The Piano in Question

Here’s a trip down memory lane for me. While I was at school I was captivated by the BBC TV series, directed and introduced by Jonathan Miller, called the Body in Question. This episode, first broadcast in 1978, shows Dr Miller at the piano with Dudley Moore, his old friend from Beyond the Fringe. They’re exploring the mysterious process by which pianists manage to put their fingers on the right keys without apparently consciously thinking about the mechanical operations involved or even looking at the keyboard. Practice seems to program the hands so that the translation from sheet music to sound becomes second nature, but to those without the ability to effect the transformation (like myself), the process still seems almost miraculous.

19 Responses to “The Piano in Question”

  1. ian smail Says:

    isn’t this just the same as touch typing – or am i showing my philistine side?

    • telescoper Says:

      I think there’s more to it than that; playing the piano is not just about accurate production of the notes, it involves an interpretation. It’s also quite a lot more complicated from a mechanical point of view because of the distances the hands have to travel.

      I can’t touch type either, as regular readers of this bolg will have noticed.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Maybe not the same as touch typing, but certainly pretty similar to handwriting.

    • telescoper Says:

      Here’s an interesting question. How many people can write without looking at the paper? I learnt to do this at School, and it certainly helps take notes quickly in lectures!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes but not in straight lines.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter: When you say you learned to do this at school, do you mean you were taught it?

      • telescoper Says:

        In the sixth form, those of us planning to go to University were given some special classes under the title of “Topics”. One useful one was speed reading, but another was note-taking. The teacher emhpasized how much time people waste looking down at the paper and then up at the blackboard and back again, and then demonstrated that you could take notes many times faster by not looking at the paper.

        My normal handwriting is so poor that not looking doesn’t cause any obvious deterioration, but I agree that it is quite difficult to keep everything linear.

  2. The sixth sense is really propioception. But maybe Dud has a seventh sense as well.

    I think its more than touch typing because the brain is making aesthetic judgements at the same time as positional ones. Anyway, even if basically touch typing, its still fascinating and philosophically interesting, as you can do very complex and human things without the conscious ego intervening. We tend to assume that the conscious “I” is the thing that is really us, inhabiting some dumb meat. But actually the “I” is a kind of parasite co-habiting with an already intelligent organism.

    • “The sixth sense is really propioception.”

      Presumably you mean “proprioception”, Guv’nor.

      “I think its more than touch typing because the brain is making aesthetic judgements at the same time as positional ones.”

      Well, I try to make aesthetic judgements as well when I touch-type. 😐

  3. Phillip – has anybody told you yet its impolite to correct minor typing errors on the internet ? Yes of course I mean proprioception

    • I correct only other touch-typers; if you aren’t one, then own up and I’ll leave you alone! (I assume the new errors are an intentional joke.)

      When I was a wee lad, I used to dream of an elec correc exec selec. That was a typewriter (remember those?) which was a) electric, b) had a correction ribbon, c) had three different letter widths (this was known as executive mode (perhaps because only letters written on behalf of executives were important enough to need this feature)—something which VMS fans will appreciate—and was a sort of quantized proportional font) and d) selectric (IBM’s name for a typewriter which, instead of individual keys, had balls which spin around to the appropriate letter before being pressed to the paper; by changing the balls one could change fonts). Now I use LaTeX.

  4. Andrew Liddle Says:

    I’ve just finished reading `Thinking, fast and slow’ by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, which I’d strongly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it (especially the first half). His topic is the relation between our conscious selves and the vast but unconscious thinking power we all possess, and that Andy is describing above.

    The process of becoming an expert on a musical instrument seems to be the act of shifting the required computation from the conscious `where is the key I need to press next’ level into the much more powerful subconscious. This is true for pretty much any `expert’ activity that you want to be able to carry out – driving a car, walking across a station concourse without bumping into anyone, instantly judging the merits of the latest hip hop download. Doing astronomy too I expect.


  5. telescoper Says:

    This all reminds me of the time I visited an establishment called the Floatarium, in Brighton. It’s probably not there anymore, but this was when I was a graduate student at Sussex.

    Anyway, it’s basically a dark silent room containing a big bath full of warm water in which copious amounts of Epsom Salts have been dissolved so you can float easily. You lie in it and strange things happen.

    The lack of sensory input means that your sense of your own body goes a bit haywire. Your feet and hands, or at least how they are represented in your “felt self”, get bigger. I guess this is because your central nervous system is amplifying what little input it is getting, which emphasizes the areas with more touch receptors. Your conscious brain then struggles to rebuild the model of your body that has been hardwired in to deal with more normal situations.

    It’s an extremely interesting experience, and not a little unnerving.

    I’ll gloss over some of the other effects (*cough*), but you also lose track of time completely. I was in the thing for 30 minutes, but it could have been 5 minutes or 4 hours for all I knew.

  6. Quickly returning to the subject of score reading I find that individual notes don’t consciously register any more than individual letters in a paragraph, that is unless they’re an obvious misprint [some publishers were worse than others in this respect but if it’s a borrowed score it’s polite to make corrections in soft pencil].

    Regarding music written for piano, you tend to learn a set of stock patterns, words if you like, or sentences, which basically you string together. At one level you may be thinking something like “oh that’s part of a D-major scale in the left hand” but by then you’ve played it and moved on. That’s one good reason for practicing scales and arpegs, and studies. A bit like katas or forms in judo. So if you’re familiar with Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnass., say (which is a lot better than its reputation) the entire classical repertoire before say Schumann should have few fears, and if you can play through Liszt’s transcendental studies however badly then you can probably read the rest of his stuff and other contemporary works without too much trouble, although people may not want to listen to you. [These studies are hard pieces, by the way, but not all are transcendentally hard.]

    That may also be why reading a composer who writes in an unfamiliar style can be so painfully slow at first, even with apparently simple pieces, until you get used to the shape of their writing – there’s seldom a Eureka! moment but if you believe a piece is worth the effort you generally find that after playing through it slowly time and again the shape becomes clear and you can then get it over the tempo step that Moore alludes to. That’s probably not a very helpful explanation but it’s all I can offer.

    I’m not so sure about the usefulness of the subconscious. As my old piano teacher once said after a particularly mechanical though accurate effort, “Who’s in charge there, you or your fingers?”.

    Let’s not start on reading orchestral scores on the piano. I hate transposing instuments, all of them.

    • Actually I think transposing into a new key as Jonathan was getting Dud to do is quite trivial (as long as you are not trying to pick up clues from the irregular black note spacings). The frequencies of successive notes are (nominally) in the ratio of 12th root of 2 and all the notes are physically of equal width and spacing (at least at the back of the keyboard) so if you keep your fingers the same distance apart as you play a chord then move left or right one or more keys the transposition is automatic.

      Or maybe that’s why my playing is so bad…

      • Would that it were so, Bob.

        Try a little thought-experiment – take a succession of chords in your right hand based on the scale of C major, the first chord being thumb (first digit) on middle C, index finger (number 2 digit) on E, number 3 digit on G and number 5 (little) finger on C. If you hold the hand in a natural or least uncomfortable position your thumb will probably rest near to the end of the middle C note, your little finger about a quarter of an inch in from the end of the note , and the other 2 fingers on their proper keys just inside the ends of the adjacent black notes. The second chord has thumb (1) on D, 2 on F natural and so on, and as you say the hand position is practically the same as the first chord. And so on all the way up the scale. So far so good.

        Now transpose this sequence up a semitone to C sharp major, which is probably one of the easiest transpositions there is. Right away there is a problem from the first chord, because you have to move your whole hand forward about an inch (away from you) just so you can get your thumb onto the C sharp note. No problem you might say; play the whole sequence with your hand in that position. Well that’s fine until you get to E sharp when you find you would naturally have to move the hand back as if it were playing an F minor chord, then forward again for the chord on F sharp major, then back for the chord on B sharp. Small adjustments to be sure but these things matter at speed.

        In practice it’s even worse than that because the fingering of scale passages is governed largely by the peculiarity that for most of us our thumbs are considerably shorter than the other fingers. Indeed I remember being told that until the beginning of the 18th century keyboard players would play scale passages with a very low, flat, hand position without using the thumb at all, although that idea may be based on a misunderstanding of some contemporary illustrations. It is certainly true though that using the thumb on the black notes in scale passages is awkward and usually to be avoided if possible.

        So even the simplest transposition of a semitone might involve different hand positions and considerable re-fingering of scale passages, all to be done in real time as you go. It does get easier with practice, I’m told.

        I didn’t want to start on transposing instruments but my earlier reference was to those whose music is written in one key, C major say, and sounds in another, say B flat major. Playing the piano from an orchestral score you have to identify as you go each instrument on the score and remember which ones transpose and by how much, and which ones don’t. It’s a real pain, although not impossible. What one idiot can do so can another, and all that.

        And then there’s all those C clefs …… duw you astronomers have an easy life.

      • Good description, Gav, which is why (musical) keyboards seem rather strange to me but a guitar fretboard is quite intuitive, with transposition just a barre chord away.

        Of course, both of our comments apply to equal temperament; the pros and cons of that are a completely different topic. For the record, I think equal temperament brings more advantages than disadvantages. With equal temperament, something transposed to another key sounds higher or lower, nothing more (apart from small changes in timbre), at least to me. Some people with “perfect pitch” claim to hear a qualitative difference, even with equal temperament. There are probably two kinds of perfect pitch. One is just a good memory. (Of course, what note has what frequency is arbitrary and there are different conventions; no-one is born “knowing” that a’ is 440 Hz or whatever.) In this case, things sound higher or lower than one’s memories, like a friend I once had whose record player spun too quickly and was quite surprised when she found out that Bob Dylan doesn’t really have a chipmunk voice. The other is people who hear like people see. I don’t mean synaesthesia but rather people who hear a qualitative difference between different frequencies. The colour of light is essentially a frequency, but most people see colours as being qualitatively, not quantitatively, different, while the reverse is true for pitch. Someone with this kind of perfect pitch can recognize 440 Hz as easily as we recognize red so hearing something transposed might be the equivalent of seeing a well known painting through rose-coloured glasses. But even in this case it is just the contrast with the memory.

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