PIANO TONE GENERATION


TONE, TOUCH & DURABILITY

Perhaps you have always imagined that selecting the right piano calls for some special knowledge or advice that would not be necessary in buying an automobile, a computer, furniture, or a diamond ring. People who don't know anything about those products buy them by the thousands every day. They simply walk into a reliable store that sells such things and pick out what suits their tastes and pocketbooks. And that is exactly what you should do if you want to buy a piano.

The three essentials to a good piano are tone, touch and durability. The average ear may distinguish tone and know when the instrument pleases.  Tone is the medium of the pianist's art. It is to the musician what color is to the painter, language to the poet. Yet the majority of people are curiously vague on this subject; if asked how they set about getting tone, few can give a clear or rational explanation. 

The appeal of piano tone is one of personal preference, a piano purchase is not a logical choice, itís an emotional decision. Many of the top concert artists, even those who play the same make of piano, differ in their opinion of the tone best suited to the virtuosity of each. It may surprise you to know that two identical pianos may have different tone characteristics by the technical process known as "tone regulating", as well as by mere pitch adjustment, or tuning.

Tone is an intangible something that is difficult to define and is unfortunately subject to nearly everyone's personal choice. A piano has a definite quality tone which is 'built in'. A soundboard with a high crown and strong downward pressure from the strings produces a 'round tone'' that is associated with some beautiful pianos. A board with a less decided arch would produce a sharp, brittle tone, such as we associate with some other very fine instruments.

TONE QUALITY

To begin with, each key, or note on a piano can be played or expressed in twenty-five degrees of touch or volume if you wish. Otherwise the sound of the piano would be expressionless, with no degree of loud or soft, an absolute contradiction to the purpose of the instrument. In the following remarks, therefore, I intend to examine the theoretical as well as the practical aspects of tone reproduction. It will not matter if anyone fails to accept my views; I shall be fully satisfied if only they inspire reflections of their own on the subject.

I cannot emphasize enough the impossibility of learning to play piano unless you have a piano to practice on. My reasons for this are based on the fact that strong muscles in the finger can only be developed through exercise on the piano. When playing the twelve major scales and twenty-four minor scales through five octaves ten times, which can be accomplished by a good pianist in about forty minutes, the thumb is used 7,200 times, the second finger is used 7,440 times, the third finger 7,200 times, the forth finger 3,460 times, and the little finger only 180 times. The purpose of playing the scales in this manner is to strengthen the fingers through exercise,  in no case can the amount of weight it takes to depress each key be duplicated on any electronic keyboard.

The first great factor in tone production is weight. Thus I shall endeavor to make it plain to you by inviting you to take part in a few simple experiments.  First of all take a rubber tipped lead pencil. Hold the pencil vertically over any key on a piano at a height of two or three inches, and then let it go suddenly. The pencil drops instantly of course, but it does not cause the note to sound. Hold it about twelve inches and let it go; still no sound as it strikes, hold it at any distance you want, or even throw it with force at the keyboard, you will still not get a sound, because the pencil is too light, and neither dropping it or increasing its impetus, or adding force to its decent will supply its lack of weight to create a note on a piano.

But if you hold the pencil in your hand and depress a key even very slightly, the weight from your arm will cause the piano to sound the note.

Two important inferences can be drawn from the above experiment first tone cannot be produced at all without the application of weight to the keys. Secondly, the greater the weight brought to bear on the keys the fuller the tone will be, not so on the electronic or portable keyboard, whenever a sound was made, it was made without expression or volume except as preset by the volume control. The word Piano means soft, the word forte means loud, put them together and you have PIANO-FORTE, the instrument created by Cristofori, called so because of its capacity of being played loud or soft. When a string is struck by the hammer, there is not just one sound, but a succession of sounds which overlap each other and blend together in such a manner that only the keenest ear can separate them.

TONE PRODUCTION

Pythagoras (6th C. B.C.) observed that when the blacksmith struck his anvil, different notes were produced according to the weight of the hammer. Number (in this case "amount of weight") seemed to govern musical tone. . . . .If you will listen to a piano as you play a sound, strike a key so that the hammer strikes the strings . . .the sound may take time to reach you but each is under 22K....See if you can hear the sound in your imagination before it comes, by judging from the proportions of the string lengths (the shortest string is the farthest to the right.....) and the amount of force with which you strike the key. You can also distinguish what sounds good to you.

Further, he observed that if you take two strings in the same degree of tension, and then divide one of them exactly in half, when they are plucked the pitch of the shorter string is exactly one octave higher than the longer:

Again, number (in this case "amount of space") seemed to govern musical one. Or does musical tone govern number?

 

He also discovered that if the length of the two strings are in relation to each other 2:3, the difference in pitch is called a fifth:

...and if the length of the strings are in relation to each other 3:4, then the difference is called a fourth.

Thus the musical notation of the Greeks, which we have inherited can be expressed mathematically as 1:2:3:4

 

All this above can be summarized in the following.

(Another consonance which the Greeks recognized was the octave plus a fifth, where 9:18 = 1:2, an octave, and 18:27 = 2:3, a fifth;)

This triangular figure of numbers in the shape of the Greek letter Lamda is the Tetrad of the Pythagorians.

Though the string cannot sound a lower tone than its fundamental, it can and does sound higher tones. These higher tones, which are called harmonics, result from the fact that immediately after the whole length of the string has swung back and force to produce the fundamental tone, it divides itself in the middle and each half vibrates separately, the fundamental having ceased.  Each of the halves vibrate twice as fast as the whole string did before and because of this higher frequency, the supplemental sound which they produce is one octave above the first, or fundamental, tone. This secondary sound is known as a second partial since it is a partial of the first tone.

Following in very rapid succession, the string replaces each rate of oscillation with a higher one as the wire divides itself into shorter and shorter vibrating segments with faster and faster frequencies. For the fourth partial, the wire vibrates in four sections, at four times the rate of the fundamental. The seventh would be in seven sections and its frequency would be seven times as high. The seventh partial of A440 for example, will actually vibrate at the rate of 3,080 cycles per second. 

The ideal tone which is extremely difficult to attain is one consisting of the first seven partials of which about fifty percent of the total intensity would be the fundamental, with the balance divided among the remaining six in decreasing proportions up to and including the seventh. So, you see, the sound given off by a single piano string is not a simple tone such as we get from a flute, but is a very complex one such as e would get from playing several orchestral instruments together.

Each note is, in reality, a chord, the quality of which depends on getting the right answers to about thirty different questions such as the location of the hammer line, the size and thickness of the sounding board, the material used in the sounding board, the shape, the height, the stiffness of the bridges, amount of crown of the sounding board, the rigidity of the board, the down-bearing of the strings on the boards, the scale layout, the weight and shape and the hardness of the felt of the hammers, the proper setting of the strings against each of the 1400 bearing points, etc.

Now, double the above list, since it covers less than half the things which affect tone quality, and then multiply that total by eighty-eight and you will have some idea of why there is a difference in tone in pianos, why costs differ, and who only the better made ones continue to sound good long after the price is forgotten.

There is a common belief that a performer can produce tones of different quality by some special skill or technique in the way a piano key is struck or in the way it is manipulated after it has been depressed. This is not true, as no skill in required to play  a single note. If the force of the blow on the key is the same, the tonal result will be the same whether  the force is applied by a concert artist or a child. Once a key has been depressed, the performer loses all further control over the volume and quality of the tone of, that note.

While the manner of striking or holding down a key makes no difference in the tonal effect, the force with which a key is struck can make a difference. Tests have shown that the character of tone, as well as the volume, is often affected by the force of the blow on the key. In other words, the harmonic mixture of the tone may vary with the volume; therefore, the overall tonal pattern of an entire chord can be affected by varying the force used on just one note in the chord. This explains why one artist might produce a more appealing effect than another artist playing the same composition on the same piano.

You are buying a piano for your home, for yourself, your children and musical friends to play on. You are going to live with the instrument,  and it is you who should be pleased with that tone.  Don't discount your own ability to judge the tone that pleases. Of course, if you happen to be tone deaf that you cannot distinguish between a violin and a clarinet, you might want to take a friend to assist you in your selection, be sure it is a friend and not a technician or a piano teacher whose judgment might be swayed by the hope of a commission. Some, but not many, technicians are a bit on the commercial side. Fortunately, the best music stores don't pay commissions, they don't have to.

When you want to go piano shopping, go to a store that has a reputation for reliability in your community.  Look with suspicion upon one that is constantly advertising bargains.  The salesperson, if  a professional may ask you several questions before he or she even attempts to show or demonstrate any piano.  Don't resent this, they are simply trying to help you select the best piano adapted to your purse and purpose.  He or she may ask you if you have children who will be expected to study the piano, they may want to know the approximate size of your living room.  Frank answers to such questions will save you much time. 

Don't make a chore of buying a piano. It should be fun, You will never forget the person who sells you the piano. If you find the piano that pleases you at the price within your budget, buy it with confidence in the full knowledge that the seller, if he is a respectable merchant in your community, is very anxious that you are happy with your purchase forever.  If the dealer sells you a piano he hopes you will tell everybody you know that you really "love" your piano and where you got it.  He knows that he is the only dealer that sells that particular brand - and the name is easily seen by all who visit your home. The best advertising in the world is customer referrals, and that's the best reason for providing value and service. 

The first thing you must determine in order to make a wise decision is what you want the piano for. That decision will have a bearing on the price and quality of the piano you eventually buy. You must be aware of the many details that make up a truly fine quality piano. By knowing what to look for, you will be able to determine the best value for the dollars you are going to spend. If you are an aspiring artist or a professional musician, you should buy the finest piano built in your own estimation. That piano should have nothing less than complete artistic capabilities. The extra cost will not amount to much, and you will receive the extra benefit of owning and playing a piano of superior quality.

The factors to be considered are size, new vs. used, tone quality, action , appearance, and durability. You must consider the beauty of what you see, the beauty of what you hear, and the value of your investment. The final answer to each of these considerations depends largely on each personal situation, we have put together  a few guidelines and resources that can be helpful when making those decisions.

The instrument which you choose for your home should bear a name that indicates its enduring qualities of tone and stability. The trademark on the fall board alone should be your assurance of its distinction and musicianship and its enduring qualities of tone and stability. Each piano has a character all its own. This pedigree that sets it apart even from other instruments of the same make, model, and style is inevitable. No two trees ever grow exactly alike. Grain and densities differ between different species and between individual trees of the same species. Plastics and other materials used in keys differ in color. Wool from which hammer and damper felts when made vary in texture and length of fiber. Such variations are present in all materials from which pianos are made.

The instrument which you choose for your home should bear a name that indicates its enduring qualities of tone and stability. The trademark on the fall board alone should be your assurance of its distinction and musicianship and its enduring qualities of tone and stability. Each piano has a character all its own. This pedigree that sets it apart even from other instruments of the same make, model, and style is inevitable. No two trees ever grow exactly alike. Grain and densities differ between different species and between individual trees of the same species. Plastics and other materials used in keys differ in color. Wool from which hammer and damper felts when made vary in texture and length of fiber. Such variations are present in all materials from which pianos are made.

WHAT IS THE RIGHT TOUCH FOR A PIANO?

There is a tendency to place too much emphasis on piano actions being made extra light so that small children can play without risk of tiring. Children do not remain children very long and if they learn on a piano with an abnormal light touch, they will have to readjust themselves later to a standard touch which is not easy to do. Though there is not too much that can be done to change the touch after a piano has been manufactured, it is not difficult or expensive to design a piano with a very light touch. It is impossible, however, to make one that way and have it responsive enough for really good performance.

There is a common belief that a performer can produce tones of different quality by some special skill or technique in the way a piano key is struck or in the way it is manipulated after it has been depressed. This is not true, as no skill in required to play a single note. if the force of the blow on the key is the same, the tonal result will be the same whether the force is applied by a concert artist or a child. Once a key has been depressed, the performer loses all further control over the volume and quality of the tone of that note.

While the manner of striking or holding down a key makes no difference in the tonal effect, the force with which a key is struck can make a difference. Tests have shown that the character of tone, as well as the volume, is often affected by the force of the blow on the key.

In other words, the harmonic mixture of the tone may vary with the volume; therefore, the overall tonal pattern of an entire chord can be affected by varying the force used on just one note in the chord. This explains why one artist might produce a more appealing effect than another artist playing the same composition on the same piano. The word "touch" applies to the performance of the piano as well as to the performance of the musician. when we say a piano has a good touch, we mean that the action has been so well made and so perfectly regulated that it responds instantly and accurately to any demands the most expert performer can make.

The word "touch" applies to the performance of the piano as well as to the performance of the musician. When we say a piano has a good touch, we mean that the action has been so well made and so perfectly regulated that it responds instantly and accurately to any demands the most expert performer can make. When, in his later years, Beethoven played the piano, he could not hear the music at all.

Pianos have been used and have been played well by people with almost every other type of physical handicap, but all who play must possess one thing in common: the ability to press down the keys. They have to have a sense of touch which tells them how hard to strike each note.

The selection of notes and the tempo are determined by the composer. These are fixed and can be readily grasped by the performer, but the composer can only indicate in a general way what force is to be applied through using such symbols as "pianissimo" or "forte". These, however, are broad terms; the many shadings of volume in between the marked signs on the music are left to the intuition and skill of the pianist, subject to the capacity of the piano to respond.

There is a tendency to place too much emphasis on piano actions being made extra light so that small children can play without risk of tiring. Children do not remain children very long and if they learn on a piano with an abnormal light touch, they will have to readjust themselves later to a standard touch which is not easy to do. Though there is not too much that can be done to change the touch after a piano has been manufactured, it is not difficult or expensive to design a piano with a very light touch. It is impossible, however, to make one that way and have it responsive enough for really good performance.

If the touch is too light, the action will feel shallow and unresponsive because the keys, after being depressed and released, will tend to flutter and not return to playing position fast enough for good repetition. That is why professional musicians almost always want a definitely heavier touch than would be used if we were making pianos just for children to play, and why most piano makers compromise by having a medium touch so that the usefulness of the instrument will not be limited to just one type of performer.

The ideal touch is one that is capable of handling the fast repetition demanded by all good performers, yet light and elastic enough so that a child will not find it too difficult to play during his first year or two at the piano. It is better to have the action a little too heavy for perfect comfort the first year or two, in order to be right for the next fifty years.


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