Measuring the hand

Specialized instruments and comparative data from over fifty years of research make the measurements at the Hand Laboratory a unique scientific procedure. Photographs: Lee Li | Photography

A look into ZHdK’s Hand Laboratory

Neck tension, suspected carpal tunnel syndrome or tendosynovitis: musicians often suffer from pain, which makes daily practice difficult. Offering prevention, diagnostics and treatment, the ZHdK Hand Laboratory makes an important contribution to pain-free work, whether at university, in the orchestra or at the office.


The hands move towards the piano or computer keyboard, unconsciously the elbows rise slightly sideways — and after a few minutes painful tension starts building up in the shoulder and neck area, and the upper arms stiffen. Such compensatory movements are very frequent and often lead to intermittent or even chronic complaints. In order to prevent these occupational diseases and to optimize individual body postures and movements, the ZHdK Hand Laboratory has been offering ergonomic advice and workshops for musicians and office workers since 2010.

Over a hundred hand characteristics

As hands and arms differ greatly from one person to another in terms of shape, reach, strength and mobility, individual advice provides important guidance for treating occupation-specific complaints. The Hand Laboratory carries out examinations of the hands and arms on a scientific foundation. The measuring method used for the biomechanical examination of a musician’s hands goes back to Christoph Wagner, a German physician and musician, who developed the method from 1964 at the Max Planck Institute for Occupational Physiology in Dortmund. Meanwhile, more than one hundred instrument-specific hand characteristics can be recorded. They include categories such as hand shape and size, active mobility, passive mobility and strength. The instruments developed especially for the Hand Laboratory and the possibility of comparing individual results with data gathered for over fifty years make the measurements performed at the Hand Laboratory a scientific procedure that is still unique today. It is only there that a hand’s so-called passive mobility — a measure of flexibility and ease of movements — can be recorded in a differentiated manner by means of the laboratory’s specialized measuring instruments.

Support through an individual hand profile

Complaints when playing music or questions about playing posture and training options lead musicians to consult the Hand Laboratory. Following a consultation and measurements, a hand profile is created through computer-based assessment, which shows the individual values of a particular hand compared to the data of professional musicians from the corresponding group of instruments. This makes it possible to demonstrate the advantages and limitations of the individual musician’s hands and arms and to develop tailored measures for working in different body positions, such as for keyboard instruments and computer keyboards, string instruments, accordion and percussion. Depending on the symptoms, ergonomic aids such as an individually shaped shoulder pad or a multi-adjustable chin rest, specially developed by the Hand Laboratory and Wittner (a manufacturer of musical accessories), for example, can provide relief. For wind instruments such as the clarinet or oboe, an individually shaped, adjustable thumb rest combined with thumb-strengthening exercises can have alleviating effects, just as optimized seating positions and instrument rests support guitar players.

Every hand is different

A glance at the Hand Laboratory database reveals how significant individual differences can be. For example, the active spreading ability between the middle and the ring finger varies from only 4.2 centimetres for the smallest measured value to 11.2 centimetres for professional male pianists. This figure is relevant for the choice of fingering and co-determines which repertoire and which practising intensity are suitable. There are also differences of almost 40 degrees in the lateral mobility of the wrist towards the small fingers. This value provides important information on the economy of movements on a keyboard. The smallest measured value is 18, the largest 56 degrees. Substantial differences also exist in the ability to rotate the forearm inwards with ease: 105 degrees lie between the measured values. At the lowest value of 5 degrees and from a starting position with the thumb pointing upward, the forearm can barely be rotated in the direction of the keyboard without excessive effort. This often causes muscular tension in the upper arms, shoulders and neck. For people whose angular degree is small yet who often sit at a piano or use a computer keyboard, however, there is good news: even a slight inclination of the hand towards the little finger downwards allows the upper arms and elbows a more relaxed position and facilitates daily work, whether during studying, in the orchestra or at the office.

The Zürcher Zentrum Musikerhand (ZZM), ZHdK’s Hand Laboratory, is part of ZHdK’s Music Physiology/Music and Preventive Medicine section and embedded in the Institute for Music Research. It is managed by Horst Hildebrandt, Oliver Margulies and Marta Nemcova. In addition to pursuing fundamental research on musicians’ hands, it offers expert consultations and advice based on biomechanical studies. Measurement and advice are free of charge for members of ZHdK and are also available to the public.
Prof. Dr. Horst Hildebrandt ( is head of the Music Physiology/Music and Preventive Medicine section at ZHdK.
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