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Touch and tone quality (Read 14464 times)

Offline nilsjohan

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Touch and tone quality
« on: September 21, 2001, 11:34:01 PM »
An unavoidable topic here is whether the quality of the piano tone can be controlled by the touch. Almost every(?) pianist agrees that it is possible, but still there is the scientific fact that only one parameter is proven to affect the tone: the velocity of the hammer when striking the string.

Is it really possible to tell, by ear only, if a single note is played by Alfred Cortot's finger or a Bulgarian female weight-lifter using an umbrella?
If the answer is yes, what are the reasons?

Offline martin_s

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #1 on: September 22, 2001, 06:15:59 PM »
Oh, yes, unavoidable indeed!

As far as the scientist thing goes, scientists claim to have proven God does not exist and all kinds of things like this. But still billions of people believe in God... I guess that applies to pianoplaying too.
Although, I believe, it must have a lot to do with making your listeners believe that there are differences between caressing down a key fortissimo and hammer it down fortissimo (or why not pianissimo?!), to sort of draw then into some kind of illusion I suppose.
But if we are looking for a purely scientific answer to the question I suppose that this illusion (as it were) comprises of an extremely complex texture of things like balance between the notes in a chord or a melody, subtle changes in time, pedalling, etc, etc...

well, that's what I think, right now...

oh, and I think I might have and idea about the Bulgarian wheight lifter too. I think the difference might be the slight clicking noise that she might be making with the umbrella...

Offline Cake

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #2 on: September 23, 2001, 02:29:56 PM »
The tone of the sound produced by the vibration of the string is never  a pure tone. Indeed, harmonics are constantly whirling above the original sound, giving it not only an infinite variety of changing tones, but also a pulsating rhythm.
You only need to strike one note whilst holding the pedal on - so that all the harmonics may come into vibration along with the original note - to hear the kaleidoscope of sounds reflected and refracted within the original note.
In such a way, striking one single note does not affect the quality of its tone, but it is the use of the sustaining pedal and the balance between the various notes of a chord (which, when played together at different levels of loudness, emphasize certain harmonics, confering to the sound produced a subtle versatility) which can effectively alter the tone quality.
That is why one notices how certain pianists have a poor sound, brittle, lacking in focus, whereas others seem to draw from the instrument a rich and ever changing tone.
The difference is in the harmonic conception one has of each note and chord, and in the intense concentration one needs when listening to the sounds one plays, not only the actual notes played but also, and most importantly, the overtones produced by the association of the notes and the use of the sustaining pedal.
In itself, each note is poor, whereas the extent of the harmonic canvas which each note may produce - and in combination with other notes, it may vary ad infinitum - is what gives the sounds their quality.
Tone quality is therefore produced by touch, but by touch which is just the physical realisation of one's awareness and conception of the possibilities one has to modify the harmonic pattern of each note by association with other notes (chords or/and sustaining pedal).

Offline Ckarrlozs

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #3 on: September 27, 2001, 01:35:22 AM »
I think too different pianists can make one piano sound like different instruments.

But this cannot only be explained by different pedal techniques, legato, voicing...
What about a single melodic line that a pianist is unable to make sound good and another carries out just like if Jussi Björling would be singing it?

Not exactly in the same line but still interestingly, I believe a piano action is faulty and uneven by nature, but in a perfect way!... It compesates for pianists' unevenness! (Ops,... now I have got both the piano technicians and the pianists against me!...)
If a robotic hand would play the same note several times at precisely the same speed, it would probably sound slightly different each time.
That is also why it always feel akward (and depressing) to play on a Clavinova as everything comes out!

I also think two different pianists could make a Clavinova sound the same way. But a real piano reacts to many more factors.

And then there is the visual aspect, not to mention the umbrella...

Offline martin_s

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #4 on: September 27, 2001, 10:19:50 AM »
I still think, as far as the single melodic line is concerned, that the purely scientific reason two pianists make it sound different on the same piano lies in the series of "events" (in a Steinberg Cubase manner as it were!) or, say, the tiny fluctuations of the factors that we have to deal with (pedalling, timing, velocity, overlapping, etc...) and the complex, subconciuos (crossways!) illusion that result in.

But, yes, the umbrella est tres important! too.

Offline Osqar

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #5 on: September 27, 2001, 10:32:20 AM »
I don´t intend to get much deeper in to this debate, but i would like to recommend some further reading (sorry lads, just in swedish...).
http://www.physto.se/~vetfolk/Folkvett/20013musik.html

but also, if you´re reaaaaallly interrested, in english:

http://www.speech.kth.se/music/5_lectures/

Enjoy!  :)

Offline Ckarrlozs

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #6 on: September 27, 2001, 06:18:03 PM »
Very interesting readings indeed. Thanx Ozkar! 8)

Offline berittohver

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #7 on: October 09, 2001, 12:45:56 PM »
;)
Even if science has little to say about the quality of the single tone - and about human conscience for that matter - let's not get back to the idiotic discussion about touch (via umbrella or finger) that was pursued in the early 20th century. That discussion is a dead-end street, and not very inspirational.
Our sense organs are highly developed, the ear finer than physisist's measuring instruments and the hand (and the lips) the most sensitive organ of the body.
"The hand is an extension of the brain",says professor Göran Lundborg of Lund University.
About "A single key, a touch":
"An influence of the hammer modes on the string excitation can not be excluded. /S/ Although it may seem that the oscillations of the hammer offer possibility for the player to influence the string vibrations, and, hence, the tone quality by touch, the question is by no means yet answered. /S/ It was concluded that the oscillation offered a hypothetical possibility for the pianists to influence the string excitation by touch." (Anders Askenfelt-Erik Janson)
More on perceived free tone creation, on development of the sensitivity of the hand, on concentration, and on the development of piano technique etc can be found in my dissertation, Berit Tohver: Tanke-ton (reimers AB 1998)

Offline james_neher

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #8 on: December 28, 2001, 08:05:17 PM »
Although the pianist can only control one parameter of a single note's attack (i.e., hammer velocity), he/she has great control over the note's decay through the sustaining pedal with its full range of damping, all the way from a gentle touch to an abrupt close. (Reproducing piano-roll systems substitute an on-off pedal action -- perhaps their most glaring weakness.) Add to this the "matching" of note attacks to the decay of previously played notes, and the myriad ways accompaniment patterns can be weighted versus the melody, and we have plenty of tone-producing mechanisms to keep us busy. (Listen to Rachmaninoff's recording of the March from Beethoven's Ruins of Athens. Harold Schonberg said that such performances represent an order of technique that has vanished from the face of the earth.)
Best wishes...Jim Neher, teacher/administrator

Offline hector

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #9 on: March 19, 2002, 06:36:45 AM »
I think whoever sincerely believes that the only parameter affected by the pianist is hammer speed is the victim of an oversimplification.

The fact that it is actually rather easy to distinguish two different pianists even when playing the same work in the same instrument bears witness that tone production is more than merely speed velocity.

It is a well-known fact in physics that the smaller the area of strike is, the harsher the impact, force being equal. This is why a karate punch with the side of the hand is much harder than the same strike with a closed fist or with the palm of the hand.  This is evident in piano playing when comparing the sound produced pianissimo with very round fingers or with very flat ones. Round fingers (playing with the tip) gives a crispier piercing tone, flat fingers a mushy tone.

If it was all a matter of hammer velocity, it would be impossible to explain why one is able to produce harsher or warmer tones across the dynamic spectrum (i.e. either pianissimo or fortissimo) even in a single note.

Consider the mass involved in the production of tone (compare octaves from the shoulder and octaves from the wrist), the speed of attack and of course the context of the sound (i.e. all the other factors mentioned by the other postings, such as dynamic relation to preceding sounds, accumulation of sound, pedaling, decay of sound, etc.)

Tone production is what separates the donkeys from the real pianists. :) ;)

hector

Offline Binko_Binobo

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #10 on: July 31, 2002, 07:22:21 PM »
Hector, with all due respect I have to say: Huh?

Karate, area of strike, and the physics you cite have no relevance whatsoever to our problem, as the hammers strike the strings, not our fingers. The hammers strike with the same amount of surface area, regardless of whether you're pushing down the keys with a mallet or a chisel.

Whether we play a note pianissimo with flat fingers or the very tips of our fingers, as long as the velocity is exactly the same and the duration of the note is the same, it will sound the same.

The scientists are technically right. I cannot see any way to dispute that. However, there are many, many things involved that do give certain pianists better tone than others, and let's leave the pedal out for simplicity.

The sound of each note within a music piece depends on:

1) Note velocity
2) Note duration
3) Its placement, timewise, in relation to other notes.

This is all very logical if you think about. Sure touch does have something to do with tone quality. What it does is gives you control. Hitting a chord with a limp wrist and flat fingers gives you bad tone. Why? Well, see above: 1) Note velocity will be uneven. 2) Note duration may vary 3) Your notes are probably not all hitting the keys at the same time. This produces a bad tone. Pianists with good tone are generally very very good at controlling hammer velocity. Their notes are even, their crescendos and decrescendos are smooth, etc. Your touch does have something to do with creating tone in this sense.

As long as we keep the pedal out of the discussion, hammer velocity and note duration (how long the dampers stay down) clearly are solely responsible for how the piano sounds.  
But how your approach the piano, and your touch, your timing, your phrasing, etc...they all influence the velocity of the hammer
and the dampers. So touch does have something to do with tone, but the science is still correct.


Offline Binko_Binobo

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #11 on: July 31, 2002, 07:36:10 PM »
One more thing:

Quote

If it was all a matter of hammer velocity, it would be impossible to explain why one is able to produce harsher or warmer tones across the dynamic spectrum (i.e. either pianissimo or fortissimo) even in a single note.


Not sure I understand this. Basic physics would dictate that the louder you play the note, the more overtones you will produce. Thus in a single note, loud tones will have more harmonics and a richer tone than pianissimo notes. More string vibration, more harmonics. But if you're saying that somebody can play a note at pp and, let's make up some arbitrary numbers, with a hammer velocity of 10 and a duration of 10, and then the same pianist plays the same note with a different touch, but also with a velocity of 10 and a duration of 10, then I'll bet you dollars to donuts the sound will be the same. One sound cannot be warmer or harsher than another.

If you don't believe me, get a concert pianist to a (gasp!) digital piano. That concert pianist will also milk the tone right out of that digital piano. Maybe it won't sound as good as a real Steinway or Bosendorfer, but s/he will make that digital piano sing, despite the fact that there is no possible way to make tone on that piano besides the aforementioned factors.

One more thing to consider: If you strike a key flat fingered rather than sharply, it may be possible you're transferring more energy to the hammer. That said, it's still hammer velocity you're effecting, and the science still stands.


Offline ludwig

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #12 on: August 01, 2002, 07:28:44 AM »
Yes, on the subject of harmonics, I agree with Binko_Binobo. It is absolutely true that as the note get louder, (with greater force f=ma, changes in velocity is the acceleration), the more higher harmonics appear, and their numbers also increase. So science is right in the respect that one single note, no matter how you play it with different touches, as long as the velocity is still the same, the note will sound exactly the same.

However, if we are talking about a few more notes, such as a linear melody, there are certain things performer does that differs from other performers. We know that sound is produced through 4 major acoustic parameters, the frquency of the sound, which determines pitch, the Amplitude of sound which determines Dynmanics, (these 2 are very closely related however,) the envelope of the sound, which determines the attack, Deccay, Sustain and Release of the sound (Duration,) and the Spectrum of sound, which determines the Timbre (instrument wise.) (I learn something new in uni every day.) Combining these factors together in a single note at a time melody, there's no performance that is ever the same. That is what determines the overall "tone colour" and touch of the piano and its operator.
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Offline dinosaurtales

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #13 on: August 01, 2002, 08:41:14 AM »
Are we talking about actual tone quality of the instrument here, or the result of technique?  From what I can tell, the instrument's tone quality will be the same regardless, but individual technique will determine any differences in sound.  
So much music, so little time........

Offline Binko_Binobo

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #14 on: August 01, 2002, 09:19:30 AM »
I agree with the above two posters. The OP specifically does ask whether the tone quality of a single note as played by a virtuoso will sound the same as the tone quality played by a "bulgarian weightlifter." If they're hit with equal strength and sustained, they will sound the same.

Offline rachfan

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #15 on: January 06, 2003, 05:57:18 AM »
First, the piano, unlike a violin, is obviously a percussive instrument.  No argument there.  Secondly, if a single note is played with a finger, then a pencil, it would be hard to distinguish the two in a blindfold test.  No argument there either.  But that's where physics ends and artistry takes over.  

The job of the artist is to create the illusion that the piano is a lyrical instrument (unless, of course, the music being peformed is intended to be percussive).  Through legato, phrasing, pedal effects, rubato, dynamic subtleties, touch control, and arm weight, such an illusion can be convincingingly projected to an audience, such that the piano "sings" a cantelena melody in a Chopin prelude, for example.  So is there such a thing as qualitative tone production in that sense?  When you're talking not one note but rather a phrase or a whole score of notes, positively!
Interpreting music means exploring the promise of the potential of possibilities.

Offline 88keys

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #16 on: January 06, 2003, 03:31:11 PM »
In nearly all the posts so far, everybody had just assumed that only key velocity affects the tone of a single note. This follows from the simplfying assumption, that the only force involved is the impact of the hammer and the string.

As a rough approximation, this might be true. But when dealing with a real physical piano, things are not that simple.

First of all, the interior of the piano is full of air. As the hammer approaches the string, in creates small terbulences in the air. This is bound to affect the sound.

Secondly, since the key-hammer mechanism is a compund mechanical device, it's exact behavior will depend on the exact way you press down the key.

Depending on whether you press the key down slowly, or if you press it down quickly, the hammer would reach maximum speed at a different rate.  Thus the motion through the air inside the piano would be different, and so will the sound.

Note that this would be true, even though the hammer might strike the string at exactly the same speed in both cases.  It is the behavior of the hammer en-route to the string, which will cause variation.

Of-course, these variations would probably be small. But then again, our ears are marvelous organs...


Offline rachfan

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #17 on: January 19, 2003, 04:44:51 AM »
Another factor that comes into tone production is the sustaining power of the instrument itself.  I am not trying to knock Asian pianos and their so-called "precision manufacture" here, but it is undeniable that the best American-made pianos do sustain tone better.  The reason is that the hardwoods used in the rim, particularly maple, reflect the sound back to the soundboard better.  Many Asian pianos use lauan "mahogany" (not a true mahogany), which is softer and laminated with some imported maple during manufacture.  Thus, their tone is more brittle and the tone decay noticably faster.  If you do a side-by-side comparison, for example, of a Yamaha grand against a comparably-sized Steinway or Baldwin, the Yamaha is instantly eclipsed in sustaining power by either of the other two pianos.  The performer will then be better able to capitalize on that superior sustaining power by combining it with his/her own artistry.  
Interpreting music means exploring the promise of the potential of possibilities.

Offline dinosaurtales

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #18 on: January 19, 2003, 07:37:17 AM »
Interesting you should mention the sustaining characteristics of pianos, which is one of my favorite things about some pianos (Bluthner, Steinway, Fazioli, etc) and my biggest gripe about others - Yamahas, in particular.  I end up playing lots of Yamahas because schools out here have them, and it just gripes me to put all the effort into working on "held notes" in pieces, to have the held note just plain go away before I get to play the following notes that go with it.  Yamahas are the worst for that from my experience.  I don't know about Baldwin  - you seem to be Mr Baldwin it seems - how are the sustaining characteristics on those?
So much music, so little time........

Offline tosca1

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #19 on: January 19, 2003, 09:50:52 AM »
Another important factor in the sustaining power of pianos is the acoustic environment in which the instrument is heard.  

In one large concert auditorium here a Steinway concert grand sounded like the puniest upright in terms of sustain and volume. Indeed the acoustic problems of this particular place have had to be remedied with electronic enhancement and sound baffles.

When we try the piano in the showroom and then play it  in our home after having made the purchase we can get something of a disappointment.  A lower ceiling, fitted carpet and furnishings can adversely affect the piano's sustain.

Although the piano is primarily a percussive instrument most of us love its singing cantabile quality and I can well believe as Rachfan has pointed out that a deficient sustain characteristic of some makes of piano can be attributed mainly to the kind of timbers used in the manufacture of the piano especially in the rim of the instrument and the sound board.

I shall look forward  to trying some of the fine American pianos.

Greetings,
Robert.

Offline rachfan

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #20 on: January 20, 2003, 05:23:24 AM »
Hi DinosaurTales,

The Baldwin is slightly more percussive than the Steinway, thus the tone decay is a bit faster too.  Even at that, the Baldwin still leaves the Yamaha behind on sustaining tone.  I once lived in a city where there was a Yamaha dealer about a mile away.  I used to buy some sheet music there, so would occasionally sit down and play the Yamaha Conservatory Series pianos, usually the C4 (6"1") and the C5 (6' 7"), since they were closest in length to my Baldwin L (6' 3") for comparison.  I was invariably disappointed with the woody bass, brittle treble, and the super fast tone decay.   My neighbor eventually bought a C5 and I'd be asked to play it, as they were beginners.  I didn't like it any better in the home environment.  The only thing I did like about the piano was the very even action.  I give Yamaha credit for that.  I suppose one could play jazz on that piano, but it's inferior for classical music.  Holding notes to full value and ties is wasted on the Yamaha, as you say.  Also, while a new Steinway, Baldwin, or Mason & Hamlin will season and improve over time, the Yamaha is at its very best on day #1 and declines from there.  
Interpreting music means exploring the promise of the potential of possibilities.

Offline tosca1

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #21 on: January 20, 2003, 11:51:12 AM »
Inevitably the mass produced pianos which now mostly emanate from Asia will be inferior to the highest quality hand-crafted instruments which are produced in the USA and Europe.  They are cheaper and can provide an adequate, possibly a good piano to those who are unable to afford  the most prestigious, quality instruments, even when they are second hand.

In a piano utopia most of us would have a Steinway D in our home despite its size. Alas, in the real world, financial constraints  may compel us to compromise our quest for the perfect piano and to make do with something that falls well short of perfection.

Let us take heart that the great Richter favoured the Yamaha over the Steinway! ;)
Apologies for straying somewhat from the original topic.
Robert.

Offline dinosaurtales

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Re: Touch and tone quality
«Reply #22 on: January 20, 2003, 06:38:02 PM »
My piano teacher likes Yamahas, too.  She does a lot of modern works, and I think they lend themselves well to that.  My neighbor is a jazz pianist, and he thinks Yamahas are the way to go.  If I was buying one for a sdhool or church, i'd probaby consider one, too,becayse they are well built and consistent.  But I don't want one for ME.  I play a lot of classical and romantic music, and the Yamaha just might as well be a toaster for that.  I think it depends on the application, and personal preferences.
So much music, so little time........