Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa

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The processing of music notation: some implications for piano sight-reading

E Fourie


Most piano pupils and many professional pianists find it difficult to sight-read music fluently. A major reason for this phenomenon is the complexity of the piano sight-reading process. Cognitive research reveals an intricate system of neural networks spread over all four cortical lobes of the brain, which are involved in processing musical sound and notation in particular. When sight-reading a piece of music that is seen for the first time (a prima vista) there are no context-specific memory maps to depend on, as is the case in performance study. The weak reader's biggest problem, therefore, is to form adequate motor responses to perceived notation. Specific challenges include dealing with pitch and rhythm separately while maintaining structural coherence, developing the ability of notational audiation or ‘inner hearing', and coping with stress caused by high levels of mental arousal. These problems can be overcome if sight-readers develop an awareness of the mental processes that underlie their actions at the keyboard, and if they strengthen both the analytical and holistic strategies of the brain. Current teaching and learning practices need to be overhauled to utilise fully the insights provided by cognitive research.

Journal of Musical Arts in Africa Vol. 1 2004: pp. 1-23

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