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How do you play loud notes on the piano without generating a harsh, slapping, or percussive sound?

I read about pressing down from the surface of the keys rather than from above. And my piano teacher recommends releasing tension after hitting the bottom of a key. What else should I take note of? Thank you.

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4 Answers 4

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I highly recommend reading What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body by Thomas Mark. The answer to this question has a lot to do with the action of the piano itself, but it has more to do with the way you move your muscles to play.

The answer to your question is explained in detail in Chapter 7, entitled "Mapping The Piano". To paraphrase the first part - The very important thing that the pianist needs to know is that it is not the pressure applied to the keys that determines the volume of the sound, but the speed with which they are depressed. This may be surprising to some pianists, but it is the truth.

If you press a key on the piano down very slowly, you will notice that just before the key reaches the keybed, there is a slight "bump". The "bump" is sometimes called the "point of sound", because just after you reach this point, the hammer is thrown toward the string. Depending on how fast the hammer is traveling, the volume or quality of the sound produced will change. You cannot change the mass of the hammer just by playing, and nothing you do after the key reaches the point of sound will have any effect on the sound, because the hammer has already been thrown at the string.

Slight changes in the velocity of key descent will produce large changes in volume and quality of sound. This is not a linear function, but an exponential one. Every piano is different, but every individual instrument will have a point at which the quality of the sound decreases at a faster rate than the volume increases. Playing on a higher quality instrument will allow you to create a higher quality sound with better volume.

Keeping all this information in mind, find a piano that is well maintained, in tune, and of high quality (Steinways have an apparent point of sound, so if you can find one of those, great) and develop an acute tactile awareness of the way you are pressing down the piano keys. Your fingers do not just play; they are not just muscles and bones, they also have nerves and receive information. Develop a fine sense of how hard you are pressing down - it shouldn't feel like pressing down, it should feel like simply moving your fingers like you would move an hinge back and forth. Lift you hands up and let your hands dangle from your wrists every time you sit down to play to relieve any tension whatsoever, and then let your fingers rest on the keys and play, not changing the way your hands are from when they are dangling from the wrist. This will save you from pain and risk of injury later on, and will vastly improve the quality of your playing with just a couple of minutes' practice - imagine how much the quality will improve over years of playing.

Find a couple pianos of varying quality and use your tactile awareness and your ears to determine where that point is where you begin giving up quality and not getting that much more volume. With your tactile awareness, you will be able to play around this point in clever ways, getting different types of fortissimo that match the innuendos you will want from the music.

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1  
+1 good term: "point of sound". –  luser droog Sep 29 '13 at 5:41
    
Even if the hammer weren't thrown over the last little distance of travel, the instrument would still respond to velocity. –  Kaz Oct 7 '13 at 22:21
    
Precisely: the mass of the hammer would still be unchangeable. –  Richard Oct 7 '13 at 23:13

This is an interesting question and I'm not aware of much if any actual research on it. Most pianists seem to claim that you can play a note with exactly the same loudness but with a different quality. I myself have a difficult time believing this as I cannot see any physical reason for it; the only thing you can control before the note is the speed at which the hammer will hit the string. After the note has been produced you have no control at all. Now, some claim you can control other things like the acceleration of the hammer when it hits the string (by utilizing the elasticity of the arm of the hammer or something; the thing gets disconnected from the key before the hit so it's not obvious you actually can do it). You can also probably have some control over the noises the mechanism or your fingers hitting the key has. To see whether or not these are possible, audible, or have the expected effect would require some careful experiments.

Now, obviously pianists do produce different qualities. What I believe causes these qualities is context. A single chord can be played with different qualities by varying the relative loudness (and even timing) of its notes. For example, if you emphasize the top note of the chord, it will sound brighter; emphasize the bass and it may sound fuller. Often when you play an accent if the only thing you do is make the note louder, it will sound harsh. You also have to ever so slightly vary the timing. You get a different effect by playing it a bit late or a bit early.

Another thing experience tells us is that when you play with relaxed hands you produce a better sound. My explanation to this is that when you're relaxed you have more control. For example if your hands are tense when you start playing a chord, chances are you'll play every note of it more or less equally loudly, which makes the chord sound dull. I don't think releasing tension after you've played a chord has any effect at all. However, releasing tension before you start playing the next thing allows you to do it in a more controlled manner. Tenseness easily causes all kinds of unwanted unevenness or uniformity in loudness and timing which gets perceived as poor tone quality.

So, to answer your question, I don't believe there's such a thing as a beautiful note. The quality always depends on the context. I think the key here is that you have to listen carefully to what you're playing now, "pre-listen" (imagine) what the next thing should sound like and have your hands ready for whatever they have to do.

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I was influenced by Josef Lhevinne's chapter on "The Secret of a Beautiful Tone," but it seems like tone itself is still a debated concept. –  Sel Sep 30 '13 at 0:47

The way I understand it, this is more of an issue on upright pianos than grands. It has to do with the construction of the action, the system of levers and hammers that transfer the energy of striking the key into the energy of the hammer striking the note.

If you own an upright piano at home, I highly recommend dismantling the front panel (ask yer parents, if necessary), and removing a key or two to see how it works (put it back when you're done playing). The key has a screw at the back called a capstan, and on the bottom of the key, there's a groove where it sits on a pin. When you press the key down, the pin stays put and the capstan goes up. The capstan connects to the rest of the action (the pieces of which all have clever, less memorable names).

Ignoring the middle part of the action which I am not qualified to explain. The big difference between an upright and a grand is the direction of travel of the hammers. On a grand, the hammers strike upward and gravity can pull them away to allow the strings to vibrate freely.

Not so on an upright. The hammers move horizontally. So there's little assistance from gravity to get the stupid thing back out of the way. There's usually a spring system to catch the backswing of the hammer, but it's a piece that can stop functioning correctly on unkempt uprights. That means if you're not careful, you can double-strike the string.

One of the dangers of practicing too much on an out-of-repair piano is that you teach your fingers not to trust the catchback system. And you try to control the hammers with your fingers, pressing and holding (with pressure) where finesse is required.

You should be pressing the keys so as to launch the hammer against the string and follow through with the movement until the key hits the bottom (there should be a pad, but call it "to the wood"). One firm strike and then your finger can just stay there until releasing, when the dampers will reengage.

The catchback system and the action (height adjustment of each capstan) are the pieces that need to work correctly. And if they do, then your fingers need to work with them, rather than against them. The capstan heights affect the "play" between the key and the rest of the action. On an out-of-repair piano there can be quite a bit of play between the touch of the key and the point where it engages the action. Even worse, the play may vary from key to key, so you have to alter your attack of each note to try to get a consistent volume. This contributes to much of the slappy sound of the old western saloon piano meme, as there can be a extra percussive noise if there's both play at the capstan and worn-out pads at the bottom of the action where the capstan strikes. So much for the piano mechanisms.

As to how this knowledge affects playing, the act of pressing a key should be more of a lunge rather than a slap. Imagine you're poking your stupid brother in the shoulder, telling him he's wrong about something. Not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough that he knows he's getting poked in the shoulder. :)

The part your teacher mentioned about releasing the tension is also very true. After the hammer is launched toward the string, it has a moment of free movement. The whole hammer assembly disconnects from the part that gives it force and at this moment (just before it strikes the string), you cannot affect it's velocity anymore. The hammer needs this moment of freefall in order to engage the catchback system at all. If you're pushing the keys like a bad piano might train you, the hammer doesn't experience this freefall moment, and you can continue to apply pressure right up to the string. This is a problem I had myself. (My Russian piano teacher would say: "Joshua, why do you pet the cat?" "Why do you tickle the keys?" Years later, I figured out what she meant.) In effect, your fingers try to hold the key with force, to replicate the catchback system. As programmers say: don't re=write standard library functions.

The difference is more about speed than force, I think. Not in the sense of the physics, but more poetically. Think about pressing the key in one swift movement. Remember that about halfway through, the hammer launches off into freefall. So you only need to apply pressure at the very beginning. One swift stroke.


If you can manage to practice on a grand regularly, it will help to retrain your fingers. You simply cannot control the hammers in the same way. The extra unnecessary pressure will give no haptic feedback, and this may help to loosen the habit.

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Transmit your weight to the keyboard.

There is no research on it (i guess) because from the theoretical point of view there is no mystery. The difficulty of doing it is controlling all the chain of muscle, in particular there is no need to lift the shoulders, which is an instinctive movement.

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I would disagree: making it your goal to play with more weight will not alone affect the sound and will only cause unnecessary tension. –  Richard Sep 28 '13 at 13:50
    
physically we use our weight anyway, the whole thing is hence about how you transmit it... if we were in space with no attach, you do see that we can't play piano. Then we'll need a force that binds us to the piano (let's say electric so that it produces sound anyway). Most of the part is transmitted from our butt to the floor, but part from our fingers to the keyboard. It's kind of a reversoir of force downward. –  user39158 Oct 1 '13 at 13:36

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