What Makes a Piano a Piano?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A couple of months ago I purchased a digital piano. I brought it home and began to play around with it, exploring the different features and the different sounds available to me. It was fun, and I discovered I could create some very nice effects with it.

But when I pulled out some of my classical pieces, say, for example, the Chopin Prelude in E Minor (opus 28, #4), and played straight piano with no effects, it became clear to me that something was not right.

That particular prelude has a lovely melody in the right hand which is supported by a continuous movement of chords in the left hand that change subtly throughout the piece. The ever shifting harmonies complement the melody in a beautiful and haunting manner.

What I noticed as I played through the piece was that, even though the notes of the chords were clear and had a nice sound, they lacked warmth and felt empty. My usual emotional response to the piece was missing, and I was disappointed.

It then occurred to me that there must be something inherently different between the sound created by an acoustic piano and that of a digital piano, something that could account for the difference in the effect of the sound each produces. Actually, I started to wonder if they are even the same instrument.

A DISCLAIMER: The science and engineering associated with sound production and perception is very complicated. The following touches on only one basic characteristic of acoustic and digital sound that contributes to the way it is perceived and experienced: harmonics.

Acoustic instruments, like a piano or guitar, a saxophone or trumpet, are fashioned out of natural products such as wood or metal. The sound produced by an acoustic instrument occurs within its casing, with a range of natural harmonics available. The “warmth” or “richness” of a sound created on an acoustic instrument results from its having been produced in a particular natural setting – different for each instrument – where the harmonics develop freely.

Digital sound is synthetic and unnatural. It does not include harmonics and is unaffected by the space or the atmosphere in which is it produced. Although technicians have devised ways to add harmonics, it is not possible to replicate the harmonics created in an acoustic environment.  Thus, the perception of “cold” or “empty” sound; particularly in a piece of music that is meant to be played on an acoustic instrument.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that, even though the digital keyboard sounds like a piano, looks like a piano and feels like a piano, it does not act as a piano. A digital keyboard offers performers and composers endless possibilities for creating and combining sounds. The music created on a digital keyboard can be exciting and interesting. But it’s not real sound. It’s not a piano.

As for an acoustic piano, it is limited in its range of possibilities of sound variation. Yet, the acoustic sound, based in natural law, has the power to touch us at the deepest part of the human psyche.

Following are article referenced in this post.





One thought on “What Makes a Piano a Piano?”

  1. Yes, I agree with you on the lack of warmth in an electronic keyboard vs a real piano. I’ve often said that a real piano has “soul”, while a keyboard doesn’t. I find playing on a keyboard useful for learning the notes, but disappointing when getting into a full interpretation of a piece.

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