Music Education

Music Education

Music Education

In order to successfully learn pieces of piano music there are two important processes that must take place.

Firstly, the notes in the music must be “input” into the brain - this is often done by reading notes on a piece of printed sheet music.

Secondly, the notes must be "output" from the brain - this happens when the piano player plays back the notes he has previously learned. Simple right? Well, not so fast. Let’s think about what this actually means.

Most students have no trouble with the concept of learning notes from their piano books, but they often fail to realize how important it is to master the art of "outputting" the notes. Many times a student will actually know a piece of music fairly well, they will know all the notes, they will have learned the rhythms and they know which fingers to play the notes with. They have “studied” the music for a few weeks and they may have even got the piece of music to a standard where they can sometimes play it correctly. However, a major issue for many students is “consistency”. Sometimes they are able to play the music correctly, but more often than not, mistakes continue to happen regularly throughout the music.

So what is going on here? Why is the student unable to play the music accurately even though they have spent a lot of time studying the notes, they are very “knowledgeable” about the music, and they understand everything they should be doing?

The answer to this could be that they have spent too much time concerned with “input” and not enough time concerned with “output”.

This means that they have spent 90% of their time “learning the notes” and only 10% of their time actually practicing “reproducing” the notes. Many students mistakenly think that as soon as they “know” the notes for a piece of music they should be able to magically “play” them. This is often not the case. In order to learn a piece of music to a high standard (so that they can play it correctly “every time”) much more time must be spent practicing “outputting” the notes. Lets think about what this means a little more carefully.

To play piano at a high level your brain needs to become an expert at “streaming” musical information

In order to play a complex passage of music correctly the brain must send a very long and complicated set of instructions piece by piece down the neural pathways to the fingers. This information is required to control the many hundreds of tiny muscle movements needed to press the notes. To do this the brain needs to “stream” the information to the fingers. Most people are aware what happens when they “stream” a video over the internet. The video is broken up into millions of tiny pieces and sent over the internet piece by piece where they arrive at the user’s computer just in time to be put back together and turned into a video you can watch by using video playing software. If there is an interruption in the data streaming over the internet the video will freeze or stop playing all together. This is a similar process to what happens when the musician’s brain streams musical information to the fingers. The brain needs to break the information down into millions of tiny chunks and then send it over the body’s own private neural network. These chunks of information must arrive at the fingers “just in time” for it to be turned into the muscle movements which are required to make music. The brain must “stream” the information to the fingers.

If there is any interruption to the musical information being “streamed” from the brain to the fingers the music will hesitate, or stop, in the same way that if there was an interruption in the video data being streamed over the internet the smooth playback of the video would be interrupted.

In order to learn a piece of music to a high standard, where the performance is correct every time, it is not just enough to “learn the notes”. The student must also become a master of producing and “streaming” a long sequence of musical data from the brain to the fingers. This ability to stream information must be constantly improved if the student is to go on to play more complex music.

The more complex the music becomes, the greater brain power is required to stream ever larger amounts of musical data and the stronger the neural “pathways”, down which all this musical information is sent, needs to be. The neural pathways or “network” along which this musical data is streamed must be “upgraded” to be able to cope with larger amounts of information being streamed for more complex pieces of music. In order for the musicians brain to send enough musical information to the fingers a “48k modem” would be ok for a beginner to work with as there is only a small amount of musical information that needs to be transmitted from the brain to the fingers.

An advanced pianist will need a “broadband” connection and a concert pianist will be transmitting musical information from his brain to his fingers through the equivalent of a “fiber optic cable”. In order to progress as a musician the student will need to increase his own “personal bandwidth” (or the speed at which he can send information from his brain to his fingers) by creating more neural connections and pathways. Every time students practice they are building the bandwidth of their own personal network.

Neural connections and pathways become stronger as they practice. The more a student practices the more they are increasing their body’s capacity to send larger and larger amounts of information through their own personal “neural networks”. This is another reason why regular practice sessions are necessary. These neural networks simply do not increase their capacity to handle larger amounts of musical data if the student only practices a couple of times a week. When we practice our instrument the neurons in our brain make more connections and the pathways to our fingers become stronger, which increases our capacity for transmitting the information required to play more complex music.

When we don't practice the neuronal connections in our brains that connect to the pathways die which actually decreases our ability to send information from our brain to our fingers.

If we are trying to send large amounts of musical data through a neural network that has only "limited bandwidth" the end performance will always be substandard in a similar way that if we try to send high definition video through a network with insufficient bandwidth the resulting video will be very poor quality.

In addition to building his own “neural network” the piano student must also master the art of “streaming musical information”. This means that exactly the same instructions need to be sent from the brain to the fingers every time the music is played. This is more challenging than it may first appear as it is not easy to train the brain to accurately reproduce the same complex sequence of information every time on command, and this skill can take many years to master.

There are not many other endeavors in life that require so much information to be streamed so accurately from the brain for such long periods of time.

The instant the flow of information is interrupted, the instant the performance falters. Young music students have a better ability to make new neuronal connections and build neuronal pathways from their brain to their fingers. As we get older our ability to do this decreases. Many students that begin playing piano when they are older find it very challenging to play complex music. One possible explanation for this is that the “pathways” from their brain to their fingers have never been strengthened to the degree required to play complex music and these pathways are difficult to build for older students.

The result of this is that even very bright intelligent adults find progress on the piano very difficult if they begin as adults. The neuronal pathways are not in place and so even though their brains can interpret the information in the music, and they are very good at learning notes, they are unable to “stream” the information quickly enough to their fingers. This is like trying to send high definition video data through a 48k modem and, for those of us old enough to remember, this is never going to produce very satisfactory results. It is interesting to note at this point that many well educated musicians become very skilled at “sight reading” music. This happens when a musician performs a piece of music they have never seen before to a professional standard. In order for this to happen they must first develop very advanced “streaming” skills that allow musical information to be “streamed in” (by reading the music as they play) and “streamed out” (by performing the music on their instrument) both at the same time. The more notes that are played, the greater the musicians ability to stream information needs to be. The piano player needs to therefore spend more time developing this skill than other musicians who play instruments that can only play “one note at a time”, however “streaming” itself is a skill required by all musicians.

When you see a concert pianist perform it is easy to wonder at the amazing sound he produces. When I hear a world class concert pianist I am more amazed by the feat of mental athletics I know his brain is performing and the years of dedicated practice it must have taken to build such a powerful ability to reproduce and stream such a large amount of complex information so efficiently around the body. I know his years of study have allowed him to increase the personal computing power of his brain above and beyond what most people would ever be able to achieve. Don’t dismiss this ability as “talent”.

Nobody ever became a high level musician who did not deserve it. You upgrade a computer by adding more memory or a larger processor – you upgrade you mind by using it in the right way over a long period of time. This is another reason why music education is so important – not because it “makes you good at math” or helps you with your “other school work”, but because, if approached in the right way, it allows you to upgrade your “Pentium IV” computer of a brain for a new “i7”. Now, who wouldn’t want to do that!?

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