Timing precision displayed by pianists

Playing instrumental music requires movements with highest temporospatial precision. We investigated the degree of timing precision displayed by professional pianists using a MIDI (Music Instrument Digital Interface) keyboard. MIDI allows a computer-based analysis of performance parameters such as loudness and timing parameters, the latter with a precision in the range of milliseconds. In a study with thirteen professional pianists, the evenness of scale playing in the legato style (notes are played in a smooth, connected manner) was examined with special focus on hand and finger coordination in the thumb-under movements in the outward playing direction as well as finger cross-over maneuvers in the inward playing direction (Jabusch, 2006). The pianists played sequences of 10 to 15 C-Major scales in the legato style over two octaves in both playing directions and with each hand separately. Scales were played using the regular C-Major fingering (1-2-3-1-2-3-4-1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5 and reverse). The tempo was metronome-paced and standardized at 120 beats per minute for a quarter note, and scales were played in sixteenth notes. As an example, results are reported for the right hand tests. Over all scales of all pianists, the mean standard deviation of inter-onset intervals was 8.1 ms in the upward playing direction and 8.9 ms in the downward playing-direction indicating an extraordinarily high level of evenness in playing. This was achieved by a peculiarity in the coordination of the thumb-under movements (3-1 and 4-1 fingering in the upward playing direction) and finger cross-over maneuvers (1-3 and 1-4 fingering in the downward playing direction). In the preparation phase of thumb-under movements in the upward playing direction, there was a consistent finding of significantly shortened tone durations of notes preceding the tones played by the thumb. This resulted in minimal gaps (mean 13.0 ms) between the notes at the 3-1 and 4-1 fingering positions. In the downward playing direction, such significant shortening of tone durations in the preparatory phase of finger cross-over maneuvers was seen in the 2-1 fingering positions indicating an early pronation movement of the hand facilitating the 1-3 as well as 1-4 finger cross-over maneuvers. This study showed that professional pianists played with little gaps in the thumb-under movements and in finger cross-over maneuvers although they performed in the legato style. Impaired auditory perception in the temporal proximity of key strokes due to auditory forward and backward masking phenomena may explain that such irregularities in the note offsets are not perceived and therefore not a focus of practicing. It may be speculated that auditory feedback is the leading feedback mechanism during the acquisition of motor skills in pianists since the aforementioned motor ‚deficit’ (gaps in legato playing) coincides with the phenomenon of masking in the auditory perception in the temporal proximity of key strokes.



Last modified: 2015-12-09

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