What is the Best Place in my House for my Piano?

My answer to this question will come shortly, but first let’s consider some issues commonly found in answering this question.

It is often heard that you should not put your piano near a window. This rule of thumb was more true say in 1913 than in 2013. Windows in 1913 did not seal as tightly as modern windows do and homes were much less air tight, particularly around windows. Subsequently, there was more air movement and climate variability nearer the windows than on the inside walls. While the inside wall may still be more stable today, the difference is pretty negligible.

However, sun light, whether it is from 1913 or 2013 is pretty hard on a piano. But in 1913 you were much more likely to have heavy drapes around the windows both to dampen the air movement and block out excess sunlight. Today, we just let the sun pore in, we even will put in sky lights if possible. All of this high powered light will heat your piano, especially the ubiquitous black pianos, causing as much tuning instability as the 1913 walls and windows. Sun light will also fade the color out of any wood finished furniture and flooring.

What about the basement family entertainment area? Modern basements are certainly drier than those found in older homes however by their very nature the humidity levels are higher, sometimes much higher than those found on upper levels of the home. I have a friend who has a newer home and his basement flooded in this spring’s heavy rains. He was able to get his guitars out of his basement, but if his piano has been there he would have lost it. As a general rule I would assume any piano which has been in a basement for more than two years as little to no economic value left. Yes, some will still be fine, but most suffer from mold and animal and insect infestations you can’t see from the outside.

Some modern homes with open floor plans will have large sitting areas on their second floors which make for great, out of the way, places for their pianos. Don’t try to do this on your own! That turn you walk so easily through every day can be nearly impossible for a 500 pound upright to navigate except on its side. Heavy pianos will also destroy those beautiful wood stairs you just had refinished. Let the professionals do it and don’t just go with the cheapest quote, pay the extra for the best movers in town.

OK, so sunlight is bad, windows, as long as they are shut are less bad, and basements are deadly, where can I put my piano?

Where ever you want to! My first rule on piano placement and use is to enjoy it! I can fix everything else. If you like to play by the windows flung wide open in your 100 year old, original condition house, go for it! I personally love to play with the windows open and fresh air flowing all around me. You just may want to tune your piano more often, that is all. If your kids love to jam in the basement with their friends and the pianos gets all moldy, so what! Who would trade that experience for anything?

Put your piano where ever you want and enjoy it for the rest of your life, otherwise why bother.

The Effect of Repetition on Retention

It is a common experience that repetition impacts memory. The more a passage is repeated on day 1 of practice, the better condition it is in when the next day’s work begins. But how much practice does it require to maintain “X” amount of material? How much retention is gain for each repetition? At what point does the diminishing returns outweigh the value of the additional retention?

Ebbinghaus did a series of double tests to find the answer to these questions. He learned 6 series of 16 syllable lists, repeating each list either 8, 16, 24, 32, 42, 53, or 64 times. The next day he repeated the tests, the results were remarkably consistent across all levels of study. Through the course of his study he found that it took an average of 31 repetitions to learn a list of 16 syllables. So the lists learned 8, 16, and 24 times were not learned to his standard of error free reproduction. However the 42, 53, and 64 repetition lists were significantly over studied for his standard.

The next day he relearned the lists and recorded the amount of repetitions and time it took to learn each list to his standard. The results across all lists was an average savings of 12.7 seconds with each test set of 6 lists falling within the narrow range of 12 and 13.7 seconds saved. The average savings per list (out of the 6) was 2.1 seconds and the average time it took to read a list was 6.6 – 6.8 seconds. On average, across the entire exercise he experienced a savings of one repetition for every three repetitions done the preceding day.

And as for the question of diminishing returns, the greatest savings occurred at the 42 repetition level. Some of this he attributed to: “An increase of the readings used for the first learning beyond 64 repetitions proved impracticable, at least for six series of this length. For with this number each test requires about 3/4 of an hour, and toward the end of this time exhaustion, headache, and other symptoms were often felt which would have complicated the complicated(sic) (I think the translation should have said “results”) of the test if the number of repetitions had been increased.”

So when your students asks “Do I really need to play it again????” You can say quite confidently: “Yes, Dr. Ebbinhaus says do it 42 times!” It is indeed true that repetition is the mother of all learning. In coming articles we will look at the effect of thoughtful repetition.

Ebbinghaus on List Length.

The first area of memorization Ebbinghaus looked at in his dissertation was the effect of the length of the list of non-sense syllables he learned. His first observation was that lists of 7 or fewer required just one reading to be reproducible by memory. This observation is later verified by other researchers as the usual size of the short term memory. The short term memory is often described as having the capacity of 5 – 7 “chunks” of information and lasting no more than 15 seconds.

As the number of syllables increased to 12 the average number of repetitions required for the first errorless reproduction increased to 16.6. Adding just 4 more syllables added nearly 14 more repetitions. The next addition of 8 syllables (24 total) added another 14 repetitions and the final addition of 15 syllables (39 total) added only 11 (55 total) repetitions.

Number of syllables/ Number of repetitions necessary for first errorless reproduction (exclusive of it)
in a series

  7  /                   1
  12     /                  16.6
  16     /                  30.0
  24     /                  44.0
  39     /                  55.0

While we could say that if the final group of 39 syllables had been learned in groups of 7 or fewer it would have taken far less effort to get to the first errorless reproduction, we will see in later parts of his dissertation the effect of practice on retention. Retention is the only thing which matters after all.