The Piano Keyboard as Task Constraint: Timing Patterns of Pianists’ Scales Persist Across Instruments

Tracy Lipke-Perry, Darren J. Dutto, Morris Levy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Variation in one form or another is an inevitable aspect of human motor performance as the body negotiates the degrees of freedom problem while also adapting to ever-changing task constraints. The constraints to action model suggests that movement patterns arise from within a framework of environmental, task, and personal constraints. Like athletes, musicians adapt to a wide variety of constraints such as the presence and effect of spectators; acoustics in different performing spaces; humidity affecting tuning; and interpersonal interactions characterizing chamber and ensemble music. A crucial constraint particular to piano performance is adapting to the unique attributes of a wide variety of keyboard instruments. Pianists often refer to the distinct “feel” of a particular instrument: its responsiveness and sensitivity; key resistance; and the evenness and predictability of the instrument. Movement control both within and across pianos is essential for optimal performance, and in that sense, each instrument presents a type of task constraint. In this study, seven pianists performed 10 bimanual, two-octave, C major scales on 3 different piano keyboards to facilitate comparison of performance characteristics across instruments. Pianists performed 4 keystrokes per second, paced by a metronome set at 60 BPM. No timing differences were observed among keyboards as consistent patterns emerged, specifically anticipatory adjustments prior to thumb strokes. These results suggest that pianists are able to produce performances of similar musical structure across different instruments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalMusic and Science
StatePublished - 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thank you to the Motion and Media Across Disciplines (MMAD) laboratory for technical support, to Liz Penshorn and Claire Sylvestre for their help with data collection and processing, and to Joseph Skufca for assistance with statistical analysis. The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2019.


  • Constraint
  • keyboard
  • piano
  • scale
  • timing


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