The Function of the Human Mind at the Example
of Piano Playing
by Helmut Walther (Nuremberg)

A good possibility of observing abstracting abbreviation as well as the formation of super-structures and super-structural symbols is the learning process in piano playing. A first observation shows that, after a certain time of practice of a piece of music, notes, chords and entire measures are transformed into linked images and/or symbols that are recognized without each note being seen or perceived separately. What is even more peculiar is that the real recognition of already stored super-structures and notes in detail is a strenuous exercise and it almost appears as if this requires more effort than in case these were not already stored in the brain. This seems to indicate that in the event of a previous storage, the analysis requires a particular act since in this case, certain nerve cells have already been connected with each other and are already "occupied" or in use. Let us recapitulate: In the act of playing piano by notes, a mental activity is combined with a physical activity—quite particular symbols are meant to be transformed into specific and detailed action sequences.

First step: From a certain level of difficulty on, an unknown piece has to be worked through and practiced, as opposed to easier pieces that, on the basis of the player’s already being used to this skills level, can be played from sight while in the case of more difficult pieces, the required proficiency has to be acquired, first. At first, chords, speed or tempo, and note sequence have to be deciphered separately for the left hand and for the right hand: notes are symbols, the content of their meaning of which has to be transferred into action, for which the knowledge of the attribution of the separate notes corresponding with the separate keys is a pre-requisite. Now, the respective note sequence has to be executed, at first best by only one hand, by means of the nerve impulses’ affecting arm muscles and finger muscles which, however, would again require a being used to from the perspective of sensory motor activity so that one is actually able of carrying out the motion. Initially, the result will be slow step-by-step process, since each sequence of chords has to be committed to memory for the purpose of subsequent recognition and transformation of details; subsequently, the impulses for each single finger have to be "transmitted". Ultimately, the sensory motor operation has to adjust to the specific correlation of chords and sequences so that these can be played in the right order and speed or tempo. In this, three sensory-perceptive capabilities are involved: vision/the eyes, the sense of touch, and hearing/the ears (as "bio-feedback control"). Once memory and sensory motor operation of the fingers have become "used to" or "familiar with" the notes by means of several practice sessions, both hands are used in interaction, and their co-ordination is practiced.

Second step: in order for an individual to be able to appropriately play a piece of music as a whole, there has to follow further and even twice as much of practicing. Memory has to familiarize itself with the chords and the sequence of notes by concentration and repetition in such a way that these will no longer have to be "dissected" into separate parts; rather, one chord becomes a "super-structural symbol" that will reveal its details "by itself" as much as, for a certain sequence of notes, the beginning of a measure will be sufficient in order to "produce" the entire sequence. With increasing learning progress, the reading of the notes becomes merely a memory support for the calling-to-mind of super-structural symbols and their sequence. A simultaneously occurring familiarization of the motor senses with this process results in an automatic transformation of the notes into a precisely set-out activity of the hands: a certain finger position and finger movement is firmly associated with certain super-structures and super-structural symbols. This leads to the impression that both hands "know" what their "job" is without consciousness or awareness actively being involved in this. Rather, consciousness perceives itself as existing beneath than inside of the motor-sensory activity. The imaginative activity is restricted to providing the cues for the beginning(s) of certain parts, while the sequence of details is executed unconsciously. Therefore, this is the source for the difficulty of rooting out errors once they have crept in; quite obviously, it is more difficult to interrupt and disturb the sequence of super-structures with its symbols and the interaction between memory and sensory motor activity than to learn such a process anew, since the dissolution and renewed assembly of a neuron sequence literally requires more energy and concentration than assembly alone.

Third step: Now, work on the piece itself can begin; at first, the tempi of the various parts have to, if needed, be speeded up which, per se ipsum, leads to a further automation of perception as well as of sensory motor activity so that now there will no longer be prevalent any awareness of what notes are being played. Rather, attention is concentrated on the entire context and, with respect to notes, "flies" from super-structural symbol to super-structural symbol. Due to this, consciousness is freed again in order to concentrate on the actual rendition of tempi, dynamics and expression.

It will certainly be possible to make different statements with respect to piano playing, particularly by those geniuses who can sit down and play the most difficult pieces from sight or who look at musical scores in the air plane in order to play the pieces from memory—in these cases, there exist quite different variations of neural networking between sensory perception, commitment to memory and access to sensory motor activity. Here, one would have to go out from the premise that the neural networking of the brain not only requires the receptive capability of understanding but also the capabilities of reflection/reason and that it can also only gain access to memory via these. For piano playing, this obviously is a disadvantage, since the neural networking between understanding, memory, emotion and sensory motor perception works much more directly and efficiently. This again corresponds with the fact that each new super-structure is, at first, a new inhibition—and which, actually, in the reflective formation of super-structures, has an inhibiting effect.