Thursday, 26 January 2012

Sixth Sense

I’m watching a friend play a Chopin Waltz.  Her eyes are kept trained on the music in front of her, but her left hand is jumping back and forth between the bass notes and the upper notes of each chord.  Her pinkie strikes a low C# and then her hand moves right off the keyboard and, unguided by her eyes, flies up to play a C# minor triad over an octave higher.  Then, in a split second, she leaps her hand down to a low D, again without looking.  How do her fingers land unerringly on the correct notes each time?  To the untrained, this seems like magic, or maybe a sixth sense.

How many senses?
Ask any school child how many senses we have, and you’ll get the answer:  five.  Sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.  We’re all taught this, but the answer is correct only up to a certain point.  The reality is that we have five senses that tell us about the outside world, but a number of other senses that tell us about our own body.  The two main internal senses are balance, which tells us about the orientation of our head and body with respect to gravity, and proprioception, which tells us about the positions of our various body parts.

 (Photo credit:  aarrgh via Flickr)

If you’re not convinced that you have a sense called proprioception, try this little demonstration:  Close your eyes.  Now wave your right arm all over the place.  Then touch your nose with your right forefinger.  You didn’t have any trouble finding your nose did you?  Even without looking, your brain knew exactly where in space your finger was, and exactly where your nose was.  It accomplishes this by receiving information from special receptors in your muscles and joints, which tell the brain how much stretch there is on each muscle, how much load there is on the muscle, and what angle the joints are bent at.  From this information, the brain assembles a spatial map of your body so that it knows how to move in order to accomplish a particular movement goal, like touching your nose.

Conscious and unconscious proprioception
Proprioception information from the muscles and joints travels up the spinal cord to two separate places in the brain.  One set of information goes to the somatosensory cortex (which also receives information about touch), and this provides us with conscious awareness of where our body is in space.  An identical set of information travels to the cerebellum, where it is used unconsciously to provide feedback about our movements, and to aid in motor learning.

We don’t think much about our sense of proprioception, but we are using it all the time.  This is especially true of instrumental musicians.  Consider the left hand of my friend, jumping back and forth between the bass note and upper notes of each chord.  An inexperienced (or unpracticed) pianist would need to watch her left hand to make sure she hits the correct notes, but with practice the hand “knows” exactly how far to move to land on the right keys.  This is proprioception in action.  String players similarly have to know exactly how far to move each finger to play the next note.  They don’t have to watch their fingers.  The fingers themselves are sending signals to the brain as to their positions, so we know where our fingers are without watching.  (String players, of course, also use auditory feedback to know where their fingers are, since the position of the finger on the string fine-tunes the pitch of the note)

Practice makes perfect
Like anything else the brain does, proprioception can be improved with practice.  This can start away from the instruments, by having students move particular fingers without looking.  In my beginner MYC classes we always spend time singing finger number songs like “Where is finger one?” and having the children stick up the correct finger as we sing.  After the children know which finger is which, we can try this exercise with eyes closed.  It’s trickier but very useful.

It’s common for young students to use vision instead of proprioception to guide their playing.  A little girl in one of my classes last week had exactly this problem, and had to pause and look down at the keys periodically while performing for me.  Then, as she returned her eyes to the page in front of her, she had to pause again to find her place. I recommended that her mother hold a piece of cardboard over her hands as she practices to force her to use proprioception instead of watching her hands.   

Forcing ourselves to play without looking is an excellent way to improve proprioception.  Once technical exercises are mastered, I recommend that an additional week be spent practicing them with eyes closed.  This can be quite challenging for chords and arpeggios but will pay dividends in the future.

My experience is with piano, but each instrument has its own proprioceptive demands.  For example, I also play the flute, and it’s pretty much impossible to watch your fingers while you’re playing the flute.  Flutists, therefore, are required to rely on proprioception from the very beginning of their training.  I’d love to hear suggestions for improving proprioception on any instrument.


  1. Awesome! I'm constantly trying to help my students understand that they CAN play without looking at their fingers - now I have a word for it!

    When we discuss the idea that their fingers "know" where to play, and the student doesn't believe me, I do hold a book over their hands and ask them to play a line. They are always shocked (and have HUGE grins) when they are able to do it the first time. Similarly, I ask them to close their eyes and find Middle C. Most come pretty close, if not right on the note and they are in awe of themselves!

    I'm going to be memorizing this word! Thanks

  2. Thanks, Tara. Your blog posts have been like a big refresher from my kinesiology degree from the 1990s. It all comes flooding back!

    Just this past week I've had a couple of 12-13 year-old beginners who are watching their hands constantly. I compare it to "babysitting". I begin by asking them about how they like babysitting. Then I ask how they'd feel if their parents were going out for an hour & insisted on getting them a babysitter. Of course, they're a little horrified because they "don't need a babysitter". Then I tell them that they're doing the same thing to their fingers. They (their fingers) don't need babysitting! Let their fingers prove that they can do the job by themselves & not be "watched" constantly.

    It might be more difficult to translate the concept of not needing a babysitter to much younger ones, but I think it works fairly well for older ones.

    Thanks again, Tara!


  3. I happened upon this post while researching proprioception. I'm learning to play the harp, and I am blind.
    I've heard about the term and the concept before, but even so, I am amazed at how, even the first few times, I was able to play a long cross handed arpeggio almost perfectly. It's just amazing how our bodies and brains are wonderfully made. :)