Thursday 8 March 2012

Hands Together

Not long after I started writing this blog, I received an email from one of my piano moms asking why it is that we always start by learning new songs “hands-separately”.  That is, I usually tell the kids to learn the right hand part and the left hand part separately before they try to play them both at the same time.  This mom is an occupational therapist and, as such, part of her job is to help people learn or relearn movements.  And she knows that there is a whole field of research showing that when we practice only a part of a movement task, or when we practice a movement out of context, it doesn’t always translate to good performance of that movement in the whole task.  What this means for pianists is that playing the right hand by itself is not really the same as playing the right at the same time as the left hand.  So why do we practice hands-separately?  To be honest, I have my students practice like this because that’s the way I learned to play the piano.  Practicing songs hands-separately is standard procedure for pianists, but is it really the best way?

Splitting our attention
There are two different aspects to playing hands-together that make it particularly difficult.  The first is that when we play piano with both hands, the right hand part and the left hand part are competing for our limited attentional resources.  For each hand, we have to figure out what key(s) on the piano to play and what rhythm to play for each note, in addition to details like dynamics and articulation.  There’s only so much attention to go around, so it’s hard to focus on all of that for both hands.  Attention is a key part of learning, so if we split our attention between the two parts, they will be harder to learn than if we practiced just one part at a time.  That is, it might take longer to learn the piece if we only practice hands-together, because we just can’t focus on all the individual details.  If we are learning only one part at a time, there is still lots to focus on, but it’s more manageable than trying to spread our attention among all those different aspects of the music for two separate piano parts.  Once we’ve learned one part on its own, it becomes more automatic, and we don’t have to use as much attention while we’re playing it.  So from this point of view, it absolutely makes sense to learn each hand’s part separately, and then put them together.  And this is clearly why the hands-separate approach is so popular.

Inhibiting the other hand
The second thing going on when playing hands-together is interhemispheric communication.  In general, the left side of the brain controls the right hand, and the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left hand.  However, the two hemispheres talk to each other, and what usually happens is that one hemisphere inhibits the other.  When we play with our left hand, our right motor cortex is active, and it not only sends motor commands to our left hand, but it also sends commands to the left motor cortex, telling it not to move the right hand.  And vice versa when we play with our right hand.

 This occurs because humans have a natural tendency for mirror movements:  when one hand moves, the other hand automatically mirrors its movements. This is seen in infants and young children, but as we develop motor control, we learn to stop these mirror movements:  the motor cortex of each side of the brain gives off axons that travel through the corpus callosum (the thick fiber band that connects the two sides of our brains) to inhibit the motor cortex of the other side.  This interhemispheric inhibition is particularly pronounced when we’re only using one hand.  In other words, if we are playing the piano with only one hand, our motor cortex is inhibiting the motor cortex of the opposite side.  So, if we’re practicing only the right hand part of a piano piece, we’re probably learning to inhibit the left hand.  And when we learn the left hand part by itself, we’re probably learning to inhibit the right hand.  Is it any wonder then, that when we go to play the song hands-together, it’s still really difficult?  Perhaps all this hands-separate practice is a little bit counterproductive.

So, hands-separately or hands-together?
The question, from a practical standpoint, is how do we balance these two issues?  Do we learn our songs hands-separately first so we can maximize our attention on each part while we’re learning them, or do we learn them hands-together from the beginning so that we can minimize interhemispheric inhibition?

Research that specificially addresses this issue is surprisingly scarce.  There are a couple of old, old music studies that do look at exactly this question:  Is it better to learn piano pieces hands-separately or hands-together? 

Hands-together practice is more efficient
In a self-study published in 1933, Roberta Brown learned 3 pairs of piano pieces.  In each pair, she learned one piece by starting hands-separately, and one by practicing hands-together.  She found that it was more efficient, and also more enjoyable, to practice using the hands-together method.

Rubin-Rabson’s study from 1939 also concluded that practicing hands-together was more efficient, with one hands-together playthrough of a piece equivalent to practicing the right hand part twice, and then the left hand part twice (rather than equivalent to practicing once with each hand, as you might expect).  This implies that hands-separate practice is inefficient.  However, the subjects in this study were trained musicians, able to learn the pieces to a fully memorized level in two practice sessions.  If the pieces were more difficult to learn, I think that would increase the amount of attention required for playing hands-together.  In that case, the hands-together method might lose some of its advantage.  Also, Rubin-Rabson points out that speed of learning is not the most important goal; clarity and precision of playing are also key, and seem to be improved by practicing hands-separately.

There is one other study that I read that points to an answer to the hands-separately or hands-together question.  It’s a paper authored by Robert Duke and colleagues.  In this study, a number of pianists were given an excerpt to practice, and the researchers looked at what sort of practicing behaviours were used and what led to the best performance.  One of the conclusions was that the best performances came from pianists who played hands-together early on in the practice session.  

As far as I can tell, there aren’t any more recent studies on this issue, and the standard method of learning piano pieces is still the hands-separate method.

Here’s my conclusion from all this morass of information:  I suggest that we encourage students to start playing their pieces with both hands as soon as possible.  If a new piece is difficult, it may be beyond the attentional limits of the student to play it hands-together immediately – this will just lead to frustration.  In that case, the student could play through each hand's individual part (or focus on tricky bits in each hand), and then try again hands-together.  Or perhaps practice just the left hand alone, and then try with both hands.  This approach has the advantage of limiting inhibition between the two sides of the brain, and also stretching the attention capacity of the mind.  The more we try to play hands together, the better we get at paying attention to all those notes at once.  This can only help our hands-together sight-reading abilities.

I think the bottom line is that, although there’s certainly value in hands-separate practicing to focus on details, we don’t really improve at playing hands-together by practicing hands-separately.  This is definitely a different approach than the one I was taught with, and it’s not really what I’ve been doing with my own students.  But I’ve also noticed that my own children are always eager to play their pieces hands-together before they know them well hands-separately, because it’s more satisfying to hear both parts at once.  And we could argue that satisfaction in playing is really what it’s all about.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.


Brown RA. (1933). The relation between two methods of learning piano music. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 16:435-441.

Duke RA, Simmons AL, Cash CD. It’s Not How Much; It’s How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills. Journal of Research in Music Education. 2009;56(4):310-321.

Hiraga CY, Garry MI, Carson RG, Summers JJ. (2009) Dual-task interference: attentional and neurophysiological influences. Behav. Brain Res. 205(1):10-18.

Rubin-Rabson G. (1939)  Studies in the psychology of memorizing piano music.  I.  A comparison of the unilateral and the coordinated approaches. Journal of Educational Psychology. 30(5):321-345.

Vercauteren K, Pleysier T, Van Belle L, Swinnen SP, Wenderoth N. (2008). Unimanual muscle activation increases interhemispheric inhibition from the active to the resting hemisphere. Neurosci. Lett. 445(3):209-213.


  1. Wow, this was a great post! I, like you, was taught to practice hands separately and definitely stress that with my owns students a lot. You've given me a lot of food for thought...thanks!

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  2. You made some new points which I am chewing on. I am curious if you have read "The Talent Code" and what your opinion is on that book. It is primarily about the myelin sheath and how it grows stronger with "deep practice". I have quoted you on my blog post because you have phrased things so well. Pleas, let me know if it bothers you.

  3. BusyB, I have not read "The Talent Code" but I have put in on my list of books to read... I'll report back what I think. And of course I am more than happy to have you quote me on your blog. Thanks!

  4. I do think that we have to "find the way our brain works". To me, hands together is the best and it's the way I practice. Doesn't matter how difficult the piece it's, I always start with both hands. When comes to memorize, I discovered that my brain works better when I keep playing and playing, instead of force my memory memorize each page for example.

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  6. Hi Tara,
    Thanks for this entry. It has really changed the way I practice. I have thought about this alot, and wondered how it can be applied it to other instruments, although I must admit, it has helped my piano playing. I know that playing the French horn, accuracy, or getting the notes, can be a big issue. I used to practice saying "ok, I'll just figure out how to get the notes first, then add the dynamics, expression, tempo,etc." Anyway, over the last few months, I started practicing immediately with "both hands" - so trying to play all the dynamics, expression and tempo immediately. I can only say, why didn't I start doing this 20 years ago? It's much more fun and it gets quicker results.


    1. so your brain is able to process all these elements at once?

  7. Very interesting post you have here. I will as my daughter to read about your post to be able for her to learn more about playing piano because she really loves playing it. Thanks!

    Learn Piano

  8. Tara, awesome post, a year old but timely for me, been taking lessons for 6 plus years, my crash and burns always hands together,knowing what's going on gives me a new focus. I am surprised no recent studys are available. Its a common story "I took paino lessons as a child buy quit because...couldn't play hands together" PS: I am 70 and started adult lessons on three different occassions over the years, you've giving me hope. Thanks, Joe

  9. Wow my piano teacher in 1960's always stressed hands together only, though I practiced the sticky bits on each hand individually. Now I play the classic guitar and you need both hands just to make a sound. I must have a well developed corpus colossum. I am also a bit ambidextrous. I also feel that, like Dan, integrating tone, rhythm, dynamics etc. early on help to learn faster, and is more interesting from the get go.

  10. I just completed a short documentary that, in part, is about the healing effect of piano for a person after brain surgery. The blog post I wrote to introduce this video has a reference to this posting here. I would love Dr. Tara if you would give it a look and feel free to add you own comments if so inspired.

  11. I believe hands separate is better technique for learning

    1. It would be more helpful if you explained what evidence your "belief" is based on. Most people "believe" a lot of things... many of which are nonsense.

  12. How about the individual? People learn differently, and maybe there is no right or wrong. :)

  13. Tara,

    just come across your very interesting post. I'm a medical doctor learning piano in middle age, thoroughly enjoying the challenge and joys of making music and finding the neuroscience aspects fascinating. My teacher suggested in our last lesson that I should focus more on learning pieces hands separately and I've noticed that this has helped me iron out one or two tricky sections where I've been making mistakes. I wonder if you know of any more recent research in this area. I guess there's no right answer but a short session of single-hands practice helps focus attention and allows identification of where wrong notes are being played. I find that playing two hands is more satisfying and allows better understanding of the melody, harmonics and dynamics of a piece, especially where the tune is not just in a single hand.



  14. Very interesting!
    I found this page while searching for a different answer about piano playing and the brain.
    I wonder how one can learn to sightread piano notes faster. I seem to read each clave as a line of text. Therefore I can only read and play one hand at a time and hope for the other hand to remember what to do.
    It is very difficult to read both claves at the same time. The eyes then have to take in a bigger spot of the paper. And I thought there must be a technique for learning to read "bigger". I have googled for a solution for this problem without result. Perhaps you can suggest how to get rid of the line-reading habit and how to learn to widen the sight into chunk-reading of both claves.

  15. I have really understand the reason why I was finding it difficult to be playing with both hands now..

  16. Thank you for this article. As a teenager learning hands separately, I gave up piano because I was very strong with sight reading the right hand but as soon as the left hand came in, it was all too hard. I have recently purchased an online piano lessons subscription service which emphasises playing with both hands as early as possible and it is so much more enjoyable and I can play pieces I never dreamed I could. It is like the J curve - slow and steady in the beginning, then it just takes off. Ironically, the exact opposite of my previous playing. Thanks again.

  17. I'm so glad I found this! I knew I was right! I always teach my students to be mindful of how their brain works. It makes learning much easier and more fun when you work with your body and brain instead of against it. I've found that playing with hands very close together and almost overlapping seems to be much easier on the brain than playing with hands very far apart.

  18. I had just read an article about serial mono-tasking vs multi-tasking, saying that multi-tasking is more stressful and less efficient and productive. Focusing on one task at a time results in higher quality results, more productive and reduces errors. I would think then that hands separate would be more productive. But, with this research you've presented, it seems that the brain would rather handle hands together learning. (pro-active vs retro-active interference). I think it's a combination. As a lady stated above, I teach whatever works for the student.