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Touch and tone quality #2860259
06/19/19 12:37 AM
06/19/19 12:37 AM
Joined: Dec 2016
Posts: 216
Tallahassee, FL
Chopin Acolyte Offline OP
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Hi.

There's this thing about piano playing that has been nagging me for a long time now. Some people claim that the way you touch the keys of a piano alters the sound beyond dynamics, i.e. you can make it warm and "nice" (playing from the surface of the keys), or make it harsh and "ugly" (striking keys from above).

A few things I noticed:
  • some people wiggle their fingers on the key/massage the key after starting a long note they hold (claiming they produce some kind of vibrato?)
  • some people slide their fingers towards the back of the keys (towards the fallboard) after they play a chord and they hold it (not sure what this is supposed to achieve in terms of sound)
  • people claim they can hear difference between slamming keys from above and striking keys from the surface (because "slamming the keys causes acceleration to hammer shanks and produces different timbre even if the volume itself is the same"?)


I thin all of this is myth. I see one and only relevant variable connected to the tone quality: velocity given to the hammer in the instant it hits the string, period. No amount of caressing the key after the note has been played can cause anything to the sound that has already been produced, neither sliding the fingers towards the back of the keys causes anything to the tone. The only thing I can somehow accept is a very subtle effect of acceleration given to the hammer (first derivative of velocity) and how that affects the string. However, any partial differential equation of second order in time (i.e. every equation that emerges from Newton's law applied to a continuum that represents the string attached on its ends) requires only two inputs: initial position and initial velocity. Initial position is stationary (straight string), initial velocity is given by the hammer's shape and the rate at which it approaches the string...I see very little room for acceleration to take any significant part in this.

Now, while this being said, I can rationally explain massaging keys, sliding fingers etc.: relaxation and preparing for what comes next. If you play lovely Chopin, your body movements copy the peaceful state of the mind. If you play Liszt and you just ended a very loud and fast passage of chords, you might end up the last chord with your fingers sliding on the keys, or perhaps wiggling your wrists a bit to ease up. This seems all rational to me, but as far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with the sound of the piano itself (apart from the fact that if you don't relax, the next passage you play will be uneven (some might say ugly), because tired hands cannot control evenness and dynamics so well as well-relaxed hands).

Another thing is aesthetics: sure, making smooth body motion at a piano looks nice (if you have the whole picture, sound + visual), but would you notice whether the pianist wiggled their fingers just from a recording? There's nothing inherently wrong with how people physically move while playing, but we should be aware of the limited effect this has on the tone quality and not try to mystify ourselves.

Look here (2:00):



Robert Estrin claims that there is a difference between the two samples he played (2:00). To be honest, I hear no qualitative difference beyond maybe microscopic difference in velocities of individual notes, but I don't believe one can change the timbre from nice to ugly by slapping the keys from above and vice versa.

However, one thing is true: it is way easier to control dynamics and voicing (making one note or more stand out in a certain chord, so that the chord has a certain "color", other than 4 equally loud notes played together) when playing from the surface of the keys as opposed to slapping the keys. I think is that what most people percieve "uglier" is when the chords are voiced randomly (happens when you just slap the keys from above), but the timbre of individual notes does not change. Also, if you slam the keys too hard, sometimes the instrument will sound harsh, as if some "limit" was reached, but this depends again only on the velocity of the hammer, regardless of the way in which you set the hammer in motion.

If you sit an amateur at a very fine piano, it will sound like an amateur is playing. If you sit a very good pianist at a shitty piano, it can sound still amazing. Why? Because the good pianist has a good technique and experience, knows what sounds good after practicing 40hrs/day, can control his dynamics very well, fast notes are even etc. But I don't think he'd push any more beautiful/special timbre out of a shitty piano.

Now some tests have been done and scientists claim that pianists can consistently tell how the key was played (? I read this somewhere on forums). I'm not sure how the test was performed, but a trained ear can hear the initial attack, whether it's been made from above the keys, or from the surface and if the key was slammed into the keybed or pianist stopped pushing after the sound was made so it didn't slam the bottom as much...but what if we cut off the initial moment of the attack and play back just the decaying note...would they still be able to tell how it was produced?

Please, tell me, what is your opinion on this matter? How much can a pianist really influence the timbre of piano (besides altering it by putting stuff inside that don't belong there. Yes, I'm looking at you JOHN CAGE)? And I mean objective measures: at the same dynamics, is it possible for the same note, at the same velocity level, to sound different? Does petting, caressing, massaging, wiggling, sliding, slapping, proper striking, poking, wishful thinking, projecting and imagining tone to "be going somewhere" really do something to the tone? Any sources, interesting related articles/papers etc.? Don't hesitate to argue, I'm okay if you call me "a mere button pusher and pedal stomper with no artistic feeling".

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Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860265
06/19/19 01:35 AM
06/19/19 01:35 AM
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You can do nothing to change a note after the key has been depressed. Sliding around the keys or any unnecessary movement is not advisable.
Digging into the keys with unnecessary pressure after the note has sounded is bad practice .

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860270
06/19/19 01:59 AM
06/19/19 01:59 AM
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Moscow, Russia
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You are right, Chopin Acolyte, velocity is the only thing that affects the tone, and every type of keystroke that we use is just a biomechanical program that allows us to produce a certain level of velocity more reliably.

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860273
06/19/19 02:06 AM
06/19/19 02:06 AM
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Queensland, Australia
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I'm with you - I can't see that hand/finger/arm/brain movements AFTER striking the key will make any difference. However, preparing for the next note and the transition to playing the next note will - as will pedaling technique.

Quality of piano and responsiveness certainly makes a difference, and it makes it easier to play. However I learned for a short while from a lady who was an outstanding pianist (and Pipe Organist). She had a very unremarkable old upright piano - but it sounded gorgeous when she played. I'd have loved to have heard her on a Concert Grand.

However - maybe it's a question you could also ask on the Pianist Corner.


Alan from Queensland, Australia (and Clara - my Grotrian Concert & Allen Organ (CF-17a)).
Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860274
06/19/19 02:07 AM
06/19/19 02:07 AM
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Quote
. . . I think all of this is myth.


I agree with you. But this is a good example of a "religious argument":

. . . Opinions are very strong, on both sides of the question;

. . . Good evidence is very hard to find;

. . . Definitions are hard to pin down.

OTOH, I've never heard anyone claim that a _digital_ piano responds to "touch subtleties".


. Charles
---------------------------
PX-350 / microKorg XL+ / Pianoteq / Lounge Lizard / Korg Wavedrum / EV ZXA1 speaker
Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Charles Cohen] #2860276
06/19/19 02:22 AM
06/19/19 02:22 AM
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Tallahassee, FL
Chopin Acolyte Offline OP
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Originally Posted by Charles Cohen


I agree with you. But this is a good example of a "religious argument":

. . . Opinions are very strong, on both sides of the question;

. . . Good evidence is very hard to find;

. . . Definitions are hard to pin down.

OTOH, I've never heard anyone claim that a _digital_ piano responds to "touch subtleties".



Yeah, DPs feel different. Couldn't be the case that any real piano encompasses a little bit of randomness? (even if you strike with the same velocity twice the tone is not exactly the same...for once, The piano goes out of tune slowly as you play it. nothing noticeable after one note (on a well regulated instrument), but eventually...it adds up)

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860277
06/19/19 02:26 AM
06/19/19 02:26 AM
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Tallahassee, FL
Chopin Acolyte Offline OP
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I'd like to reiterate on Robert Estrin's video...he's a pro pianist, so I wouldn't say he's wrong right away.

But do you people hear the difference when he slaps vs. plays from the surface? One difference might be the control over voicing (choose which note out of the four will sound louder), which is of course better when you actually touch the keys before striking them... Also, my very basic built-in speakers are not very good at playing piano sounds (any sounds, really), so it might be that the difference is like between ff and fff...

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Charles Cohen] #2860279
06/19/19 02:28 AM
06/19/19 02:28 AM
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Originally Posted by Charles Cohen
Quote
. . . I think all of this is myth.
I agree with you. But this is a good example of a "religious argument ...

thumb agreed, but it does keep the forums lively ...

John Mortensen’s videos are worth viewing - but this one in particular is pertinent for this thread.



We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams.
Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860280
06/19/19 02:28 AM
06/19/19 02:28 AM
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This is such an interesting topic...

Originally Posted by Charles Cohen
I agree with you. But this is a good example of a "religious argument":

. . . Opinions are very strong, on both sides of the question;

. . . Good evidence is very hard to find;

. . . Definitions are hard to pin down.

I feel slightly out of sorts here because I've never really studied the mechanics of the instrument, and also, I happen to belong on the other side of the opinion spectrum, believing there is such as a thing as "tone". I agree with everything Charles Cohen has said here.

Now, I can't argue with the science and physics that's been presented already in the thread. I do however think there are pianists in the past and present, who, to me, had/have beautiful "tones", and I can usually identify a pianist based solely on that. I'm thinking of past pianists like Horowitz, Rubinstein, Gilels and Rachmaninoff, who I feel had the "golden tone" so to speak, although I'd say Horowitz had a more "bell-like" tone. Rachmaninoff's in particular had that really penetrating tone, it just really rears into you. Of present pianists, I think Barenboim can sometimes produce that tone, and I'd also mention Kissin as having a beautiful, if somewhat "crystal-like" tone. Those pianists could/can make the piano "sing". I don't feel this when I listen to other pianists, say Gieseking or Schnabel or Bolet, or say Lang Lang or Lisitsa or Pollini or Ashkenazy.

What I said might sound like a load of bull. But honestly, I can't tell you how, or even if it's real, but I do notice these things when I hear recordings. It's a feature that weighs heavily for me when I "rank" pianists - the kind of tone they produce on the piano. Someone's tone can make or break a performance for me. Just my two cents.


Last edited by PianoYos; 06/19/19 02:33 AM.
Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: PianoYos] #2860281
06/19/19 02:44 AM
06/19/19 02:44 AM
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Tallahassee, FL
Chopin Acolyte Offline OP
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Originally Posted by Groove On

John Mortensen’s videos are worth viewing - but this one in particular is pertinent for this thread.


I watched his videos, it was pretty funny laugh he is maybe too pragmatic, I would say he is pretty harsh (never saw him teaching, I hope he doesn't hurt others' feelings too often)

Originally Posted by PianoYos
This is such an interesting topic...

Originally Posted by Charles Cohen
I agree with you. But this is a good example of a "religious argument":

. . . Opinions are very strong, on both sides of the question;

. . . Good evidence is very hard to find;

. . . Definitions are hard to pin down.

I feel slightly out of sorts here because I've never really studied the mechanics of the instrument, and also, I happen to belong on the other side of the opinion spectrum, believing there is such as a thing as "tone". I agree with everything Charles Cohen has said here.

Now, I can't argue with the science and physics that's been presented already in the thread. I do however think there are pianists in the past and present, who, to me, had/have beautiful "tones", and I can usually identify a pianist based solely on that. I'm thinking of past pianists like Horowitz, Rubinstein, Gilels and Rachmaninoff, who I feel had the "golden tone" so to speak, although I'd say Horowitz had a more "bell-like" tone. Rachmaninoff's in particular had that really penetrating tone, it just really rears into you. Of present pianists, I think Barenboim can sometimes produce that tone, and I'd also mention Kissin as having a beautiful, if somewhat "crystal-like" tone. Those pianists could/can make the piano "sing". I don't feel this when I listen to other pianists, say Gieseking or Schnabel or Bolet, or say Lang Lang or Lisitsa or Pollini or Ashkenazy.

What I said might sound like a load of bull. But honestly, I can't tell you how, or even if it's real, but I do notice these things when I hear recordings. It's a feature that weighs heavily for me when I "rank" pianists - the kind of tone they produce on the piano. Someone's tone can make or break a performance for me. Just my two cents.




It certainly does not sound like a load of bull! I absolutely love Kissin, Argerich, but my favorite is Volodos, I love how "fat" his tone is. I always imagine this oversized toad sitting on a piano, producing sound just by breathing on it.

What I think though is, that if you heard all of them play just one note, or one chord...you wouldn't be able to tell who played it. And that's the point. When it comes to phrasing, technique, certain little details (do you know pianist Cziffra? He was my childhood hero. He always plays fast passages with a certain degree of haste, especially towards the end of the phrases, when I listen to him playing, it's almost erratic at times - I'm talking about this kind of details) always give away one's personal touch on the instrument, but individual notes cannot be influenced.

Edit: So my practical answer to why I like Volodos' "fat" tone? Because he plays loudly and is very precise with his phrasing, always puts accents at very fitting spots. Why I liked Cziffra as a kid? Because he would suddenly speed up or rush through a bunch of notes and it seemed effortless (yep, almost everyone seems to go through that period when they think playing fast notes is cool), or sometimes he would add extra notes...it's quirks like that. But see, none of it is about a particular note. If you sit them and have them play one note from ppp through fff, sure, they would probably deem the dynamic levels different (e.g. Volodos' ff might be someone else's fff), but once you pick from each one of them one level that is of the same volume, it would sound the same, no way they would change the timbre.

Last edited by Chopin Acolyte; 06/19/19 02:52 AM.
Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860282
06/19/19 02:50 AM
06/19/19 02:50 AM
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There are so many variables besides the piano mechanics that affect the end result. The pedalling can also change the result of the initial strike. So even though it is true that one cannot make a distinction between a single unpedalled note played by a great pianist or a hen, different pianists will still have a very different overall tone or colour whatever word one wants to use. Listen to someone like Sokolov in person and the richness of the tonal world he can draw out of the piano is just amazing. How exactly it happens is the trade secret I guess smile

Even in piano competitions you may hear the same piano, same hall and the same piece have a very different overall tone. Just do not watch but only listen with proper equipment and it should become clear.

The physical choreographics must play a role because they enable the player to better manage complex procedures that would not necessartily be easy to handle more rationally by the cognitive resources available. Not sure how universal these are though, so what works for the teacher may not always work for the student. It's much easier to learn a "dancelike" movement though than to actually analyze and remember the exact velocity you strike each key.

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860284
06/19/19 02:53 AM
06/19/19 02:53 AM
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Originally Posted by Chopin Acolyte
I always imagine this oversized toad sitting on a piano, producing sound just by breathing on it.

grin

Well that made my day, thanks for the laugh.

Originally Posted by Chopin Acolyte
What I think though is, that if you heard all of them play just one note, or one chord...you wouldn't be able to tell who played it. And that's the point.

Most likely not. Which makes me wonder if a lot of what I hear about "tones" has to do with phrasing, or at least, an overall impression given from the pianist's phrasing, and not from individual notes? I don't even know what I'm trying to say here. This will have me stumped for the rest of the day.

Originally Posted by Chopin Acolyte
When it comes to phrasing, technique, certain little details (do you know pianist Cziffra? He was my childhood hero. He always plays fast passages with a certain degree of haste, especially towards the end of the phrases, when I listen to him playing, it's almost erratic at times - I'm talking about this kind of details) always give away one's personal touch on the instrument, but individual notes cannot be influenced.

I do indeed know Cziffra. Whenever his name pops up, I remember a little snippet of an interview from the documentary "The Art of Piano", where another pianist talks about Cziffra in a heavy accent and says, "he played so fast, that I couldn't...I couldn't know what is he doing."

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860285
06/19/19 02:55 AM
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Originally Posted by outo
There are so many variables besides the piano mechanics that affect the end result. The pedalling can also change the result of the initial strike. So even though it is true that one cannot make a distinction between a single unpedalled note played by a great pianist or a hen, different pianists will still have a very different overall tone or colour whatever word one wants to use.

Nailed it.

Also, forgot to mention Sokolov in my list, he has a beautiful tone too.

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: PianoYos] #2860286
06/19/19 02:56 AM
06/19/19 02:56 AM
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Originally Posted by PianoYos

grin

Well that made my day, thanks for the laugh.


Welcome :P

Originally Posted by PianoYos

Most likely not. Which makes me wonder if a lot of what I hear about "tones" has to do with phrasing, or at least, an overall impression given from the pianist's phrasing, and not from individual notes? I don't even know what I'm trying to say here. This will have me stumped for the rest of the day.


Right? These concepts are so hard to express in words. It's like to say "yes, pianists do have a personal touch, but not on a note-by-note level"...

Originally Posted by PianoYos

I do indeed know Cziffra. Whenever his name pops up, I remember a little snippet of an interview from the documentary "The Art of Piano", where another pianist talks about Cziffra in a heavy accent and says, "he played so fast, that I couldn't...I couldn't know what is he doing."


Haha, check this out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3V2g5kqdM4 Not sure what happened at 1:23, but it sounds like a "great piano catastrophe" lol. Quirks like that.

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860287
06/19/19 03:00 AM
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Originally Posted by Chopin Acolyte
Haha, check this out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3V2g5kqdM4 Not sure what happened at 1:23, but it sounds like a "great piano catastrophe" lol. Quirks like that.

A "great piano catastrophe", love that haha. Incidentally this is one of my favorite recordings of that Rhapsody. The little tinkering he does at 5:23-5:25 is absolutely brilliant.

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: PianoYos] #2860288
06/19/19 03:03 AM
06/19/19 03:03 AM
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Originally Posted by PianoYos
Originally Posted by Chopin Acolyte
Haha, check this out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3V2g5kqdM4 Not sure what happened at 1:23, but it sounds like a "great piano catastrophe" lol. Quirks like that.

A "great piano catastrophe", love that haha. Incidentally this is one of my favorite recordings of that Rhapsody. The little tinkering he does at 5:23-5:25 is absolutely brilliant.


Oh my, yeah, the tension he released with those notes is tangible. Whenever I listen to this part I involuntarily start to dance around to the rhythm. It doesn't help how amazingly he does that thing with the off-beat (the accents are on 2 and 4), either... :P

Plus, later on, he seems to bang the lowest Bb octave instead of what's written in the sheet music...so much excitement in 2 or so minutes laugh

Last edited by Chopin Acolyte; 06/19/19 03:04 AM.
Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860289
06/19/19 03:06 AM
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Originally Posted by Chopin Acolyte
Oh my, yeah, the tension he released with those notes is tangible. Whenever I listen to this part I involuntarily start to dance around to the rhythm. Plus it doesn't help how amazingly he does that thing with the off-beat (the accents are on 2 and 4)... :P

Agreed. He really plays Liszt inimitably. I'd throw in Horowitz' recording of this piece too though, it's equally brilliant I think. I love how off-topic we've gotten.

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: PianoYos] #2860291
06/19/19 03:08 AM
06/19/19 03:08 AM
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Originally Posted by PianoYos

Agreed. He really plays Liszt inimitably. I'd throw in Horowitz' recording of this piece too though, it's equally brilliant I think. I love how off-topic we've gotten.


Ah, Horowitz. He's a bit controversial for me, but his Rakoczy March (it's Berlioz - Liszt - Horowitz, but I actually don't like the Liszt's adaptation) and Stars and Stripes Forever (Sousa - Horowitz) might be my favorite bang pieces ever.

Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: Chopin Acolyte] #2860292
06/19/19 03:14 AM
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Originally Posted by Chopin Acolyte
Ah, Horowitz. He's a bit controversial for me, but his Rakoczy March (it's Berlioz - Liszt - Horowitz, but I actually don't like the Liszt's adaptation) and Stars and Stripes Forever (Sousa - Horowitz) might be my favorite bang pieces ever.

Those ones really are stupendous recordings/arrangements. I never liked the Liszt arrangement either, actually. The introduction is a bit over the top and the chord progressions always sounded strange to me. This brings me back a bit to the original topic though - I know Horowitz had his pianos tuned and prepared in a special way to get maximum effect for his famous fortissimos...so, I know it's stating a bit of the obvious but the pianos themselves and the pianists' choices of them must affect their tone quality too.

Last edited by PianoYos; 06/19/19 03:16 AM.
Re: Touch and tone quality [Re: PianoYos] #2860294
06/19/19 03:20 AM
06/19/19 03:20 AM
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Tallahassee, FL
Originally Posted by PianoYos

Those ones really are stupendous recordings/arrangements. I never liked the Liszt arrangement either, actually. The introduction is a bit over the top and the chord progressions always sounded strange to me. This brings me back a bit to the original topic though - I know Horowitz had his pianos tuned and prepared in a special way to get maximum effect for his famous fortissimos...so, I know it's stating a bit of the obvious but the pianos themselves and the pianists' choices of them must affect their tone quality too.


(It seems to me that Horowitz followed Berlioz' original themes and harmonies more closely than Liszt while giving it a little bit of oomph, having to substitute the whole orchestra by a single instrument)

Oh, that's interesting I never heard that before! What did he do to the pianos beyond tuning?

Hearing big, toad-like (not toady lol), fat performance of Rákoczy March by Volodos or overly cheerful Stars and Stripes Forever played by Horowitz always puts a huge grin on my face laugh

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