Science of piano playing mapped by Hollywood 3D techniques

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Media captionProf David Norris and Dr Cheryl Metcalf explain the benefits of the Hawk system.

Researchers at the University of Southampton are using 3D motion-capture technology to understand the mechanics of piano playing.

The newly-developed Hand And Wrist Kinematics (Hawk) technique gathers information which will be useful to understand how and why some pianists develop repetitive strain injuries.

The scientists aim to build a database of hundreds of musicians so they can understand the variations in technique, style and playing habits.

Dr Cheryl Metcalf, who created Hawk, is hopeful that the system will help unlock the secrets of some of the world's most talented pianists.

"Hawk gives me the ability to systematically measure hand movements. I'm excited to look at the idiosyncrasies of hand movement and how famous musicians creatively use particular techniques to achieve their own unique expressions."

Image caption Hawk accurately analyses intricate hand movements

How Hawk works

To capture a pianist's playing technique, scientists first place dozens of reflective dots on the hands and wrists. The pianist is then filmed using a Vicon motion-capture system identical to those used in Hollywood animation studios.

The raw data is then analysed using Hawk's algorithms, which provide very accurate measurements of the fine movements of the fingers, hands and wrists.

Prof David Owen Norris, from the university's music department, is the first pianist to be analysed using Hawk. He hopes the system will help reveal which techniques produce the most beautiful sounds.

"Pianists are always arguing about the best ways to make certain sounds. Cheryl's system allows us to analyse exactly what we're doing with our hands. Hopefully, working together we can find answers to some of the fundamental questions relating to technique."

Dr Metcalf is most excited about using Hawk to develop an archive of pianists' precise techniques.

"From a historical perspective, being able to have an international bank of data on the world's best pianists will be a phenomenal resource. It will further our understanding of impairment and rehabilitation right through to understanding creativity and the things that underpin the best musicians in the world."

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