How Playing the Instrument of Keyboard has Cognitive Dimensions!

Playing Keyboard and Cognitive Psychology

How Playing the Keyboard Instrument has various Cognitive Dimensions!


It is interesting to observe that a daily activity such as playing the keyboard instrument has various cognitive dimensions to it! Cognitive Psychology is a term which one must have encountered repetitively in their lives, since it primarily involves a psychological understanding, analysis and interpretation of the mental processes that motivate behaviour and regulate thoughts and actions in an individual. Yet, there have been several misperceptions and stereotypes in terms of understanding it as a discipline of research and discussions. Most individuals tend to resort to bookish terms and scientifical analysis, in order to understand any given activity or process as being guided and directed by any given cognitive aspects such as attention, perception, problem-solving, decision-making, judgements and reasoning using analogical syllogisms. One does not easily recognize or realize that cognitive psychology, in turn shapes and regulates their behaviour in varied aspects in their daily life, which necessarily go unnoticed due to their persistence.

This report specifically aims at recognizing and evaluating the processes involved which resonate as cognitions while attempting to play the instrument of the keyboard on a daily basis as a devoted practice by myself. In order to understand each component of the process of playing the keyboard, let us first begin by recognizing the cognitive aspects that the keyboard demands from the individual playing it.

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The correlation of the cognitive concept of Attention with Playing of the Keyboard

The foremost requirement, in order to stay focused and avoid any sort of external distractions while playing it is that of being attentive to its sounds, rhythms and notations. There are several prevailing distractions in the external environment such as the noise of traffic and cars honking constantly, ringing of doorbells, ringing of telephones, interruptions by family members and neighbors, barking of dogs and so on.

In order to closely correlate, the concept of attention to playing of the instrument, let us understand what does attention necessarily constitute as a concept and aspect of cognition. Therefore, we can state that attention is “the ability to focus on specific stimuli or locations.” Therefore, when playing the keyboard, one selectively focuses solely on the instrument and its varied components such as its keys, its position, its mode and function buttons. Therefore, whenever we talk about specifically focusing our attention on something, we have to subsequently ignore paying attention to something else such as the buzzing of notifications on our smartphone. This ability to focus on playing the keyboard and ignoring the sound of notifications from the phone is termed as selective attention.

Similarly, if one tends to give in to the distractions from the external environments and is not able to focus properly on the task at hand, which is playing the instrument in this case, then that is known as submitting to distraction. Distraction refers to “the significant interference of one stimulus with the processing of another stimulus.” In order to focus upon multiple tasks simultaneously, one has to possess the trait of divided attention, which refers to “paying attention to more than one task at a time.” Many musicians and ardent instrumentalists possess this ability, where they can focus on the audience responses to their playing, whilst focusing on the keys and the rhythm and at the same time also reading and registering the mentioned piano notations on the sheet in front of them.

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Another activity, a person who engages in playing the keyboard engages in is that of moving his/her eyes from one location/object to another, in order to spot or recognize something specific such as the beginning of the rhythm and its ending and also the identification of the key getting played on the screen of the keyboard. Another remarkable aspect which largely varies from individual to individual is the processing capacity, which is the “amount of information, an individual can handle at a time” as well as the nature of the task, which is the “difficulty of the task, whether it is high load or low load. According to Lavie, in his processing capacity and perceptual load model, “a person’s ability to focus on a task depends upon his/her processing capacity, the nature of the task and also on the distracting stimulus.” Therefore, if the task is low-load then it requires lesser processing capacity, as compared to a task which is high-load and requires higher processing capacity. For instance, if the task is simpler, like playing a piece or melody whose notations, one has already memorized by heart, then they would be able to play it even if they are not fully attending to the instrument and are focusing their attention, say outside the window or towards some other individual present in the setting where they are playing the instrument. On the other hand, if the task is of playing a new melody which involves reading complicated notations and which change rapidly, then the individual shall require higher processing capacity which shall not leave any scope for focusing on any other activity which is going on in the environment such as chirping of birds, focusing on some other object located elsewhere in the setting.

Therefore, this is how attention as a cognitive concept contributes to the playing of the keyboard.

Correlation of the Cognitive Concept of Perception with the Playing of the Keyboard

Perception as a cognitive concept can be considered highly efficient in terms of understanding the entire process of playing the instrument of keyboard. In order to play the keyboard, in the first place, one has to have the ability to perceive the keys and their specific locations in each of the octaves of the keyboard. In order to understand how does perception play an integral role in shaping the process of playing the instrument of keyboard, let us define what is perception.

Perception refers to “a process by which the cognitive system constructs an internal representation of the outside world.” By this definition, it is important to note two remarkable observations which come out of it. The foremost observation is to note that since the cognitive system creates an internal representation of the outside world within the mind through perception, therefore it is essential to note the necessary use of sensory inputs from each sensory organs, in order to perceive the outside world in the mind. Therefore, not just the ears for the instrumentalist, but also the eyes, the mouth need to be used vigilantly in order to not miss out on significantly perceiving any aspect of the keyboard, when registering it as an image in the mind or while recalling the position and notes of a given melody piece and then using the sense of touch, in order to feel the keys, even when one is not looking at them consciously and therefore, creating a situation-specific image of the entire situation in the mind.

At the same time, one must keep in their mind, another observation, which is that since the individual is taking the aid of sensory organs while performing the task and creating its rough image in the mind, they should be aware that these senses might deceive them and may not present an accurate representation of reality.

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Therefore, when performing tasks of recalling an existing notation of any melody and attempting to present in front of an audience, one must be vigilant to not misinterpret any specific reading or notation with the other. In order to be efficient enough to perform, one has to subjectively memorize each single notation and create accurate images of it in the mind, for which they might essentially require a discriminatory judgement, which allows them to differentiate against what is ‘the right’ notation and playing pattern and which is the ‘wrong’ notation and playing pattern.

Perception also essentially allows one to spot mistakes in playing of the instrument in terms of specific pieces and specific playing patterns, positioning of the fingers, playing speed and synchronization of the rhythm metronome along with the piece being played. In order to be an accurate analyst and tutor someone who is amateur in learning the keyboard, one has to have the basic power of judgement to analyze the performer’s mistakes, and those too accurately, in terms of in which octave, which key was played incorrectly or missed being played. At the same time, a basic knowledge of the normal playing speed, how one has to necessarily control the movement of the fingers and how many pauses, speed alterations one has to make is also essential.

Perception occurs in two streams/pathways of the brain, which are specifically designed for recognizing the object, also known as the ‘what’ stream and other for recognizing its location, also known as the ‘where’ stream. The ‘where’ stream which helps in determining the location of the object, in this case, the location of the specific key which needs to be played, is also termed as the dorsal stream. The ‘where’ stream which helps in recognizing and understanding the object, here, in this case, the understanding of which key is being played (for eg, C in the third octave, F, in the second octave and so on.) is also known as the ‘ventral’ stream. Perception is greatly responsible for shaping the actions one performs in their daily lives, such as perceiving the image of the key (black or white) in the mind and then playing it in response to perceiving it.

Correlation of the Cognitive Concept of Memory with the Playing of the Instrument of Keyboard

In order to understand, how an avid learner of the instrument keyboard as well as an established instrumentalist, practice specific melodies, tunes as well as entire song pieces on the instrument on a daily basis, it is essential to analyze the cognitive aspects of memory in it. Memory is inevitably important in order to remember and recall a specific set of events and information about any object or individual in the environment. There are various events involved before any specific piece of information one is keen on remembering for future events is permanently integrated into the long-term memory storage of the mind.

According to Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) model of memory, “In order to encode a specific information into the long-term memory, it has to initially be inputted into the sensory memory, from where it is encoded into the short-term memory, followed by conclusively encoding it permanently after multiple rehearsals into the long-term memory.”

The Sensory memory refers to a small memory storage component which registers information in it as perceived by the sensory organs and has a limited storage capacity of holding information up to a few miniscule seconds, after which the information is substantially lost, if one does not pay attention to it, as soon as it is registered and also do not rehearse it repetitively in terms of its features, components in a verbal format. Once the information perceived by the senses, is rehearsed, it enters the short-term memory, which has a capacity of holding information encoded into it slightly larger than that of sensory memory. The short-memory can hold information till 30 seconds of encoding it, post which if the information encoded into it is not rehearsed more elaborately, in terms of ascribing meaning to it which is similar to units/concepts already existing in the long-term memory or relating it to them, then it is again lost from here.

Therefore, to understand the process of playing of the keyboard, let us understand each component of memory with reference to Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model of memory. Sensory memory is involved when the individual perceives the information about the instrument through his senses of sight and hearing and holds those images/auditions for a brief period of time. Short-term memory is involved when the individual pursues the perceived sensory information repeatedly in his mind, by verbally repeating it till they can recall it without a pause. This practice of rehearsing information verbally in order to encode it from the sensory memory to the short-term memory is known as maintenance rehearsal. Lastly, the long-term memory is involved, when the encoded information lying in the short-term memory is rehearsed yet again, this time in a more elaborate sense in terms of its meaning, its features, its dynamics which might help one relate it to another existing concept in the long-term memory. This rehearsal of involving the meaning, significance and features of the information, in order to retain it permanently is known as elaborative rehearsal, which is quite effective in encoding information from the short-term memory to the long-term memory.

Whilst considering short-term memory, one must consider the fact that it serves many more purposes other than holding information within it for a few seconds. It is also known as working memory, as it is “a limited capacity system for temporary storage and manipulation of information for complex tasks such as comprehension, learning and reasoning.” For instance, it helps one comprehend specific techniques of playing the keyboard, such as body posture, hand movement, placement of fingers, playing speed, synchronization with rhythm being played and so on…

Another important aspect of memory is retrieval of information, when required in a given situation. Retrieval refers to the recalling of a specific information from the long-term memory upon being questioned about it. In order to successfully recall information, retrieval cues are being used as strategies for effective retrieval. One such retrieval cue is that of matching the conditions which were during retrieval, to those of the ones during encoding. This matching of the two conditions is known as mood/context-dependent memory. For instance, recalling the notations and lyrics of a given musical piece by sitting or being present in the same environment from where it was encoded, such as the room where the instrument is usually placed whilst playing it or imagining the room in the mind, if one is not able to be present in the same environment during the time of retrieval.

Such an instance of laying emphasis on the context and mood conditions being present when the information was encoded into the long-term memory and using them as references to retrieve it at a specific time, can be considered an example of episodic memory. Episodic memory refers to engaging in mental time travel and relieving the past memories, and is therefore based on past experiences. For instance, the episode of learning a specific piece/melody is used as a reference to recall it again after a long period of not being exposed to it.

Another type of memory regarding specific facts, universal truths and undeniable methods is known as semantic memory. Semantic memory does not involve recalling by reliving specific memories, but simply accessing specific rules and statements as obvious. The recalling of specific rules whilst playing any piece of keyboard, such as the specific rhythm to be set, rhythm speed with interval, keyboard voice to be set, chords to be played from the left hand along with the notations on the right hand, specific part of the piece which involves changing of the chord and so on is a kind of semantic memory connotation. Both the semantic as well as episodic memory activate different areas of the brain in the individual. At the same time, both of these types of memories are dynamic in the sense that they influence/activate the other and therefore interact with each other.

Eventually, over time, episodic memories are believed to reduce and significantly gotten lost since the information involved here, is an incident/event/episode itself, which does not retain all of its aspects as time passes. On the other hand, semantic memory retains itself even after a long period of encoding it into the long-term memory, since it involves basic rules and regulations and facts regarding certain concepts, practices and events and therefore they are encoded differently into the brain as compared to episodic memories.


Therefore, one can confidently state that cognitive psychology is largely correlated with the daily activity of playing the instrument of keyboard. Playing of the keyboard is largely impossible without involving cognitive aspects of the mind such as perception, attention, memory, retrieval of information in it. Therefore, a discipline as diverse and contrasting as that of music and instrument playing can be closely correlated to cognitive psychology via the specific processes involved in both of these disciplines.



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