What makes a good piano sound?
A good piano sound comes from a combination of factors. We must have a decent instrument with a good range of volume and timbre. It must have a reliable action with a wide range of velocity available so that you can control the sound. Acoustic pianos must be new or well maintained, whilst all the major makes of digital pianos, Yamaha, Kawai, Roland and Casio make pianos with excellent actions.
I prefer the sounds generated either by good acoustic pianos or by physical modelling technology not sampling. This is because physical modelling can offer the same kind of detailed expressive control that you get from acoustic pianos. I use Pianoteq for my piano sounds and it is amazingly expressive and responsive and sounds great. It’s so important to remember that expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think… So, for a great sound to come out of any piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing.
Expressive control plays a much bigger part in generating a great piano sound than you might think. For a great sound to come out of any #piano, you need great technical control and musical imagination to make it really speak or sing. Click To Tweet
So let’s think about how we control piano sound in more detail.
Velocity controls volume and timbre and different velocities combine to shape melody and balance harmonies. In this way we can create many different colours
Playing notes legato, or staccato, and everything in between in various combinations creates different qualities of sound.
Precise timing of musical events occur within the rhythmic groove really affects how we hear the sound. Listen to these expressive delays and how they make the sound feel thicker and warmer.
So as the music unfolds rhythmically we vary the sound dynamically in these ways. As a general rule, we make a stronger sound by playing LOUDER, LONGER or LATER and we make a weaker sound by playing SOFTER, SHORTER or SOONER. But this simple rule belies the ambiguity, subtlety and seemingly infinite complexity that arise when we play.
You’ll notice, I’m also using the sustain pedal. Because it releases all the dampers, it doesn’t just sustain notes but also adds layers of resonance to the sound as all the strings vibrate sympathetically. Half-pedalling in particular creates many different subtleties of colour.
Reverb and FX
Room acoustics affect the way a piano sounds profoundly. Where a piano is placed within a room with ambient reflections is a very important consideration and will affect the way we play. When recording, using effects like compression and chorus can also affect the sound.
A pianist must combine all these controlling factors intentionally as the music unfolds. It’s a complex process: we must do it naturally and intuitively. So the most important controller is YOU.
We must use the muscles in our hands and arms to coordinate all the movements in an economic and relaxed way. The hand works like a claw, and the fingers must feel like they are walking rhythmically on the keys. The weight of your arms must be supported by the trapezius – never twist your hands to sit on the keys with your elbows dropped or tucked in. This arm position means we can make use of gravity and never push or force, even for the loudest sounds. We must only play the keys from a touching position – touch the key surface before dropping down to the key bed. Never slap down through the keys from above as this is uncontrolled and can cause injury. The finger drops down to the key bed hitting it at the precise moment we intend rhythmically and makes a soft landing with the characteristic upward feeling at the moment of impact that we all feel in our legs when we walk, run or jump.
A good technique feels natural but precise as it must respond perfectly to our musical intention. Stick to these basic principles of technique. Don’t over-analyse or practise technique outside of playing music expressively. Obsessively developing strength or independence of the fingers is usually counterproductive and can be really damaging. Just let your fingers walk over the keys rhythmically and then they can play with natural and effortless expression.
Your creative musical mind
Your moment-by-moment expressive choices or intentions to tell your musical story meaningfully and authentically determine what dynamics, articulation, timing and pedalling you will use to make a truly great sound. These choices are all governed by our musicianship, specifically our ability to understand how rhythmic and tonal patterns make sense. This is an intuitive skill, but we can develop conscious fluency just as we all have using language. To do this, we need to develop a clear grasp rhythmic and tonal vocabulary and structure. Theoretical elements like notes, chords, intervals, keys and note values don’t generate fluency as they require too much cognitive decoding to grasp quickly enough to be fluent. My PlayPianoFluently course teaches the real vocabulary of music that we can effortlessly hear and understand naturally in real time as the music unfolds.
So to get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Of course, people have different tastes and music comes in different styles so it’s great that we have pianos with different sounds. We can argue about the relative merits of different pianos for as long as we like. But as long as a piano is well made and working properly, we can approach playing it by considering what particular things it can do well. What kind of sounds can it make to bring the music to life? How can I use my skills to do this?
To get a great sound out of a piano, we must use skill and imagination to INTEND that sound expressively. Click To Tweet
People often think that I manage to get a good sound on my recordings because I’m clever at tweaking the parameters in Pianoteq to make my own presets. I’m not all that clever or experienced at doing this. I do have a go at it sometimes but the default presets are actually really great as long as you use your technique and imagination to get great sounds out of them.
Music is human for me, or maybe more than human, maybe divine. It is love. It comes from the same place as beauty and grace in nature. It is a communion between hearts and souls that is profoundly consoling or cleansing. It releases our darkest nightmares and illuminates our being.
A Glossy Commodity
When music is contrived to be a commodity, it can lose some of its profound essence and become merely sound. The meanings carried in the shapes and patterns, the complex and subtle messages degrade when the ego is in charge. Because of the nature of music, its truth tends to be pretty resilient and its beauty shines through even in the most tightly manufactured production.
But that’s because of our musical nature. Even a ticking clock can seem to have a rhythmic groove as it passes through the filter of our musical understanding.
More than Perfect
Human rhythmic flexibility and tonal nuance, the seeming imperfections of a living breathing musician that are more perfect than any machine can create with algorithms… these deliciously natural sounds require the kind of skills that our twenty-first century minds can tend to ignore. As we obsess over AI, we see nature less as mysterious or divine and more as a simple act of programming. And surely we might just be missing the point!
The skill of a surfer implausibly riding terrifyingly huge waves is a feat that perhaps the most advanced AI might one day reproduce robotically – I wonder… But on some level of our perception, the robotic quality might just be evident. Some aesthetic aspect, some quality of grace or exhilaration might be missing in the almost perfect imitation of the original experience. Certainly, even the most advanced CGI today still fails to look like a human face in expressive motion. Or does it?
Are We Forgetting what Natural Sounds Like?
The Turing test may not be holding water. These days, I see so many people on screens and even in the flesh, whose faces seem more and more to mimic the conformed generalisations that AI must rely on to create its effigies. If we humans are imitating machines, in our looks, our expressions and manners, perhaps even in our very thinking, then failing to tell the difference between artificial and natural intelligence is a perfectly plausible result.
The quantisation of rhythm or pitch, can make music robotic. So much music sounds robotic to me. I’m not talking about the heavy-handed, 80’s style, midi robotic sound, which is altogether more fun and less frightening, but a kind of sonic airbrushing that is far more sinister because it is so subtle and not detectable to the rational judging mind. The unease we feel is only in our souls. If we fail to engage our heart and soul in our listening, it will go completely unnoticed. Perhaps it is the reinstatement of this hidden humanity in live performances that stops them from feeling disappointing after the perfected recorded versions we hear all the time.
The Return to Natural Beauty
Musicians must fight this trend for cosmetic perfection and the soullessness it brings. To do this, we must work on our skills. We must practise our ability to engage in real, fluent musical communication and surf the waves of free, surrendered musical expression that has flesh and blood, heart and soul and natural beauty. I believe the trend against music that is sterile and ego-driven is already happening. Let’s champion it at every opportunity and make it grow!
Music is a kind of language and just like verbal language, it inevitably has mannerism. Different periods of history and different social circumstances demand different manners. This is equally true of music. Different genres of music have different manners. Classical, jazz and pop styles all have their own mannerism. Listen to a recording from fifty years ago and you will hear different musical mannerism – many aspects of which are common to all genres.
So we cannot avoid manners as if they were something bad and they certainly have their place in helping music be accessible. But it is important to acknowledge that there is something rather objective or even superficial about mannerism in music.
When a musician feels the music deeply, this is a subjective response and the expressive dynamics that stem from this deep feeling are not dictated by the requirements of the genre or the expressive conventions of the time. This means that authentic expression is a very different thing from manners. It has an inherent depth or power that transcends mannerism completely.
Expression is not an alternative to manners – we use both – but we have to acknowledge that authentic feeling carries far more truth and profundity.
Spontaneous vs. contrived interpretation
When there is no gap between the way musicians feel the music and the way they play or sing it, then we, as listeners, feel the authentic expression. The dynamics used by the musician to generate that expressive quality in the playing is not premeditated but spontaneous and natural.
Manners too can emerge naturally from a kind of social intelligence around the musical setting or use. Manners exist on a kind of spectrum from very blunt, even punk style at one end through to highly conventional, even polite at the other. Of course it is not quite as simple as this: for example, it may be entirely conventional to deliver music of a certain genre in an over-the-top, punk manner.
When expression and manners are used spontaneously rather than in a worked-out, contrived way, there is greater power and immediacy to a performance. Of course, it is perfectly possible that power and immediacy could be considered tasteless in a certain genre of very refined music.
Challenging cultural norms and championing authenticity and spontaneity
As a musician, I see my role as being one that challenges the status quo. Music has limitless depth and serves an important function in helping us deal with the human condition. Life can seem cruel, absurd and very confusing when we try to figure it out using reasoning and logic. But when we frame reality in a musical context, give it rhythm and harmony, then the ebb and flow of the story of life produces pathos, joy, melancholy, exhilaration and all kinds of deep feeling states that heal and unite us in our quest for greater things.
So music can be as nutritious and necessary for thriving as food. And I feel it is therefore very important to try and resist the pull of conventional manners and contrived interpretation in favour of authentic and spontaneous expression in order to ensure that my music contains as much unprocessed, wholesome goodness as possible! This is why I love to make spontaneous improvisation the bedrock of my musical practice.
Have we heard it all before?
In our culture, music has become something which we either perform or consume. The focus of music education is upon correct execution. In classical music, it’s all about the interpretation of “great” repertoire. In jazz, it’s all about understanding complex theories concerning scales, keys, chords and rhythms whilst in pop music, it’s all about the making a fashionable commodity – the catchy, the clever, the cool or the quirky. This rather objective way of looking at music makes everything seem a little like karaoke. Of course we all have our favourites and listen to them over and over again – we all have that three-year-old mind inside us that craves the reassurance of the familiar. But sometimes we need new musical stories to experience. I’m always worried when I hear people respond to unfamiliar music by saying rather dismissively, “Oh I don’t know that one!”. Music is not a huge menu of items, some of which we select for ourselves or maybe occasionally try to feed to others, and most of which we ignore. I am sad to say that as people get older, they tend to fall into this pattern. As we get older, it may be advisable to supplement our consciousness with extra portions of curiosity and wonder.
Music can always say something new
Music is in fact a means of expression and communication. It has all the currency and immediacy of language. Music enables us to process life in all its psychological and emotional confusion because it has a deep order which is universally understood. When we see music this way, we realise that listening and making music ourselves can be a very immediate experience, one which directly involves the heart and soul and which connects us. Music can be an act of compassion, love or kindness. When we see beyond the idea of music as fashionable or clever, it becomes simply a medium of human interaction that we need every bit as much as language. Before the industrial revolution set about the demise of folk music, this view was the norm. Music was understood widely in terms of its patterns. Therefore, people could participate fully in musical activities. I think this is why improvisation used to be seen as the key skill of a musician. Now it is rather neglected and discounted except in the rather specialist world of jazz which is usually, I believe, a rather different kind of improvising anyway.
Music can be of course admired for the very opposite of its familiarity or “karaoke” value – its esoteric, inscrutable quality. Some classical and jazz music falls into this category. But whether music is atonal and difficult to fathom or tuneful and accessible, the notion that music can be used as an object ripe for intellectual analysis is, I think, another rather impoverished one. Art and literature suffer less under this kind of scrutiny because they reflect more the external experiences and emotions of life. The inherent subjectivity of music emerges so powerfully whenever we attempt to measure its worth by any objective means: it then becomes a source of petty divisiveness – which seems to me to be the very opposite of its best function. Music unfortunately can bring out the most egotistic side of human nature when treated as intellectual property. Combine this with our tendency to use music as a badge of coolness and we descend into the realms of vacuous vanity.
What makes music good or beautiful?
However, I do think music can be considered “better” when its meanings are more precisely or powerfully conveyed. But to measure this communicative clarity objectively can seem almost impossible and perhaps we just don’t need to anyway. But given that our narcissistic, competitive culture tends to impoverish our experience of music, it does take a certain effort to discard the cultural norms and begin to see that it can be a powerful source of communion, healing and transformation.
The truth is that there is a genuine symmetry and order to how the unfolding patterns of rhythm and tonality work. This logic, when clearly understood by the musician, results in a fluency of communication that makes the music communicate in a highly accessible and potent way. Even if we don’t have the skills to produce musical syntax actively, we all do understand these patterns very well. When we allow ourselves to listen to music in a completely natural way and hear perceptible musical shapes within the underlying tonal and rhythmic structure, we hear music in a purer way. It unfolds more like a story. We don’t look for explicit originality, a clever or cool manner, or even virtuosity; we don’t need to be impressed; we don’t require the music to be familiar or “hooky”; we don’t need to know the name of the musician or the composer; and we definitely don’t need to nod sagely and rub our chin as we analyse and evaluate its merit. We are simply moved instantaneously in the act of listening and simultaneous understanding. And in doing so, we feel ourselves to be understood.