Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 9, 2021

Examining motor learning in classical piano

By DUY PHAN | February 23, 2017

As a musician, you are presented with the composer’s score (the raw data). The score provides you with a hint of how the piece of music should be interpreted. Just as different artists each have a different approach to interpretation, different scientists will interpret the same data differently to reach unique conclusions.

What most fascinates me is how neuroscience can supplement classical piano training with very practical tips and tricks. Much of piano is motor learning. Applying what is already known in the learning and memory field of neuroscience to piano yields several effective ways of speeding up the learning process.

When individuals learn a new motor skill, they have to first go through a laborious process in which they have to break down the motor skill into small steps and learn to execute those first steps. Every little movement requires effortful conscious thought.

Eventually, as individuals acquire the motor skill, they begin to perform the task in a more automatic manner less characterized by conscious effort. This automatic execution is often referred to as “muscle memory.”

Calling it “muscle memory,” however, is actually something of a misnomer. Rather, the automaticity has to do with the motor learning that takes place in the brain.

In order to execute a movement, several things need to happen. The movement has to be planned out, prepared and then finally executed. Each of these processes is handled by a specific brain region, and most of these regions are located in the front half of the brain (the frontal lobe).

It turns out that during the initial phase of motor learning, brain regions involved in planning and preparation are highly activated.

However, as individuals learn the task and move towards “muscle memory” execution, the planning regions no longer become active, and only areas involved in direct execution of the motor movement stay active.

This then suggests that the engagement of motor planning and preparation areas is crucial for refining the eventual pathways that lead to execution of the motor movement.

Learning a new piece of music, therefore, is akin to learning a new motor task. The initial periods of sight-reading all the notes and laboring over individual notes are painstaking.

Yet it appears that this painstaking period is important and necessary for motor learning. Therefore, rather than rushing through it, a musician should actually do this part very carefully and methodically. It may be that the more a musician engages the initial planning and preparation areas through slow practice, the more robust the neural network becomes for the final execution.

This brings me to the next point: researchers have discovered that long-term motor learning actually involves structural changes in neurons, and this process is thought to be part of the mechanism that allows new information to stick around longer in the brain.

This means that if the pianist learns a piece incorrectly in the beginning, this incorrect playing will stick around for a long time, making it much more difficult to correct the mistakes.

Essentially, the “incorrect” neural network has to be wiped out, and the new “correct” network will need to be to be built from the ground up.

Therefore, it is much easier to just embrace the pain in the beginning and learn the piece correctly so that the “correct” neural networks are formed from the get-go.

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