It’s just plain wrong!

I have just read (I better not tell you where) a composer/pianist claim,“Obviously one cannot alter the sound of one single tone on the piano, beyond changing the loudness of it.”


Well, let’s not get into what that says about this particular person’s instrument, how s/he plays, or how acute their hearing is. But we absolutely must get into what it says about their understanding of piano tone (not to mention basic physics).

What it says is that they are wrong. Totally. What’s more, I can prove it with science! Although to do so would require an entire book so you will have to make do with this brief (well it’s brief compared to the book) explanation.

In a previous blog (“Good habits are bad”) I commented: “Contrary to what those pseudo-physicists who like to dabble in piano mechanics say, the hammer does not strike the string. Unless you are a VERY bad pianist. No, what the hammer actually does is coax the string into action”.

This is not just playing with words. Lets slow the whole process down by a factor of about 10,000 and watch. Obviously enough, the normal state of a piano string is to be motionless, at rest. To make a sound it has to oscillate, or if you prefer, swing from side to side. If it swings a little, we have pianissimo; if it swings a great deal, we have fortissimo.

Now what makes the string swing more or less? – the speed with which the hammer hits it!

WRONG, and for anyone that needs telling again, WRONG.

The correct answer is the FORCE with which the hammer deflects the string. Force and speed are not the same thing. Here is a simple example.

Imagine you are on a swing, but you are very lazy.  You refuse to swing unless some kindly person gives you a push. The kindly person may push gently and swing you in a small arc, or they may push firmly and you swing in a large arc. But small or large, it takes you exactly the same amount of time to make one complete swing, back and forth. (If you don’t believe that, ask Galileo. He was so smart he already knew it 400 years ago).

In other words, with a large arc you cover a greater distance, but you do it in the same time as for a small arc. So it is with strings. The wider the arc, the louder the sound. And just like you on the swing, it takes the same amount of time for a string to make one large oscillation as it does to make a small one. If it didn’t, the pitch would constantly change the louder or softer you play!  So the job of the hammer is to set the string in motion – more, or less, according to how loud the sound is to be.

But that’s not all!

First, a little more science. Let’s say you demand to swing so high you can see right over the roof tops. Now, the kindly person can choose to gently make contact with your back(side) and give you a nice progressive thrust with a follow-through action (just like a tennis player) to send you soaring on your way.

Or, if they are not so kind after all and rather resent having to stand out in the cold while you have all the fun, they may take half a dozen steps back, take a run at you at full speed, and give you an almighty thump in the back.  Either way you are going to swing the same high. But I think we can all agree which method you might prefer.

Now relate that to the strings on your piano. If they are violently thumped into vibration they will ‘feel’ very different from how they do if you progressively coax them into motion. And how your strings ‘feel’ matters very much to the sound they make.

I could go on to explain why that is so, but enough is enough.  And this is already enough. So for now, can we just stop this nonsense about “one cannot alter the sound of a single tone on the piano, beyond changing the loudness of it.”  It’s simply wrong – in reality, intuitively and musically.

PS.  For why this matters to the pianist see Play like an Angel

(see other blogs).