How eye tracking gives insight into musical minds

  • by Tobii
  • 6 min

Pianist professional skills training eye tracking

Ever wondered how a professional musician's mind and body work in harmony to create a seamless performance? Find out with eye tracking.

Watching a professional musician perform you could be forgiven for thinking they were born with an innate skill to command the instrument, but the reality is, it’s a learned technique. Many would like to unravel the skill set these professionals have developed, but how do you quantify ability? How do you study those instinctive and subconscious behaviors that ‘just happen’? And more importantly, if you can’t explain or measure your behavior, how do you teach it to others? How do you pass on those skills in a more effective way than simply waiting for the student to discover the method themselves?

Eye tracking is an established method of examining human behavior and is used extensively to reveal clues about how we process information. In this blog post we will explore how it’s been used to compare performers with varying abilities.

Function, a YouTube video series combining science and technology, used Tobii Pro Glasses to examine the difference between a professional piano player and his student. Like many activities where eye tracking is used to uncover behavior too engrained and subconscious to explain, the art of piano playing is so consuming for the artist, that to ask them to think about their behavior would automatically alter it.

Participating in the study was Professor Daniel Beliavsky, an accomplished pianist with more than 30 years experience, and his student of two years Charlotte Bennett. The pair had their gaze recorded while playing several compositions they were familiar with as well as ones that were completely new. The results showed Daniel looked at the music approximately 83 percent of the time while Charlotte spent much more time looking at her hands and the keys, with only 58 percent of her time dedicated to the music.

The data also revealed Daniel was scanning ahead both vertically and horizontally, showing that one aspect of expertise is the ability to mentally stay a few steps ahead on the sheet.

How eye tracking is used to enhance training

The beauty of eye tracking is that it reveals a lot about how skills are planned and executed, where attention is focused at crucial moments, and other information which is out of reach from simple observation. Eye tracking is extremely accurate, completely objective, and versatile.

It may sound like a long bow to draw, but musicians and sportspeople have a common connection; they all at some point started acquiring the skills needed to perform their tasks and they are now at a certain point along the path to becoming professional, or at least proficient at their chosen activity.

According to Professor Aidan Moran from the University College Dubin School of Psychology, “Sport is played with the body but won mainly in the mind.” His school has been using eye tracking for more than a decade to understand the mental processes of athletes across a range of sports.

This method of skills transfer is also being used by businesses to help streamline onboarding and training. Eye tracking allows visual representations of how senior staff complete complex tasks to be made and used for new recruits to learn from.

A Metal Foundry in the U.S. recently partnered with our research consultancy Tobii Insight, to take a look at its production line. By studying the methods and concentration patterns of experienced staff and showing the gaze videos to new recruits, the company believes it will save 400 hours a year in staff training time. A major car manufacturer has been able to cut its production line training time by a third thanks to this type of insight. Tobii Pro Glasses allow researchers to achieve reliable results in any real-world setting to make accurate and crucial decisions.

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