HOW TO GET A PIANO INTO YOUR HEAD - EFFECTS OF PRACTICE ON CORTICAL AND SUBCORTICAL REPRESENTATIONS OF THE SOUNDING KEYBOARD
Deliberate lifetime practice seems to promote a joint mental representation of ear and hand, as musicians know: Silent dexterity drills produce "audible tones inside the head", and sounding music goes "straight into the fingers".
With a uniform paradigm (dissociating auditory and motor features of playing) we tested professional pianists, and beginners during their first weeks of practice. We combined a set of methods appropriate to elucidate both cortical and putative subcortical contributors to an audiomotor corepresentation.
Dissociation paradigm: Subject's task was either to (1) listen to piano tones passively, (2) press mute piano keys, or (3) practice on a modified piano with randomly re-assigned key-to-pitch coupling. Data acquisition: Cortical: 32-channel DC-EEG (task-related slow potentials, event-related desynchronisations, coherences). Subcortical: Classical conditioning of the eyeblink reflex on particular notes and motor transfer. Behavioural: Detailed performance analysis based on MIDI.
After practice, cortical auditory and sensorimotor areas are jointly activated for purely auditory as well as for mute motor tasks. In addition, a right dorsolateral prefrontal area engages in this corepresentation in beginners and experts but not in controls who practiced on the manipulated piano in a way that they could not establish a mental "map" of the keyboard. The eyeblink experiment revealed interindividually heterogeneous results, but subcortical audiomotor integration seems to be possible after years of training. The manipulation experiments suggested a correlation between the flexibility to re-learn a shuffled keyboard and individual practice habits (jazz vs. classic).
In musicians the entire auditory and motor network is activated regardless of input modality and attention. This corepresentation is not the final outcome resulting from years of practice, on the contrary, it is established during the very first minutes of training, consolidated as a matter of weeks and may provide the basis for any virtuosity that can be achieved later on.
Supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (SPP 1001)
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