Skip to main content

Piano, Language, and the Brain

I decided at the age of 30 that I wanted to learn how to play piano. Unfortunately, that's about 25 years beyond the optimal age if you ever want to get "good". But since I'm fascinated by both neuroscience and music, I figured it was at least worth a shot, plus I'd have the added benefit of being able to observe my brain as it tries to learn this new skill.

I think it was this TED talk that finally convinced me to start playing. Benjamin Zander speaks about music and passion, and how classical music can tell a story. At the time, I was living in my friend's basement, and there was a beautiful Kawai grand piano in the living room that went largely unused. One day, I went up to the piano, sat down, and opened one of the books to a random song. Although I knew how to read the notes (at least the ones close to the staff), I couldn't fathom playing two independent parts (left and right hands) simultaneously, while also keeping track of the pedals, tempo, volume, let alone phrasing. Impossible.

So I wisely bought a beginner's book, Alfred's Basic Piano Course for Adults or something, and set off to learn. It became clear pretty quickly that learning piano is similar to learning a foreign language. At first, for piano, you work with notes. Notes by themselves don't really do much for you, just as single characters of phonetic languages don't do much for you either. Then you start combining notes into chords, just as letters combine to form words. Yay, I can play a C-chord! Yay, I can say the noun for "beer" and the bartender understands me! Same thing.

Words turn to phrases, just as notes and chords turn to phrases. And just like when you're learning a foreign language, you struggle over how to put the sounds together to make the word sound right, and then how to put the words together to make the phrase sound right. I found that learning piano was similar - I couldn't play a whole phrase well at first because so much mental energy was expended reading the notes and matching my fingers to the right places. Once I did it enough times, though, I started to "feel" how the phrase worked together in my mind. It felt surprisingly similar to repeating a sentence enough times in a foreign language until you think of it as a block rather than a collection of words.

But the two hands thing. Well, that's just weird. How can one hand be speaking a sentence that's totally different from the other? Who invented this thing?

Anyway, one day, about two weeks into this experiment, I got sick of playing little "toy" songs, and went through my friend's music. I found Beethoven's "Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor", a.k.a. "Für Elise", or "the song that they play in every subway station in Seoul". I discovered to my delight that I could play something roughly resembling the most well-known (and also the easiest) part of it, although it was incredibly slow, and took considerable effort. But it seemed within reach. I decided I was going to learn the song as my first "real" song.

Fast forward a year. Didn't play any piano in Korea, but I missed it the entire time I was living there, so when I got back to San Francisco, I bought myself a digital piano. I decided again that I needed to learn how to play this song, so I practiced both hands separately and slowly tried to start putting them together.

Then sometime last week, something in my brain just "clicked". All at once, I understood how the pieces were supposed to fit together. I was no longer just approximating a song, I was legitimately making music. Not only that, but I started to remember the song in big chunks rather than notes. And if I got to a phrase that I wasn't entirely sure of, the "shape" of the phrase had left an imprint in my mind, and I could map that shape to notes on the piano. How incredibly fascinating to feel those new neural circuits arise!

Now, I can almost play this song that most kindergarteners play at their first recital, but somehow I've managed to trick my brain into creating those circuits that spring up almost magically for kids. And I'm positively fascinated by this.


Comments

  1. +_+b

    I learned piano from when I was 5-17. Have touched a piano less than 50 times since. I want to pick it back up but can't fathom my fingers moving like they once did.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Why Korean Is Hard For Native English Speakers

A couple of days ago, as an experiment, I wrote my first blog post ever in a non-English language. It was an attempt to explain some of the reasons that Korean is hard to learn for native English speakers, so I figured I might as well try to write it in Korean. Those of you who actually read Korean can see how awkward the attempt was =).

In any case, the post came from an email conversation I had with The Korean from Ask a Korean, a fantastically well-written blog about all things Korea from the perspective of a Korean who moved to the United States during high school. Since I tend to geek out on language things, I figured I might as well post part of that conversation. An edited version follows.

---------

Out of the languages that I've attempted to learn so far, Korean has been the hardest. I've done a lot of meta thinking about learning Korean, and I think there are a number of reasons it's difficult for non-Koreans (and especially Westerners) to learn:

1) Obviously, the…

영어가 모국어인 사람들은 왜 한국어를 배우기가 어려운 이유

이 포스트는 내 처음 한국어로 블로그 포스트인데, 한국어에 대하니까 잘 어울린다. =) 자, 시작합시다! 왜 외국사람에게 한국어를 배우기가 어렵다? 난 한국어를 배우고 있는 사람이라서 이 문제에 대해 많이 생각하고 있었다. 여러가지 이유가 있는데 오늘 몇 이유만 논할 것이다.

1. 분명히 한국어 문법은 영어에 비해 너무 많이 다른다. 영어는 “오른쪽으로 분지(分枝)의 언어"라고 하는데 한국어는 “왼쪽으로 분지의 언어"이다. 뜻이 무엇이나요? 예를 보면 이해할 수 있을 것이다. 간단한 문장만 말하면 (외국어를 말하는 남들은 간단한 문장의 수준을 지낼 수가 약간 드물다), 간단한 걸 기억해야 돼: 영어는 “SVO”인데 한국어는 “SOV”이다. “I’m going to school”라고 한국어로는 “저는 학교에 가요"라고 말한다. 영어로 똑바로 번역하면 “I’m school to go”이다. 두 언어 다르는 게 목적어와 동사의 곳을 교환해야 한다. 별로 어렵지 않다. 하지만, 조금 더 어렵게 만들자. “I went to the restaurant that we ate at last week.” 한국어로는 “전 우리 지난 주에 갔던 식당에 또 갔어요"라고 말한다. 영어로 똑바로 번역하면 “I we last week went to restaurant to again went”말이다. 한국어가 왼쪽으로 분지 언어라서 문장 중에 왼쪽으로 확대한다! 이렇게 좀 더 쉽게 볼 수 있다: “전 (우리 지난 주에 갔던 식당)에 또 갔어요”. 주제가 “전"이고 동사가 “갔다"이고 목적어가 “우리 지난 주에 갔던 식당"이다. 영어 문장은 오른쪽으로 확대한다: I (S) went (V) to (the restaurant (that we went to (last week))) (O). 그래서 두 숙어 문장 만들고 싶으면 생각속에서도 순서를 변해야 된다.

2. 첫 째 점이니까 다른 사람을 자기 말을 아라들게 하고 싶으면, 충분히 …

Don't Take Korean Language Advice From Kyopos

I'm not sure why it took me so long to figure this out, but the last people you should take Korean language advice from are kyopos (foreign-born or raised Koreans). That being said, if you do follow their advice, you will get many laughs from Koreans. Some of my personal favorites, all of which actually happened to me:

- When I first got to Korea, I was at some open-air event, and during a break I started talking to one of the hosts. He said he was only a part-time host, so I asked him what his full-time job was, and he said "백수" (which is slang for "unemployed guy"). I asked him what that was, and he replied, "Comedian". So then the next few people I met, I proudly told I was a baeksu. (Edit: Actually, this guy was Korean Korean, not kyopo.)

- Next, a kyopo who lived in the apartment I moved into back in 2010 asked me what I was doing in Korea, and I told him I was starting a company, and asked how to say that in Korean in case people ask. He told me…