piano man

Game-like feedback could level up expert pianists

Armed with new technology, pianists have a better way to practice.


It's a frustrating experience for elite musicians: you spend your whole life trying to perfect your craft — only to reach an ability plateau on your rise to the top.

Reaching the limit of your artistic ability is something artists through the ages have had to begrudgingly accepted, but new research suggests there is a way to get even better. Changing how you practice, rather than how much you practice, may be the key to unlocking previously untapped potential.

The secret? Video game consoles.

The famous classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said "the difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice."

Science appears to prove Horowitz' instinct right. In a paper published Friday in the journal Science Advances, scientists show practice really can make perfect. But their findings suggest a slight revision to the quote: "the difference between extraordinary and Mozart is how you practice."

Traditionally, musicians hone their talent by receiving sensory or auditory feedback. The twang of a dissonant note can tell a guitarist she has hit the wrong fret, and prompt her to correct herself as she plays, for example. When a player's brain receives sensory input to signal an error occurred, it prompts a corrective action — in the case of a piano player, this might manifest as rearranging one's fingers on the keyboard.

"The brain corrects and updates motor outputs for the production of fine movements according to sensory feedback information," Masato Hirano tells Inverse. Hirano is a co-author on the study and researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories.

This trial and error learning process is a sure-fire route to success for musicians — up to a point.

A problem for elite musicians, explain the researchers, is that they reach a ceiling where the errors become so fine that their internal correction system is no longer able to easily pick-up on them to make corrections. As a result, their performance can plateau.

"In contrast to muscular and endurance training that we all are familiar with, we rarely perform sensory training in daily life, so do even expert individuals," Hirano explains.

A piano kitted out with the haptic feedback tool.Masato Hirano

See also: Watch a fleshy robot pianist that could perform at your holiday party

Previous research has attempted to understand this plateau by studying the importance of hereditary talent and deliberate practice, but these researchers say that something else was being overlooked entirely:

"[A] key but unexplored factor is the way of practicing such as through differential learning that specifically enhances both speed and physiological efficiency in piano performance in expert players. It is thus possible that how one practices substantially affects the training effects on expertise in experts."

In other words, a specialized training regime might unlock previously hidden talent in these already elite musicians.

"A prediction is that the haptic functions still have potential to be improved through some 'unfamiliar' training even in experts, and that improvement of the haptic functions would improve fine control of movements," Hirano says.

Hirano and his colleagues developed a mechanism to test how haptic feedback in piano keys could change the performance of both elite and novice pianists. One of the most obvious places you might encounter haptic feedback training is in gaming — every time your controller buzzes, it is telling you something about your performance.

This image shows the haptic feedback tool in action, applying weight to certain keys of a piano.Masato Hirano

In Hirano's system, the piano keys were manipulate to have different weights — each key would require a different physical touch to play.

Trial and Error — The team recruited 74 elite pianists and 25 untrained individuals for their trials. The researchers rigged a piano with haptic feedback sensors that could be toggled to give different keys different weights when pressed.

Both musical and non-musical participants were given headphones with white noise and asked to strike a key twice on a mute piano with a standard speed. They were then asked to identify which key "felt" heavier.

Meanwhile, a control group completed these exercises without haptic feedback.

"This is really difficult, because the weight of the key was only slightly increased or decreased at each keystroke," Hirano explains.

See also: Jacob Batalon: Why A.I. will never replace human musicians

After 30 minutes of motor tests, the researchers saw that the musical participants in the haptic feedback group demonstrated enhanced force control in their keystrokes and ability to detect the key weight difference, while the non-musical group did not.

In contrast, the non-musical participants in the control group exhibited keystroke improvement, while the musical participants did not.

"Our specialized haptic training could improve not only such 'untrained' haptic functions of expert pianists, but also their fine control of the finger movements," Hirano says.

The results show by switching up training as a player's skills progress, it could help unlock previously untapped motor control.

“A challenge among pianists is to precisely produce low force at the fingertip,” Hirano says in an accompanying statement. “Our active haptic training made it possible for even trained pianists to produce weak force in the piano keystroke, which provides a foundation for the production of beautiful small sounds.”

Becoming Mozart (maybe) — While the initial results of these experiments do show promise for finally cracking the talent ceiling, the researchers warn that it's too early to assume their technique would translate to improved overall piano proficiency. Hirano points out the relationship between haptic signals and motor control is still hazy, and more research is needed to understand how the feedback loop works.

It is also important to note these results were only demonstrated on individual fingers of piano players.

"Piano performance requires coordinated movements among multiple fingers, so I hope to establish ways of improving keystroke performances during complicated multi-finger movements," Hirano says.

Abstract: One of the most challenging issues among experts is how to improve motor skills that have already been highly trained. Recent studies have proposed importance of both genetic predisposition and accumulated amount of practice for standing at the top of fields of sports and performing arts. In contrast to the two factors, what is unexplored is how one practices impacts on experts’ expertise. Here, we show that training of active somatosensory function (active haptic training) enhances precise force control in the keystrokes and somatosensory functions specifically of expert pianists, but not of untrained individuals. By contrast, training that merely repeats the task with provision of error feedback, which is a typical training method, failed to improve the force control in the experts, but not in the untrained. These findings provide evidence that the limit of highly trained motor skills could be overcome by optimizing training methods.