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Non-Structured vs. Structured Motor Learning for Beginning Pianists
1. To perform an experiment leading to answers on how learning piano contributes to cognitive motor learning skills.
2. To determine specifically, which method of learning, voluntary or involuntary, enhances cognitive motor
learning skills more quickly.
Is non-structured learning (use of ad libbed fingering) more efficient than structured learning (use of set
fingering) for beginning pianists in mastering piano works? Why or why not?
Fingering, the system that designates each finger to a distinct number, is crucial to pianists. It serves as a basis
to the pianists' learning a musical work, so pianists must use a fingering that is comfortable if they wish to master
a work. Playing piano is the only musical instrument (other than organ) that requires complete dependence on
the fingers (even the foot pedals are optional in many piano musical works). No other musical instrument relies
on use of fingers as much as the piano.
The first lessons in learning how to play piano are usually on understanding how to use the fingers
efficiently. Beginning students are quickly introduced to the concept of fingering. On the left hand, the pinky
is represented by the number "5", the fourth finger by "4", the middle finger by "3", and the second finger by
"2", and the thumb by "1". Fingerings on the right hand fingerings are an exact mirror image to that on the left
hand. The pinky is represented by the number "5", the fourth finger by "4", the middle finger by "3", the
second finger by "2", and the thumb by "1".
Piano instruction in learning new pieces typically takes on two extremes with regard to attention to fingering. In
the first, fingering plays a very small role, and in this paper is dubbed 'ad-libbed fingering'. The second extreme
is when teachers emphasize fingering on every note of a musical score, dubbed 'set fingering', by writing out
the fingering of every note on the musical score. Whichever method the teacher chooses, it is important that
they prepare their students for mastery of a work by first 'getting the music in the fingers'.
Through the first pedagogical form, students learn to apply their fingers to the notes of the musical score in an
'ad libbed' way. Whatever fingering is most comfortable to them, they figure out as they learn the music. Fingering
is non-structured in this case, and the students have limitless freedom in choosing their own fingering. For
beginning students, ad-libbed fingering is helpful by encouraging independent thinking of solutions to challenges.
The keyboard, consisting of eighty-eight keys, almost half of which are black notes, and the other half, white
notes; offers several possibilities for fingering. Some fingerings are more difficult to create than others. The
hand position makes some fingerings more natural than others. For example, it would be silly to finger a
musical passage in such a way that the '2' follows '3' when the actual physical distance between the two
different notes is too far of a stretch; and much easier to follow the second fingering with the fourth or fifth fingering.
The other extreme in piano pedagogy, in which a fingering marks every note on the musical score, has both
positive and negative sides. It gives the beginning piano student a head start by already taking care of
fingering needs. It may, however, impede the student's ability to create his or her own fingering by having
already revealed answers. Another negative outcome of set fingering is that the fingering already marked on
the musical score may not suit the needs of the student perfectly. Where as in ad libbed fingering, the student
was the ultimate decider of the final fingering; music that already has fingering leaves the learning pianist choice-
less in fingering.
Regardless of which pedagogical extreme of fingering usage is employed by the teacher, learning music yields
great benefits for the students. Music instruction among various populations has been shown to benefit
executive, spatial, temporal, procedural and declarative memory functions. Music therapy research projects all
point positively to the effect of making music on the development of the brain. Piano instruction stimulates
repeated activations in the primary motor cortex. Motor skill learning in Alzheimer's patients has been shown
to improve only by constant practice (Dick et al., 2000). Cognitive motor patterns are essential to playing piano.
The more a pianist practices, the more accustomed he or she will be to learning the music, and the more natural
the fingering of a musical work will feel to the learning pianist.
'Ad libbed' fingering will prove more efficient than 'set' fingering in helping the beginning pianist master a
The subjects have all received at least one year of beginning piano training at the University of Florida. They are
all undergraduate music majors pursuing piano as a secondary instrument to fulfill their bachelor of
art's requirement. Forty students were selected for the experiment, all between the ages of eighteen and twenty.
Testing takes place in a practice room with a piano on the third floor of the University of Florida Music
building. Participants will learn, as quickly and accurately as possible, a piece of music just difficult enough, a
piano composition of the research assistant's, so that they will need to practice at least several times before they
are comfortable with it. A round consists of no longer than thirty minutes of a participant learning a piece of
music. After thirty minutes, the student will be tested for mastery of the work. Accuracy and tempo, each worth
five points, determine the final score of mastery, for a total of ten points. Mastery of the eight-measure long
passage of the music composition is defined by the ability to play the passage without hesitation and accurately
at the rate of a quarter note equals seventy-six beats per second on a metronome.
Notes and progress may be recorded through the researcher's quiet observation during rounds. Before the
actual testing, the students are given the following explanatory instructions of the testing procedure:
'"Ad libbed fingering" is the fingering you come up with yourself when learning music without any given
fingerings. "Set fingering" is the fingering that you must use when learning the piece, and will be clearly marked
on your score. In the first round, the individual will learn using set fingering. A ten-minute break for the
participant separates round one from round two. In the second round, the individual will learn eight bars of
a different composition written by the research assistant of the same difficulty level as that of the first piece, using
ad libbed fingering. As in the first round, the progress will be recorded. Interpretation of data will lead to
a comparison between non-structured and structured learning.'
RESULTS AND CONCLUSION
Results clearly indicate that 'set' fingering is much more efficient than 'ad libbed' fingering for mastery of
musical passages in beginning pianists. The factors of the learning process and progress were compared between
the 'set' fingering round and the 'ad libbed' fingering round for each individual. All participants scored lower in the
'ad libbed' fingering round than in the 'set' fingering round in the categories by which mastery of composition
was judged (tempo and accuracy). Mastery was higher by an average of 2.3 points in the set fingering round. Out
of a total of ten points, the average score of the 'ad libbed' fingering round was 8 (3.9 points out of 5 for tempo;
and 4.1 out of 5 for accuracy), and that of the 'set' fingering round was 5.7 (2.3 points out of 5 for tempo; and 3.
4 points out of 5 for accuracy).
The success of using the 'set' fingering approach over the 'ad libbed' fingering approach lies in the power of
cognitive motor skills. 'Set' fingering gives the students a humongous edge over learning, saving them the extra
time in figuring out an ideal fingering. Because the fingers are confined to a consistent motor pattern, the
constant repetition of the same fingering quickly improves the cognitive motor skills, which yields mastery of
the composition much faster than under the 'ad libbed' fingering approach. The lack of consistency in fingering in
the latter approach serves as a tremendous disadvantage to the student's mastery of the work because the grasp
of cognitive motor skills is markedly delayed.
I would like to personally thank Dr. Purvis Bedenbaugh for his helpful guidance and encouragement, as well as
Dr. Bugos and Andy James for their references to helpful literature.
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