Mirror Neurons

-Monkey see, Monkey do-

by Nina Fourie-Gouws

Like many, my first encounter with guitar was not through classical music but rather ‘strum-and-hum’ group classes in primary school. The first time I saw someone playing classical guitar I was about 10 years old. I was totally transfixed! I begged-and-begged the poor guy to teach me how to play “thát song” until he finally gave in. By looking at what he was playing I learnt both sections of Spanish Romance in less than 30 minutes and so my life long love affair with classical guitar started.

There are obviously negatives as well as positives to learning to play by mimicking others, but I have often wondered why I responded so well to that method.

Maurizio Villa

I had the privilege of attending a workshop in 2014 in Italy with Maurizio Villa, guitar professor at the Conservatory of San Pietro a Majella in Naples. Maurizio made use of High Definition video equipment to examine and rectify mistakes in participants’ playing and technique through slow-motion viewing.

We had individual sessions where Maurizio and his assistant, Alessandro Germanò, recorded our playing from different angles simultaneously (front, side and top). After they had captured and analysed the data, we had follow up sessions where we then viewed the problems Maurizio highlighted in super slow motion, using software to insure that the intonation stayed the same no matter what speed the footage was played at. Oh the joy of seeing all your twitches and mistakes in super slow mo, over-and-over!

According to Maurizio, one could more easily rectify and understand technical inaccuracies in significantly less time than the traditional ‘comment-and-repetition’ form of teaching if you saw it with your own eyes. Pure genius!

I must admit that it took 2 interpreters and lots of hand gestures for me to understand Maurizio since my Italian is at about the same level as his English. In the end his hand gestures did the trick.

What I learnt

The muscles and tendons that flex your fingers and help you make a fist are called flexors. Extensors are the muscles and tendons that help you open that fist.

I have always believed that you can only play as fast as your extensor muscles take your finger back to its starting block, ready to repeat the process for the following note and the main reason why flamenco players have the ability play so fast is because they exercise these extensor muscles extensively through rasgueado (a flamenco strumming technique). It took Maurizio about 5 minutes to blow that theory out of the water.

While you do need your flexor muscles and tendons to play a note, there is no need to use the extensor muscles; If you release the flexor muscle tension the extensor tendon pulls the finger back to the starting block automatically. Not only does this happen without having to use any muscles, but the extensor tendon also pulls back the finger much faster and with a lot less energy than by using the extensor muscle.

All these years I’ve been paying for a return ticket when a one-way would’ve made do!

Maurizio picked up on this when he zoomed in on my right hand in slow motion. You could see that when I was playing something fast I overextended my extensor motion ever so slightly past the finger’s normal ‘starting block’.


Mauricio’s concept of learning through viewing is based on research by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Laila Craighero regarding The Mirror-Neuron System.

These neurophysiologists first conducted research in this field in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s by placing electrodes on the frontal lobe (the part of the brain involving planning, control, and execution of voluntary movements) of Macaque monkeys. During experiments they recorded the response of single neurons to certain movements. They came to the conclusion that some neurons responded in the same manner when the primate picked up a piece of fruit than when it observed a person picking up the fruit.

In other words, a mirror neuron is a nerve cell that fires when animals act or observe the same actions in others. The neuron thus mirrors the behaviour as if it was not only an observer, but an active participant.

Unfortunately it’s not yet possible to study single neurons in the human brain but motor resonance experiments that use fMRI scans to measure brain activity through detecting changes in blood flow, have shown that parts of the frontal lobe are active when a person performs an action, as well as when they see another individual performing an action.

Coincidentally, a series of recent studies by Yawei Cheng has concluded that female exhibit stronger motor resonance than males, but we’ll keep gender war out of this article.

Making science work for you

In short, because the same neurons fire while playing as well as when viewing it is possible to learn from viewing our own, as well as someone else’s, mistakes without playing a single note.

Even without using expensive camera equipment and software you can still record your playing from different angles and fine comb through the footage frame-by-frame to see where you went wrong and to fix the problem.

I’ve found that this also works wonders in the classroom; I zoom in on a student’s over-active left hand thumb or any other technical issue with my trusty little, outdated iPhone and we view the footage together. Hours of guitar nerd fun where you get to play the detective, scientist and musician in the same slow motion film.