Dr. Haun’s sources looked how sleep enhances the accuracy, and speed to some extent, of complex motor function in playing with temporal evenness on the piano. [5]

But what happens in the long run… over time… when we don’t get enough rest?

Studies show that running down the candle at both ends too often racks up a “sleep debt” that we might not be able to pay back. A study led by Daniel Cohen at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School) uncovered some new evidence that distinguishes long-term from short-term sleep loss. [6]

Data from this experiment reveal that individuals can develop a chronic sleep debt in the face of apparent full recovery from acute sleep loss. It is common for individuals to have relatively long sleep bouts on weekends or holidays but short sleep episodes on work or school days. Under such conditions, a chronically sleep-restricted individual may have a false sense of recovery from their prior sleep debt as a result of performing well for the first several hours of a usual waking day.

For example, subjects performed significantly more poorly on the last test of the day during week 3 compared with the same test in week 1. The declining trend became more prominent as the study progressed in weeks, despite periods of full rest. The conclusion seems to imply that long-term sleep deprivation may act on the brain in a different manner than the short-term. [6]

Musicians who build up their sleep debt are shortchanging themselves in more ways than just their health. Consider that many performances and events take place in the evening. A musician with a large sleep debt who tries to get a full night of sleep the day before a big show is still susceptible to cognitive impairment. While he or she may be high-functioning in the first few hours after waking, evidence predicts a decline in capability after this period that will become more and more serious as the day goes on.

In our rush to use as many hours of the day as possible for practicing, learning, studying, and creating, it is certainly easy for musicians to overlook the need for sleep in order to maintain our ability to stay focused and accomplish our tasks effectively. When our active working memory and cognitive functioning skills are impaired as they are when we are severely sleep-deprived, it becomes next to impossible to utilize our time in an efficient manner.

The bottom line? Make sure and get your sleep!


[1] Walker, Matthew P. “Cognitive consequences of sleep and sleep loss.” Sleep Medicine 9, Suppl. 1 (2008) S29–S34.

[2] Turner, T.H.; Drummond, S.P.A.; Salamat, J.S.; Brown, G.G. “Effects of 42 hr sleep deprivation on component processes of verbal working memory.” Neuropsychology 21 (2007): 787–795.

[3] Gaab, Nadine, Miriam Paetzold, Markus Becker, Matthew P. Walker, and Gottfried Schlaug. “The influence of sleep on auditory learning – A behavioral study.” Neuroreport 15, no. 4 (March 2004): 731-734.

[4] Dorrian, Jillian and David F. Dinges. “Sleep Deprivation and its Effects on Cognitive Performance.” In Sleep: A Comprehensive Handbook, ed. Teofilo Lee-Chiong. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons INC., 2006. 139-144.

[5] Simmons, Amy L. and Duke, Robert A. “Effects of Sleep on Performance of a Keyboard Melody” Journal of Research in Music Education 54 (2006) 257-269.

[6] Cohen, Daniel A., Wei Wang, James K. Wyatt, Richard E. Kronauer, Derk-Jan Dijk, Charles A. Czeisler, and Elizabeth B. Klerman. “Uncovering Residual Effects of Chronic Sleep Loss on Human Performance.” Science Translational Medicine 2, no. 14 (January 2010): 14ra3.

3 Responses to The Power of Not Sleeping?

  1. Jon July 11, 2011 at 7:20 am #

    Thanks for another great sleep-related post, Colin. I especially appreciate the inclusion of the research articles for further reading. Immensely helpful and interesting. Three cheers!


    • Colin Cronin July 12, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

      Absolutely. I’m glad you are finding them useful. It is such a fascinating and important topic. I’m happy to have a dialog about it. I know pretty well what the effects of not sleeping much are… from personal experience. So It’s an issue that hits home for me.

      It’s incredible the amount of research that has been done out there. I’m looking forward to seeing what more comes out of the field.

  2. joe blogs May 24, 2016 at 10:04 pm #

    I know someone who performed Rachmaninov piano concerto no.3 spotlessly on live radio with two days without sleep. I agree that it doesn’t help but I believe you can still make progress sleep deprived and it’s better than being sleep deprived and not making progress and things can still be learned so long as it’s not done frequently.

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