Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Visual Crowding

Which looks easier to read?
It’s the same every year.  Every fall, a few weeks into piano classes, I introduce my Sunbeams 3 class to the Preparatory Repertoire book from the Royal Conservatory of Music.  I’m always excited to get to this point with my students; after months and months playing from the Music for Young Children books, they are ready to start on the Royal Conservatory pathway, heading off towards exam certification and the satisfaction of being able to say “I have my Grade x piano”.  I try to convey this excitement and sense of a new beginning to the children, and I see that I’ve piqued their interest, but when I open the book to show them the first piece they will learn, the response is always the same:  Silence.  Widened eyes.

I know what they’re thinking. 
“It looks hard, doesn’t it?” I ask them.  And it does.  The RCM music really does look a lot harder.  It’s not, though.  These pieces are not more difficult than the music these children already play. 

I open their current Sunbeams 3 book and place a page next to the RCM prep book for comparison.  I ask the students to tell me why they think the new music looks harder.  They all gaze it for a moment, and then one child will realize:  “It’s written smaller”.

Aha!  When things are written smaller, they seem harder.  Just knowing this fact helps the kids understand that this book isn’t going to be more difficult to play.  But unfortunately, the smaller print does actually make this music harder for the children to read.

As I discussed in my last post , when we read music, we fixate our eyes on a particular note, reading it, and also reading the adjacent notes that are in our peripheral vision.  Then we quickly flick our eyes forward and fixate on another note further along the page.  It’s this business of reading in our peripheral vision that’s problematic. 

Take a look at the example below.  Focus your eyes on the dot in the middle.  You can read the single letter on the left with no problem, correct?  But what about trying to read the middle of the three letters on the right?  That letter “b” on the right is much harder to read because the letters on either side interfere with our perception of it.  This is the visual crowding effect, and it has been shown to occur for all visual perception, whether of letters or musical notes on a page, or for other objects. 

When we read a page of music, our ability to take in a lot of notes at one fixation is limited by crowding.  The further the notes are from our point of focus, the more they are susceptible to crowding. Reading musical notation has a further crowding problem that doesn’t exist in text reading:  the lines of the staff themselves act to crowd in the vertical direction.  Compare these two notes, one with flanking staff lines, and one without.  Can you see if the note is on or off of the line?  When there are flanking staff lines, it is much harder to tell.

Interestingly, a study using exactly this kind of visual test has shown that trained musicians have learned to overcome some of the effects of crowding.  People who are expert music readers are better able to read crowded notes in their peripheral vision.  It’s as if their spatial resolution for music notes is increased compared to non-musicians.  The authors suggest that when we practice reading music, we build a better representation of the visual musical elements in our brains, which then helps our perception of the notes on the page.  The more we read music, the less crowded the notes seem.

But my students?  They are not yet expert music-readers.  I’ve noticed that when the sheet music is hard to read, the children rely on their ears to learn the piece, and ignore the written music.  This will not improve their music-reading skills. 

  My kids still need their music to be well-spaced, so that adjacent notes don’t interfere with each other.  It’s not so much that the notes need to be bigger, but they need to be less crowded, both horizontally and vertically.  In fact, when I compare the RCM Prep book with the MYC materials, what I notice is that the horizontal spacing is actually the same.  What’s obviously different between the two books is the spacing between the lines of the staff.  The only way to reduce the vertical crowding is to make larger spaces between adjacent notes and between the lines of the staff – in other words, print it bigger.  I think a larger print encourages our young students to keep reading the notes, rather than relying on their ears to learn the music.  If the notes are printed bigger and less crowded,  students are better able to perceive the subtle differences between adjacent notes, making it more worthwhile keeping their eyes on the page to decode the musical notation. 


Levi, D.M. (2011). Visual crowding. Curr. Biol. 21, R678–R679.

Pelli, D.G., Tillman, K.A., Freeman, J., Su, M., Berger, T.D., and Majaj, N.J. (2007). Crowding and eccentricity determine reading rate. Journal of Vision 7, 20–20.

Wong, Y.K., and Gauthier, I. (2012). Music-reading expertise alters visual spatial resolution for musical notation. Psychon Bull Rev 19, 594–600.