Non-Structured vs. Structured Motor Learning for Beginning Pianists

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Non-Structured vs. Structured Motor Learning for Beginning Pianists
Guey, Emily
Bedenbaugh, Purvis ( Mentor )
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Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
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Non-Structured vs. Structured Motor Learning for Beginning Pianists

Emily Guey


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

musical work.


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 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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