Sunday, October 18, 2009

Piano Piano

Like many stereotypical Asian American parents, we bought a Yamaha U1 upright piano when kids were young and retained a piano instructor to teach them playing piano (no, they did not become pianists nor did they go to the Julliard School). The piano has been sitting quietly in our living room for many years, serving as a beautiful piece of furniture and memory since kids left the house. Recently, I decided to give it a try myself and enrolled at a Group Piano Intro class at the local community college, and here I went for my latest new venture. If you have seen the movie The Visitor (which was nominated for the best actor award in 2009 Oscar), you can probably understand my apprehension. In the first part of that movie, the main character, a music loving burned-out professor, was not getting anywhere with his effort of learning to play piano. Eventually his teacher gave up and told him bluntly the best thing he could do is to sell her his piano.

Piano is arguably the most versatile musical instrument. Most modern pianos have 88 keys with 52 white and 36 black keys that span a range of 7 and ¼ octaves from A0 to C7 (the letters refer to the familiar diatonic scale notation …ABCDEFGA…) where A4 is tuned to 440 Hz. Here is a drawing of the piano keyboard from wikipedia. In contrast, violin’s pitch ranges from G3, a little below the middle C (or C4), to C8 (4186.01 Hz), the highest pitch in piano. The pitch range of cello, another popular bowed string instrument, is from C2 (two octaves below the middle C) and A3. Human vocal cord is of course much more limiting; soprano can go as high as “high F” (or F6) while bass can get as low as A1 (55 Hz), 3 octave below the A4. No wonder piano has been a favorite tool by the composers to test and rehearse their music. In addition to being used in solos, it is also a popular instrument for accompaniment, chamber music, and ensembles.

Piano's 88 keys come in a pattern of repeating groups of 12 keys that consist of alternating 2 black and 3 white key and then 3 blacks and 4 white keys. These 12 keys are tuned to approximate the 12-tone equal temperament intonation that divides a scale of an octave into 12 equally spaced half steps (or semitones) such that ratio of the frequencies of successive tones is a constant. Since the frequencies of the notes that are one octave apart is exactly a factor of 2, mathematically and theoretically, this constant ratio can be found as the 12th root of 2. In practice, piano is tuned to reduce the inherent inharmonicity in the strings since the human auditory perception found harmonics (i.e., integer multiples of fundamental frequencies) more pleasant. As a result, octaves are normally stretched such that the high notes are higher, and the low notes lower, than they are in an equal-tempered scale as shown by the Railsback curve to the right (again from Wikipedia) from measurements of well-tuned pianos.

Piano is the short for its original Italian name clavicembalo or gravicembalo col piano e forte that literally means harpsichord with soft and loud whereby harpsichord is its popular predecessor in Renaissance and Baroque Music periods. It was first developed in late 17th and early 18th century and was believed to be created by the Italian harpsichord master maker Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco in Florence. However, unlike harpsichord that produces sound by plucking, piano generates sounds by hammering the strings, similar to clavichord.

It is intuitive that there are practically unlimited possibilities to compose and express different music given the range with any combination of keys, intervals, tempo that make up progressions of varying length, dynamics and so on. Even after the composer has written the music, there is still huge rooms for individual performers to interpret and express it the way they want. For example, here is a YouTube video of the famous Franz Liszt’s La Campanella (third of the six Grandes Etudes de Paganini - Etude No. 3 in G-sharp Minor). It is the recording of the preliminary recital by the blind Japanese young pianist Nobuyuki Tsuuji at the 13th Cliburn Competition earlier this year (by the way, he was a co-recipient of the gold medal award).

Below is another YouTube video of the same music, performed by Yundi Li who was the winner of the International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition in year 2000 (at age of 18, the youngest winner thus far). To my ear and with my imagination, Li's interpretation is more playful and joyful yet deliberate which is very different from Nobuyuki Tsuuji’s. The latter is full of excitement and anticipation and at times, hurried. But if you look at the total time, it was a mere 14 seconds longer for a piece of music that is almost 4 and half minutes long. It is amazing the minute differences in tempo, force, transition and so on can be felt and amplified so much in listeners’ mind through key strokes of performer’s ten flying fingers and two feet. It is indeed a powerful instrument of music!

Well, I have no idea how far I can go as I barely just got started in this venture. But for the last 6 weeks, I surely have had a lot of fun and I have begun to appreciate otherwise pretty dry music theory and what are behind the beautiful music. If nothing else, I hope I will be a more educated listener of music. Wish me luck and talk to you soon!

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