The Piano Voodoo of Tone Production

The word timbre (also called tone quality or tone color) is an important part of every musician’s vocabulary. Woodwind and brass instrumentalists can affect timbre by such simple things such as embouchure or fingering choices. String instrumentalists have things such as bow speed, angle and pressure to work with. Surprisingly to some, pianists have one and only one way to legitimately manipulate the actual color of each note they play: pedals.

Some may be compelled to cite qualities such as “warm”, “harsh” and “transparent” as auditory examples of how technique and touch can affect tone quality on the piano. We can affect tone production with our fingers, not just with pedals, right? Yes and no. We can affect tone production dependently of hammer velocity, but not independently of hammer velocity. In other words, those who ask their students to play a note “less harsh” without playing the note any softer are asking for the impossible.

Pianists do have the una corda, damper and sostenuto pedals at their disposal, but these are wielded by the feet, not by the fingers.

Physical Representations of Tone Production

Consider the following list, which represents all possible qualities of a note that can be controlled by the pianist:

  1. Pitch: Which string in the piano does the hammer strike?
  2. Rhythm: When does the hammer strike the string?
  3. Volume: How fast is the hammer traveling at the instant it strikes the string?
  4. Articulation: When (and how quickly) does the string stop vibrating?
  5. Timbre: Una corda pedal: How many strings are struck, and which parts of the hammers hit the strings? Damper and sostenuto pedals: What other strings are allowed to pick up sympathetic vibrations from the string that is struck?

If there were other ways to affect the “color” of a piano tone other than just pedals on the piano, there would be a physical representation of this change of color within the piano that obeys basic laws of physics.

Perhaps we can cause one hammer to hit the string with greater force or weight than another hammer that is traveling at the same velocity? Or maybe we can somehow get the hammer to stay in contact with the string for a longer period of time to achieve a warmer sound, perhaps by following the key all the way to the bottom of the keybed?

All these questions seem to ask the same fundamental question: can we affect how the hammer hits the string with factors other than velocity? Unfortunately, we can’t. These ideas are nothing more than myths produced by followers of the pianistic faith I refer to as “Piano Voodoo”.

Piano Voodoo Exposed

We’ve all noticed the point at which a key descent kind of “clicks” at the very bottom of its descent. This point, called “escapement” or “letoff” by piano technicians, is the point during the hammer’s journey at which we literally lose control of the hammer. After the escapement point, the hammer coasts to the string. Whether a pianist accelerates or decelerates a key depression on the key’s way down, and regardless of the angle at which the finger descends onto the key, all we are truly controlling is the velocity of the hammer up to its escapement point. After that, we are completely out of control.

Ironically, this is the kind of non-control that we need in order to be fully in control of the piano. If the escapement of a piano were adjusted until it occurred at a point beyond the string (in other words, escapement never occurred), we would get multiple note strikes and thuds every time we followed a key all the way to the bottom of the keybed.

So, we have no way to affect the length of time the hammer is in contact with the string other than affecting the velocity of the hammer when it is released by the escapement mechanism, which occurs before the key even reaches the bottom of the keybed (and about one-eighth of an inch before the hammer hits the string). This also means that there is no sense of hammer force when trying to distinguish force from velocity. Force implies

Pianist Meta Clorian demonstrates Piano Voodoo technique taken to its ultimate mastery, playing piano without moving any keys.

acceleration (or what pianists might think of as “continuing weight” on the key), and we non-Jedi pianists can neither accelerate nor decelerate the speed of the actual hammer once it has passed its escapement point.

To read about current research in this field (actual studies done on tone production), see another blog post of mine, Studies Addressing Piano Voodoo of Tone Production.

Jet Engineers Know Better Than Pilots

It is surprising just how many great artists and teachers are disciples of Piano Voodoo and just how far they will go to complexify musical artistry. Or maybe it isn’t surprising? In almost every case of observing Piano Voodoo masters, I’ve always wondered how many are so “at one” with the piano that they have ironically lost touch with what is actually happening inside the piano.

A jet fighter pilot (who is more “at one” with the jet than anyone, even more so than the engineers who made it) is not the most qualified person to understand exactly how the physics of the jet work. The pilot knows exactly what kind of hand movements are necessary to produce the jet movements desired. Jet pilots have their own set of techniques that allow for “smoother” jet flying, but their understanding of how their joysticks, levers and buttons move the jet is nothing more than an illusion being interpreted by the software and hardware that allows the jet to function. Fighter pilots would never pretend to know how to write or even understand all of the software that resides in all the computer chips on modern jets that manifests all of these different flying techniques. Likewise, the most brilliant concert artists and piano teachers on Earth are no more qualified than basic piano technicians are (and in fact are nearly always less qualified) to explain why a certain passage sounds so different from one pianist to another in terms of piano mechanics. It is the greatest artists on Earth who are often the most deceived.

Even being an illusion, this illusion of “control of piano timbre via fingers” is a very strong one. A great artist plays one note abrasively-loud with one technique, another more pleasant note with a different technique, then the artist argues to his or her death that they were both the same loudness but different “colors”. The master’s own brilliant musicianship is what deceives them: because they so desperately want to hear different “colors” with every fiber of their consciousness, they project these colors onto the notes they play.  No matter what technique is used, the pianist is still manipulating a simple 17th century machine to produce the sound.

Authority Bias

Unfortunately, most piano teachers I have spoken with cannot tell me what “escapement” is. That is why Piano Voodoo is taught at the very top, at national conventions attended by music teachers. That is why Piano Voodoo articles sometimes appear in music magazines and journals. These people stand on stage in front of huge audiences of agreeable teachers and do nothing but complexify the issue of tone production. Many teachers walk away from these talks with a small knot in their stomach, because while the talks are very artistic and inspiring, they leave the listener empty and confused. “How am I going to get my students to do this when I don’t even fully understand it myself?”, they ask. Fortunately, teachers who have ever felt this way can take comfort in the fact that it’s not that you didn’t fully understand it, it’s the speaker who didn’t fully understand it.

Authority bias is the tendency to value an ambiguous stimulus (e.g., an art performance) according to the opinion of someone who is seen as an authority on the topic. Applied to Piano Voodoo, the voodoo master can say just about anything they want to with the expectation that followers will nod their heads, even if it makes no sense to anyone. This outcome is especially reliable and predictable since those who nod their heads with the most vigor end up looking like masters themselves to others who are more transparent about their confusion.  Students and teachers who don’t know any better and who have never heard the term “escapement” before (let alone understand its implications) have no choice but to subscribe to Piano Voodoo when the music field places Voodoo masters on teaching pedestals.

One would think that these authority figures would be discredited by truth, but the problem is that these figures are some of the greatest pianists out there.  There are other great pianists who achieve the same great playing without constructing musical illusions around them, but it is much more dazzling to speak about (and to listen to) grand artistic illusions than simple physics of the piano that were known hundreds of years ago. One places a lot on the line by challenging these viewpoints, since looking at truth square in the face does not seem like a very “artistic” thing to do. Perhaps my favorite quote about teaching is the following, spoken by a football coach (emphasis added):

“It is sometimes said that the great teachers and mentors, the wise men and gurus, achieve their ends by inducting the disciple into a kind of secret circle of knowledge and belief, make of their charisma a kind of gift. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the best teachers – and, for that matter, the truly long-term winning coaches, the Walshes and Woodens and Weavers – do something else. They don’t mystify the work and offer themselves as a model of oracular authority, a practice that nearly always lapses into a history of acolytes and excommunications. The real teachers and coaches may offer a charismatic model – they probably have to – but then they insist that all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perseverance. The great oracles may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify. They make particle physics into a series of diagrams that anyone can follow, football into a series of steps that anyone can master, and art into a series of slides that anyone can see. A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves.” – Adam Gopnik (“The Last of the Metrozoids”, The New Yorker, May 10th, 2004)

As powerful and true as this quote is, in the field of musical artistry, I don’t believe Piano Voodoo will ever disappear. Authority bias will continue to take place, and people who are truly liberated by truth will continue to be criticized by those who have based their entire teaching career (and ego) on pianistic illusion.

For those who really like authority, I can just as easily appeal to authority as the other side can. Those who disagree with this blog entry would also have to disagree with Charles Rosen (here and here), who is the granddaddy of all writer-musicians according to The Guardian.

Appeal To Ridicule

Some people find the suggestion that they are using voodoo instead of real artistry offensive.  While the word voodoo is indeed a derogatory term in this context, the time has come for musical truth-deniers to be the ones on the defensive rather than truth-seekers having to always defend themselves.  Unfortunately, the same people who are offended by this are often the ones who are doubly offensive in their suggestion that people who know certain scientific truths about the piano are replacing artistry with science.  It is far more offensive for people to be ridiculed for being right than for being wrong.

The person who understands why they have certain feelings has a larger perspective (not smaller) than the person who simply has feelings but doesn’t understand why, and this larger perspective is going to be true for any discipline in the world.  A historian is better off knowing why a war took place than in just knowing it took place.  A painter is better off knowing why a certain brush stroke (or brush) is necessary than merely using it “just because it works”.  Sound production on the piano is no different.

As author W. H. Auden said, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.”  Gaining knowledge and truth of any kind is never going to make someone less of an artist, and I would be embarrassed for making such a backwards argument.

Using Technique For The Right Reasons

“The last temptation is the greatest treason:  To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”  (T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral)

While the musically elite may be correct to conclude that when a certain technique is used, certain “colors” are more likely to take place, it is not correct to assume this particular technique is the only way to achieve it. The field of psychology knows this as illusory correlation - beliefs that inaccurately suppose a particular relationship between a certain type of action and an effect. Piano strings don’t know what technique you’re using – they only know the velocity and timing of each hammer strike. Therefore, the proper relationship between technique and color is the relationship of likelihood rather than of absolute cause.

Different touches and angles of descent are still very useful to teach. Tone production is a very real part of pianism. There is nothing wrong with telling a student to not play a note quite so staccato while the pedal is down in order to achieve a “warmer” effect. But it can only enhance a student’s musicianship if we also explain the real reason why we suggest to play with various techniques in certain situations, such as the fact that a staccato touch is more likely to produce a greater hammer velocity because of the quickness of the stroke, rather than allowing the student to operate under beliefs that contradict basic laws of physics.

As another example, it is still useful to teach students to play with more “weight” if a less harsh tone is desired. When playing big chords, slapping the keys with the hand (pivoting at the wrist, the same way in which we might knock on a door without moving our arm) can produce a frightfully percussive sound, while dropping the entire forearm with a sense of “weight” helps to moderate that sound. But to tell a student that involvement of the arm achieves an equal dynamic level as involvement of the wrist/hand alone — except “without the harshness” — is simply not true. In reality, it is doing nothing more than causing the hammers to travel slower at the point of contact with the strings. While the hand can jerk downward very suddenly, the forearm (which is controlled by larger and therefore slower-moving muscles) has a harder time moving with the same degree of suddenness. Using additional “weight” moderates key (and therefore hammer) speed and nothing more.

Words like “warm”, “harsh” and “transparent”, as useful as we all find these words to be in our teaching, are nothing more than mere descriptions of certain combinations of note velocities, timings, articulations and pedaling. These seemingly simple parameters each can be manipulated with almost infinite variety, and when they interact with each other, it compels us to assume that there are 30 or 40 parameters instead of just a few. “Warm” might represent a generally soft and legatissimo sound, louder velocities in the lower note registers, or a phrase with a quiet dynamic peak. “Harsh” would be generally too loud. “Sparkly” might represent louder velocities in the upper registers with a staccato touch. “Transparent” might come to mind when we hear an unpedaled/pianissimo Alberti bass.

A slightly different hand position can drastically change the timing and velocity of notes (as well as timing of release). When you have 30 or 40 notes in a passage, all approached with one technique as opposed to another, the combination of all these velocity and timing variations will often produce what we artists call different “tones” or “colors”. One simple change in hammer velocity within a chord (on just one note) can affect the overtones present to such a degree that we perceive a change in “piano timbre” when actually it was only caused by volume of a single note.

All these and more techniques and touches at the piano really do work!  It’s just that they don’t work for the reason many assume. Pianists produce these different colors and glorify them by assigning them attributes that don’t exist, which (in the end) only serves to glorify oneself. For additional information from a graduate physics thesis (on the piano!) turned into a website, see Piano Physics. Be sure to eventually make your way to the “Agreement of Perception” subsection of the “Paradox” section. You’ll see that the author agrees that basic understanding of piano physics and great artistry do not need to be treated as if they were mutually exclusive.

It’s Still Beautiful, Wondrous and Magical

Astronomers now know why stars flicker, what “shooting stars” actually are, and they know what causes the northern and southern lights. Does this prevent those very same astronomers from appreciating the beauty more than astronomers 3,000 years ago? Perhaps there is less “wonder” for the astronomers: they no longer wonder if Zeus is painting the sky.  But this superstitious wonder is replaced with what I would argue is a better type of wonder.

When I heard Olga Kern play a C major Haydn Sonata at the 2009 MTNA Convention with more variety of tone color than I had ever heard in that piece, I stood in awe at her mastery of articulative touches, pedaling techniques, various timing choices, and most of all, combinations of velocity both horizontally and vertically. The problem is, most people who heard these colors probably assumed that mere pitch/velocity/duration/timing/pedaling couldn’t possibly be responsible for the “magic” they heard. But with a little imagination and an open mind, one can see how all this is actually possible. My sense of awe, wonder and appreciation of beauty increases when I consider how few tools pianists have at their disposal in order to create all their “magic.” Yes, they use hand positions and different touches to make these things as easy to do as possible, as do I, but just because someone is using a different grip and stroke on their tennis racket doesn’t mean their racket isn’t still behaving just like it always does. It’s still the same tennis racket.

What we have to work with is plenty, and in my opinion it is magical and humbling in the most glorious way to hear a colorful performance in light of such simplicity. We don’t need to invent the Tooth Fairy in order to judge or demonstrate good tone production. We become greater artists and teachers at the piano by embracing truth instead of running away from it. By examining and confronting the science behind tone production, we do not put ourselves in shackles of realism.  We are instead liberated from the prison of illusion and artistic dogma.

Common Responses

Below is a collection of common reactions to this subject and my responses to each one.

1)  “Music is an art, not a science.”

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This is a straw man argument.  This debate does not pretend to be artistic in nature, nor does it need to be, because it only deals with the science behind how a single note void of any musical context can be manipulated.

Even if this weren’t a straw man argument, music is a lot more science than most people think.  Consider just how much music theory plays a role on stage. In fact, music theory ought to be called “music science” because that’s exactly what it is.

Those who believe music performance is not a science should read what CPE Bach wrote about performance practice in baroque music. They should read what Paderewski wrote about tempo rubato. They should ask Christopher Taylor sometime if he sees any “science” in his performance. In Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician, Christoph Wolff compares Bach to Isaac Newton because of how scientifically Bach approached his art.

There is a science to ornamentation, articulation, rubato, and dynamic planning. Only when this science is absolutely thoroughly mastered does it even begin to sound like “art”. Is there no science to fingering? Is there no science to technique? No science in composing a nocturne? An etude? Some of the most terrible performances result from the fact that the performer approached the piece with great feeling and absolutely no understanding.

Which situation is more inherently “good”: having feelings about something, or having feelings about something and understanding why those feelings are there? It is not an asset to be ignorant of how the piano works, and it is a form of ridicule to bring up the “this knowledge is irrelevant to great artistry” argument, especially when it isn’t even true.

Furthermore, just as good technique seeks to remove unnecessary or distracting physical movement and tension, a good pianist will also seek to eliminate unnecessary or distracting mental thought.

It is not myself who reduces art to science; it is the deceived artist who turns science into religion.

2)  “When we play piano, this scientific stuff is too much to think about.  It makes me feel like a centipede who is unsure of which foot to put forward.  It gets in the way of my artistry.”  (and)  “The focus here is in the wrong place:  Knowing this stuff doesn’t make you any more of an artist.”

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When great pianists perform, are they calculating hammer velocities with math equations? If only they were capable of such a thing.  Suggesting that this knowledge would somehow limit one’s ability to be “magical” at the piano is just as much of a fallacious claim as the suggestion that getting a college music degree somehow impedes one’s ability to create inventive and unique music as a composer. The latter belief was once stated in the bio of Yanni on his website before it was finally edited out, probably due to flame mail he inevitably must have received.  Or maybe Yanni’s press agent kicked some sense into him.

Knowledge and beauty are not incompatible.  Pianists can still do everything they already do at the piano.  It can only benefit them to stop and think about the true “why” behind what they do.  At best, they’ll validate through science what they already know through experience.  At worst, they’ll open new doors of possibilities by embracing reality and realize there’s a better way to approach it.

Some students can work well without true understanding, while others cannot.  It would be bad pedagogy for a teacher to expect 100% of their students to operate under illusion just because that’s how the teacher operates.  The implications of the truth of tone production at the piano are only unimportant to those who are perfectly content to take action before truth is known.  This isn’t good enough for some people, including some of the greatest artists of today.

Furthermore, “focus” on the subject is not a prerequisite for teaching it, any more than a teacher must “focus” on music theory in every piano lesson they teach in order to acknowledge the validity of music theory as it applies to everything we do at the keyboard.

Finally, this knowledge can and does make one a better artist:  see the “It’s Still Beautiful, Wondrous and Magical” section above.  How we approach the piano can most definitely change when we recognize the reality of what we are dealing with as artists.  It is widely accepted that creating a “body map” (as taught by the Taubman approach and Alexander technique) enhances one’s playing.  Likewise, when a pianist develops an accurate and adequate “piano map”, it can only enhance their efforts.  For example, when a pianist realizes that color is only a result of velocity, he or she may simplify their efforts in a certain passage to focus on the dynamic levels of each note rather than an illusory color that works independently of dynamic level.

3)  “How do we produce tone at the piano?  We produce it with the heart.”

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When we discuss “how” tone is produced, we can discuss how a pianist proceeds to produce it, or we can discuss how the piano reacts to what the pianist does.  This subject is limited to the scope of the latter.  “How” a pianist produces tone is an entirely different subject.

4)  “One can hold certain notes down with the fingers before hitting other notes, causing sympathetic vibrations.”

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Yes, but there is a good reason that this technique of overholding is often called “finger pedaling”: this is an instance where the fingers seek to imitate the pedal. The change in tone is not caused by any special stroke style; instead, it is caused by initial conditions that are set up before the stroke occurs. Piano Voodoo masters who claim that special strokes exist on the piano that can manipulate tone independently of velocity are making a fallacious argument, because “manipulation of initial conditions” is not a stroke.

But even if this did count for a “stroke”, those who argue against the premise of this article do so on artistic grounds, and yet there is not a single concert artist in recorded history who overholds notes in this fashion purely for the effect of getting “only a few” sympathetic vibrations with the few fingers that are overholding. When pianists wish to add extra tone to their music (such as the final two chords in a Haydn sonata), the pianist will simply pedal the last two chords for their exact duration. If a pianist wants to add tone to a scale, it is done with changing pedal, half-pedal, pedal that “floats off” for a diminuendo, or pedal that stays down for “pedal crescendos”. Never in standard repertoire is a pianist called to “grab certain notes silently before playing other notes”. This is done sometimes in some non-standard repertoire, but even then, it’s not done to achieve some magical sound during the stroke: it is done so that the pianist can let the original notes go and allow the listener to hear only the sympathetic vibrations that linger after the original notes have been released (such as the last line of “The Serpent’s Kiss” from Bolcom’s Garden of Eden, or the beginning and end of the third movement of Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata).

5)  “I have great experience in this matter and have studied with great masters.”

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Appeal to credibility only works when both sides of the debate can agree that the source of information is trustworthy, relevant and sufficiently strong.  The claim above is not even relevant to the proposition. Artistry is not a prerequisite to understanding the limitations of the piano well enough to have an intelligent debate about it.

Additionally, this argument is a form of appeal to ridicule.  It implies that one person’s opinion matters more on this subject because they are more of an artist than their opponent.

6)  “Ability to produce good tone at the piano is a gift.”

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This is completely irrelevant.  The subject at hand deals with mechanics of piano action, not with artistry involved in depressing a key.

7)  “How about we just agree that there is no such thing as “wrong” or “right” on this issue.”

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There is no room for both sides in this debate to be right, any more than there is room for 2+2 to be 4 and 5 at the same time.  Either it is possible to play a note at the same volume twice and change its timbre the second time by virtue of stroke style, or it is not possible.  Those who do not have truth on their side are the only ones who stand to benefit by offering the “no wrong or right” argument.  “If at first you don’t succeed [in debate], redefine success,” right?

Sources

Rosen, Charles, Kenneth Wolf, and Marc Ryser. “Playing the Piano.” New York Review, Vol. 46 No. 20 (Dec. 16, 1999).

Rosen, Charles, David W. Ross, and Carolyn Kunin. “Playing the Piano.” New York Review, Vol. 47 No. 3 (Feb. 24, 2000).

(c) 2010 Cerebroom

 

About Chad Twedt

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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1 response to The Piano Voodoo of Tone Production


  1. Just found this and am so grateful. I am a pedagogical descendent of Abby Whiteside, who taught that piano “tone” was all nonsense. I blogged about this the other day, and the Voodoo lovers came after me. So glad to see someone else fighting the good fight.

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