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How the Brain Works when Playing Piano

Updated on May 2, 2014
Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Music permeates Maren's soul, whether performing (voice, piano, drum, guitar, clarinet) or acting as a crazily enthusiastic audience member.

The Crazy Ones

Drummers (on a “kit”, also known as a drum set), organists and keyboard players are sometimes stereotyped by other musicians as being crazy, leaning towards schizophrenia. Well, the latter instrumentalists must focus on producing only one perfect note at a time. They don’t have a clue what it takes to play an instrument producing multiple sounds at the same time, such as those mentioned above. I will give honorable mention to string players and guitarists in understanding this task. To explain why the brain may be pulled in multiple directions simultaneously (schizoid)for these instrumentalists, I will use the pianist as an example.

If you have never played piano, welcome to world of this multi-note instrument player. Here are some of the tasks being completed simultaneously in a pianist’s brain when reading music to play.

The Written Music

The words in the title might give a hint about a style to apply the entire piece. For example, music in The Duck Hunter’s Tango will sound very different from a Duck Hunter’s Boogie Woogie. The player takes this information under advisement when preparing to play the piece.

Another bit of information to absorb is the fraction which appears at the very beginning of the horizontal line groups. This tells the player about style, too.

Also, before one even gets to the lines and notes, there is often an instruction about how quickly or slowly to play. This is usually an Italian word the meaning of which the player has memorized and become generally familiar.

Notations for Notes

Decoding the little black blobs and sticks and flags. – The performer must use these to instantly decode

(1) the length of the note’s duration. This is told by the particulars of the blob’s appearance, and

(2) what black or white key on the piano should be pressed for that length of time. This is revealed by which horizontal line or space the blob rests on.


Oops – possible extra data can change the code -- at the beginning of the horizontal lines, you may see crooked tic-tac-toe boards or squished lower-case letter B’s. This can change what white or black key on the keyboard is REALLY intended to be played for a particular line or space. Let’s just say that a line or a space can stand for three different keys on the piano, depending on the presence or absence of those tic-tac-toe boards or letter B’s. The performer must remember this as he or she reads through the piece.

2 hands, 5 fingers

A person has 5 fingers each on 2 hands. Sometimes a composer requires that 5 OR 6 notes at once. (Yes – sometimes the pianist presses two close or adjacent keys with one finger)

After inputing to the brain which notes are assigned to each hand, one must make a decision about which fingers to use for each key. This usually involves scanning the next following 3 or 4 notes, because, like an athlete, you want to put your fingers in a position not only ergonomically correct for that instant note, but also have them in a position which will easily and ergonomically move to the next position.

Ok – let’s say the brain has now decided which fingers to use.*

Next, one needs to know how loudly to play:

(1) in general, and

(2) for each group of notes.

The “in general” instructions are usually another Italian word written above the horizontal lines.

Special instructions to swell louder and then back off, or to smack this one note particularly loud and hard, etc. are communicated by hieroglyphic type codes above and below the horizontal lines.

SO, the pianist is almost ready to start playing.


Well, she has feet, hasn’t she? And aren’t there some pedals close to the floor (true for drummers, organists, and pianists. Not all electric keyboards, however.) Those pedals aren’t just for decoration. They are used to further shape the music. This is indicated by either specific hieroglyphics, by the style from the name, and by individual playing preference. (Some pianists are notorious pedallers. And drummers and organists are flailing both feet and both hands all the time to make their music.)

* Footnote on finger choice decision. Sometimes the brain can look at a group of notes and recognize a familiar pattern. The pattern may be from one previously practiced song, or from a set of songs practiced from a period in music. Then, the brain can instruct the fingers to go on auto-pilot based on practice.

Ok –play and enjoy

If this sounds to you like a tremendous amount of brainwork – I agree. It is. And, totally worth it to have the satisfaction of interpreting and hearing the music that is made. The amount of thinking is why it is so good for everyone from students to senior adults. And, if one decides to make things easier by going with a single-note at a time instrument such as a horn, all of the above except the paragraph about playing 5 to 6 notes at once still applies. It keeps the brain well-oiled and working!

Photos and text copyright 2011 Maren E Morgan


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    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thank you so much, vocalcoach! Perhaps this kind of analysis can support why learning to play an instrument is SO brain supportive. Also, this is a reason for music to remain in public education??? At least, I think so. :D

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 6 years ago from Nashville Tn.

      A marvelous hub which can only be truly appreciated by a fellow pianist and teacher. I am bookmarking this! Also, I will be forwarding this on to my students and more teachers. Absolutely fantastic!!!

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Hi jblais1122! I guess the derogatory spin for this brain activity is "schizo" and the positive spin is "multi-tasker." I hope that your skills are helping you in your life! They even say that adult Attention Deficit can be a useful thin g if one cycles around many tasks but keeps returning to each job and completes all on time.

    • jblais1122@aol profile image

      jblais1122@aol 6 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri, USA

      OK. I was required to take piano lessons from my mother from as far back as I can remember until her passing. I can totally relate to your description of what the brain is doing and can now understand my own schitzo tendencies. I have since applied those "skills" to other behaviors and activities, but really get your portrayal. Thank you.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      @FloraBreenrobinson - thanks for your comment. it was a conscious decision to include guitar ads. I made changes in the introductory paragraph to hopefully make the connection clearer. Also, I expected the automatic ads to cover piano lessons, so I did not need to be redundant.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      @qlcoach - thanks. I tried to imagine explaining all this brain activity to a total non-musician. Therefore, I avoided detailed explanations of time signatures and keys, trying for generalizations that give a flavor of all the data we musicians digest.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      You are writing an article about piano. If you are going to put ads on your hub they need to be music books for piano *not* guitar.

    • qlcoach profile image

      Gary Eby 6 years ago from Cave Junction, Oregon

      Very cool Hub. Met you on Twitter I'm a retired Army Band musician. I play the drums and the piano. Good writing. Keep it up. I write about emotional recovery and miracles.

      Peace and Light...Gary.