Most people who use computers learn to type reasonably well, and many become very proficient. On the other hand, most people who try to play the piano decide they suck and give up.
If you’re willing to accept those highly informal statistics as correct, then we should ask ourselves why so many succeed at one and fail at the other. After all, typing on a computer and playing the piano are fundamentally similar activities.
More alike than different
Press down a key on the keyboard (piano or computer) and receive a precise response from the equipment. Do this in sequences, combinations, and with varied rhythm or speed, you will get an output predictably and exactly equal to your input. While you’re doing it, you look down at your hands or you don’t.
For people who have tried to play the piano, some important differences will stand out: Playing a piece of music requires you to match the rhythm as well as the sequence of notes, whereas the copying of a document can be done ‘correctly’ at any speed. You rarely need to push more than one key at a time while typing on a computer. A piano has foot pedals and a much larger keyboard, and so on. But as a skill, piano playing is still functionally much closer to typing than it is to saxophone playing.
To be an effective typist or pianist, two basic understandings are required:
1) You must ‘speak’ the language (English or music)
2) You must learn the arrangement of the keyboard
And these basics are actually more intuitive for piano playing than typing. Anthropologists would tell you that music is a far more natural ‘language’ than language itself. It’s something shared by every culture. We all possess an inherent musical sense. And the vocabulary of music (pitch, harmony, rhythm) is more consistent and less subjective than that of spoken language. “C♭” doesn’t ever mean anything else.
The piano keyboard is indisputably more intuitive than a computer keyboard. Piano keys are arranged in a repeating sequence of ascending pitches on a fixed scale. Even though they’re not labeled, anyone can learn to identify any key on a piano with about 30 minutes of instruction. There is no logical way to memorize the arrangement of a computer keyboard, because it’s mostly random.
As an example, the letter “R” was moved to its current home in the top row by the company who purchased the original typewriter from its inventor. They wanted salesmen to be able to impress potential buyers by rapidly banging out the word “TYPEWRITER” using only the top row (take a look, it’s true). You cannot deduce the identity of any key on a computer keyboard. That’s why they’re always labeled.
So where are all the pianists?
Given their similar nature (key pressing guided by a language) and the arguably more intuitive nature of piano playing, why do so many succeed at learning to type where so many fail at learning to play?
It’s a simple matter of time invested. Many of us spend all day at the computer typing away, and we’ve practiced its language (English) constantly since early childhood. Practice is practice, even if we don’t identify it as such while it’s happening. All those hours add up. Casual students of piano, on the other hand, probably struggle to squeeze in two hours of practice a week. But for some reason, they seek other explanations when they fail to make significant progress.
Mastery is always earned by the hour
There’s nothing natural or especially easy about typing, and no matter what you might tell yourself, there’s no special obstacle (lack of rhythm, talent, genetics, coordination etc.) to acquiring less common skills like playing the piano. As author Robert Fritz wryly observed, “If we study the people who know how to play, we see that they push down white keys and black keys.” Skills are skills. People who work at them acquire them. They practice for hours every day. Mastery is always earned by the hour.