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What Piano Class Can Teach about How We Learn

Sep 13, 2012

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

It's an old joke, but USF researchers are putting that concept to the test, as they look at what piano training can teach us about how we learn.

“The purpose of this research is to examine the effects of intense musical training, in the form of piano training, on auditory processing, cognitive abilities and bimanual coordination throughout the lifespan,” said Dr. Jennifer Bugos, an instructor in the USF School of Music.  

In other words, the research is attempting to determine what piano classes teach us about how we listen, learn and then coordinate our actions.

The class, which met for about three hours every weekday for two weeks is fast-paced and intensive.

“The first day we taught the first 27 pages of the book, which is amazing, but they did it and they did it very well," said Bugos.

"We learn something challenging, we stop for a minute, we learn a few minutes about the musical theory behind what we just learned and we go ahead, then we try it again on the piano and play it.”

That pace was a challenge for students like Glenda Kilpatrick, who referred to it as "piano boot camp."

"The positive side to that is that it’s really something that I want to do," Kilpatrick said. "I wanted immersion into the musical training and the musical theory, and boy, I’ve gotten that."

Bugos is working with colleagues from the Department of Communication Sciences, Dr. Jennifer Lister and Dr. Nathan Maxfield.

As part of a pilot study, they’ve conducted classes with students between the ages of 8 and 12, 18 and 24, and 60 to 85. All the subjects have had less than 3 years of formal musical training.

Even in the short period of study, Bugos says they’re seeing differences in the age groups. For example, while children can put together scales and chords quicker and with better coordination, the music theory concepts come a lot easier to adults.

And while using their findings might help educators and researchers tailor teaching methods better to specific age groups, Bugos says music training may also be a useful tool in slowing age-related memory loss.

“Piano is unique because it engages the brain in so many different ways—it contains sensory motor training, you’re reading two different clefs at the same time, you’re processing both note relationships and value relationships with regard to rhythm.”

Once they’re done reviewing the results of the pilot study, researchers hope to conduct a larger-scale study.