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Neurobiological effects of piano playing (Read 647 times)


Online lelle

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #1 on: February 20, 2021, 06:44:24 PM »
Without having read the links, isn't piano like one of the best things you can do to develop your brain?  ;D It involves fine motor control as well as coordination of your whole body, it involves emotion, it involves logic, it involves rhythm, it involves surveying large scale structures as well as intricate details, and you have to multitask all of this at once while keeping your nerves in check if you are performing.

Offline ranjit

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #2 on: February 20, 2021, 10:55:39 PM »
I can say that learning to play the piano and learning advanced mathematics were two things which I felt really stretched my limits from a mental standpoint. I don't know which was more -- I think the math really strained my analytical abilities, and piano required a lot of multitasking, a kind of situational awareness and the ability to observe sound as well as hand movements very keenly.

I certainly don't regret either one bit, even though I didn't really like the mathematics. It literally changes your brain. I didn't believe it earlier, but now I realize I can hear harmonies on my head, and zone in to different instruments in a recording, and even transcribe the individual instruments if the parts aren't too hard. I remember suddenly thinking -- why have I never been able to transcribe bass guitar lines by ear before? You just have to listen for it! And then I realized that it was my developed sense of relative pitch which enabled me to do that. I didn't have it for the first few years. Crazy stuff.

Same with math, it made reading technical papers a piece of cake once I got used to cramming the topology or quantum mechanics textbook the day before the exam.

Online lostinidlewonder

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #3 on: February 21, 2021, 02:20:32 AM »
I had a browse through a couple of the articles. The first one put a lot of emphasis studying 15 tapping alterations, I don't know if much can be really gained from that. It put a lot of emphasis on speed and accuracy of these two notes but I feel the experiment is a little useless.

The ncbi article

"Pianists showed greater gray matter (GM) volume in bilateral putamen (extending also to hippocampus and amygdala), right thalamus, bilateral lingual gyri and left superior temporal gyrus, but a GM volume shrinkage in the right supramarginal, right superior temporal and right postcentral gyri, when compared to non-musician controls. These results reveal a complex pattern of plastic effects due to sustained musical training: a network involved in reinforcement learning showed increased GM volume, while areas related to sensorimotor control, auditory pro
cessing and score-reading presented a reduction in the volume of GM."


So there are changes in the brain with music training, that is not surprising but it also explains why it can be difficult to transfer skills over to older students. It also depends what kind of profession those adult students had, for example I have taught two friends who are 70+ years old for about 3 years now, one was a dentist and the other a businessman. The dentist has understood coordination and fingering at the piano better than the businessman and I have an inkling that all the muscular memory and fine motor skills he used being a dentist helped in that respect. I have noticed benefits other disciplines have had on piano study, dancers for instance have a great sense of beat and timing and they know how to listen to music all very important skills to learn the piano. You can make all sorts of connections with other disciplines to music and they all will synergize with one another.

I think there is no end to changes we can make in the brain although I have noticed it is more difficult the older you get AND if you have not learned advanced coordination movements in many any activity in your life. There are people who are terribly coordinated because they go through life limiting the coordination they need movements, they live off a certain set which is enough for them.

What I find even more disabling is adults who have a lack of beat/rhythm and tone deafness, this has a huge effect on how they play and learn. Beat/Rhythm and tone observation (knowing if a note played is wrong or not) then are foundations of music and if the brain has not made connections here this is the most important aspect of music to get good at. It seems to me that once someone understand beat and time segmentation strongly that it helps a lot of their other challenges, playing in time, playing rhythms, tempo control, coordination etc.

Page 11 starts going into efficiency of though in musicians compared to non musicians. Also compares early blind people to late deaf. They find that the efficiency of the brain is greater in trained musicians and early blind people.

"we encountered greater GM volume in expert pianists in a network that might be involved in the learning and memorizing of auditory-motor material in presence of a high emotional content. On the other hand, we observed less GM volume in pianists in the right hemisphere in regions related to auditory motor processing and practice, as well as with music-score reading. This decrease of GM could be interpreted as a sign of refined efficiency in a highly skilled and trained system"

This makes sense to me because when I am playing something I am very emotional about and can play very well, I don't need to think so much in terms of what I am doing but rather enjoy the listening experience and what it feels like in my hands together as a whole. I would say my brain activity is burning with thoughts although it is enjoyable, it flows uninterrupted, the brain is alive but it is dancing in play. Opposed to studying a piece or sight reading it, although I am also listening to the sound and enjoying it on a lesser level my mind has to become more efficient to deal with the conscious observations made on the run. If the conscious observations are too busy in thought the playing with collapse, so we need to make our minds much more efficient to deal with the constant flow of information. Of course this comes with a lot of training as you need to be able to react intuitively and create answers on the run if anything is slightly different, this will cause a huge spike in brain activity if you are not efficient which simply cannot be maintained for long term as errors will eventually take over.


Overall I like reading these kind of articles now and then but they often don't really tell me anything new, they often go into detailed anatomy which has little relevance to my music work and often their experiments are often severely short sighted with their sample space quite small. I also don't like the idea of placing limitations on ourselves before we even give it a go ourselves, everyone is an individual and we don't all fit inside labelled boxes. It is no good thinking, "I'm old now and my brain plasticity is poorer, I should have started as a child!". The brain is a wonderful organ and I have seen people develop and improve at the piano at all ages and fully enjoy the experience. In fact the easy grades I play with some 70+ year old students bring them as much joy and frustrations as me playing a concert standard. We should consider relative improvement and enjoyment in an individual rather than consider what the maximum level could be.
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Offline ranjit

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #4 on: February 21, 2021, 03:33:09 AM »
So there are changes in the brain with music training, that is not surprising but it also explains why it can be difficult to transfer skills over to older students.
I think it also has implications on how to teach adult students, as neuroplasticity works differently for adults than it does for children. This is my understanding -- there is a certain "gating" mechanism which makes it harder to activate the circuitry which results in neuroplasticity. There are two main ways to speed up learning in adults -- through urgency (adrenaline - stress, deadlines, pushing yourself) or through play (dopamine). For children, their minds are in a somewhat constant plastic state, so they tend to be more like little sponges. So, just exposing them to things will make them learn sort of automatically. If they just do scales and arpeggios all day long, the movements will become sort of ingrained. However, with adults, they will tend to learn how to do those very precise motions, but it will not as readily generalize to other pieces where they actually have to play scales in context. They may be able to play scales beautifully in context, but unable to play them as an exercise, or vice versa.

But on the other hand, it's not that adults can't learn things quickly, but that it's doesn't just happen if there is no strong motivating force. You see it all the time where a lot of time is spent with very little reward. And that's why I think it's important to have a constant feedback loop. For example, I try and play at tempo if I want to play a fast passage. Because directly facing how inadequate your playing is right now forces you to improve. Otherwise, it is easy to contentedly play the same thing at half tempo forever, and assuming that it's even less likely for the skills of playing the passage at slow tempo to automatically generalize to playing fast as an adult, once they try to play faster they will simply be unable to.

It also depends what kind of profession those adult students had, for example I have taught two friends who are 70+ years old for about 3 years now, one was a dentist and the other a businessman. The dentist has understood coordination and fingering at the piano better than the businessman and I have an inkling that all the muscular memory and fine motor skills he used being a dentist helped in that respect. I have noticed benefits other disciplines have had on piano study, dancers for instance have a great sense of beat and timing and they know how to listen to music all very important skills to learn the piano. You can make all sorts of connections with other disciplines to music and they all will synergize with one another.
This is very interesting, and makes perfect sense in the context of mental abilities as well. I've felt that the unlikeliest things could make a pretty big difference. I remembered that I used to try and count seconds in my head as a kid (1 Mississipi, 2 Mississipi, ... but that's probably just an American thing ;D), and even later on I would just randomly test myself to see if I could count time without a clock. There are often certain realizations which you have as a child. We shifted countries when I was pretty young, and the local pop music just felt weird and I would voice my dislike for it. After a month or two, it really grew on me and I started appreciating it a lot more, and I realized that the problem wasn't the music, it was me! That a new genre of music is kind of like a new language, and if you just don't like it it's often because you're listening to it with the wrong set of ears.

I was also a bit surprised that my dad was able to play a melody with both his hands within an hour, even though he had never touched a keyboard before. He has some experience with instruments (violin, flute) but not that much. He attributed being able to do that to the fact that he touch types every day at his job, and his typing speed is 90+ wpm from what I've seen.

This makes sense to me because when I am playing something I am very emotional about and can play very well, I don't need to think so much in terms of what I am doing but rather enjoy the listening experience and what it feels like in my hands together as a whole.
I found that part interesting, because it doesn't just talk about memorizing auditory material, but specifically in the context of emotional arousal. It makes perfect sense to me as well. I tend to try and think of ways in which we could use this information -- would it be more effective to try and feel the emotion quite strongly while you're learning, and would this have any implication on to what extent repetitive practice is feasible, due to the lack of emotional content? Also, this might explain why technical skills don't always translate directly to producing music, because the brain processes might be different -- one for going through the motions, and another for playing something in the presence of high emotional content, and training one might not automatically train the other.

Overall I like reading these kind of articles now and then but they often don't really tell me anything new, they often go into detailed anatomy which has little relevance to my music work and often their experiments are often severely short sighted with their sample space quite small.
I find the data to often be useful, as it can often lead to ideas about which skills can easily be trained and which are fool's errands.


I also don't like the idea of placing limitations on ourselves before we even give it a go ourselves, everyone is an individual and we don't all fit inside labelled boxes. It is no good thinking, "I'm old now and my brain plasticity is poorer, I should have started as a child!". The brain is a wonderful organ and I have seen people develop and improve at the piano at all ages and fully enjoy the experience. In fact the easy grades I play with some 70+ year old students bring them as much joy and frustrations as me playing a concert standard. We should consider relative improvement and enjoyment in an individual rather than consider what the maximum level could be.
Well, you're not wrong! I tend to think a lot about whether it's possible to reach a really high standard of piano playing because that is something I would really like to do. I don't really like measuring my progress against how well I did yesterday; I tend to measure it against theoretically how much I could have accomplished in the time frame, or what is be the best performance I can imagine. I know this is unusual, but it's a trait I've always had. I used to try and write fiction as a kid, and it was much more fluent than anyone else I knew at the same age. But that didn't matter to me -- it was much worse than actual fiction written by actual authors! Probably a disastrous line of thinking, but I can't help it!

When I seriously pick up something new, I tend to think about whether I can get to a level where I can come up with some fundamentally new insights or new ways of doing things. When I started, I was certainly thinking just how hard could it be, but now I'm getting a better picture of why they say it takes decades to learn the piano, that a lot of things which seem innate such as having the memory to play concertos without a score, is something which is trainable but takes years to master.

Online lostinidlewonder

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #5 on: February 22, 2021, 03:59:49 AM »
I think it also has implications on how to teach adult students, as neuroplasticity works differently for adults than it does for children. This is my understanding -- there is a certain "gating" mechanism which makes it harder to activate the circuitry which results in neuroplasticity. There are two main ways to speed up learning in adults -- through urgency (adrenaline - stress, deadlines, pushing yourself) or through play (dopamine). For children, their minds are in a somewhat constant plastic state, so they tend to be more like little sponges. So, just exposing them to things will make them learn sort of automatically. If they just do scales and arpeggios all day long, the movements will become sort of ingrained. However, with adults, they will tend to learn how to do those very precise motions, but it will not as readily generalize to other pieces where they actually have to play scales in context. They may be able to play scales beautifully in context, but unable to play them as an exercise, or vice versa.
I mean in theory this sounds good and something I overall think holds true if you have motivated students. The thing is that motivation/discipline in youngsters is usually no where near adults, so adults trump young students in that department. This does cause a change in progress since it is plays a strong part of the bottle neck of progress. So brain plasticity does play some factor in progress but it is not a huge one imho.

When I teach an average 5 year old beginner and compare it to say an average 70 year old, the OVERALL difference I find is negligible. Adults have generally more structure to their study approach, they have a stronger ability to consciously observe what they have to do and what plans they need to make, so as a teacher you have more room with adults to direct their overall thoughts. Adults also generally also have a larger attention span than children so this does play an advantage.

An untalented uncoordinated person has challenges to improve coordination no matter what age. I don't find uncordinated children learn faster than uncoordinated adults. In the same respect I have taught naturally coordinated adults who have never played piano before and they develop very fast, their age has no effect on their acquisition of skills. Perhaps they could have done it faster as a child but who knows? Perhaps they have trained other skills which relate in some way to piano? The fact remains that their ability to learn is still at a very high level even as they age.

The most extreme case of this I have experienced is a lady I taught when I first started teaching piano. She was in her 50s and pretty much devoted her life to her family and children. She did dabble with the piano here and there over the years but never took it serious or had time for lessons. After a couple years study with me she was would have been able to host her own concerts no problems at all. She also took up portrait drawing and then painting while we had piano lessons. She NEVER had done any drawing or painting before but she produced photorealisitc works which stunned her art teacher (and myself!!) who said they couldn't teach her anything at all! She was a real freak of nature with insane artistic capability and age did not slow her one bit. She also never really practiced her artistic skills until later in life. This is really a strange situation but it really stunned me as a young teacher and made me realize never to put anyone into a "box".

But on the other hand, it's not that adults can't learn things quickly, but that it's doesn't just happen if there is no strong motivating force.
I think motivation and rewards is somewhat necessary for all ages and even more so for children (although it is much easier to do!). I can motivate children to an extreme level if I suggest they can win a prize if they do all their work consistently. I know some teachers hate the idea of giving their students prizes for piano work but I use it often with kids and it works wonderfully. If anyone remembers that it was like as a child to recieve a prize from a teacher in school or present from someone because of your good work or behaviour, it is really something exciting and special.

Children can often focus on their work without worrying about where they are at in the overall picture of their piano education. Adults and even young adults and teenagers,  however tend to compare what their ability level is like to others. The problem with comparisons is that it often demotivates you or makes you overstep marks because you feel the need to rush your progress. It makes you less able to work on simple issues and easier works because you feel inferior. I make it a point to teach absolute beginner adults stupid nursery rhythmes and childrens music to beat them into modesty. Those who accept it then make real progress, the others who turn their nose up at easy works and instead wish to compete with other people tend to fall by the wayside.

You see it all the time where a lot of time is spent with very little reward. And that's why I think it's important to have a constant feedback loop. For example, I try and play at tempo if I want to play a fast passage. Because directly facing how inadequate your playing is right now forces you to improve. Otherwise, it is easy to contentedly play the same thing at half tempo forever, and assuming that it's even less likely for the skills of playing the passage at slow tempo to automatically generalize to playing fast as an adult, once they try to play faster they will simply be unable to.
Some people can work in this manner and produce good results. The danger is that you can overstep the mark and spend a lot of time trying to stubbornly improve something because it allows you to "prove" something. I do find adults tend to overstep the mark a lot more than children who don't really find the need to prove themselves. So long the inadequacy to master a piece is not too great we should focus on works which we solve in an effecitve time. I try to ensure that adult students of mine play many smaller pieces successfully, this then allows them to build up to something. I try with all my might to avoid any works which take extended time for them to complete. This is something I really came to realize after many years of teaching. There is a large propensity to stick with learning music long term for those who work from the bottom up, those who start mid point or at a point too advanced for their skills usually give up or waste many years getting to a point they could have got to if they had a bottom-up approach.

This is very interesting, and makes perfect sense in the context of mental abilities as well. I've felt that the unlikeliest things could make a pretty big difference.
Yes like people who have a very weak left hand actually can make it stronger by simply using their left hand a lot more for daily activities. There are mental skills which are more strongly related to piano playing like being able to see the letters ABCDEFG in your minds eye and being able to skip around it and still be aware where all the letters are in relation to one another helps a great deal with reading calculation. Spatial reasoning tests like seeing a shape and rotating it and being able to visualize what it would look like, or seeing a series of patterns and infering what comes next, these kind of IQ type puzzles have connection to how we visualize shapes at the piano and how they interact with one another.

Mathematics also has a connection to piano of course. I taught one maths teacher and he would show me all sorts of maths ideas connected to music, I remember him showing x vs y notes with a mathematical proof to show how all combinatinos would work together.


I was also a bit surprised that my dad was able to play a melody with both his hands within an hour, even though he had never touched a keyboard before. He has some experience with instruments (violin, flute) but not that much. He attributed being able to do that to the fact that he touch types every day at his job, and his typing speed is 90+ wpm from what I've seen.
There must be something in the genes of talented musicians, your father probably would be a fast learning pianist just as yourself and maybe even your mother and your grandparents. I have a musical genepool with a German grandmother who was an opera singer, cousins who are Chinese opera singers (some based in Singapore and amongst the few Hainanese singers in the world) and a father who plays piano very well. My own mother never learned piano before but had a few lessons with me many years ago (which was a real interesting experience in itself). She never played because my father and I did so well and she enjoyed listening a lot more. She however could learn the piano pretty fast too but gave it up because she has a lot of other interests and hobbies.

...would it be more effective to try and feel the emotion quite strongly while you're learning, and would this have any implication on to what extent repetitive practice is feasible, due to the lack of emotional content?
The emotion usually is high when doing it successfully, if problems arise then of course the brain is not going to have a fun dancing time. When I teach students music they really like and are capible to learn in an efficient manner, they learn it many times faster than anything else. They pour extra time into the study willingly. I teach kids music from their favorite computer games, movies, anime, memes etc etc. Often it is music I would never think of giving them but it connects so strongly with them it has to be done. My students have taught me a lot of repetoire I would have never noticed before because of their own passion for music.

Long term pianists should develop their skills in a structured manner and often this requires that they do things they might not be totally excited about, but the result they are aiming for should be very exciting for them. This is very noticable when studying sight reading and you study a huge amount of easier works which might be light years away from ones actual playing capability of memorized works. I find if you can make someone excited about a goal but it requires much grinding of work which might not be exciting, this can help a great deal. Periodically I will show my sight reading students how much they have improved (by going through much earlier sight reading work and directing them to what they used to find challenging but which is instantly solved now) and this acts as a good motivation for them to continue their reading training.

Sometimes students of mine really need to try and play a piece which is very difficult for them. It is totally fine to study these works but I encourage that it doens't become a major focus. They need to constantly work with other material which is beneficial for their progress and which they can efficiently complete. These students bounce between their passion and what needs to be done and many can control it quite well. This is a healthy approach to your music, yes challenge yourself periodically with tough works but don't make allow it to eat up all your time where you could be pouring time into something which will bring you greater future rewards.

Also, this might explain why technical skills don't always translate directly to producing music, because the brain processes might be different -- one for going through the motions, and another for playing something in the presence of high emotional content, and training one might not automatically train the other.
When I train my students I like them to take the appoach I did. I never focused on technique and just played music with the hand ability I naturaly had. Over many years my technique has changed and become stronger. I would still say how I play today will be somewhat different to next year. As a teacher I must notice technique relative to a students natural understanding and what they would naturally choose to do at the piano. We should avoid studying works which require technical control which distracts them from the sound quality but this is often impossible to avoid with early beginners. So when I teach early beginners once they understand some kind of patterns and can control basic coordination they will go ahead and practice that succesfully in many other works until it becomes ingrained in their natural response. So these early beginners I teach approach piano in such a way that they understand certain tools can be repeated in many other works and you don't have to think as much the more you see the same patterns. This is diametrically opposing the viewpoint of working countless unknown hours on a single difficult piece until it is completed something that many people attempt to do. My students understand what works are too difficult and ineffient to focus on, this doens't mean they avoid it altogether but they certainly understand how much slower it is for them to obsess over them and they continue building their skills succesfully elsewhere. It usually doesn't take long until they find they can do more and more difficult pieces with ease. This is what should excite people as you realize you are getting better and you don't have to spend an uncontrolled amount of time on a piece if you are ready for it.


I find the data to often be useful, as it can often lead to ideas about which skills can easily be trained and which are fool's errands.
The articles you posted are interesting but I feel that we should attempt things for ourselves before theorizing about it. There are already a lot of obstacles in peoples way to improvement.

I tend to think a lot about whether it's possible to reach a really high standard of piano playing because that is something I would really like to do.
Playing at a high standard is a good goal but what is it exactly? We should aim for the stars because then we hit the moon, if we aim for the moon we will hit the sky. If we are deeply involved with our piano study I feel that we shouldn't have time to worry about scientific articles trying to tell us what our brains are capable of. This is only my feeling of course, everyone finds different information beneficial for them, I tend to keep all my thoughts based on the information the piano is telling me personally.

I don't really like measuring my progress against how well I did yesterday; I tend to measure it against theoretically how much I could have accomplished in the time frame, or what is be the best performance I can imagine. I know this is unusual, but it's a trait I've always had. I used to try and write fiction as a kid, and it was much more fluent than anyone else I knew at the same age. But that didn't matter to me -- it was much worse than actual fiction written by actual authors! Probably a disastrous line of thinking, but I can't help it!
It is good to push yourself and challenge your boundaries, you need to think big there is real magic in that. I really feel though we need to avoid comparisions because it doesn't allow you to have a sincere approach to your work. You want to gain inspiration because of what results the piano is revealing to you personally, it is not healthy to demean it by witnessing other peoples greater efforts. I like looking at little kids playing pieces that I couldn't imagine playing at that age. I don't feel any sense of inferiority but instead am extremely glad for that young pianist! If you asked me to feel that way as a teenager or young kid it would be very difficult. But because I have a very rich personal journey with music that no one else has had, this is very precious to me, it is not about other people it is about this mysterious personal journey I am having with music, and how it has given me Life. I am sure many other pianists will understand what I am saying here.

When I seriously pick up something new, I tend to think about whether I can get to a level where I can come up with some fundamentally new insights or new ways of doing things. When I started, I was certainly thinking just how hard could it be, but now I'm getting a better picture of why they say it takes decades to learn the piano, that a lot of things which seem innate such as having the memory to play concertos without a score, is something which is trainable but takes years to master.
When it comes to playing the piano I feel that everything pretty much has been done in terms of what technical possiblities there are. With computers you even can have the piano talking like a person. Here is one example:


Education in piano however has a rich ground for innovation, detailing how one can think in a manner which allows them to accelerate their progress with music. It is however quite difficult since the variation in people is immense. What works for one will fail for the other, some need 100 baby steps to get from point A to B, others can do it in one step.
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Offline ranjit

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #6 on: February 24, 2021, 12:48:32 AM »
When I teach an average 5 year old beginner and compare it to say an average 70 year old, the OVERALL difference I find is negligible.
I can see that they would probably learn easy material at similar rates, but do you find that adults tend to have a lower skill ceiling?

In the same respect I have taught naturally coordinated adults who have never played piano before and they develop very fast, their age has no effect on their acquisition of skills. Perhaps they could have done it faster as a child but who knows? Perhaps they have trained other skills which relate in some way to piano? The fact remains that their ability to learn is still at a very high level even as they age.

The most extreme case of this I have experienced is a lady I taught when I first started teaching piano. She was in her 50s and pretty much devoted her life to her family and children. She did dabble with the piano here and there over the years but never took it serious or had time for lessons. After a couple years study with me she was would have been able to host her own concerts no problems at all. She also took up portrait drawing and then painting while we had piano lessons. She NEVER had done any drawing or painting before but she produced photorealisitc works which stunned her art teacher (and myself!!) who said they couldn't teach her anything at all! She was a real freak of nature with insane artistic capability and age did not slow her one bit.
This is very interesting. I'm growing to realize that the differences in individual abilities and their trajectories throughout one's lifespan can be massive. The examples you mention of adults who have actually been able to . I find that in some ways the way I've learned the piano may not be that different from a child's -- I can often immediately observe and imitate hand movements pretty well for example, and I just hear the differences in sound with different approaches pretty well. I was earlier quite afraid that there would come some day when I would magically lose those abilities, but looking at people who actively maintain such abilities to learn (musicians, researchers, creative professionals, etc.) it seems like although it gets a bit worse, they usually retain those abilities well into their 50s and 60s.

The danger is that you can overstep the mark and spend a lot of time trying to stubbornly improve something because it allows you to "prove" something.
There is a real danger here, but it can also drive one to improve (and I credit overstepping the mark to a lot of my progress). However, I think it's important to isolate key difficulties accurately, and try and work on those over a period of time, while not neglecting developing other skills. For example, you can fantasize about playing the two-handed scales at the end of the first Chopin ballade at tempo, and you can attempt to "solve" them on and off for months, and I have found that sort of thing to be quite useful. However, you are still probably spending at most half an hour a day trying to play those, while the rest of the time is spent tackling a bunch of other skills which eventually feed into this one. So you're not tackling the actual Chopin ballade, but you're attempting individual parts essentially as "exercises".

There are mental skills which are more strongly related to piano playing like being able to see the letters ABCDEFG in your minds eye and being able to skip around it and still be aware where all the letters are in relation to one another helps a great deal with reading calculation. Spatial reasoning tests like seeing a shape and rotating it and being able to visualize what it would look like, or seeing a series of patterns and infering what comes next, these kind of IQ type puzzles have connection to how we visualize shapes at the piano and how they interact with one another.
Yes, I've also had similar observations. I was studying group theory the same time I was learning piano, and I was just thinking -- the musical alphabet is just Z mod 7. Try and get really good at doing arithmetic with those seven letters, counting them forwards and backwards, quickly skipping up or down two notes, etc. and that would be very helpful.

While sight reading, you often have a pattern such as an Alberti bass which repeats, or a section which repeats. Earlier, I used to quickly glance up and down the staff paper trying to see if the notes were really the same or not. Later on, I found that it helps if you can "copy+paste" in your mind's eye. It's much faster if you imagine the shape of the notes, and then superimpose that shape in your mind on the shape of the notes you're comparing it with, which immediately reveals discrepancies. I can certainly see how this kind of thing would be related to spatial reasoning tests.

Mathematics also has a connection to piano of course. I taught one maths teacher and he would show me all sorts of maths ideas connected to music, I remember him showing x vs y notes with a mathematical proof to show how all combinatinos would work together.
The relationship of mathematics with music is something which I've often thought about. They share a superficial similarity, with note values and durations etc., but that is just elementary arithmetic such as fractions. If you can do basic mental calculations and can for example add 1/3+1/4 within a second (which isn't really a hard skill to develop), it helps with learning how to read rhythm faster. However, this is still elementary school math. But at the same time, I've seen that people who are naturally good at mathematics tend to like music more, and you can often quickly get across musical ideas even if they've never heard before. Which leads me to think that there is some transfer between the sort of quick mental manipulations, rotations, visualization, etc. you need to do in mathematics (at a college level, at least), and observing patterns and teasing apart the underlying structure behind a piece of music.

There must be something in the genes of talented musicians, your father probably would be a fast learning pianist just as yourself and maybe even your mother and your grandparents.
There is a certain appreciation of music, though not for the Western classical tradition. I later got to know that there were a few well-regarded musicians (and poets) in my grandfather's generation. My father picked up a couple of instruments on his own for a bit and I think he had a good ear, but he left it to pursue his field.

When I teach students music they really like and are capible to learn in an efficient manner, they learn it many times faster than anything else.
This is one of the things I have thought about in my quest for the fastest way to progress at the piano. ;D Many teachers are very confident that what they do is nearly ideal for students, yet they disregard situations such as these where the same students progress markedly faster. I find that the same thing happens with other fields. I think these kinds of observations can help one go behind the process, because you wonder that since such a rate of learning is demonstrably possible, why can't you apply it to other things? And from there you can create a kind of bridge to apply that insight into actual teaching or studying. One of those insights for me was the effectiveness of my study normally vs before the exams (which was massively different), so I tried channeling it by telling myself that I needed to get something learned today. The effectiveness, of course, depends on how much you can actually believe that.

This is diametrically opposing the viewpoint of working countless unknown hours on a single difficult piece until it is completed something that many people attempt to do. My students understand what works are too difficult and ineffient to focus on, this doens't mean they avoid it altogether but they certainly understand how much slower it is for them to obsess over them and they continue building their skills succesfully elsewhere.
Thinking back, I realize that I have never worked countless hours on a single piece at a stretch. I constantly bounced back and forth between levels, and I think the most time I spent on any piece in the past was about one and a half months. (This is about the amount of time I spent on the Fantaisie Impromptu.) So in a sense I may have been inadvertently tackling pieces at my level all along! :P Also, I hadn't seriously started learning classical piano until the middle of last year, so I was , and as you know I had to start learning sight reading from scratch (Kravchuk's 354 exercises in C major lol)since last June.

I think the process I used was to attempt to play difficult pieces, and let the problems simmer in the back of my mind by touching upon them and attempting them every so often. After a few months, I would realized that my mind had finally figured out the solutions, and I was able to actually execute what I wanted to much better than before. I've given a number of analogies for this in the past, but this process is something which step-by-step learning simply does not allow to happen, and I think it has been instrumental in my case in driving significant improvement.

The articles you posted are interesting but I feel that we should attempt things for ourselves before theorizing about it. There are already a lot of obstacles in peoples way to improvement.
You may be right. I am concerned because I've realized that my memory for sound doesn't appear to be as strong as it once was. I mean, it's still pretty good, but I can remember songs which I listened to when I was 8 years old, which are just permanently imprinted in memory, and I can hear them in my head about as clearly as a recording. I do remember the newer pieces I listen to, but I need to refresh my memory or else the vividness of the sound tends to dull over time.


If you asked me to feel that way as a teenager or young kid it would be very difficult. But because I have a very rich personal journey with music that no one else has had, this is very precious to me, it is not about other people it is about this mysterious personal journey I am having with music, and how it has given me Life. I am sure many other pianists will understand what I am saying here.
I can relate to this, because playing the piano is something very personal for me as well. I have essentially crafted the journey I've had with the piano so far on my own terms. There was no one asking me to do this -- in fact, most people didn't even have a clue what I was doing. But to start with that seed of an idea, the expressive power of the piano and its ability to convey one's internal musical thoughts and a strong conviction that to do so was possible and that I could eventually learn to produce what was in the mind's ear, and actually largely have it realized, pretty much on my own, is something I will forever be proud of. It often leads me to wonder that given that I have had this kind of success on my own, what would have been the possibilities if I'd started early on? -- would becoming a top-notch musician have been on the cards, which is not a real possibility right now? That aside, I don't regret my experience with the piano at all. People often ask me why I hadn't gotten a teacher from the beginning. Apart from the fact that I didn't have the resources to do so, it is also because I would never have realized the effectiveness of my ideas on self-instruction and would have been left forever wondering if that idea I had back then would have actually worked. That is something very few people get to experience, and I'm quite thankful that I had the space to do that.

It is however quite difficult since the variation in people is immense. What works for one will fail for the other, some need 100 baby steps to get from point A to B, others can do it in one step.
At this point, I really don't think teaching a large group of students is effective and may be completely replaced by a virtual medium such as a video or textbook, but I think you can really try to optimize your teaching in a one-on-one environment. Piano teachers would have to deal with this all the time because every student is different.

I really like this Feynman video on the topic. 

Online lostinidlewonder

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #7 on: February 24, 2021, 06:28:37 AM »
I can see that they would probably learn easy material at similar rates, but do you find that adults tend to have a lower skill ceiling?
If I look at students I have taught who learned piano when they where young then had decades of no piano then took it up again much later in life most of the times I haven't noticed a large difference in their ability level. I say most of the times because some have had mental and physical challenges which impact on their capability which certainly is age related. With most of them who are still predominantly healthy we have taken their very old music if they still remember what it was or have the sheets for it and have effectively relearned them.

I feel that it is impossible on an individual level to measure if someone who only started later would have learned faster the same material if they started earlier. It is commonly accepted that as you get older learning new things becomes more difficult. I however feel like going against the grain because it is really impossible to measure such things unless you could have them learn when a child, wipe their mind, increase their age many decades and test again. You just cant set something like that up. I have seen adults who have no piano experience learn the piano just as effectively as a child and some are even better because they have a structured mature approach and time management skills.

I can only sense that the potential lost is the amount of years they have left living with a healthy functioning body. It makes me think of one lady I still teach who is a distant relative of Claudio Arrau, she used to play quite well when she was much younger and gave up for many years, she resumed the her piano studies but now with poor health holding her back. She often skips classes because of her health and her progress is very much slower than when she was younger. She is also constantly berating her abilities and stressing out how much better she used to be, even after years of teaching her and trying to support her. So yes in this case age has played a huge factor in her progress and she is severely limited. She also talks a lot about her age and how it is holding her back, so I feel these thoughts have a strong psychosomatic effect which certainly effect work habits and potential.

This is very interesting. I'm growing to realize that the differences in individual abilities and their trajectories throughout one's lifespan can be massive. The examples you mention of adults who have actually been able to . I find that in some ways the way I've learned the piano may not be that different from a child's -- I can often immediately observe and imitate hand movements pretty well for example, and I just hear the differences in sound with different approaches pretty well. I was earlier quite afraid that there would come some day when I would magically lose those abilities, but looking at people who actively maintain such abilities to learn (musicians, researchers, creative professionals, etc.) it seems like although it gets a bit worse, they usually retain those abilities well into their 50s and 60s.
Yes it is this "magical" type thinking that as you get older you will always lose your capability to learn. The only factor I see is time. Time is really unforgiving. When teach people who are 70+ who are early beginners we imagine their musical future and realize that of course it must be different to those who are much younger. In almost all cases I am not going to get a 70 year old to do serious sight reading training when they don't have decades ahead of them to enjoy such skills or to develop them. So your goals change as your time becomes shorter, as a child you have a wealth of time as an adult that time is slipping away and we notice how fast that is happening.

There is a real danger here, but it can also drive one to improve (and I credit overstepping the mark to a lot of my progress). However, I think it's important to isolate key difficulties accurately, and try and work on those over a period of time, while not neglecting developing other skills. For example, you can fantasize about playing the two-handed scales at the end of the first Chopin ballade at tempo, and you can attempt to "solve" them on and off for months, and I have found that sort of thing to be quite useful. However, you are still probably spending at most half an hour a day trying to play those, while the rest of the time is spent tackling a bunch of other skills which eventually feed into this one. So you're not tackling the actual Chopin ballade, but you're attempting individual parts essentially as "exercises".
Certainly we should challenge ourselves and push our limits, I enjoy having a very difficult problem that is not solving itself immediately and I know many other people like that too. I have had to be very wary though not to put too much time into such efforts because there is much more important effective work to get through. It is so easy to become obsessed with a problem and close out everything else but of course that is no reason to totally avoid difficult problems, we learn to control ourselves.

The relationship of mathematics with music is something which I've often thought about. They share a superficial similarity, with note values and durations etc., but that is just elementary arithmetic such as fractions. If you can do basic mental calculations and can for example add 1/3+1/4 within a second (which isn't really a hard skill to develop), it helps with learning how to read rhythm faster. However, this is still elementary school math. But at the same time, I've seen that people who are naturally good at mathematics tend to like music more, and you can often quickly get across musical ideas even if they've never heard before. Which leads me to think that there is some transfer between the sort of quick mental manipulations, rotations, visualization, etc. you need to do in mathematics (at a college level, at least), and observing patterns and teasing apart the underlying structure behind a piece of music.
I found it interesting that the maths teacher I taught actually find benefit visualizing piano in terms of mathematics. For me it seemed interesting but certainly not something I would obsess over. He however used it to good effect and could deal with syncopation in a manner which his mind could contain. I think that connecting different ways of learning to the piano should be encouraged if it helps that individual. I might not be able to help them because I never thought of music in that way I can only puzzle over it with them and that usually brings good results.

When I train poor sight readers I know their brain is processing a simple phrase of music and using a huge % more power than what I need. I could glance at the passage for a few seconds, close my eyes and play it but they would spend a minute struggling through it. There are countless options if your thoughts are not streamlined. How to make your mental calculations in score reading more efficient it is something that pretty much goes on forever. It seems though that once your mind has become more efficient at reading it does not forget it very easily. There is this very interesting video of a pianist who still can sight read given his severe memory disability:


This is one of the things I have thought about in my quest for the fastest way to progress at the piano. ;D Many teachers are very confident that what they do is nearly ideal for students, yet they disregard situations such as these where the same students progress markedly faster. I find that the same thing happens with other fields. I think these kinds of observations can help one go behind the process, because you wonder that since such a rate of learning is demonstrably possible, why can't you apply it to other things? And from there you can create a kind of bridge to apply that insight into actual teaching or studying.
I've never been one to not allow students to choose music to learn but I always suggest it might waste time if it becomes a sole focus. Nevertheless I have been surprised countless time over the years and even to today that people will rise to the challenge and work extra hard to achieve what really excites them. It really is great stuff and a real surprise for me each time. If they are working harder and putting more time into their work and enjoying that process and actually progressing, I can't really see how that is bad for them it is a good situation. I like to try to get my students excited to work with efficient pieces too though which build their skills up without too much challenge, it is a healthy journey to incorporate.

One of those insights for me was the effectiveness of my study normally vs before the exams (which was massively different), so I tried channeling it by telling myself that I needed to get something learned today. The effectiveness, of course, depends on how much you can actually believe that.
When I studied at school and university I would always think that exams where next week. It helped put me in a urgent working mindset and I think it was probably one of the best lessons I took from my education. Time really is short and we are naturally quite lazy creatures so we should push ourselves to achieve if we really desire something, we shouldn't be so comfortable all the time.

I think the process I used was to attempt to play difficult pieces, and let the problems simmer in the back of my mind by touching upon them and attempting them every so often. After a few months, I would realized that my mind had finally figured out the solutions, and I was able to actually execute what I wanted to much better than before. I've given a number of analogies for this in the past, but this process is something which step-by-step learning simply does not allow to happen, and I think it has been instrumental in my case in driving significant improvement.
There is that idea of "post practice improvement" which I think plays an important role in practice habits when dealing with tough peices. There is no point repeating something over and over again where it might be a good idea to let new ideas mull over in your mind for a while. You can still think about the patterns and then periodically go back to test them out again and reenforce them but you do not force the improvement because it is being evasive and doing such would waste time. This is why it is good when you have learned a large new part of a piece to stop and let it setting in your mind, go do something else and come back to it periodically. Once you feel it has settled as much as it can go ahead and apply more work to it. 

You may be right. I am concerned because I've realized that my memory for sound doesn't appear to be as strong as it once was. I mean, it's still pretty good, but I can remember songs which I listened to when I was 8 years old, which are just permanently imprinted in memory, and I can hear them in my head about as clearly as a recording. I do remember the newer pieces I listen to, but I need to refresh my memory or else the vividness of the sound tends to dull over time.
I make it a habit not to worry about things you cannot change or which doesn't have any information which will benefit you now and in the future. I have adults ask me if it really is too late to learn the piano because they feel it is so difficult. It seems to be drummed in that once you age to a certain point just give up trying to learn new tricks, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" as the saying goes. I feel this is just bad philosophy and even if there is scientific evidence that proves the brain slows down we really don't know the brain that well and we shouldn't restructure our approach based on ideas which are make us think that we shouldn't try because it is too late.

I really like this Feynman video on the topic. 
Haven't watched it yet but will do.
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Offline ranjit

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #8 on: February 24, 2021, 08:09:27 AM »
I found it interesting that the maths teacher I taught actually find benefit visualizing piano in terms of mathematics. For me it seemed interesting but certainly not something I would obsess over. He however used it to good effect and could deal with syncopation in a manner which his mind could contain.
Yes, I think that these intellectual frameworks you build on top of the problem to solve them are slower than just processing the stuff in real time in an instinctive fashion. For example, when it comes to polyrhythms, you can go on and on about the least common multiple and which beat goes where, but it's simply faster if you can a) just hear the polyrhythm off the bat, or b) let one rhythm go on and forget about it, while you play the other. I've gotten better at the latter skill, to the point where I can do a 5:3 or 7:3 by remembering the downbeat and training myself to not pay attention to the 3's.

How to make your mental calculations in score reading more efficient it is something that pretty much goes on forever. It seems though that once your mind has become more efficient at reading it does not forget it very easily.
I am a pretty fast reader when it comes to text, and often encounter others who are competent but don't really read that fast. But if you think about it, there is no "going back". You couldn't read slowly even if you wanted to in the same way, because it's just an involuntary response at that point, just as you can't look at a blob of text and not infer meaning from it. It's very natural that the same thing would happen with sheet music as well.

When I studied at school and university I would always think that exams where next week. It helped put me in a urgent working mindset and I think it was probably one of the best lessons I took from my education. Time really is short and we are naturally quite lazy creatures so we should push ourselves to achieve if we really desire something, we shouldn't be so comfortable all the time.
I've found that I have a very strong tendency to procrastinate, so even thinking that exams are next week isn't enough. I end up procrastinating until the last three days, and then the last day, and often the majority of work happens the evening before the exam. It's something I've never been able to shake off. I think this sounds like the exact opposite of the kind of person you need to be to learn the piano, because you need so much regular practice. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I sort of disagree with people who harp on about discipline. I've never had much success with discipline, and the only way I can do things over a period of time is by having a strong interest or curiosity, and in that case, I can work for very long periods of time without getting tired. It's just "play".


There is that idea of "post practice improvement" which I think plays an important role in practice habits when dealing with tough peices. There is no point repeating something over and over again where it might be a good idea to let new ideas mull over in your mind for a while. You can still think about the patterns and then periodically go back to test them out again and reenforce them but you do not force the improvement because it is being evasive and doing such would waste time. This is why it is good when you have learned a large new part of a piece to stop and let it setting in your mind, go do something else and come back to it periodically. Once you feel it has settled as much as it can go ahead and
apply more work to it. 
It makes sense to me to try and attempt all the pieces you enjoy or know of, every single one as far as possible, regardless of difficulty, right at the starting. And then you will have this huge corpus of examples to draw from which will subconsciously make you realize which problems need to be solved and which skills need to be developed. I tend to strongly believe in diving into the deep end. Otherwise, you tend to waste a lot of time on wild goose chases.


I make it a habit not to worry about things you cannot change or which doesn't have any information which will benefit you now and in the future. I have adults ask me if it really is too late to learn the piano because they feel it is so difficult. It seems to be drummed in that once you age to a certain point just give up trying to learn new tricks, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" as the saying goes. I feel this is just bad philosophy and even if there is scientific evidence that proves the brain slows down we really don't know the brain that well and we shouldn't restructure our approach based on ideas which are make us think that we shouldn't try because it is too late.
I certainly don't think that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, and I think most people could learn things up to an intermediate or so standard if they are working correctly, at any age. However, what I am concerned about is that the upper ends of the spectrum (which are the ones I personally find interesting) may be out of reach. For example, I have yet to see an adult beginner successfully tackle a Chopin concerto, or La Campanella, or Rach 3, or Gaspard de la Nuit at a good level. Of course, this isn't the most difficult repertoire out there in absolute terms, but it's what is reasonably expected of concert pianists. It is a standard which I think possibly tens of thousands of pianists can play at around the world. However, I haven't really seen examples where late starters have been able to accomplish that. While it doesn't make sense in general to think about giving up trying to learn because of age, I think about this often because I am convinced that attempting something which is so uncommon may require a different approach. I mean, you don't do the same experiment twice expecting different results, right? I don't see any clear examples where people starting as adults, with conventional teaching or otherwise were able to attain a really high standard of piano playing. I go through the neuroscience literature sometimes to see if there are any clues, and I don't see how that could hurt.

Regardless of whether or not I actively think about the question, it will still be there, because it's an almost universally accepted "fact" that it isn't possible. I keep trying to see if there is a way if I can get myself into a different frame of mind or something to allow concepts to sink in deeply, or if I can reuse other skills which I already have, or try out other approaches. I've found sometimes that forcing myself to learn a lot in a short period of time can be very useful (a page or two in a day for example), but is extremely hard for me to do on a consistent basis and I've only had success with that kind of approach once a month or so. Basically, if you know people have tried a certain approach and that it consistently doesn't work, you would either quit or try a different approach, and that has been how I tend to see these things.

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Offline ranjit

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #10 on: March 24, 2021, 09:06:02 AM »
Just saw the post, the link looks promising. I'll look into it!

Online lelle

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Re: Neurobiological effects of piano playing
«Reply #11 on: March 24, 2021, 05:48:00 PM »
I have a CD where Ullén plays a mix of Schubert and Kurtág pieces. Quite an odd choice but he is a fine pianist.