musicianship and other finger skills

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musicianship and other finger skills Human beings have the potential to develop many skills, a versatility far greater than that of any other animal. For certain skills a phase of learning is enough to develop an aptitude which lasts a lifetime and needs perhaps only slight practice thereafter. Thus children learn to tie laces at first with difficulty but later the procedure can be repeated easily. Learning to tie a tie, a bow, a knot, and do up buttons is similar. The years needed to learn writing need little reinforcement by later activity. The complex procedures required to ride a cycle, or to swim, are only lost with ill health. Artistic skills are multiple; people may be painters, engravers, etchers, or sculptors. Their abilities, difficult to measure meaningfully, need practising for good results. Often skills are said to be ‘context sensitive’; a professional pianist may have difficulty with typing shoelaces. Practice of one set of movements may not result in a general increase of finger dexterity.

Some people are clumsy and not at all adept at using their hands, they may say for example that they ‘cannot draw a straight line’ or ‘cannot use a screwdriver’. Inability to execute an intended action is known as apraxia, slowness and difficulty in doing it is dyspraxia.

Professional musicians train extensively and their skills reach levels of control far beyond those of many others. Some musical instruments usually have a one-to-one relationship between the finger movement needed and the intended note or notes. This allows measurements of the intended accuracy to be made. Musical performance involves muscular action and, with woodwind and brass instruments, careful breath control. Without doubt, especially during training, aural and other forms of fine sensory feedback are needed.

The human being, by adopting an upright stance, liberated the hands and arms from their role in supporting the body whilst the retention of thumbs and fingers in evolution has allowed the use of hands for a great variety of skilled activities.

Prehistoric human beings developed the skills needed to shape stones. The finding of arrowheads has enabled studies of this activity, ‘knapping’, to be undertaken; one hand, usually the right, held the flint and the other struck it with another stone. The skills needed would not have been easy to acquire. Sometimes in prehistoric sites hollow bones are found into which holes have been drilled suggesting that they were used as flutes.

Sign language is another ancient skill. There are one-handed and two-handed deaf and dumb alphabets but these are slow as words need to be spelt out letter by letter. Quite different are complex sign languages. In some religious communities silence was enforced but monks in the time of the Venerable Bede in the seventh century learnt to communicate by means of finger signs. Sign languages of the North American Indian tribes and aboriginal Australians have been studied in detail; abstract ideas and poetry are not beyond the capabilities of some.

The thumb in medical and scientific studies is referred to as ‘digit 1’ and the index, middle, ring and little fingers as 2, 3, 4, and 5. Modern piano music also uses this convention, but for the violin and other instruments where the thumb has only a supportive role, the index finger is ‘1’. The thumb is proportionately larger in man than in apes and a specialization of great importance is that the thumb is ‘opposable’, meaning that it can be brought across the palm to, or towards, any finger. This enables the use of a great range of grips; rather than a mere clenching of the fingers to hold an object, which may be about all some monkeys can achieve. The hand is therefore adaptable to hold, push and pull in a great range of different ways. The word ‘manipulate’ takes its origin from Latin, manus, a hand. In many mammals, for example the horse, cow, and pig, the number of digits is reduced from the arrangements in the reptilian ancestors whereas in the human hand the arrangements remain basically the same. The capabilities of the horse, cow, and pig, are inevitably very limited in manipulative skills using the legs. In these animals food is investigated by the nose and mouth whilst the human being lives a ‘hand to mouth’ existence, food being taken to the mouth by the hand.

Some finger movements depend mainly on activity of muscles in the forearm, the ‘long flexors’ and ‘long extensors’, but there are also a number of small muscles in the hand lying between the bones which play important roles in the control of individual fingers.

All muscles take significant times to contract and to relax so there is a limitation of the speed with which they can generate repeated movements. Few people can tap more rapidly than about seven per second. Such limitations, a result of muscle properties, apply to a violinist's vibrato and the beats of a drummer.

For about a hundred years the principal method of long distance communication was by telegraph. In the Morse code letters and numerals are sent by sequences of dots and dashes, the dashes being three times as long as the dots. The traditional Morse key, used for sending, has a metal lever which when depressed, makes an electrical contact. When the pressure is released the lever is raised by the action of a spring. The rate at which messages could be sent was of great economic importance but because of the limitations of muscle properties few operators could send more rapidly than about 25 words per minute. Morse operators were prone to suffer from ‘Telegraphists Cramp’.

In states of excitement, often associated with the liberation of the hormone adrenaline, there is a change in muscle properties and the hands and fingers may shake. Such a tremor, if significant, constitutes part of stage fright and can seriously impair the performance of a musician. Its rate is usually about 10 per second.

In handwriting the small muscles of the hand are in constant activity in holding the pen or pencil between the thumb and index finger often with further support from the middle finger. Other activity is called for to make the strokes; the time taken for these is quite variable but is often about a tenth of a second. The hand has also to be moved from left to right and the forearm must be rotated, ‘three quarters prone’, finally to start a new line the hand must be moved from right to left. There is probably no muscle between the shoulder and fingers which is not involved. When numerous people were employed as clerks there were often cases of ‘Writers Cramp’.

In typing, two-finger typists use the ‘hunt and peck’ method but skilled typists read the material in advance of the keystrokes. The information is taken into a ‘short term memory store’. The fingers are normally in motion towards more than a single keystroke simultaneously; as one finger approaches its target another is moving to operate the next key. Some typists can reach speeds of over 100 words per minute, whilst an office typist, typing at 60–80 words per minute, is averaging 5 to 7 key strokes per second.

Attempts to replace the ‘QWERTY’ keyboard, which arose historically with early typewriters, have made comparatively little headway and this arrangement is now widely used in computers. More than half the work is performed by the left hand. A typist needs to know, from the feeling in his fingers, that the key has been operated. There may be a hard stop, the key ‘bottoms out’ and stops moving at the point of actuation; this calls for the use of excess force. In other systems the force needed to push the key down decreases as soon as the contact is completed.

In musical performance much depends on accurate movements. Information is needed by the brain as to the position and movement of the hand and fingers; if this is lost there arise great difficulties in regulating movements. The trombone slide has seven positions, and finding them depends on the judgement and experience of the player. The cello is more demanding. An octave jump may cover a distance of, say, 30 cm, and the tolerance with good players is about ± 0.5 mm. The final position cannot be obtained by successive approximations or an intolerable ‘miaowing’ would result. The corresponding movement on the violin is 10 cm.

In some musical instruments most of the skill is needed by one hand or the other. For trumpeters the left hand acts merely as a clamp holding the instrument whilst the three valves are operated by fingers of the right hand. For the French horn the control of the valves is a function of the left hand. For the violin and its larger relatives the two hands have complementary complex tasks, the right hand controlling the bow, the left hand the stopping of the strings.

Some people are ‘double jointed’, their joints are significantly less limited in the range of possible positions than others. They may be able for instance to squat in the ‘Lotus position’ with the legs crossed and the soles of the feet pointing upwards. This ‘hypermobility’ shows ethnic differences, Caucasians being stiffer than Indians. Hypermobility can be found also in the hands and fingers. The virtuoso violinist, Niccolo Paganini (1782–1840), showed an extreme degree of this condition, and it enabled him to play his instrument with unrivalled skill.

In woodwind instruments, such as the recorder or flute, the pitch of the note depends on the length of the closed tube. Pitch is lowered if, by closing holes or valves, the length is increased; it is raised if the length is reduced. The player is repeatedly called upon to make these adjustments, this is done by the fingers. The human hand is well provided with mechanisms for moving fingers in the same direction accurately at the same time. Simultaneous bending (flexion) or straightening (extension) of two fingers, either of the same or of opposite hands is accomplished easily by most people with errors of only a few thousandths of a second. Such small errors will not be expected to have detectable effects on the quality of the music that results. Fairly often however the requirements of the score are more demanding. It is often necessary to lift one or more fingers whilst lowering another or others. If this is not neatly done, with small errors, the quality of the resulting sound may be expected to vary. The errors of moving two fingers in opposite directions simultaneously are sometimes quite substantial. They are certainly large in children of primary school age who are commonly taught the recorder. There is usually no problem in getting fingers down onto holes of a recorder at the right time, but difficulties may arise because another finger is lifted too late. Professional woodwind players such as flautists, clarinettists, oboists are in general more skilled in this regard than violinists, pianists and accordion players. A very accurate group are the players of the Scottish Highland bagpipes. These musicians practise extensively, perform repeated grace notes, and the instrument is very responsive so that smallish errors will be apparent.

For acceptable musical performance the lengths of the resonant tube must be adjusted appropriately. The spacing between the fingers is often not well suited to this accomplishment. Some Indian bamboo transverse flutes have holes so far apart that they cannot be properly played by a Westerner. Because of these limitations the instrument maker, Theobald Boehm (1793–1881) invented a system of mechanical linkages allowing the ‘holing’ to be separated from the ‘fingering’. This system is widely used in flutes and other woodwind instruments. In playing the flute only light pressure is needed to operate the valves but the musician cannot know that the hole is closed until the valve ‘bottoms out’. An inexperienced player may use excessive force.

For pianists, the relative merits of having long or short fingers and a broad fleshy or slender bony hand have been debated; but at times hands which look unpromising can perform feats of extreme virtuosity. Beginners are taught standard fingerings. More advanced players may fall back on these when sight reading but may also become skilled at bending the rules and using the many opportunities for alternative fingering to advantage. In playing at a relatively advanced level the musician needs to take into account not only the immediate phrase but he should allow the fingers to be in an advantageous position for the execution of the next part of the score. Any of the ten digits may in principle be used to strike any key. Everything depends on the context in which the note is found. In arpeggios in Romantic music there is a successive playing of parts of a chord; they are usually played in order of ascending pitch and the highest note carries the melody, the tones are sustained by the use of the damper pedal.

There are anatomical linkages of tendons between some of the fingers and this can be a limitation to performance. Some players have had these connections severed surgically to increase the independence of finger movements that is possible. Such a procedure should only be undertaken, if at all, with the greatest caution. In the nineteenth century devices were invented to strengthen or increase the mobility of the fingers, but they are no longer used. In some of these the fingers were exercised against springs, in others wedges were used to force the joints into extreme positions and the consequences could be serious. Musicians are liable to suffer from cramps and a number of other ‘upper limb disorders’. For a professional player, especially, the consequences can be serious and medical advice should be sought at an early stage.

E. Geoffrey Walsh


Boehm, T. (1964). The flute and flute playing. Dover.
Cole, J. (1995). Pride and the daily marathon. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Shivas, A. A. (1988). The art of tympanist and drummer. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
Walsh, E. G. (1997). Synchronization of human finger movements: delays and sex differences with isotonic antiphase motion. Experimental Physiology 82, 559–65.
Walsh, E. G. (2000). Mathematical analyses of telegraphic signalling. Morsum Magnificat 72 8–15.

See also evolution, human; handedness; hands; muscle tone; tremor.