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Can you learn to play the piano without ever playing the piano?

As a young kid, my parents, like most other parents, secretly harboured hopes that their son was a musical genius. With high expectations, they sent me for piano class. Even as a kid, I could still remember the optimistic look on their faces: "when we come and pick him up after class, please let the teacher tell us he's a musical genius. Please!"


Well, I was a genius in another way. I held musical instruments in such high regard that after the first lesson, I skipped most subsequent classes, camping out at the A&W near the piano school, showing off my amazing abilities to eat copious amounts of curly fries, making all the other kids look like amateurs. I've since gone from strength to strength and am now a self-declared eating genius. 

Ah, but if I only I had learnt more about neurobiology then, maybe things might have turned out slightly different. 

Image by Gabriel Gurrola

So here's the question. Is it possible for someone to learn the piano without actually touching a piano. 

And the amazing answer is, yes. (It gets whackier, stayed tuned).

A beautiful experiment by Harvard's Alvaro Pascual-Leone shows more:

1. First, Pascual-Leone and experimenters taught subjects new to musical instruments a one-handed, five-finger exercise on the piano. These subjects were placed in a transcranial magnetic simulation (TMS) - a brain scanner that maps the cortical regions in our brain which develop as we learn to play the piano (in particular, this five-finger exercise). 

2. Next, the experimenters randomly assigned new subjects into 3 groups:
- a physical practice group: these subjects physically practiced on a piano

- a mental practice group: these subjects mentally imagined playing the finger exercise on the piano (without touching an actual piano)

- a control group (these fellas basically did nothing)

3. Those in the 2 practice groups had to practice (by themselves) the five-finger piano exercise for 5 days, 2 hours daily. All subjects had their brains scanned daily with the TMS to map out their motor cortex, and how it develops as they practiced

The results?


Alvaro Pascal piano.png

From the brain scans, just mental practice alone led to significant improvement in the performance of the five-finger exercise, though this improvement was less than that produced by physical practice. Moreover, mental practice alone led to the same plastic changes in the motor system as those occurring with the acquisition of the skill by repeated physical practice*.

Pascual-Leone elaborates:

"We conclude that acquisition of the motor skills needed for the correct performance of a five-finger piano exercise is associated with modulation of the cortical motor outputs to the muscles involved in the task. Mental practice alone seems to be sufficient to promote the modulation of neural circuits involved in the early stages of motor skill learning. This modulation not only results in marked performance improvement but also seems to place the subjects at an advantage for further skill learning with minimal physical practice."

In other words, just mentally imagining playing the piano (without ever touching one) not only led to an improvement in observable piano-skills, but tangible changes in the brain, which develops neurally just as it would after physical practice.

*Unsurprisingly, the length of practice affects how permanent the remapping in our brains. If the practice was only for those 5 days, the changes in our brains lasted for a shorter period of time.  However, if subjects did the daily exercise for four long weeks, the remapping persisted for many days afterward. This expansion probably involved axonal sprouting and the formation of new connections. 

Read the full paper here:

Numerous studies have confirmed the same finding - mental practice without actual practice rewires the brain. This study by Shackell and Standing of Bishop University examined three groups of 10 college athletes. The first group was put through two weeks of highly focused strength training for one specific muscle, three times a week. The second group listened to audio CDs that instructed them to imagine themselves going through the same workout as group 1, three times a week. The third group was a control group.


The results? The group that was physically exercising had a 28% increase in strength. The control group had no gains. The group that mentally imagined themselves training saw gains of 24 percent


This study by Guang Yue et al looked at developing finger abduction strength. Volunteers who trained physically increased their finger strength by 53% after 12 weeks. The group doing mental practice? A respectable 35%.

It's important to note that mental imagery and practice is not just daydreaming or simple imagination. These changes in neuroplasticity and actual performance isn't just sitting there thinking about achieving something randomly. It is practicing - running through a set of actual training procedures, except it is done mentally.

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