Piano and the Brain: Increased Cognitive Flexibilty

From “Music Making as a Tool for Promoting Brain Plasticity Across the Life Span” at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996135

I’ve had a couple older students ask a valid concern prior to starting lessons: “Am I too old? Can I still learn?” The answer is absolutely, and this is why.

While formerly scientists believed the brain was kind of stuck after development, newer research shows if used, the brain stays flexible throughout life. Musicians who continue to use their skills at 60 years old keep their normal increase in grey matter. Those of us who haven’t played since we were five still reap benefits: people aged 60-85 with little to no musical training showed improvements in cognitive function (memory, motor skills, speed) after 6 months of standard half-hour lessons with at least three hours of practice a week. Isn’t such an enjoyable activity worth it to keep wits around? Also, although many mental activities can stretch one’s brain, music proves more beneficial as it incorporates so many functions at once.


Piano and the Brain: Grey Matter

This is extracted from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/23/27/9240.

Participants showed off their brains in a battle concerning grey matter: who had more, musicians or non-musicians?

Professional musicians (full-time performers, teachers, or conservatory students who practiced more than 1 hour a day), of course. Amatuer musicians (people who played for pleasure) were found between the two.

Here’s a graph displaying different angles of the brain, with the advantage of music shown in red:

Figure 4.

The piano and the brain

Sometimes, my piano students will say what they’re trying to do is really hard.

And then I tell them of course it is. I mean, learning a new skill is always hard – but in piano specifically, they’re literally changing the way their brain is structured. We’re talking statistically significant science.

There are four primary benefits to playing the piano:

  1. an increased amount of grey matter,
  2. more flexible brain,
  3. an ability to use both hands equally, and
  4. a more efficient brain overall.

We’ll expand on these in the coming posts.

Practice as play

Everyone knows the purpose of piano practice is to improve, but not everyone knows that we do this by using our creative problem-solving skills rather than brainlessly playing the same thing over and over again. For example, if I want to get the Allegro from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major more solidly interpreted, I would create a plan before playing it through.

I did this the other day by drawing a picture.

What? How does art relate to piano–especially to deliberate practice?

I enjoy using synthesia to help me clarify what I want between art and music. In high school, my art teacher had us draw two stylistically different songs once, and the pictures showed the stylistic differences. Now, I use this to help me clarify what exactly I want a piece to sound like. It’s another tool to use as I practice.

Musicians need to develop problem-solving skills to be able to function. Music lessons should incorporate these skills. If your teacher isn’t helping you solve problems creatively and you’re at a point where you would benefit from that, by all means, switch teachers. You won’t improve nearly as much without that.

Northern Utah Valley Piano Festival and Performance

Yesterday, my teacher, Ammon Perry Bratt, and I judged the elementary kids at the Northern Utah Valley Piano Festival. I enjoyed it, possibly more than I enjoyed the Juab Piano Festival (which  I judged at last year)–we were judging the second and final round. Listen to beautiful music for three hours? Yeah, I’ll do that. And get paid for it? Yeah, I’ll do that for sure. Of course kids made mistakes and had memory slips and some sloppiness, but overall I was quite impressed with the performances.

I also learned what, for me, makes a performance worth my time. They have to convince me.

This convincing includes exact rhythm/time, feeling the music, little to no mistakes (but a couple are excusable), mastery of technique and notes, exquisite phrasing, and a solid interpretation: and a few of these kids–elementary school kids–had that command of the instrument. And this is what I now know I need to bring with me on stage.

Piano as an orchestra

I recently gained a student whose primary goal is to be able to sit at the piano and sight read out of a book while his family sings at Christmastime. It’s a great goal and I anticipate his being able to achieve it.

However, the piano can do so much more than play notes.

Many people wonder what makes a professional pianist different than an amatuer, both of whom play all the right notes in difficult pieces. What they may not yet hear is the harshness of an amateur’s tone versus the colors the professional achieves. Beethoven was one of many composers who composed pieces for solo piano that were still meant to have the grandeur of an orchestral piece. We give these pieces grandeur through tone color. We can twist the “piano” sound to more like a “bassoon” or “violin” or “flute” sound. I once heard a recording by Martha Argerich playing Bach where she started playing and her tone was so convincing that I initially wondered whether she was on a piano or a harpsichord. As the recording progressed and she brought out different colors, I was assured she was on a piano and quite impressed at her ability to imitate sound.

This is why the piano can be an orchestra by itself: it can play many notes at one time and produce the colors necessary with the volume necessary to equal the power of an orchestra, at least when played by professionals.


I audition to UVU’s piano performance major in 6 days (but who’s counting?), so yesterday I invaded the UVU practice rooms to practice performing. A student I had known at Snow was practicing, so I knocked on his door. After his listening to a mini-performance, he gave me a valuable tip he had recently received from the piano area director: make sure your body is balanced. Yes, there’s the typical wrists-flat-fingers-curved-spine-straight-sit-in-the-middle-of-the-bench posture we use, but apparently there’s also value in not tilting your legs to one side unnecessarily. Which makes sense when we consider how much muscle memory is involved in playing and performing. Also, there are ways to hold your arms to achieve a richer tone or ways to move your wrist to help technique, and I’m learning macro body balance is akin to these smaller movements in usefulness.