What Does a Pianist See?

What Does a Pianist See?

A pianist friend of mine shared this neat video on Facebook. The video uses eyetracking technology to see where a pianist is looking when playing the piano. The especially interesting thing about this video is that it shows what a professional pianist sees as well as a beginner/intermediate pianist. 

Performing Known Pieces​ from Memory

The professional pianist's eyes:

  • generally focused on the area between the hands (not looking at either hand specifically, but able to see both).
  • used reference points.
  • relied heavily on peripheral vision.
  • occasionally, the eyes would look ahead in anticipation of where one hand would be moving.
  • sometimes looked slightly more toward the Left Hand, leaving the Right Hand mostly on its own.

The eyes may look slightly more toward the Left Hand because the Right Hand usually has melodic lines that are easier to follow, whereas the Left Hand  often has more complicated chords, arpeggios, or jumps.

The beginner/intermediate pianist's eyes:

  • were much busier in general​.
  • looked back and forth between Right and Left Hands.

Sight Reading New Sheet Music

The professional pianist's eyes:

  • focused on the sheet music almost the entire time.
  • occasionally glanced at hands for reference when moving.
  • always looked ahead.
  • quickly scanned up and down at both treble and bass clef lines.

The beginner/intermediate pianist's eyes:

  • darted back and forth between hands and keys.
  • moved constantly all over.

Reaction​s

This was incredibly interesting to me, and I tested it out myself. Even without a fancy eye tracker, I observed the same patterns as I play. After enough time, your hands become so comfortable and learn the "feel" of the keys, so you mostly use peripheral vision/reference points and your hands just know where to go next. Your eyes become more of a loose guide to direct larger movements.  (Sometimes when I'm playing, my eyes aren't anywhere near the keys. I'll be playing hymns at church or pieces at home and I'm not really looking at anything.)​

​This also matched what I've seen as a piano teacher. My beginner/intermediate students' eyes dart back and forth, back and forth between their hands and their music. Their eyes are busy, so busy it seems almost dizzying at times. The earliest beginners also look back and forth between each individual finger and hand, usually several times before actually pressing the keys. They are all still learning to be comfortable at the piano.

Overall, a professional pianist's visual field is much more stable. A professional doesn't need to look at the hands very often because he/she is comfortable with the keys. Every musician needs to learn to look ahead so that you're prepared for what's coming next. Early pianists struggle with this because they're still getting their bearings for where they are now. The more experience you have, the more at home your hands feel and the less "busy" and more stable your sightlines become. 

Leave a Reply 0 comments

Leave a Reply: