Monday, October 24, 2011

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.