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I'm asking this in the rather specific context of me being a non-performer (due to physical disabilities) who wishes to "humanize" the midi files I create using software such as Finale and Logic Pro.

For brevity's sake, let's limit our discourse here to piano playing, and then consider only pieces from the romantic era, in a slow tempo, with a single, gently undulating cantabile-like melody over block or arpeggiated chords (the "Lied ohne Worte" style).

My understanding so far is as follows. I understand that there are many, many exceptions to any "rule" in musical aesthetics, but I'm only looking for the most general of guidelines.

  1. When beginning a phrase, it is often appropriate to subtly slow down the tempo.
  2. Towards the middle of the phrase, if it has some sort of temporary climax there, a very slight accelerando is often in order.
  3. The higher a note is pitched, the louder it is played. Again, with many exceptions.
  4. When a series consists of notes of equal length, you linger just a tiny bit longer on those that are harmonically and/or metrically important.
  5. Phrases usually begin softly, then get a bit louder, and end softly again.
  6. The accompagnement is generally played softer than the main melody, but occasionally gets louder if the chord in question has much forward harmonic "momentum" (a Neapolitan sixth for example).
  7. Melody notes that belong to the same harmony are generally played molto legato. The gradation of legato across harmonic transitions depends on the level of attractive force between the chords involved.

Any modifications or additional guidelines would be much appreciated. I'm also looking for quantitative data in all of this. What would be a nice distribution of note velocities (on a scale of 0 to 127) for your typical cantabile phrase, for example? I had one that began at 40, then rose to about 80, and subsided to 40 again. It sounded nice and "human"-like, but a bit too obvious and theatrical. Does the curve generally need to be flatter?

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I did this kind of tweaking in a notation program to get a more 'human' playback and I can say that with some careful dynamics and some flexing of the tempo it did help the play back seem more human. (My music was classical minuets for string quartet and piano sonatinas.)

I noticed that the tempo could be altered a lot more that I first expected. Mostly I was adding ritard at the end of phrases.

I handled dynamics as you describe, accentuate the melody, a bit of crescendo, but I did something that you didn't mention. In many places I made small adjustments to notes on the weak beats. This seemed to help the lines 'breathe' and create a more natural pulse.

Another thing that was really important was finding the right piano sound file. I was using sound fonts. Eventually I found some files with very high quality sampling that was able to respond to dynamics the software triggered. I can't overstate how important this was. Only if the sampling includes a full range of dynamics can you really get the expressive sounds. I think the velocities I used were around 30-120 for crescendo and about a 25-35% drop for weak beats. But I think the specific velocities will vary depending on the sound files used.

Anyway, none of this really gives you a rule of thumb, but I wanted to confirm that I think it can be worth the extra effort to put in expressive details and it can produce a more human sound.

  • Really excellent advice, Michael, thank you! I will certainly implement your suggestion as to the weak beats, which you're quite right in not neglecting. By the way, you might want to look into Pianoteq by Modartt (I'm not connected with the company in any way). It differs from the usual sample libraries in that it tries to actually model the physics of the piano as a resonating body. I find it gives really lifelike results, with almost no RAM usage (although it can be CPU hungry on older machines). Money well spent, for me at least. – Kim Fierens Nov 27 '18 at 21:49
  • Their demo recordings sound great! – Michael Curtis Nov 27 '18 at 22:05
  • It does. On their website you can even download a demo version (with some keys disabled) to play around with. I eventually bought the basic Stage version, which is about as affordable as these things can be. – Kim Fierens Nov 27 '18 at 22:27
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It is not possible to put a "rule" on phrasing since it is so subjective. I have been playing music for just about 40 years, and I have never as a rule started out phrases slower. The musical context is what gives guidelines on how best to interpret any particular phrase.

That being said, I would recommend that, rather than "rules", you listen for the push and pull of the harmony. "Push" into dissonance, "pull back" (relax) on resolution. The "push" could be an increase in tempo or dynamic, the "pull back" could be a decrease in tempo or dynamic.

HOWEVER, this is still a very general suggestion. Sometimes the quietest or slowest portions of a piece are the most intense. Sudden changes increase intensity as well.

No one can teach how to be "musical". If it could be reduced to a set of rules, a lot more people could be performers who can move audiences. The best thing to do is to listen, listen, listen to music and start to "feel" it yourself. Only you can decide how to interpret the music you are working on.

  • Thank you for this excellent answer. I did put "rule" in scare quotes for a reason. Of course there are no hard and fast rules in music. Still, I do think there are certain very broad stylistic expectations as to phrasing that go with every type of music, and it seems reasonable to me to ask what those might be. I will certainly take your suggestions re push and pull to heart. – Kim Fierens Nov 27 '18 at 14:45

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