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Playing Piano Comes Naturally

Hand-to-ear link established quickly in beginner pianists, study finds

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 15, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Beginning pianists often agonize over the difficulty of learning to tickle the ivories. But here's some good news.

German researchers using brain imaging have determined it doesn't take people decades of practice to learn to play piano phrases without having to look at their fingers. That hand-to-ear link starts to form within minutes of starting to learn piano.

The study appears this week in the journal BMC Neuroscience.

Researchers from the Institute of Music Physiology and Musicians' Medicine in Hanover studied the effects on the brains of people just starting to learn a musical instrument. They found that patterns of brain activity when people listened to music or silently tapped a keyboard could be altered after just 20 minutes of piano practice.

The study included two groups of beginner pianists. They had 10 20-minute training sessions over five weeks. During these sessions, they learned to play back musical phrases they heard on a digital piano. They did this without the aid of visual or verbal clues such as tone names or score notation.

The study subjects weren't allowed to view their hands on the piano keys while they learned to play back the musical phrases. This approach guaranteed that they were using only their motor and auditory skills.

There was a slight difference in the training program used in the two groups. People in the first group -- called the map group -- used digital pianos where the five neighboring keys had appropriate notes assigned to them.

People in the second group -- the no-map group -- used pianos where the assignment of notes to the five keys was shuffled after each training trial.

"The no-map group was not given any chance to figure out any coupling between fingers and notes, except the temporal coincidence of keystroke and sound. In other words: these subjects were not given any chance to establish an internal 'map' between motor events and auditory pitch targets," the researchers say in a prepared statement.

Before and after the first session and after the fifth and 10th sessions, the novice pianists listened to short musical phrases and, in a separate test, pressed keys on a soundless piano keyboard. The electrical activity of their brains was recorded while they did these tasks.

After five sessions, there was considerable variation in brain activity between the two groups. For example, people in the map group activated the brain motor area for the hand when they listened to music, but that didn't occur in the brains of people in the no-map group.

The study also found an area of the brain in the right anterior region was more active in the map group than in the non-map group. This may be the area of the brain where the piano key map is established.

More information

Here's where you can learn more about your brain.

SOURCE: BioMed Central, news release, Oct. 14, 2003
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