Playing classical music on an acoustic piano, one is often required to imitate the sound of other instruments in order to create different atmospheres.

This is especially the case in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, to name a few composers. For instance Beethoven's op 26 first movement looks a lot like a string quartet and in this bit of Mozart's Fantasia in c, one can argue that the left hand motive imitates a muted horn whereas the right hand can be thought of as some woodwinds instruments. enter image description here

This is a rather advanced topic that I'm discussing currently with my teacher, one with which I have practically no experience at all, except hearing suggestions of this kind in masterclasses on YouTube.

It has occurred to me that this may not be only a matter of stimulating one's imagination, but also a very practical means of achieving the desired sound.

I am struggling with this practical aspect. I understand that by varying articulation, range of dynamics, phrasing, etc. and in a more general way weight and velocity at the moment of striking the keys, one can achieve a million different kinds of sound. I would be very interested if anybody had any hints about what specifically can be done to approach the sound of different instruments.

More precisely I would like to construct a table with entries for each instruments such as "special quality of sound" and "means of achieving it".

Please note that I'm not talking about imitating in a strict way. I understand that a flute is a flute and that one cannot reproduce the sound of a flute on the piano for obvious reasons. I am interested in what can be done with the technical limitations of the piano to make it sound the most possible like a flute.

EDIT : in response to comment saying this question is too broad. I guess every instrument can achieve a variety of different colors itself so to determine a single way of imitating it whithout the help of the context is impossible. However I was hoping that it might be feasible to draw general guidelines.

For instance when imitating a flute, I noted the folowing guidelines : expressive phrasing while avoiding fortissimo, very soft attacks, carefull legato and the melody needs to breath a lot. For a clarinett I might use a completely different touch. I repeat that I am a beginner in this kind of thinking, so I might be completly wrong with what I said about the flute, or even wrong in this kind of approach, hence my question.

  • Hmm. Can you point us to some of these "masterclasses on YouTube"?
    – JimM
    May 12, 2021 at 9:54
  • 2
    I didn't think you could mimic other instruments on the piano, you don't have that much control over the attack. On the other hand classical guitar music will often have direction in words to mimic other instruments and there are attack techniques for doing so.
    – user50691
    May 12, 2021 at 11:06
  • @ggcg - I'd be interested to find out more about 'guiar mimicking other instruments'.
    – Tim
    May 12, 2021 at 11:18
  • Just a couple videos on the top of my head, I'm sure you could find many more, featuring different artists than Andras Schiff youtu.be/IzTdpTHIgkc?t=936 youtu.be/jEI4OFemtLc?t=2010
    – abernard
    May 12, 2021 at 11:51
  • 2
    This is a valuable topic, but I've voted to close, because, as asked, it's too broad to garner a few concise answers. Please consider editing or re-asking relative to a specific musical example (such as the Mozart excerpt).
    – Aaron
    May 12, 2021 at 14:07

1 Answer 1


I think these effects come from:

  • characteristic rhythms
  • characteristic figures, melodic line
  • general range

So, for example horns can be imitated in mid range with tonic chord fanfare type figures, dotted rhythms would make sense.

Tympani could be imitated with low range, just rhythm, no "melody" (it's a drum), at the most play the fifth above for just tonic/dominant patterns. Even rhythms like one eighth, two sixteenths could suggest the two handed motion of drum sticks.

"Sighing" figures, appoggiaturas, and flowing scales in thirds/sixths, upper register, might be a good way to suggest wood winds.

Certain figures would seem to fit into groups while excluding others. For example, tremolos in sixth in treble range would evoke fast bowing on violins, but probably not double bass or brass, certainly not a timpani.

I think you imitate instruments on the piano along these lines.

An orchestration book might provide some ideas. Check instrument ranges and examples of usage in the orchestra.

I wouldn't call this "advanced." Honestly, I think it works mostly by exploiting cliches of basic instrumentation.

  • This answer misses the point. I am not interested in guidelines for composing or improvising. Neither about spoting which part of the music is about which instrument. I am looking for guidelines about the quality of touch and interpretation.
    – abernard
    May 12, 2021 at 19:24
  • @abernard, I didn't get that when I first read your post, but see it in your 5th paragraph. I don't know if there is more to add than what you wrote in your edit. Beyond that I think the rest will just be in the imagination of the performer, or a chance association in some listeners. You aren't going to use a particular touch and have listeners associate something like "that's flute definitely not clarinet." It sounds like a great way for a performer to be more sensitive about expression generally, but it would never pass a blind listening test for mimicked instruments. May 12, 2021 at 19:47
  • Thanks for your reply. The purpose of all of this is to have a more lively interpretation and have people react more deeply to the music. I guess you are right saying that it comes down primarily to the imagination of the performer. Whether or not the listener get's what instrument the pianist is thinking of when playing is not a big deal though.
    – abernard
    May 12, 2021 at 20:26
  • I don't mean to be a wet blanket. I listened to the Andras Schiff lecture. The playing is fantastic, but I honestly don't hear all the imagined instruments. But I'm a bad pianist. Hopefully you get some answers from good pianists. There are actually many quietly lurking on this forum. May 12, 2021 at 20:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.