In Theory and Practice: The Science of Learning Piano

By John Wallace
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If you've ever watched a pianist's fingers flawlessly glide over the keys during an intense performance, you've seen the ideal outcome of piano lessons: mastery of the instrument. If you felt drawn to the instrument but daunted by the amount of practice required for proficiency, you should know that current neurological research indicates that our brains are more adaptable than we thought. Except for a few specialized skills for which there is a limited window of learning opportunity, students of any age can master the piano. All it takes is practice and desire.

The brain learns best by learning. While that may sound circular, it's better to think of a positive feedback loop in which the brain's ability to learn is amplified every time that ability is used. There are many platitudes to describe this phenomenon, and this one is fitting: "The more you know, the more you grow."

However, the relationship between learning and the ability to learn is not a simple cause-and-effect chain. There are limits. There are well-known developmental windows wherein the ability to learn a specific skill, such as identifying pitch separate from scale, known as absolute pitch (AP), is increased and after which that skill is much more difficult or impossible to attain. However, those windows aren't as static or limiting as we once thought. In other words, the lines of demarcation for these developmental windows and the amount they limit our ability to learn specialized skills have often been drawn in the wrong places.

The initial learning experience with an activity such as playing piano is perhaps a more critical factor than the age you begin learning. During your first piano lesson, your brain creates its network of neural pathways for "piano playing." EEG imaging studies indicate that your brain will use the neural network it creates during the initial experience of this new activity every time you play the piano afterword (Bangert & Altenmüller, 2003).

Clearly, first impressions are important.

Once your brain lays down a physical framework for playing piano during your first lesson, that neural network becomes a foundational part of how your brain will engage in playing piano for the rest of your life. This finding shows that learning a new skill such as piano playing requires the brain to make a permanent commitment to the physical hardware of performing that skill that cannot be easily altered at any point during your piano lessons, so clarity and correct technique are critical during your initial experiences of playing piano.

The scope of brain involvement in music creation and appreciation extends far beyond this instrument-specific network. Early brain imaging researchers found that nearly every region of the brain was activated by melodic listening (Mazziota, 1988). Different areas of the brain light up in response to different elements of music, such as melody, rhythm, duration and tone. Neuroscientists widely believe that the neural systems for processing various elements of music are spread out throughout the brain, "with different aspects of music processed by distinct neural circuits" (Parsons 2001, p. 211).

Furthermore, the notion of music processing as a right-brain activity is misleading. Although there are many cases of right-hemispheric dominance during brain-imaging music research, a number of studies have shown that subjects with musical training who engage in music listening are more likely to display left-hemispheric dominance or no dominance, rather than right-hemispheric dominance (Edwards, 2008). Learning piano is a whole-brain activity that strengthens your brain's ability to learn music.

As we learn more about the science of learning, many of our cultural attitudes toward music education are changing. You no longer need to begin piano lessons at 3 to attain proficiency. On the contrary; you can begin to study music at any age and benefit greatly from it.

Science has shown that although people respond to music in myriad ways, we all respond. Music is a universal element of human experience. Once you start to learn about it, your brain is designed to continue to learn. The more you know, the more you grow.

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Bangert, M., & Altenmüller, E. O. (2003). "Mapping Perception to Action in Piano Practice: A Longitudinal DC-EEG Study." BMC Neuroscience, 4(26), 14.

Edwards, Richard D. (2008). "The Neurosciences and Music Education: An Online Database of Neuromusical Brain Imaging Research." ProQuest UMI Dissertation Publishing, 1-85.

Parsons, L. M. (2001). "Exploring the Functional Neuroanatomy of Music Performance, Perception, and Comprehension." Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 930, 211-231.

 
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