Wednesday 10 December 2014

Visual Crowding

Which looks easier to read?
It’s the same every year.  Every fall, a few weeks into piano classes, I introduce my Sunbeams 3 class to the Preparatory Repertoire book from the Royal Conservatory of Music.  I’m always excited to get to this point with my students; after months and months playing from the Music for Young Children books, they are ready to start on the Royal Conservatory pathway, heading off towards exam certification and the satisfaction of being able to say “I have my Grade x piano”.  I try to convey this excitement and sense of a new beginning to the children, and I see that I’ve piqued their interest, but when I open the book to show them the first piece they will learn, the response is always the same:  Silence.  Widened eyes.

I know what they’re thinking. 
“It looks hard, doesn’t it?” I ask them.  And it does.  The RCM music really does look a lot harder.  It’s not, though.  These pieces are not more difficult than the music these children already play. 

I open their current Sunbeams 3 book and place a page next to the RCM prep book for comparison.  I ask the students to tell me why they think the new music looks harder.  They all gaze it for a moment, and then one child will realize:  “It’s written smaller”.

Aha!  When things are written smaller, they seem harder.  Just knowing this fact helps the kids understand that this book isn’t going to be more difficult to play.  But unfortunately, the smaller print does actually make this music harder for the children to read.

As I discussed in my last post , when we read music, we fixate our eyes on a particular note, reading it, and also reading the adjacent notes that are in our peripheral vision.  Then we quickly flick our eyes forward and fixate on another note further along the page.  It’s this business of reading in our peripheral vision that’s problematic. 

Take a look at the example below.  Focus your eyes on the dot in the middle.  You can read the single letter on the left with no problem, correct?  But what about trying to read the middle of the three letters on the right?  That letter “b” on the right is much harder to read because the letters on either side interfere with our perception of it.  This is the visual crowding effect, and it has been shown to occur for all visual perception, whether of letters or musical notes on a page, or for other objects. 

When we read a page of music, our ability to take in a lot of notes at one fixation is limited by crowding.  The further the notes are from our point of focus, the more they are susceptible to crowding. Reading musical notation has a further crowding problem that doesn’t exist in text reading:  the lines of the staff themselves act to crowd in the vertical direction.  Compare these two notes, one with flanking staff lines, and one without.  Can you see if the note is on or off of the line?  When there are flanking staff lines, it is much harder to tell.

Interestingly, a study using exactly this kind of visual test has shown that trained musicians have learned to overcome some of the effects of crowding.  People who are expert music readers are better able to read crowded notes in their peripheral vision.  It’s as if their spatial resolution for music notes is increased compared to non-musicians.  The authors suggest that when we practice reading music, we build a better representation of the visual musical elements in our brains, which then helps our perception of the notes on the page.  The more we read music, the less crowded the notes seem.

But my students?  They are not yet expert music-readers.  I’ve noticed that when the sheet music is hard to read, the children rely on their ears to learn the piece, and ignore the written music.  This will not improve their music-reading skills. 

  My kids still need their music to be well-spaced, so that adjacent notes don’t interfere with each other.  It’s not so much that the notes need to be bigger, but they need to be less crowded, both horizontally and vertically.  In fact, when I compare the RCM Prep book with the MYC materials, what I notice is that the horizontal spacing is actually the same.  What’s obviously different between the two books is the spacing between the lines of the staff.  The only way to reduce the vertical crowding is to make larger spaces between adjacent notes and between the lines of the staff – in other words, print it bigger.  I think a larger print encourages our young students to keep reading the notes, rather than relying on their ears to learn the music.  If the notes are printed bigger and less crowded,  students are better able to perceive the subtle differences between adjacent notes, making it more worthwhile keeping their eyes on the page to decode the musical notation. 


Levi, D.M. (2011). Visual crowding. Curr. Biol. 21, R678–R679.

Pelli, D.G., Tillman, K.A., Freeman, J., Su, M., Berger, T.D., and Majaj, N.J. (2007). Crowding and eccentricity determine reading rate. Journal of Vision 7, 20–20.

Wong, Y.K., and Gauthier, I. (2012). Music-reading expertise alters visual spatial resolution for musical notation. Psychon Bull Rev 19, 594–600.

Friday 14 November 2014

Training Our Eyes

My son, Rowan, plays piano pretty well for a nine-year-old, but sight-reading is not one of his strengths.  He can name notes with the best of them, and can read rhythms like all get-out, but actually sitting at the piano and sight-reading a piece of music?  It's a little painful.  I’ve been trying to figure out why that is.  Turns out (not really surprisingly), sight-reading depends on a whole host of factors, and it’s not really clear what are the best methods to improve sight-reading.  A recent paper by Jennifer Mishra at the University of Missouri noted that while there have been hundreds of research studies on trying to improve sight-reading, most of them show that the training doesn’t really help.  Mishra ran a meta-analysis on studies, trying to pool together different types of sight-reading training to see if there are any overall take-homes from all these studies.  She found that one of the best types of intervention might be to train how our eyes move when we’re reading music.

You might think that there is not much to know about eye movements in music reading.  Surely we just sweep our eyes slowly across the page, taking in each note, one at a time.  Right?  While it sure seems like this is what we do, it is actually completely wrong.  When we read music (or text), our eyes make a series of fixations and saccades.  During a fixation, we focus our eyes on one place on the page, usually centred on one particular note.  We stay focused on that note for about 250 ms.  Then we make a saccade:  we flick our eyes ahead in the music, skipping over a few notes.  The saccade is very fast, less than 50 ms.  We then make another fixation, then another saccade.  Our whole reading experience consists of fixations and saccades.  We can only take in information during the fixations; when our eyes are moving, we actually can’t really see anything, so there’s a little blip of time when we’re not taking in any visual information.  We don’t notice this, though, because our brains fill in that gap. 

We also don’t notice that we’re not focusing on every single note in turn.  We focus on one note, then skip ahead several notes.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t see the notes in between.  We read them using our peripheral vision.


For example, in the music above, we might start by focusing on the D, indicated by the first circle.  The red line shows the saccade to the fourth note.  We never actually focus on the E and F# in between; we just read them while we’re focusing on the D.  But clearly there’s a limit to how far ahead we can read while keeping our eyes fixed on that D.  That limit is called our perceptual span:  how much we can see in one fixation.  Studies have shown that we generally can perceive between two to four beats ahead of our focus.

However, beginners, especially children, probably read note-by-note, not perceiving further ahead in the music.  So one approach to improving sight-reading is to improve students’ perceptual span. 

Surprisingly, there has been very little published research on this topic.  A doctoral dissertation by Robert Lemons in 1984 used the then-cutting-edge technology of a microcomputer to try to improve perceptual span in college music students.  The students had to play the notes as they flashed for sub-second times onto a computer monitor.  As the training went on, more notes were flashed at a time, forcing the students to read more notes at once.  Lemons’s results showed that training the perceptual span caused a huge improvement in sight-reading compared to control students who did not have perceptual span training.

And while in the 80’s it was harder for people to lay their hands on the equipment and software to do this type of training, nowadays it’s straight-forward.  It only took me a couple of minutes to set up an animation in powerpoint to flash notes onto my tablet PC screen.  I’m experimenting on my son to see whether I can increase his perceptual span by this kind of training, and whether it helps his sight-reading.  I’ll let you know what I turn up.


Lemons, R.M. (1984). The development and trial of microcomputer-assisted techniques to supplement traditional training in musical sight reading.

Madell, J., and H├ębert, S. (2008). Eye Movements and Music Reading: Where Do We Look Next? Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 26, 157–170.

Mishra, J. (2014). Improving sightreading accuracy: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Music 42, 131–156.

Thursday 30 October 2014

Curiosity and Learning

Ryan is a 7-year-old piano student in one of my classes, an adorable and exasperating little boy who is infinitely curious. He walks into the classroom and immediately starts firing off questions:

“What’s that sign?”
“When are we going to learn b minor?”
“What does that mean?”
“How do you write out this rhythm?”
“What does the middle pedal do?”

And so on, endlessly.  It’s both endearing and exhausting.  He is also, you might guess, sharp as a tack, eagerly retaining every piece of information I impart in class.

Not surprising, these two traits, curiosity and learning ability, are known to go together.  And a recent study published in the journal Neuron shows how they are connected on an anatomical level.  The researchers, led by Matthias Gruber from the University of California at Davis, gave people a stack of questions and asked them to rate how curious they were to know the answers.  Then, they put each person in an fMRI scanner to look at what parts of the brain were active while they were learning the answers to the questions.  While in the scanner, the subjects were shown one of the questions.  They then saw a picture of random person’s face, and then the answer to the question.  This was repeated for the whole stack of questions.  Later, the researchers tested whether the subjects had learned the answers to the questions, and found that, in each case, when the subject was most curious about the answer, he or she was most likely to remember it.

The interesting part of this study comes next:  the researchers also tested to see which faces the subjects remembered best. They found that subjects remembered faces presented after a curiosity-provoking question, but that faces presented after a low-curiosity question were not remembered well.  In other words, simply putting someone in a state of high curiosity increased their ability to remember all information, not just information the person was curious about.

The fMRI data in this study show that during states of high curiosity, there is increased activity in the midbrain, and in the nucleus accumbens, two areas of the brain known to be involved in motivation and reward.  Intrinsic motivation, our desire for knowledge, activates the same areas as external motivators.  The fMRI data also showed that the greatest memory benefit from curiosity occurred when there was co-activation of the midbrain motivation areas along with the hippocampus, a structure long known to be important for learning.  The researchers speculate that activity in the motivation pathways of the brain might drive increased activity in the hippocampus, and this co-activation is the anatomical explanation for why curiosity aids learning.

As a teacher, I find this result both fascinating and useful.  The take-home for me is that I can increase my students' ability to learn simply by calling on their curiosity.  Instead of just telling them information, I can ask them questions, get them wondering about the answers first, to activate those intrinsic motivation pathways.  If they’re wondering what the answer is, they’re more likely to remember it when I tell them, and they'll also remember other information I tell them at the same time.

As for Ryan, lately he’s dying to learn about 6/8 time.  What is it?  What does it mean?  I think I’ll keep him in suspense a little longer (since it doesn’t come up in the curriculum until after Christmas).  In this case, I don’t think curiosity will kill the cat; instead, it will prime the hippocampus to help Ryan remember what I teach him.

Gruber, M.J., Gelman, B.D., and Ranganath, C. (2014). States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Neuron 84, 486–496.