The Role of Incidental Processes in Musical Skill Acquisition: A Mixed Ethnographic and Experimental Approach

Micka Clayton

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Explicit instruction and demonstration are standard pedagogical tools for learner acquisition of subject-specific knowledge and specialised motor skills. However, research in diverse fields such as memory and retention, language learning, and sport, has found intrinsic benefits when acquisition occurs incidentally. These include faster learning and automation of motor skill, more accurate retrieval of information, lessening the burden on working memory, and reliability of skills under pressure. Applications for inducing incidental learning to exploit these benefits have been established, and ongoing research continues to inform new developments in these fields. Despite clear parallels with the acquisition of specialised knowledge and motor skill in musical performance, little research has been undertaken or applications developed in music-specific contexts. This thesis draws on theory and examples of incidental learning from existing literature, considers potential applications for music performance, and adopts a mixed-method approach to practical research assessing this potential. This includes a.) ethnographic observations of real-life music lessons, and a survey of instrumental music teachers indicating widespread use of pedagogical practices that facilitate incidental skill acquisition in students, b.) a sight-reading experiment with skilled musicians, employing standard protocols of implicit sequence learning, demonstrating improved reaction times and note accuracy of an undetected, repeated musical sequence versus random notes, and c.) a proof-of-concept study, delivering an experiment-driven curriculum to a group of young novice musicians enrolled in a week-long music programme, who acquire musical skills incidentally through games, with significant before-and-after test results. The successful use of music with existing experimental protocols confirms both the transferability of learning research findings to a music context and, in turn, the viability of music as multi-sensory modality for learning research. Furthermore, the high prevalence of incidental skill acquisition in existing teaching conditions paves the way for the development of targeted applications, with a preliminary test of this concept providing promising results.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Stobart, Henry, Supervisor
  • Hughes, Rob, Supervisor
  • Glover, Scott, Supervisor
Award date1 Apr 2023
Publication statusUnpublished - 14 Mar 2023


  • implicit learning
  • incidental learning
  • music
  • music pedagogy
  • sequence learning
  • visual context learning
  • enculturation
  • statistical learning
  • metaphor
  • music lessons
  • sight-reading experiment

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