The Error of Omission: Are Students’ Brains Naturally Lazy?

Marina McLerran, Nacogdoches, TX Editor, McLerran Journal
Marina McLerran, Nacogdoches, TX
Editor, McLerran Journal

Recently, it was pointed out to me how frequently music students omit challenging aspects of fundamentals in order to shortcut the proper techniques. These infractions, if not caught early in one’s musical training, can be detrimental to both the individual and ensemble sound. It occurred to me, however, that the majority of beginning musicians frequently commit this type of error, regardless of individual qualities; almost every student every year will omit the same techniques. It begs the question; are students’ brains naturally lazy and what, if anything, can be done to improve awareness and intrinsic motivation?

 What is the error of omission?

 Music educators who work with beginning musicians must be vigilant and make a daily effort to ensure students are not short-changing proper fundamental techniques. Invisible omissions like neglecting to count (mentally) while playing or ignoring the clicking of the metronome are perfect examples of this seemingly innocuous error. Catching these omissions can be especially difficult when working with vocalists or wind players in which case the error occurs inside of the student’s mouth or throat and is therefore nearly impossible for the director to see. In my experience, students are the most likely to omit techniques that they have not yet mastered in order to avoid standing out in a negative way. A perfect example of this is the tendency of beginner wind musicians to slur an entire phrase rather than employing their tongue at the start of notes. To the untrained ear, the line sounds identical to the correct way and is incredibly challenging for educators to detect while other students are playing with the appropriate articulation. Committing the error of omission in this sense, then, might provide circumstances for quicker results in the present while simultaneously limiting a student’s eventual trajectory.

It is up to educators to make regular efforts to identify omissions in students’ technique and to nurture the development of intrinsic motivation. Especially in the early years of instruction, music students should be required to play by themselves as frequently as possible. Inexpensive tools like mirrors and recording devices encourage heightened self-awareness in rehearsals and provide students with more opportunities to evaluate their own techniques. Because these errors are so slight, and correcting obvious mistakes requires significantly less thought and time, directors will need to designate a portion of rehearsal specifically for this type of error detection.

Are our brains naturally lazy?

 It is surprising to learn that the human brain has actually recently been proven quite lazy and will almost always lean towards the path of least resistance. In the 2017 study, Perceptual Decisions Are Biased by the Cost to Act, led by Nobuhiro Hagura of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (University College London, United Kingdom) and the Center for Information and Neural Networks (CiNet), researchers tested participants’ subconscious perception of an artificial reality. Subjects were asked to determine whether a grouping of dots on an electronic screen were moving more towards the left or to the right by moving a lever in the corresponding hand. “What the volunteers did not know,” Hagura shares, “was that one of the levers was slightly heavier and therefore harder to move than the other.” Surprisingly, the participants of the study consistently selected the hand with the least resistance when the dots’ movement was ambiguous, regardless which hand had been weighted. “Moreover,” states Hagura, “they continued to show the bias even when subsequently asked to simply say their answers rather than use the levers.” These shocking results “indicate that the effort required to act on a decision can influence the decision itself (Hagura).” Because the subjects’ brains had already decided that ambiguous answers would be one direction or the other, that was the new accepted reality despite what the participants’ eyes were actually seeing.

Another, more recent study, explored the “exercise paradox” in which the average person desires to become more physically active but instead becomes more sedentary. Matthieu Boisgontier of the University of British Columbia in his research Avoiding Sedentary Behaviors Requires More Cortical Resources Than Avoiding Physical Activity: An EEG Study (2018), set out to determine whether the lack of movement was a conscious choice or an effect of the human brain’s natural tendency to conserve energy (Rolfsen). Subjects were put through a series of tests in which they were exposed to images of active people or inactive people (while their brain was monitored) and asked to move the computer mouse either towards or away from the image as quickly as possible (Rolfsen). What the study revealed, Boisgontier states, is the fascinating tendency of the brain to process the “avoidance of physical inactivity” significantly quicker than deciding to embrace it, but “at a cost-and that is an increased involvement of brain resources.” Simply put, the brain has to work harder to decide to move the body and is therefore more likely to remain sedentary.

Clearly, the high frequency of omissions made in beginner musicians’ technique must be addressed on the neurological level since it is likely the brain, and not the student, deciding to omit challenging aspects of fundamental techniques. The brain’s tendency to accept “easier” realities and avoid physical effort means that several small portions of musical techniques will likely be ignored in order to conserve energy. To combat this proclivity for laziness, music educators must be constantly evaluating student technique and encourage a heightened level of self-awareness throughout the ensemble; students need to be motivated to improve on an individual level. The question, then, becomes which portion of the brain is responsible for a student’s level of intrinsic motivation and what teaching methods have been proven to best engage this area?

What can be done to improve intrinsic motivation?

It is widely believed by neuroscientists that a positive correlation exists between the amount of dopamine present in a subject’s brain and the individual’s level of intrinsic motivation. A new study, however, performed by researchers David Zald and Michael Treadway at Vanderbilt University in 2012, determined that not only is the amount of dopamine relevant but also the location of said chemical in the subject’s brain (Salisbury). Using PET scan technology, researchers mapped participants’ brain activity as they completed a series of button-pushing tasks for a monetary reward (Salisbury). Shockingly, the researchers noticed a pattern forming; subjects who took fewer risks for a smaller reward (labeled “slackers”) had higher amounts of dopamine in the anterior insula (the areas responsible for emotion and risk perception) while individuals who took more frequent risks for a potentially higher reward (referred to as “go getters”) exhibited higher amounts of dopamine in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (the areas responsible for motivation and interpretation of reward) (Salisbury). With this information, it is possible for educators to customize lesson plans based on methods proven to primarily engage the desired portions (striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex) of the brain and therefore positively affect student motivation.

Elizabeth Tricomi of Rutgers University (Newark, New Jersey) determined in her 2015 study, Effects of Intrinsic Motivation on Feedback Processing During Learning, that the two key factors necessary to improve an individual’s level of intrinsic motivation are performance-related feedback and a sense of autonomy. “Performance-related feedback,” Tricomi states, “is an important part of effortful learning, as information about correct responses and errors can motivate learners to adapt their behaviors” and also triggers activity in the striatum. Being aware of this relationship, directors can make an effort to provide regular feedback, both positive and negative, to music students on the individual level. This can be achieved through several methods including having students play one at a time in rehearsals or periodically pulling individuals for private lessons. This neurological response, however, “may be more or less salient depending on one’s motivation to successfully complete the task (Tricomi).” The study cites previous behavioral research (Deci and Ryan, 1987) that suggests an individual’s level of intrinsic motivation can be greatly affected by a sense of autonomy (Tricomi). Educators seeking to encourage this kind of independent thinking could employ methods like direct questioning or motivational interviewing to support students’ perceived autonomy and, as a result, enhance the ensemble’s overall engagement and desire to succeed (Tricomi).

 According to recent neurological studies, the error of omission occurs because of the human brain’s tendency to lean towards the path of least resistance. This seemingly innocuous inclination can quickly grow into a legitimate problem for musical programs if not addressed in the early years of instruction. Both music students and educators must make a constant and conscious effort to stay motivated and perform all techniques in their entirety. To help retrain the brain, directors can make small changes to existing lesson plans like employing direct questioning or making time to give individual feedback to students. Although the error of omission affects ensembles at all developmental stages, it is critical that directors of beginner musicians make every effort to detect and redirect these tendencies.


 Hagura, Nobuhiro. (2017). Perceptual Decisions are Biased by the Cost to Act. eLife Magazine. Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London. London, United Kingdom. Center for Information and Neural Networks (CiNet). National Institute of Communications and Technology. Suita City, Japan. Web. 14 October, 2018. <>

 Rolfsen, Erik. (2018). Are We Hardwired for Laziness? Brain Must Work Hard to Avoid Sloth.  Neuroscience News. Based on abstract for Avoiding sedentary behaviors requires more cortical resources than avoiding physical activity: An EEG study. University of British Columbia. 26 July, 2018. Web. 14 October, 2018.<>

Salisbury, David. (2012). “Dopamine Impacts Your Willingness to Work.” Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University. Nashville, Tennessee. Web. 12 October, 2018. <>

Tricomi, Elizabeth. (2015). “Effects of Intrinsic motivation on Feedback Processing During Learning.” Science Direct. Elsevier. Volume 119. Pp.175-186. Web. 24 October, 2018.>

Our Sponsors