Pianists' scale playing


Piano scales are used as successfully a diagnostic tool for establishing the severity of focal dystonia in pianists (Jabusch, Vauth, & Altenmüller, 2004). Here our aim is to understand what patterns appear in healthy pianists' playing, so as to be able to more effectively home in on what sets dystonic pianists apart.

We use a novel analysis where a straight line is fit to the note onsets of a played scale, thus providing a temporal reference frame for each. Then we proceed to analyse the deviation from this temporal reference frame as well as the variability of the timing, allowing us to tease apart motor programming intention (reflected in the regularity of the timing) and the motor execution errors (reflected in the variability of the timing of individual notes in the scale).



  • how the irregularities in the scale playing come into being; what part of these irregularities are physiological, expressive or perhaps related to perception.
  • what the relation between the timing production profile and the timing detection profile, providing a clue about the relationship between perception and production; and
  • be able to find out more precisely what is deviant in a dystonic patient.


In Edinburgh 2011, van Vugt, Jabusch & Altenmüller presented a poster analysing the variability profile and found evidence that the octave boundaries form motor program boundaries, which are reflected in higher variabilities than in the middle of the motor program. Also, when we artificially introduce a timing deviation in a two-octave scale, we find a detection profile that mirrors the variability profile (Penel & Drake, 1998).

Conversely, if we investigate the deviation profile, we find highly individual pattern that would even allow us to tell two pianists apart, i.e. a sort of "pianist fingerprint." (Van Vugt, Jabusch, Altenmüller, 2011, Dresden conference on Musician's Medicine) This pattern appears to be stable although it is about just below the perceptive threshold.

Furthermore, once this method is well developed we will be in a position to extend it to the simple scale playing as measured in stroke patients taking part in music therapy, in order to understand how the improvement in movement capacities is reflected in the scale playing.


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    Last modified: 2015-12-09

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