Researchers analyse piano playing using motion capture

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Southampton University researchers are pioneering a new way to use motion-capture technology in order to analyse the way the piano is played.

Researchers will be able to scrutinise individual pianist’s playing technique through the use of a kinematic measurement technique called HAWK (Hand and Wrist Kinematics), which was originally designed to assess the effectiveness of stroke rehabilitation techniques.

The team hopes to gain insight into the posture of pianists’ hands on the keys and the specific movements they use in order to achieve their sound.

Prof David Owen Norris, world-renowned pianist and music professor at Southampton University, told The Engineer: ‘The first thing that interested me was the idea of linking the flexibility of the wrist to the quality of the sound.’  

The research will also seek to identify the factors that contribute towards hand and wrist injuries, such as repetitive strain injury — a common problem for pianists.

Furthermore, the results could help teach students specific movements that a piano teacher finds it difficult to explain or demonstrate due to the speed at which the piece needs to be played.

In order to understand the biomechanics of the pianist’s playing style, a total of 26 3mm markers are placed on specific positions on the pianist’s wrist, hand, fingers and thumb.

The fluorescent markers are tracked using 12 Vicon infrared cameras — the same technology used in Hollywood films, such as Lord of the Rings, for special effects. The markers are displayed on a screen in real time as a series of dots.

Dr Cheryl Metcalf, who designed, developed and validated HAWK, told The Engineer that the Vicon system determines the position of each individual marker.

‘We then take the positions of the markers out of the Vicon system and plug them into another bit of software and that is my model — HAWK,’ she explained. ‘My model defines the relationship between all the markers and then calculates the angles, very accurately, to less than one degree.’

The whole system was trialled for the first time on Monday 23 January and the pair plan to build up an archive of the different techniques that students and concert pianists use to generate their sound.