Anticipatory and sequential motor control in piano playing

Kevin C. Engel, Martha Flanders, John F. Soechting

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126 Scopus citations


Pianists were asked to play short excerpts from several pieces on an electronic keyboard. In each piece, there were two phrases whose first few notes were played identically with the right hand. Thereafter, the two phrases were played differently. The aim of the investigation was to ascertain whether or not hand and finger kinematics diverged prior to the depression of the last common note. Such a divergence would imply an anticipatory modification of sequential movements of the hand, akin to the phenomenon of coarticulation in speech. The lack of such a divergence would imply a strictly serial organization of movement sequences with one hand, as was found previously to be the case for typing. The time at which each key was depressed and released and the speed with which the key was depressed was recorded via a MIDI interface to a laboratory computer. The motion of the right wrist and of the fingers of the right hand was recorded optoelectronically. Piano playing can invoke anticipatory modifications of hand and finger kinematics. The time at which two patterns of movements diverged varied considerably from piece to piece. Playing an ascending scale with the requirement of a 'thumb-under' maneuver could evoke an anticipatory modification as much as 500 ms in advance of the last common note. In another piece, keypresses appeared to be executed in a strict serial ordering and a third piece gave results intermediate between these two extremes. We interpret the results to suggest that a strict serial execution of a movement sequence is favored as long as this is compatible with the demands of the task.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)189-199
Number of pages11
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1997

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgement This work was supported by a US Public Health Service Grant NS-15018.


  • Finger movements
  • Human
  • Kinematics
  • Movement sequences


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