Are concert pianists good typists

The piano as a keyboard

Pianists write on their instrument as quickly as experienced typists write on a QWERTY keyboard

With pianists like the Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang, it looks effortless: the fingers skilfully slide over the keys of the piano in lightning speed on pieces by Mozart, Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky. Saarbrücken computer scientists have taken this dexterity as an example. They developed a method that uses the piano keys to write lyrics. Using certain calculation methods, the researchers assigned words and letters to corresponding notes and chords. Experienced pianists, but also amateur pianists, can enter texts on the computer keyboard just as quickly as trained typists.

In order to transform a piano into a keyboard, the Saarbrücken computer scientists first analyzed hundreds of pieces of music. “This is how we tracked down musical patterns that keep popping up,” explains Anna Feit, scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science. "For our work it was important to find out which notes and chords occur how often and what the transitions in the note sequence look like." The goal: to transfer the letters and words to the keys in such a way that these note sequences are played when the text is entered .

The computer scientists have optimized the keyboard for the English language. With 26 letters in the English alphabet and 88 piano keys, there are basically more than 1048 Ways to assign certain letters to the notes. For its innovative method, Feit's team used statistics that show how letters and letter pairs are distributed in English texts. In a further step, they used an optimization algorithm to assign certain notes to the letters: Frequent letters are translated with notes that appear particularly often in the music being analyzed. For letter pairs like “th” or “he” they used important intervals like thirds or fifths.

An “e” can be entered using four different notes

"It was also important here that the distance between the letter keys is not too large so that the pianist can play the sequence of notes with ease," explains Antti Oulasvirta, head of the junior research group at the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science. In order to avoid excessive spacing, the researchers assigned several notes to almost all letters: the more frequent the letter, the more translations there are. For example, the letter “e”, which is most common in the English alphabet, can be entered using four different notes in different octaves. For common syllables and words, they have also used minor and major chords, which enable the entire sequence of letters to be entered with just one movement.

To test the process in practice, the scientists asked an experienced pianist to play a few “sentences” on the piano that the researchers had previously transcribed into a piece of music. “Without prior practice, the pianist could write over 80 words per minute, similar to an experienced typist on the QWERTY keyboard,” Oulasvirta comments on the results.

Amateurs also write faster on the piano

In another study, the Saarbrücken computer scientists asked a test person who only plays the piano in her free time to rehearse the method and to learn by heart how to assign letters to notes. After around six months of training, the young woman - like the pianist - was able to capture around 80 words per minute, but this time free of notes. So she can write to friends on Facebook or write e-mails faster than with the keyboard. She also improved her piano playing with the regular exercises.

In their study, the computer scientists from Saarbrücken investigated the question of why it is possible for pianists to easily play twice as many notes per second as professional typists can enter letters on a keyboard. They investigated which factors of piano playing are also useful for entering text and whether they can also be used by other input devices, such as the QWERTY keyboard.

Anna Feit is doing research in Antti Oulasvirta's “Human-Computer Interaction” junior research group at the Max Planck Institute for Computer Science as part of the Saarbrücken excellence cluster “Multimodal Computing and Interaction”. She is concerned with how music can be used meaningfully in the interaction between humans and machines. In doing so, they also look into the questions of how people can transfer existing skills to other areas and what experiences they have when they use new IT applications.