Exploring the Inner-Workings of Musicians’ Minds

January 1, 2017 5:00 am
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (Jay Dickman/Corbis via Getty)
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (Jay Dickman/Corbis via Getty)
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (Photo by �� Jay Dickman/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Musicians Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. (Jay Dickman/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)


What goes on inside musicians’ minds? What are they thinking when they’re making their instruments create the sweetest of music? Does it change if they’re performing classical or rocking out? How about if they’re playing something they learned through sheet music versus a piece they picked up by ear?

The Acoustical Society of America (ASA) has reported on Eriko Aiba’s attempt to provide some answers. Aiba is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Informatics and Engineering at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, Japan. She has also played the piano since age five. She fully appreciates the complexity of playing:

“When considering a human brain as a computer, playing a musical instrument requires the brain to process a huge amount and variety of information in parallel. For example, pianists need to read a score, plan the music, search for the keys to be played while planning the motions of their fingers and feet, and control their fingers and feet. They must also adjust the sound intensity and usage of the sustaining pedal according to the output sound.”

This task is so complicated it currently is beyond a computer’s capabilities. It also seems to bring out the individuality in every performer, as she found that “each musician has their own strategy—even if it appears they’re all playing the piano in the same way.”

However, there do seem to be two primary groups of musicians. There are those focusing more on vision (who rely on sheet music) and those who prefer to listen (those learning by ear). Aiba says it may “now be possible to categorize professional musicians based on their type of prioritizing modality information—in terms of visual and auditory processing.”

To read more about Aiba’s hopes for applying these discoveries to learning in general, click here. To literally see what happens in musicians’ minds when they play, watch what occurs when people make music inside an MRI.

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