A new brain-scanning system called BACh (Brain Automated Chorales) is teaching inexperienced piano players how to learn more quickly and effectively by figuring out how hard their brains are working and adjusting the difficulty accordingly. 

After just 15 minutes of learning a couple of Bach chorales, volunteers strapped into the device played the new pieces significantly better than when they used traditional methods, and the team behind the technology says it can be applied to a range of different skills, including maths, reading, programming, and learning foreign languages.

"We found that learners played with significantly increased accuracy and speed in the brain-based adaptive task compared to our control condition," the researchers from Tufts University report. "They could play with faster speed with Bach compared to a control where they learned the way they normally would."

The BACh system works using functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), which measures the oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain - an area known to play a role in planning, decision making, working memory and learning new tasks

When our brains are working hard, oxygen levels increase to facilitate all that extra processing, and depending on how challenged or 'up-to-speed' the volunteer was with the material, the BACh computer program would serve it easier or harder tasks.

So if you're struggling and hating life, the system will know to help you through the part you're stuck on, and only serve up new information once your brain can handle it. 

The system was tested on 16 inexperienced piano players who were tasked with learning two Bach chorales of similar style and difficulty. For one of the pieces, they spent 15 minutes learning it with the help of BACh, which served up the soprano line first, and once the brain scans showed they were ready for more, served up the bass, alto, and tenor parts.

The other chorale was presented without the program and the participants were instructed to learn the piece the way they normally would. The order of the two learning methods was alternated between participants.

Once they had used both learning methods, the participants were asked to play each piece once all the way through the best they could. Performance data from both conditions were recorded, including how many correct notes they made, how many incorrect notes they made, the number of extra notes, missed notes, and playing speed.

The team reports that the volunteers played significantly better after learning with BACh, playing more correct notes, playing less incorrect notes, missing less notes, and making less errors. They also had a faster overall playing time after learning with BACh, including less gaps between notes and a higher beats per minute (bpm) speed.

"[P]layers who are less skilled (i.e. play more incorrect notes or make more errors) tend to benefit more greatly from BACh, with steeper slopes demonstrating that there was a larger difference between the two conditions," they found.

The results of the experiment (which you can access here) have yet to be peer-reviewed, but will be presented at the Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction conference in California in May.

While we must make clear that 16 isn't a large sample size at all, and more extensive testing on a wider range of people will need to be done to prove the efficacy of the system, the results are definitely intriguing. Because let's face it, we all want to learn more skills in the least amount of time possible, and it makes sense to tap into our brain activity and personalise the lesson speed accordingly, so this looks like a promising piece of technology.

"I find it exciting," educational psychologist Ton de Jong from the University of Twente in the Netherlands, who wasn't involved in the research, told New Scientist. "It's individually based, and that's one of the big things we are searching for: to make learning more adapted to the individual."

The BACh team is now looking into adding emotion sensing to the program, New Scientist reports, which means lessons will be tailored according to a person's cognitive load and emotional state. "When they're overloaded, to maybe remove some information might be even more effective for learning," said one of the researchers.

What's cool is that the system isn't restricted to just piano lessons - the principles can be applied to any kind of lesson, whether it's learning a new language or understanding new maths formulae. We can't wait to see what the researchers do with it next.