We don’t know how piano knowledge is represented in the mind;
how does learning on one piece transfer to learning on another piece;
Can we use AI to generate practice exercises to get the user from learning state A
to desired learning state B.
These ideas are the forefront of research and will modernize the learning experience. So thank you again for coming on this journey with me and paving the way to make learning a more equitable experience.
Lebron James, one of the best basketball players of all time, and Jacob Collier, a highly awarded musician, are at the edge of human ability in their respective fields. Critical to accomplishing their striking feats are their finely tuned motor skills that have been honed through rigorous practice. This prompts two questions, are some forms of practice better than others and how do representations of knowledge change over time? Piano playing provides an ideal case study for investigating how humans learn a complex motor skill. To play moving melodies and crisp chords learners must train their mind and hands to accomplish this goal. What is the optimal training regime to get to this point? There are several hypotheses that may achieve this goal: 1) The low-generalization hypothesis assumes practice only benefits learning on the practiced exercise or piece at hand. 2) The high-generalization hypothesis assumes that all practice is equally beneficial. 3) On the other hand, a skill hypothesis assumes that there are specific skills that can be trained and generalized to enhance future learning. In the simplest form, these skills take the form of rhythmicity, playing notes on time, and tonal accuracy, playing the correct note. Concretely, these different forms of practice may look like 1) someone who practices on a variety of piano pieces to practice as many scenarios as possible, 2) someone who only practices on one piano piece, 3) someone who practices on specific skills like rhythmicity and timing in a variety of contexts. Currently, there has been no systematic study probing different training styles that tap into humans’ cognitive architecture to learn the piano. Furthering our understanding of how our mind’s cognitive architecture digests information learned during practice is key to enhancing pedagogy and figuring out how the mind represents knowledge. In Aim 1, we will address a fundamental question of how piano knowledge is represented over time and the structure of this knowledge. Aim 2 will address how prior learning generalizes and affects future learning. Aim 3 will investigate how personalized exercises can be generated to prevent learners from generating future errors. All findings will be shared through publications and conference presentations. Data, code, and the pre-registration of the study will be uploaded to a public repository such as OSF.
Aim 1: Changes in piano knowledge representation. As a learner increases their skill in piano, how they represent knowledge about playing will change and understanding these changes will lay foundational work for understanding how to optimize the future practice of a learner. We can understand how knowledge representation changes over time by examining the errors learners make. Take the simple example of playing a C-major chord. The first time a learner plays it, they could make an error due to not fully knowing what notes make up the C-major chord. Overtime, errors due to this nature significantly decrease in likelihood. Other possible errors may arise due to selecting the wrong hand configuration to play the chord or through a motor execution error. Learning must occur in all of these cases to play the C-major chord. The non-generalization hypothesis predicts that learning C-major in one exercise will fail to transfer to a future exercise. The high-generalization hypothesis predicts that learning C-major in one exercise will generalize to all situations and to future learning of similar chords. The skill hypothesis predicts that learning C-major in one context will generalize only to contexts in which the tonal position and timing are similar across exercises. This simple example can be expanded to other necessary skills like learning a finger tuck, a motor skill necessary for playing scales. Using a dataset from Melodics, a software that teaches piano using exercises, we will categorize types of errors as either tonal (e.g. playing E instead of C) or as timing errors. In Melodics, users complete diverse exercises that train different motor and musical skills. The figure shows what participants see while playing an exercise. The learner has a physical keyboard while they look at virtual notes that move in time towards them. The learner must play current notes while looking ahead to prepare to play future notes. Inevitably while learning new exercises, the learner will make errors. For new exercises that employ priorly learned chords, the low-generalization hypothesis predicts errors will be high at the beginning of each exercise because prior learning will not transfer to new exercises. The high-generalization hypothesis predicts that as the amount of overall practice time increases, errors will decrease for all pieces of the same difficulty. The skill hypothesis predicts two possible outcomes. 1) tonal and timing learning increase in parallel and both timing and tonal errors reduce over time. 2) tonal learning must occur before timing learning and once tonal errors have sufficiently reduced, timing errors will then decrease. These findings will reveal how changes in errors are reflective of internal representations of piano skill.
Using the categorized errors, we will examine how prior experience and practice affect future performance. To do this, we will train an artificial neural network (ANN) to predict learners’ future errors on a novel exercise. The ANN will train on learners’ previously practiced exercises. Once the ANN is trained on the practice history of individuals, it will be used to predict future behavior of learners on novel exercises: 1) Tonal errors, 2) timing errors. Further, based on a learner’s performance on a novel exercise, we can ask the ANN to predict, 3) how long has the learner been practicing, and 4) have they practiced on a specific exercise. Successful prediction on the first two metrics will support the conclusions that learning sub-skills like tonal and timing, are essential for piano learning, supporting the skill-hypothesis. Successful prediction of the last two metrics would support the high-generalization hypothesis. This will be the first characterization of piano learning across thousands of people and these analyses will enable future insights on piano pedagogy. Further, this work will be an initial step to creating a robot that will learn to play the piano like humans do.
Aim 2: Learning generalization. For the past century, piano learners have been using Hanon exercises that are supposed to train essential piano motor skills2. However, these exercises have not been validated and it is unclear if/what specific sub-skills they are training. Taking the simple example from earlier of learning how to play a C-major chord, does learning how to play this chord help with learning to play other chords like D-major or B-minor? Using the ANN trained in aim 1, we can investigate what exercises and learned information are necessary for predicting future performance. Concretely, to predict future tonal errors, what information did the ANN use to make that prediction? How the ANN represents information cannot be interpreted directly so we must infer how it makes decisions by changing the information it was trained on. We will ablate timing errors by artificially correcting them in the dataset the ANN is trained on. If this information is important for the ANN to make predictions about tonal errors, this will indicate that tonal knowledge is necessary to learn timing information. We will use this same methodology to probe timing knowledge as well. There are a couple of possible outcomes: 1) timing errors influence the ANN’s ability to predict future tonal errors and vice versa. 2) Timing errors fail to influence the ANN’s ability to predict future tonal errors and vice versa. If the first outcome is true, this would suggest that these two skills may be part of a hierarchical structure of skill learning. However, if the second outcome is true, this would suggest that learning timing and tonal skill learning are orthogonal to each other and develop independently. Ultimately, these findings will further our understanding of what information is essential for superior future performance.
Aim 3: Generating Optimal Practice. An essential part of practice is ensuring that errors are not repeated in the future. What would be the optimal practice to achieve this goal? Ideally, personalized tutoring and practice for each learner is superior to general curricula. Using our findings from aims 1 & 2, we will create an ANN that recommends exercises that will rectify prevalent errors in a learner. This recommender system is similar to the one that video streaming services like Netflix use to recommend new movies based on what the users have watched in the past. For example, if a learner is generating many errors in exercises that are in the scale of C-major, the ANN will recognize this and assign exercises to rectify these errors. However, in piano learning, the recommender system would be limited to an existing set of exercises and would not take into account musical preferences of the learner. To further expand personalized training, we will build an ANN that can generate an infinite number of exercises that develop learning of specific skills. Further, the exercises’ style will be to the learner’s preference. For example, if a learner likes jazz and would prefer to have all of their exercises in a jazz style, we could transform exercises like the Hanon exercises to fit their preference: jazz Hanon.
References:  Krumhansl, C. L. (2000). Psychological bulletin. Hanon (1900). New York: G. Schirmer.