Pianists are like professional typists, says new study

20 September 2013, 12:36 | Updated: 2 October 2014, 17:01

Piano players can 'play words' as quickly as professional typists can type them, a new study by the Max Planck Institute of Informatics has shown.

The study created a series of musical 'sentences' that were comparable in difficulty and structure to common English words on a QWERTY keyboard, and then recorded the results of a pianist 'typing' the notes on a piano keyboard, resulting in the musical phrases being turned into English words.

Antti Oulasvirta, Senior Research at the Max Planck Institute, said the results were surprising: "Without prior practice [the pianist] was able to enter text with a top speed of over 80 words per minute. This corresponds to the performance rate of a professional typist using the QWERTY keyboard."

To map the QWERTY keyboard to the piano keyboard accurately, the researchers considered hundreds of common typing patterns and found the musical equivalent. For example, frequent patterns like 'th' were translated as a musical leap of a third or a fifth.

Researcher Anna Feit described the technique to Phys.org: "We had to respect the note transitions and chords that occur frequently in music. No pianist can quickly play dissonant chords or very large intervals, thus our mapping had to avoid these."

An additional part of the study saw an amateur pianist trained over a six-month period to use the piano keyboard to type simple correspondence - resulting in the pianist being able to type sentences at 80 words per minute. The pianist could actually type emails faster at the piano than on a QWERTY keyboard.