My StudyBass

Using Active Recall and Spaced Repetition

by Andrew Pouska


Video Transcript:

StudyBassers! In this video I want to tell you about the biggest learning mistake I see students make. The mistake is not using two of the most effective learning strategies around: active recall and spaced repetition.

Now, before we get into active recall and spaced repetition, I want to teach you something else, too...

Gm7 Memory

I want you to memorize how to spell the notes of a G minor 7th chord. Now, you might not know what a minor 7th chord is or even what a chord is! That's OK. I just want you to memorize four note names.

A G minor 7th chord contains four notes: G, Bb, D and F. G, Bb, D and F. Say it back to yourself out loud. Do you have the four notes?... G, Bb, D and F.

OK. Let's get back to our learning strategies...

Studying Learning and Memory

For as long as I can remember I've been interested in learning about music. That obsession led me to another one: learning how learning works and effective teaching methods. I always wanted to get the most out of my practice time and my teachers and, when I began teaching, how to help my students learn effectively.

I wasn't a terrible student in high school, but I wasn't a great student either. I didn't know it in high school, but no one taught me how to learn properly. Even though there is a ton of research on learning, the high school teachers either didn't know about it or apply it.

When I went to college I went in still not knowing how to learn. The major turning point for me was a cognitive psychology class. From that class on I made straight A's. That class taught me about memory and learning, and started my lifelong interest into how we learn. I constantly keep up with new research, and, whether students realize it or not, I apply it in my private lessons and throughout the lessons on

Two of the most effective learning strategies that have been researched and confirmed are known as: Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. We're going to talk about both of them right after a little review of the G minor 7th chord I just asked you to memorize...

Gm7 Memory

Remember at the beginning of the video I asked you to memorize the four notes of a Gm7 chord? Which of these spellings is the correct answer?

Multiple Choice...

C Eb G Bb
G C F Bb
G Bb D F

If you chose G Bb D F, you got it! If not, don't worry. Now let's get back to our main topic...

Bad Memories

Almost all of my students think they have a bad memory. You don't have a bad memory—you have an incredible memory! Your brain chooses not to remember everything because you would go crazy if it did.

In fact, a famous neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield, found he could stimulate long forgotten memories in his patients during brain surgery when his patients were awake. And, there are a handful of people with something called hyperthymesia where they can see a date and remember vivid details from that specific day. You might know the actress Marilu Henner who has this Superior Autobiographical Memory. [See the 60 Minutes story] There's no telling what you have memorized and what your memory is capable of.

By not remembering every detail your brain is actually protecting you from going insane. Stop and think about that. Your brain selects what to remember and what to forget. When you understand that basic principle, it should make you realize, “Huh, I do have a good memory—I just don't know how to use it.” You need to learn what actions and techniques make your brain decide to recall memories and what makes it forget them. To learn better you need to master your memory.

Gm7 Memory

Let's take a another break and review G minor 7 again...

The G minor 7 chord contains four different notes.

Is Bb one of them?

Is C one of them?

Is F one of them?

Is Eb one of them?

G minor 7 contains the four notes G Bb D and F.

Back to our topic of active recall and spaced repetition...

What is Active Recall?

If you've ever used flashcards, you've practiced active recall.

Active recall means, after studying something, you recall information from your mind instead of restudying it. You test yourself. You don't look at the material again. You don't re-read it. You don't stare at it. You don't print out a poster and tack it to your wall! You internally retrieve the information from your brain. The retrieving, the mental doing, is the active part.

When you try to retrieve the information from your mind, maybe you'll remember it incorrectly. Maybe you'll have it right. Maybe it will take you a long time to come up with the answer. It's the act of testing yourself, of retrieving the information, which helps fix the memory strongly in your mind. Once you have an answer—and only then—check yourself. Don't give up and simply say I don't know. Make up an answer even if it is obviously wrong. No, chicken is not the answer to “What is the major scale?” Good try.

There's a lot of research on this effect going back over a century. It's known as active recall, the testing effect, and the retrieval practice effect.

For whatever reason, the simple act of testing produces stronger memories than restudying.

What is Restudying?

Restudying is re-reading the material. Taking the lesson again. Staring at the information. You skip over using any mental effort to remember.

Restudying is terrible—especially for anything you want to remember long-term like music. Restudying is passive. Your brain is doing very little work. There's little effort.

Have you ever read a page of text and then asked yourself, “What did I just read?” When involved in something passive, your brain can easily turn off or get distracted. But, during an active test your brain can't turn off so easily.

Restudying gives you very little in return, yet it's most people's first instinct when trying to learn something. It's not your fault. No one told you. It seems like a good idea. “There's the information. If I look at it hard enough, I'll get it in my brain!”

The difference in memory retention between using active recall and restudying is really amazing. Using active recall—testing yourself—can often result in double the retention of information. Double! Isn't that crazy?! Even a little bit more would be worthwhile, but twice as much is insane.

Gm7 Memory

Quick break time... Once again, can you remember how to spell the notes of Gm7?

Take your time. Really search your memory. A cool trick when trying to remember something is to close your eyes. Shutting off visual stimulation gives your brain less to deal with.

Did you come up with the four notes? G Bb D F

What Does Testing Myself Mean?

You might think testing yourself means taking some sort of “final exam” after many days or weeks of studying. That's probably what you did in school. No. Testing yourself is about constantly asking yourself questions. “What did I just read?” “What was the main point?” “What was the pattern?” Then, the next day without restudying, you ask yourself those same questions.

Testing yourself means you write it out in your own handwriting from memory. You create flashcards with questions on them. You take practice tests. You apply your new knowledge. You explain it to others. You quiz yourself throughout the day.

The simple act of testing yourself is what creates stronger associations, stronger connections in your brain.

Why Does Testing Work?

There are lots of arguments about why the testing effect works, but no one knows for sure. Testing helps you find and fix your mistakes. Testing gives you confidence in your correct responses.

Interestingly, even getting the answers wrong when you test eventually results in stronger memories for the correct responses.

Personally, I think the testing effect works because your mind learns: this is important...I often need a quick answer to this question. Passive restudying tells your mind: this information is always here; I can always look it up.

Passive restudying will make your memory lazy. That's okay for some things, but in music there is no time to go look anything up. You need to be ready without hesitation. Your musical skills and knowledge need to be a reflex.

Speaking of testing...

Gm7 Memory

Let's take a break for a second. Now how do you spell the notes of a Gm7 chord?

You are testing yourself, not restudying. Search your memory. Take a moment. Try your hardest to actively recall the spelling. If you are unsure, make one up.

Do you have it? Gm7 is spelled G Bb D F.

Now, even if you got it wrong, remember that's okay. As I explained, even if your recall is wrong, using active recall eventually leads to a stronger long-term memory.

Spaced Repetition

Now, our little tests of the G minor 7th chord are examples of how to use active recall. I'm constantly testing you in different ways to come up with the notes of Gm7. But, with our little tests I've also been exposing you to another powerful learning strategy: Spaced Repetition.

What is Spaced Repetition?

Spaced repetition is also known as distributed practice. It means spreading out your repeated tests over time. Instead of repeating the same thing for a long solid block of time, you space it out. You break it up. You test yourself intermittently.

When you space things out, you learn and retain them better. If you practice daily you will learn more effectively than if you practice once a week for the same amount of time.

The spaced repetition effect works if you space things out over the course of an hour, throughout a day, a week or whatever time-frame.

You will notice I've been spacing out our little Gm7 chord tests every so often. It's not by accident. I'm giving you a simple template for applying active recall and spaced repetition. Self tests spread out over time leads to incredible learning results. Even though it is easy to do, it's not everyone's first learning instinct.

Spaced repetition is a little more difficult because you have to remember to do it. You will need some sort of routine during your practice sessions or throughout your day to really harness the spaced repetition effect.

Gm7 Memory

Back to that Gm7 chord for a second. Now this time I want you to write down the notes of the chord from memory. You can write on a scrap of paper or type it in any text box on your device. Don't just think it. Write it out. Do it! The act of writing something out strengthens the formation of the memory.

Did you write out G Bb D F? If so, great! If not, write out the correct spelling: G Bb D F.

Expanding Repetition Intervals

So, we've discussed spaced repetition—spreading out tests, reviews and questioning your memory over time. Some research has found the intervals of time between your tests can make a difference, too. Expanding intervals are sometimes more effective than equally spaced time intervals.

That means you might first review something daily, then every 3 days, then after 6 days, then after 12 days, etc. Keep spreading out your repetitions with more and more time in-between.

Research is less solid on this, but you might try this form of spaced repetition.

What Are Common Examples of Students Restudying Instead of Using Active Recall?

Checking the Music

You sit down to practice a song you've been trying to memorize and you immediately look at the written music to remind yourself how to play it. Don't do that. Try to play it from your memory first. Even if it is wrong, knowing where you are wrong is helpful and leads to greater retention. Once you have an answer if you are still unsure, go back and look up the correct answer.

Fretboard Stickers

Stickers for the note names on your fretboard. If I were Tony Soprano I would put out a hit on the person making those &#$_*&! fretboard stickers. OK, not really, but this is constant restudying! There is no challenge for your brain or memory. We know you can read letters already! You are slowing down the whole memory process.

You need to beware of people trying to profit from things beginners think are good ideas. Music education is full of these worthless but profitable schemes. People can't sell you simple invisible ideas like use active recall and spaced repetition. But, they can sell you stupid stickers! If you have these on your fretboard, take them off immediately!


Another one just like the fretboard stickers are these wall posters of scale patterns, arpeggios and other music theory concepts. No, no, no, no. Do not look at anything. Do not reference anything. After your initial lesson on a subject, consult your memory first. Conjure up the right answer, or even the wrong answer, from your mind. Then, and only then, check your answer if you are unsure. You will be amazed at how effective this is.

If posters were the answer, I promise I would make a thousand free posters for you on I didn't. Staring at external references is not how you build the strong memory music requires. Are you going to take that poster to a gig?!

I'm going to give you one, and only one, printout to hang on your wall. Can you guess what it says? Download the only music poster you need now!


Open Books

Did any of your teachers in school ever give you an open-book exam? You would flip through the book and mindlessly copy the answers. Why did they do those?! While they're not totally useless, we've known about the testing effect for more than a century! It should have been: Close your books. Test yourself. Then, open the book and correct your answers.

If you can't resist looking at the answer, make a habit of keeping your books closed. Always test yourself first, then look at your materials.

Music Notation

Here's another big one: When trying to learn how to read music, students often make the mistake of writing note names beneath the notes or looking at tab. Don't translate music notation into something else you already know. You're trying to learn to do that in your head instantly.

If you see two languages side-by-side and you already know one of them, you will naturally read the one you know and ignore the other. You are not testing yourself on the new language by reading a translation.

Find music without tab; learn to identify the notes. Test yourself with the bass clef quiz on

How Can I Apply Active Recall and Spaced Repetition?

What are ways you can apply active recall and spaced repetition in your learning and playing?


After a lesson of any kind, test yourself. Whether it's an in-person lesson, an online lesson, a video, a page in a book, ask yourself, “What was I taught?” “What were the main points?” “How did that pattern of notes sound?” “What was the name of that scale?”

I tell my students to review their lesson immediately when they get home even if for only 5 minutes. If you wait until the next day, you will forget a lot of information and details.

Private lessons are a test in themselves. Each week I ask my students to show me their weekly results. I also do this in expanding intervals for them.

Make Spaced Tests a Habit

Get in a habit of actively recalling material throughout the day. Space it out. You don't need your instrument for everything. Imagine it in your mind. Get it wrong—it's OK. Any testing helps.

When I was voraciously memorizing music theory concepts I came up with a my own “Cue Method of Practice.” I linked some action to remind me to test myself. Every time I looked at a clock or drank from a water fountain was a reminder to test myself: “What does a major triad sound like?” Or, “What key has four sharps?” Or, “What are the notes on the 9th fret?” Whatever you are working on...test, test, test all day long!

Think of where you can put random cues. If you are reading a book, at every fifty page mark, test yourself. Every time you hear an airplane, test yourself. Every time you see “Skip Ad,” test yourself. You can link cues all over the place.

Structuring Your Daily Practice

Structure your practice sessions where you repeat new material several times throughout your entire practice. Interrupt new material with reviews of older material—maybe at expanding intervals of time.

If you're a StudyBass supporter, use the StudyBass My Practice app to create repeatable practice sessions. You can make these short and sweet and run through them several times a day or spread them out during the week. And you can set how often you want to review them.


Make flashcards. As you study new material, write questions on flashcards with the answer on the back. Later, pull out your flashcards and test yourself. Put them in a filing system and keep testing yourself.

Read Music

Reading music is testing yourself. It's a quiz on music. What does that symbol mean? What are those notes? What are those chords? Where are they on my instrument? How does that rhythm go? You learn more than you realize from reading music.

Use a Metronome

The metronome is another test. Can I remember what to play at a consistent rate of speed? Can my fingers remember the motions?

Play with Others

Playing with others is a form of testing. There's no restarting. There's no looking things up. You will make mistakes. You'll correct them with more tests over time.

Band Practice

Band practices or rehearsals are a form of spaced repetition. If your band is learning a lot of songs, use the spaced repetition strategy. Learn to play a song together. Then keep coming back to it at expanding intervals: every rehearsal, every other rehearsal, every four, etc. Keep a log.

Gm7 Memory

OK, it's been a while since our last Gm7 test. You know why, right? Because I'm showing you how to use spaced repetition at expanding intervals. Gradually add more time between your tests.

OK. How many notes of Gm7 are flat notes? How many are natural notes? And how many notes have sharps?...

The notes of Gm7 are G Bb D F, so three are natural notes, one note is flat and there are no sharp notes.


Let's wrap everything up. We discussed the two most powerful learning strategies most students don't know about or put to use. What were the two learning strategies? I'll give you a second to come up with the answer...

Right! Active recall and Spaced repetition.

Now answer this question: What is active recall?...

Active recall is also known as the testing effect. The learning strategy of testing yourself—actively pulling the answers out of your mind—helps you develop stronger memories.

What is the opposite of active recall?...

Restudying. Staring at the answer. Not retrieving it from your mind.

What is Spaced Repetition?...

Spaced repetition is the learning strategy of spreading out tests of your knowledge over time. You can space your self-tests across any time-frame. It can be several times inside of an hour, day, week, or more.

What is the Expanding Interval strategy?

Expanding intervals is the strategy of spacing out self-tests at ever-increasing time intervals. You might test daily, then every other day, then weekly, monthly, etc.

In this video you've been learning about active recall and spaced repetition. And, I've been interrupting you with little tests on the spelling of the Gm7 chord. I've been giving you a template you can apply to anything you are learning. If you want to continue with your Gm7 chord spelling training, do this: think of something you'll be doing in an hour or two. When that event comes, test yourself on the Gm7 chord spelling. Later, before you go to bed, quiz yourself again. Tomorrow, when you think of this video, test yourself. On the next Sunday, test yourself. On the next major holiday, test yourself. You get the idea.

Good luck in your learning, playing and music-making!