How Sleep Impacts Learning (And Why We Should All Sleep More!)

Healthy Playing, Healthy Teaching, Vanessa Cornett, Editor

A common refrain among teachers in the developed world is that twenty-first-century students are over-scheduled, anxious, and unable to focus during their limited practice time.1 Compounding these stress, anxiety, and distraction issues for my students is that they are awake late into the night completing homework or playing video games. Lack of sleep affects physical health and cognitive functioning.2 Yet, in our modern society, where we have more responsibilities and spend more time on electronic devices (either for work or pleasure), we feel as though we lack adequate time for rest and sleep. Reports indicate that up to 70% of adults get insufficient sleep, and sleep deprivation is now considered an epidemic in industrialized nations.3

Sleep By the Numbers

The average hours of nightly sleep among adults in developed countries has declined.4 Even children and adolescents are getting less sleep and feel sleepy during daytime hours at school.5 In addition to putting us at risk for medical problems6 and automobile accidents,7 lack of sufficient sleep impacts goal setting, cognition, and learning.8 Even children as young as two years of age demonstrate lowered cognitive function with too little sleep.9 The brain is industrious during nightly sleep cycles. Thus, getting at least eight consecutive hours of sleep per night for adults, and nine consecutive hours for young children and adolescents, is important.

Sleep researchers refer to four different stages of sleep: N1, N2, N3 (non-REM stages), and REM (rapid eye movement). Generally, humans complete a cycle of these stages every ninety minutes. The frequency of brain waves differs during each of these stages. N3 is referred to as slow-wave sleep and it is during this stage of deep sleep that tissue and muscles are repaired and the immune system is boosted.10 During REM sleep, the muscles throughout the body are temporarily paralyzed (except for the eyes) and the brain waves are similar to those experienced when we are awake.11 These two stages of deep sleep are critical for learning and memory consolidation.

Sleep and Learning

Insufficient nightly sleep impairs our ability to focus on learning activities and process information efficiently.12 Lack of sleep affects our ability to make decisions and solve problems, and slows reaction times on psychomotor vigilance tasks. Arguably, all of these skills are required during practice and music learning. Sleep is imperative both before and after a learning activity. Recalling new material, problem solving, engaging in creative tasks, making remote associations, and consolidating motor skills occur during N3 and REM sleep. There is emerging evidence that the N3 and REM stages last longer after the sixth consecutive hour of sleep, meaning that more post- learning assimilation might take place in the brain during the seventh and eighth hour of nightly sleep. Overall time asleep matters.

Blue light emitted from televisions, computers, tablets, and phones interrupts the sleep cycle. Yet, 42- 62% of American parents keep at least one electronic device in the bedroom, 20-45% of their children have electronics in their bedrooms, and 10-40% of these devices are left on at night. In fact, 26% of parents and 16% of children report answering a text or email after they have fallen asleep initially!13

Sleep Solutions

Since the quality and quantity of sleep matter, we should consider introducing sleep education programs in our studios and homes. We must ensure that young children and adolescents get at least nine hours of sleep, while adults strive for eight hours per night so we can attend to learning, practicing, and coordination tasks. We can explain how sleep before and after piano practice impacts learning and retention, and help our students to be mindful about scheduling sleep. We must consider our personal sleep patterns and commit to making sleep a priority to ensure optimal daily functioning.

We can help prepare the body for sleep by:

  • ​Establishing a nightly sleep routine.
  • Setting up schedules so that blue light-emitting electronic devices are not used 30-60 minutes before bed.
  • Dimming the lights and engaging in relaxing, non-stimulating activities to calm the mind and body.
  • Ensuring that electronic devices are turned off, or in airplane mode, to reduce sleep interruption once sleep has begun.
  • Decreasing caffeine and alcohol consumption, as these interrupt the sleep cycle for adults.

If we understand that we can control how we use our final waking minutes of each day, and implement strategies to encourage sleep, we may improve the quality and quantity of nightly sleep. Acknowledging the role that sleep plays in our learning, practicing, and performing should motivate us to put sleep on the priority list. If educators, parents, and students make sleep a priority, we might gradually decrease behaviors that inhibit sleep, and change modern society’s view on the importance of sleep in twenty- first-century life.


1. Reut Gruber et al., “Short Sleep Duration is Associated with Teacher- Reported Inattention and Cognitive Problems in Healthy School-Aged Children,” Nature and Science of Sleep 4 (2012), 33–40.

2. Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (New York: Scribner, 2017); Eduard J. de Bruin et al., “Effects of Sleep Manipulation on Cognitive Functioning of Adolescents: A Systematic Review,” Sleep Medicine Reviews 32 (2017), 45–57.

3. Walker, Why We Sleep.

4. Olivia J. Walch et al, “A Global Quantification of ‘Normal’ Sleep Schedules Using Smartphone Data,” Scientific Advances 2 (2016), 1–6.

5. National Sleep Foundation (NSF), “Sleep in America Poll,” 2004, 2006 (accessed March 4, 2018); Neralie Cain and Michael Gradisar, “Electronic Media Use and Sleep in School-Aged Children and Adolescents: A Review,” Sleep Medicine 11 (2010), 735–742.

6. Walker, Why We Sleep.

7. Ibid.

8. Michael K. Scullin and Mark A. McDaniel, “Remembering to Execute a Goal: Sleep on It!,” Psychological Science 21 (7), 1028–1035.

9. Lisa Smithson et al., “Shorter Sleep Duration Associated with Reduced Cognitive Development at Two Years of Age,” Sleep Medicine 48 (2018), 131–139.

10. William H. Moorcroft, Understanding Sleep and Dreaming, 2nd ed. (New York: Springer, 2013).

11. Ibid.

12. Debora Aricò et al., “Effects of NREM Sleep Instability on Cognitive Processing,” Sleep Medicine 11 (2010), 791–798; Susanne Diekelmann et al., “The Whats and Whens of Sleep-Dependent Memory Consolidation,” Sleep Medicine Reviews 13 (2009), 309–321.

13. NSF, “Sleep in America,” 2014. 

By Pamela Pike. This article first appeared on