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Linking the Piano and the Mind

The piano: a revolutionary instrument that came into our world around 1700 through the hands of Cristofori. For centuries the music of the piano has conveyed powerful expressions and painted our minds with emotions that the harpsichord could never hope to achieve. It is no wonder that the piano has such a strong link with our minds and our moods. What feelings do you like in a piano piece?

Creating feelings in any composition is moderately easy with enough practice – sforzandi for example are used to produce a sudden and surprising dynamic change or the dynamics can gradually rise in a crescendo for building tension for a fierce or expressive climax. Or perhaps you might want to repeat subjects in higher or lower pitches in an intriguing call and response.

The pianoforte is used across a wide range of music because the feelings it expresses are so universal. Brass instruments are usually roaring and bold and so is a piano – unless it is played piano rather than forte. Bebop jazz, which often uses piano, is a fast and loud form of jazz that shouts in your face, often reaching speeds of up to 300bpm! While it is true that brass is the most commonly related instrument to bebop due to their lion-like growls, the piano is also used with loud expression. On the other hand, the piano can play softly in places, in such pieces as La Cathédrale Engloutie or Rêverie by Debussy. The beginning of Chopin’s Fantasia is also played piano for tense effect. The difference between these pieces and bebop is already obvious – even excluding instrumentation other than the piano we can see, for instance, that the dynamics and rhythm are calmer and more relaxing and touching in the older classical or late-romantic musicians’ compositions. Either that or the key makes the slow crescendo more tense and sinister like in Fantasia. All this does not make bebop a bad style of music – it is interesting to listen to different genres of music because they have different methods of explaining their stories and evoking their feelings and ideas.

Every piece of music has a unique way of interacting with our minds, and humans need different types of stimuli so that they don’t become bored. This also strengthens your creativity since listening to many styles of music instead of just one means that your mind is not limited to one method of expression – you have different experiences of how you can create ideas through music. You might even decide to infuse the melodies of classical pieces with the rhythm and tempo of jazz. Kapustin’s Sonatina Op. 100 is a classical sonata-form piano solo with a jazz twist. Kapustin was born in Ukraine in 1937 and learned the piano at age 7. At the Moscow Conservatory, he wished to pursue a career in classical piano music until he realised the significance of jazz. This led to him blending the two together for an even more interesting piece with a new variety of stimuli that was able to bring the mind of the listener to a whole new perception of music. In fact, more modern music often infuses two or more genres of music together for a greater effect and we are no longer limited to one line of ideas or interpretation of those ideas. By being able to listen to such music, we can expand the creativity of our minds even further.

Listening to piano music is not the only way to strengthen the mind. If you want to improve the capabilities of your brain even further through piano music, then play it. Playing it interacts with your mind directly – reading the music improves your optical lobe and visual cortex, the rhythms played by your hand aid the prefrontal and primary motor cortex (that tells your body when and how to react to stimuli) and the cerebellum (that regulates movements), as well as the coordination of your fingers. A skilled pianist often has increased spatial awareness, knowing where notes are without looking at them, sharpening the right hemisphere of the brain as well as the cerebellum and the parietal lobe (that regulates both perception and sensory input). Furthermore, by keeping time accurately you are synchronising all sensory input and motor activity, increasing reflexes and making the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex stronger. Not to mention you are still listening to the music, making adjustments to the temporal lobe – used for auditory stimuli – and the auditory cortex as you adjust your notes in tune with how they sound. The piano is also one of the best instruments for making your brain a better one. For example, the piano has more notes than most other instruments and requires the player to use all 10 of their fingers in different patterns, requiring a very sharp dexterity in not just one hand but both. Rachmaninov could stretch a gigantic interval of a 13th and in original copies of his music examples of impressive chord patterns that bridge such large space can be observed, requiring a lot of spatial awareness and skill (as well as gorilla-like hand size). Additionally, piano music has a lot of intricate rhythms that a drummer might not be able to play in the same complicated way, especially in music like bebop. Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is one of the most frightening songs for any pianist – or a player of any instrument – to look upon, especially due to the strangely distant relationships of the changing key patterns which the pianist has to improvise over, requiring an overwhelmingly impressive knowledge of keys and the spatial awareness of where the key changes (that happen very often in the piece) move to.

 

So, listening to the piano opens our minds with a plethora of genres offered to our imaginations – but playing it is what lets us enter further into our minds and explore the musical world of the pianoforte. A multitudinous variety of emotions and pictures can be sketched in our minds when listening but playing it makes us more inventive. Playing and listening to the piano not only improves your musical skills and your brain, but it also relaxes the mind. Have you ever been sad or anxious? Playing the piano has been found to relax people with such feelings or mental illnesses with related symptoms. Piano music motivates us – when we play the piano, we feel like we are good at it and we feel influenced to do more with the energy it gives us like it has suddenly recharged a battery inside of us. If you feel anxious or tense about something then perhaps you might want to distract yourself from your worries, you can always listen to music if you feel too anxious to play, calming you down without difficulty.

What do you think of piano music? How does it affect your mind? Anyone who wants to build up their brain or calm their mind would find it vastly beneficial to play the piano. Remember – you can adapt your piano playing to your own character, whether you are an energetic bebop personality or a gentle romantic personality. It is impossible that playing the piano isn’t for you!

 

An article by Joshua Wardle, A level student of Cheshire School of Music