In our information age, machines have replaced people and piano lesson software attempts to take the place of your neighborhood piano teacher. But is it effective? This article explores that question.
There have been innumerable piano lesson software packages released practically since the dawn of personal computing. They can typically be divided into piano lessons for beginners, piano theory and ear training software.
Software-based piano courses almost invariably make use of an electronic keyboard for input, which means that the software can tell you whether or not you’ve played the right note. That turns out to be a significant limitation of piano lesson software, however, for several reasons.
The first is that when beginning piano lessons especially, you need far more feedback than merely whether or not you play the right notes. The computer can’t see you, nor can it hear your playing. Things as seemingly straightforward as how to sit at the piano, so integral to playing well, can’t be addressed effectively even via diagrams and videos, because we can’t see our own posture.
Similarly, in my experience students need to be reminded over and over again how to shape their hands when playing. Nearly all beginning piano students make critical errors in hand position, such as collapsing the knuckles or inverting the normal angle of the outermost finger joints when pressing a key. A knowledgeable teacher needs to identify and correct these flaws, and piano lesson software cannot.
A further issue with software-based piano methods is the electronic keyboard itself. While top-model digital pianos have indeed become sufficiently advanced that they can be used for serious work and expressive playing, this applies only to the very best of them, which also means the most expensive. Beginning piano students using a software-based piano course are far more likely to have very cheap keyboards, and both the sound and the touch will be far removed from even a mediocre acoustic piano. Though there are technologies for adding MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to an acoustic piano, which would make it possible to connect your piano to a computer, the hardware and installation costs are comparable to getting a good-quality digital piano.
One thing common to all piano lesson software I have seen is that the student’s playing is evaluated against an objective standard. This might seem like a good idea in theory, but in practice it can be outright harmful, particularly when it comes to rhythm. A mechanical tick of a metronome is no substitute for a player’s own rhythmic sense, which must be developed and refined over a very long time. While playing with a metronome is a necessary musical skill, a purely mechanical beat must not be mistaken for actual rhythm.
I am however very much in favor of music theory and ear training software. Ear training in particular is an application in which technology can, at least in some cases, be helpful even beyond what a human teacher can do. In most cases, your piano teacher won’t be available 24/7 to give you pop quizzes on intervals and chords!
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