Touch Training Technology Shows Promise for Making Sweet Piano Music

Haptic training could help expert musicians and top athletes break through their performance ceilings.
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hands playing piano
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Tom Metcalfe, Contributor

(Inside Science) -- Piano players take heart: High-tech "training by touch" could help you reach peak performance.

According to a new study published Friday in the journal Science Advances, a "haptic" system helped pianists learn to strike piano keys with delicate precision. The results were seen only in fingers used for training exercises, and they weren’t seen at all in participants without past experience playing piano.

Lead author Masato Hirano of the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Tokyo said expert pianists try to develop precise levels of low force in their fingertips to produce gentle piano keystrokes that generate "beautiful small sounds."

The technology of haptics -- from haptikos, the Greek word for "tactile" -- is widely used in virtual reality, smartphones and gaming, including in the controller of the new PlayStation 5 console. Somewhat like the older "force feedback" technology, it simulates or exaggerates mechanical feedback, such as the sensation of driving through mud in a rally-racing game or the feel of keys on touch screens.

To learn if haptic technology could also help piano players, Hirano and his colleagues carried out experiments with 74 pianists who had practiced on the musical instrument since childhood, and 25 people with no musical experience.

Their experimental haptic setup applied various levels of pressure to a muted piano key to make it feel either easier or harder to press down. The subjects struck the key relatively lightly twice in a row while listening to white noise in headphones. They were then asked to distinguish which of the two keystrokes felt heavier. 

"This is really difficult, because the weight of the key was only slightly increased," Hirano said.

The expert pianists quickly learned to judge the exact weight of the keystrokes, and they also demonstrated greater control of the pressure of their fingertips 30 minutes after the experiment.

But the same was not true of the musically untrained individuals. Hirano thinks that’s because novice piano players have not yet had the long-term training that helps expert pianists learn how their movements affect the sensory information from the piano key.

Both expert musicians and top athletes try to break through the "ceiling" of their expertise by extending their skills just a bit closer to perfection. According to Hirano, the research suggests haptic training could help make that possible.
 

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Tom Metcalfe is a journalist based in London who writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the earth, and the oceans. He's written for the BBC, NBC News, Live Science, Scientific American, Air & Space, and others.