Horny chestnuts make beautiful music

Quite a bun fight at our last masterclass – between believers and doubters. It was that old horny chestnut again. If Horowitz or any one of the students each played a single note on the same piano at exactly the same volume, could anyone tell the difference?

Fair enough, we all know when one listens to Horowitz there’s no doubt that it IS Horowitz – there is such a thing as the ‘Horowitz sound’. But of course one never hears Horowitz play just a single note. What one does hear is a composite of his technique, voicing, phrasing, balance, layering, pedalling etc etc all of which collectively make up his unique sound. So would a single note by the maestro sound any different from one by you or me?

The doubters invoke the evidence of physics. A pianist has only one variable to play with – how fast they depress the key. There’s nothing else you can do to a key that will influence the sound you get. You can change the quantity of sound (faster = louder) but you can’t change the quality. Make as many fancy arm movements as you like, apply arm weight, use finger touch, rotation, wrist action, pull a few faces or even (as Jamie Callum likes to) stomp on the key with your foot – but it all boils down to how fast you push the key down. End of story!

Physics, so the doubters claim, give us ‘incontrovertible proof’. Rigorous scientific experiments studying wave lengths, amplitudes, overtones and anything else you can see on an oscilloscope show that a single key, depressed at a certain rate, can only produce a certain, specific sound.

Well, the believers are having none of that. Instinctively they just KNOW that HOW one depresses a key (whether stroke, jab, with bent or flat finger, wrist or arm action), all these possibilities and more, make a vast difference to the sound that results, even for a single note.

How can that be? the doubters want to know, when the hammer hitting the string is not even in direct contact with the key. Through the ingenious mechanism of piano action, it’s thrown at the string under it’s own impetus. Once it’s on it’s way, how can the pianist possibly have further control of it? All that can be done is to set it off at a certain velocity.

OK, say the believers, nothing faulty in that logic – as far as it goes. But measurable wavelengths and overtones cannot be the whole story. Just listen with your ears and not your brain! Any musically sensitive ear will hear a difference between a jab or a stroke, a flat finger or a Nike trainer, even at the same volume.

All in the imagination, claim the doubters.

At which point I felt it advisable to join in. After all, lunchtime was fast approaching.

An experiment*, I suggest. (And to any more ‘scientific pianists’ out there, try it yourself). Here’s a small block of wood, thickness about half the height of a key, length doesn’t matter. Now we hold it in place against the front of the keys (under the lip) so that a key can only go down half way. And now we give the key a sympathetic jab, enough to fling the hammer all the way to the string. What a sound! Not in a good way! A most unpleasant thin quality, totally unable to project over any distance and useless for making music.

Next we take the wood away and play the key again in exactly the same manner, except now it has its full travel. Same key, same volume, same finger, same action – but same sound? I don’t think so!

So what is the explanation? Who knows? Who cares? Just understand there IS a difference and be forever grateful that it is so.

More about this in my next post.

* I am indebted to the wonderful Tobias Matthay (Uncle Tobes) for this experiment.