Let's assume the following situation:

  • The two piano players compete performing the same piece of moderate difficulty in front of public, who can do better.
  • One of the them is really good, maybe famous.
  • However also weaker player knows the piece well enough not to make very obvious mistakes like hitting a wrong key.

It seems to me that the public would be more impressed by the music from the really good, famous pianist, but why? If both play the right notes for the right duration (and also my laptop can do through MIDI interface), how is the music from the more gifted player objectively better?

  • 1
    Not sure this is completely in the site scope, but an interesting question! Aug 8, 2015 at 19:08
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    @JacobSwanson it's absolutely in the site scope. Aug 8, 2015 at 19:13
  • @Codeswitcher, there seems to also be a psychological side to this question, too. Aug 8, 2015 at 19:15
  • @JacobSwanson I think that if you think this is a psychological question, you don't understand what more advanced musicians study. Aug 8, 2015 at 19:34
  • @Codeswitcher, I didn't mean to imply that this is ONLY a psychological question, but it could be answered that way. Aug 8, 2015 at 21:03

5 Answers 5


Music is more than playing the right pitches at the right time. Playing the right pitches at the right time is the absolute minimum standard to producing a musical work.

Here's a bunch of the other mechanical phenomena you must then also get "right":

  • Tempo (including variations in tempo, such as rubato)

  • Dynamics (both volume and attack)

  • Phrasing.

Once you can do all that, then you get to the artistry part.

What is on the page is only part of the music. Quite a bit of expressiveness is left up to the performer to pick for themselves. At that level of play, you are not merely judged for producing the music "correctly" as per what is written in the score, but for your artistic choices about how to handle what is not written down.

Here, watch this video to have your mind slightly blown. It's a cello master class with famed conductor Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic:


As a general word of advice: seek out master classes. Master classes are private lessons conducted in public to edify the audience as much as the student. Usually they're extremely expert instructors teaching very advanced performers. I have no idea where one can find master classes in piano; I sometimes take in master classes in early music at festivals. They have been fabulously informative about what comes next after getting the notes right.

  • I agree that the interpretation (the artistry) of the piece is exactly what most people would say makes a better performance. However, it still seems to me that such a valuation is extremely subjective.
    – user43687
    Aug 10, 2015 at 21:41
  • I would also say that the extra criteria does not apply to some styles of music. For example, I think Bach would say that it is exactly hitting the right note at the right time that makes good music (actually, he did say that).
    – user43687
    Aug 10, 2015 at 21:42
  • @DanielGrady I've been known to joke that the best interpretations of Bach were by Wendy Carlos, of "Switched on Bach" fame, because "she had them played by computer, the way Bach intended." (Full disclosure: I'm not a Bach fan.) If Bach intended his music to have its full interpretive flourishing by being rendered as mechanically purely as possible, well, that too is an artistic interpretive choice. The choice not-to-do is as much as a choice to-do. There may be as much intentionality in the rest as the pitch. Aug 11, 2015 at 4:35
  • @DanielGrady You seem to be having trouble with the concepts of objective and subjective. That which is subjectively experienced (i.e. everything) has an objective reality, roughly speaking. If one person prefers the original and another a cover, if one prefers the modern orchestral interpretation and the other the historically informed instruments, if one prefers the more loose, rubato approach, and the other prefers a brisk dancing tempo: the preference of one over the other is subjective, but that which is preferred is an objective phenomenon which can be decisively pointed out. Aug 11, 2015 at 4:40
  • @DanielGrady One of the remarkable things about music, especially in the Western traditions, but also in other traditions around the world, is that it has an astonishingly rich technical language for discussion of sensory experiences which are subjectively apprehended, viscerally comprehended, notoriously subtle, and highly fugitive. We musicians have a thoroughly worked and nuanced language for discussing with precision that which is heard and felt. Subjectivity is what we discuss, and we do it objectively. Aug 11, 2015 at 4:43

How is the music from the more gifted player objectively better?

Strictly speaking, one could only say that one performance is subjectively better than the other. (Although it might sometimes happen that a preference for one of the players is unanimous.)

Another "strictly speaking" remark: the famous performer might not always come out ahead! I once heard a quite famous cellist, János Starker, play so clinically and lifelessly that I left the hall furious, in a terrible mood.

A fun thing to do is to go to a Suzuki recital, where you can hear two or three different versions of the same piece on a given afternoon, all played quite well, but somewhat differently. Go, listen, and find out for yourself what appeals to you the most, and what makes you enjoy and remember one version more than another. You might not be able to put it into words -- but that's okay.


First off, "famous" as a criteria for assessing virtuosity is problematic at best.

Additionally, the ability of a particular audience to discern quality is also problematic.

What it comes down to is that music is not just a sequence of notes arranged in a particular juxtaposition to each other. Music is communication, it's a form of core emotional communication.

Take a piece of music and play it at 130bpm, then play it at 127bpm, and it might turn into a very different piece, far more expressive more moving, more connecting.

The art of phrasing a melodic line is extremely subtle, but easily discernible. A midi file might play all the notes "exactly as written" and it sounds very good, but then a true player plays the same phrase and it sounds "like music." The difference is milliseconds of timing, micro-decibels of difference in emphasis, maybe 0.001 percent difference, but the difference in what we perceive is stark, obvious.

The experienced player doesn't "fight" the music. Imagine an analogy, of two skiers going down an intermediate slope. they ski together, and to outward appearances the novice is skiing just as ably as the expert, but when they get to the bottom of the hill, the expert is calm, unruffled, and the novice is breathing hard, exhausted. They both ran the same hill, followed the same line, on the same snow surface, with the same skis. The expert let the mountain and the skis do the work, the novice fought it and muscled it the whole way down. (I'm the novice skiier, btw)

This is the same idea between the two pianists. The novice is functioning on the "remain on skis for duration of run" level, the virtuoso is functioning on an entirely different level of subtlety.


There is no "objective" standard of goodness here. The better player will convince the listener that what they are hearing is worth listening to. There's nothing much more to be said than that.

Of course some of "listeners" may be in the hall for reasons other than actually listening, if the player is "famous" - and some people seem judge piano playing by the same standards as an athletics competition or a circus act, where "what it sounds like" is fairly irrelevant to "how impressive it looks" or "how fast you can play the notes".


That's like asking how an audience chooses a speaker to prefer in a recital when both speakers produce the right sequence of syllables.

Or how they prefer a theatric performance when all the right words are given in correct order.

The reason people go to concerts rarely is that their eyesight would be too bad to enjoy reading the scores themselves. They come for a rendition of the score, not a copy.

They want to hear a musician's take on a composer's work. If the view of the musician is that he counted off all beats at the right pitch successfully, that tends to be rather boring. It's a common fallacy to counter the boredom by adding speed rather than detail to the rendition.

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