How eyes fine-tune

February 28, 1997

SCIENTISTS at Sussex University working on how information received through the eye is translated by the brain into hand movements are close to understanding how pianists read music.

Michael Land, of the university's neuroscience centre, says that playing the piano is a complex behaviour requiring two staves of music to be read and the hands to be operated independently.

The skill is at its most impressive during "sight reading", when the pianist plays a previously unseen piece of music. Researcher Sophie Furneaux is studying pianists' abilities using a novel technique that allows her to compare the playing of each note with each eye movement.

Dr Furneaux said: "The eye does not go to the middle of the two staves to get an overall image, but switches between the treble and bass staves." Beginners tend to concentrate their eyes on each note while more experienced pianists fix their eyes on fewer notes.

Most pianists' eye movements track forward along the score. Some players, particularly beginners, tend to look back at the notes that have been played.

All the amateur pianists examined typically looked forward by three to four notes at most, while professionals scanned ahead six notes.

The researchers say the results are important for developing an understanding of how we collect and act on visual information.

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