Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Sensory Deprivation Boosts Musicians’ Skill Level

• May 16, 2011 • 11:43 AM

Canadian researchers report floating in an isolation tank increased the technical skill level of young jazz players.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Everybody knows the standard answer. But newly published research suggests that, after you’ve labored all day in the practice room, you might want to spend an hour in a flotation tank.

Oshin Vartanian of the University of Toronto and Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia report floating in an Epsom salt solution one hour per week for four weeks boosted the technical ability of a group of college music students. This suggests such periods of minimal sensory stimulation can improve performers’ perceptual-motor coordination.

Don’t start filling up the bathtub, however: This experiment, described in the journal Music and Medicine, featured a level of sensory deprivation achievable only in a specially designed tank. The device was invented in the 1950s by neuroscientist John Lilly; in the years since, its use has been linked to improved sports performance and heightened levels of creativity.

But would it work for budding be-boppers? To answer that question, the researchers conducted an experiment using 13 students enrolled in an intermediate-level jazz improvisation course at Vancouver Community College.

Eight of the students — six men and two women — engaged in flotation sessions for four consecutive weeks. They spent an hour each week in a fiberglass shell, floating in a solution of Epsom salts and skin-temperature water. They were in the dark, and outside sounds were muffled.

All the participants — including the other five musicians who comprise the comparison group — made two five-minute-long recordings in which they freely improvised. The first took place one week before the flotation sessions began; the second, one week after the sessions concluded. Each session was rated by the instructor (who was unaware which students were undergoing the treatments) on five dimensions: improvisation, creativity, expressiveness, technical ability and overall quality.

The researchers found “a significant difference between the treatment and comparison groups on technical ability, but not on any other dimension,” the researchers write. Thanks to this enhanced skill level, those who had floated “had significantly higher grades in the jazz improvisation class than the comparison group.”

Vartanian and Suedfeld concede this was a small sample. But they note that, based on their initial recordings, the instructor rated the treatment and comparison groups essentially equal on all five dimensions. Since “The two groups can be considered equivalent in terms of motivation and baseline ability,” the difference in their ability was very likely the result of the flotation sessions.

So why didn’t the treatment group’s creativity scores also rise? The researchers suspect this reflects the one-week lag time between the final flotation session and the second recording.

That was purposeful on their part: They wanted to gauge long-lasting rather than immediate effects. (Previous research found increased creativity in university students after floating sessions measured their abilities immediately after they left the tank and dried off.)

Of course, for a musician, technical expertise can inspire increased creativity, as it gives one the confidence to take risks. So perhaps this boost in skill will lead to higher levels of originality in the long run.

In any event, the results suggest this technique holds considerable promise for musicians in general and jazz artists in particular. As Vartanian and Suedfeld note, flotation isolation “has been shown to induce a state of relaxed alertness, concentration and reduced stress.”

Which is exactly where you want to be when the bandleader gives his cue.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.