I'm learning piano at an early stage - playing Grade 1 level stuff I suppose. However I did classical guitar as a kid and play chords in a band so my general musicality is higher than that.

The pieces being so simple, I fairly quickly memorise them without trying to, before I can actually play them fluently. I don't normally look at the keyboard when playing pieces but I found that if I know a piece by heart, if I do look at what my hands are doing it makes me mess up much more than if I stare into the distance. I would've expected it would help me play, not hinder me.

Is this common and can anyone explain why it would be the case... and if it matters? By contrast if I'm playing chords rather than a piece, I always look at the keys because I can't find the notes reliably enough as my hands move around!

  • Try to learn where your hands are, playing chords and jumping around, by feel rather than by sight. The shape of the black notes helps greatly. Playing in "black" keys helps even more, when there's much jumping. Feb 14, 2019 at 22:32

2 Answers 2


It puts your visual analysis in gear and makes you conscious of your movements. But watching your movements arrives with a delay and detachment as opposed to initiating your movements: for anything but trivial play, movements are anticipated, so the brain activity in the motoric region precedes the actual action while your watching it trails in behind.

You can get people to stutter by putting on headphones with a delayed rendition of their own words. Certain delays turn out to be disruptive (interestingly, this kind of contraption can also help stutterers to speak more fluently).

Actually, just yesterday I wired up a Midi keyboard to my computer and used its default Midi play functionality, and I was unable to play even simple stuff by heart until I put the computer out of the loop and used an external Midi expander instead: the latency of the computer setup was above the threshold where it worked for my self-feedback, making my fingers stutter.

Organs with pneumatic controls (and some with electric ones) are known to be pretty taxing on the organ players' coordination since they need to play before the beat in order to merge with the orchestra.

So one can train oneself to deal with the almost-but-not-quite synchronicity of perception processing in the brain even when caused by external delays. Organ players on those sluggish monster organs still tend to be less than enthused, even if it is their "home" organ.

  • Interesting comparison to "audio jamming" as I believe the headphone delay thing is called.
    – Mr. Boy
    Dec 19, 2014 at 19:53
  • For a few years I've played at a church where the organ pipes are over a quarter second distant from where I sit. It took me six months to adapt; finally, this stopped bothering me. (I'd played other organs, sitting next to the pipes, for decades.) Feb 14, 2019 at 22:29
  • Another way of looking at this (similar to the answer) is that looking at one's hands lengthens the path that nerve impulses follow while playing. It's similar to looking at one's feed while ballroom dancing. The finger (and feet) movements need to be almost reflexive; see (or think) of a note and the fingers strike the correct key (or string ) or the foot moves correctly.
    – ttw
    Aug 14, 2021 at 13:20

It sounds like in the case of learning simple written music, you are relying primarily on muscle memory. This means that your brain has memorized the series of movements, rather than a series of conscious decisions, in order to perform a piece. When you look down at your hands, your conscious mind gets in the way of the largely unconscious process that is guiding their movement. This is not at all uncommon, and it simply takes practice to get better at consciously shaping pieces which are already in your muscle memory.

In contrast, when you are playing chords rather than written music, you are relying on more conscious control of your hands, which is why you don't experience the same effect.

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