Category: Sound

Microtonal Musings

Microtonal Musings:

1: “in tune” or “out of tune”:

The tonally trained ear expects to hear things in a certain way, and clings to that way in spite of gradually mounting evidence that what they are hearing is not tonal but microtonal.

I’ve demonstrated this with a sound experiment in which a major triad (such as C-E-G) is gradually transformed into a minor triad (C-Eb-G) followed by a reverse direction.  The root note and fifth remain constant; the third is gradually lowered over the course of a certain duration until it has fallen a half step, at which point the third starts rising in pitch, at the same rate as it the pitch was lowered, until it is back to its usual position as the third of a major triad.

In this particular experiment the third is lowered (and later raised) at the rate of one hundredth of a semi-tone (a “cent”) every third of a second.

For many people, no change is noticed for a while.   Their ear continues to hear, or cling to hearing, a major triad – one albeit that is “out of tune” but still clearly intended to be a major triad.  The ear does not accept that it is perceiving a microtonal tonal triad that is neither major nor minor.   The microtonal change is considered an imperfection in the intonation.  There is no recognition of the triad as being of a new aesthetic species – neither major or minor.

Then a sudden switch occurs.   At a certain point in the migration downwards of the third of the triad, most interestingly a point that is closer to the eventual minor chord and further from the initial major chord, the sound, almost instantly, changes in the listener’s ear from being heard as an out of tune major triad to an out of tune minor triad.

This “inaccurate” minor triad persists until the third is close to its final value, at which point the sensation the minor chord at last is getting more and more “in tune”, until at the end it sounds very in tune.

The most interesting part of this sound experiment is that when the third starts traveling in the other direction, the location of the point where the ear ceases to hear the triad as an out of tune minor chord and flips over to hearing it as an out of tune major chord, does not occur at the same point as the similar position during the first phrase of the experiment.  This change in perception now occurs when the triad is closer to the final major chord and further from the minor triad.

2. A self-similar “fractal” chord:

I’ve made many experiments in discovering types of microtonal chords that have a distinct effect that is aesthetically interesting.

My aim was to create a microtonal analogy to a ‘self similar’ fractal design.   The results I got were extremely beautiful, and unlike in case number one, above, could not under any circumstances be heard as an ‘out of tune’ version of a more tonal chord.

I started with an arbitrary selection of a lowest and a highest pitch.  I then inserting a medium pitch that had the effect of dividing the overall range into two parts that bore a certain ratio (in my first experiment this ratio in pitch was 2 : 3).  I continued to divide up each of the smaller pitch intervals by the same ratio.  What started as just two pitches, became successively, hree pitches, five pitches, nine pitches, seventeen pitches, etc..*

*In computing the frequencies of the microtones I started with the unit of the “cent” (one hundredth of a half step) and then converted each cents value to a frequency.

3. Overtone series:

When an ear perceives a single tone or pitch from an orchestral instrument or the voice, an analysis of the sound vibration shows that there are actually a ‘chord’ of different pitches executing separate vibrations.  These additional tones are known as overtones.  If one could separate one overtone from the rest we would hear a sound at a different pitch from the one the ear first perceives.

One of the properties of the overtones is that they are the most spread out in pitch near the ‘fundamental frequency’ (the pitch that the ear perceives) and clump closer and closer together as they continue upwards in pitch.

There is a piece by Stockhausen called “Stimmung”* which has a group of singers each singling one of the upper overtones of a constant fundamental frequency.   A ‘range’ of overtones is chosen by the composer.  The fundamental is never sung, but a consecutive group of overtones is used.  A variable in this selection is what should the lowest pitched overtone in the overtone series that should be sounded and which is the highest pitched one, and how many overtones does that ‘interval’ contains.

In its application to microtonal music, such a group of overtones, can be used as a ‘scale’ of available pitches out of which the notes of the piece are formed.   However, one property of a scale is that it repeats over and over, usually at the octave.  We can make a series of overtones do this by taking just one octave of the overtone series and transposing its pitches up and down various numbers of octaves so as to form a continuous scale from bass to treble.

For most orchestral instruments the overtones are linear in frequency.  The first overtone is twice the fundamental frequency, the second overtone is three times the fundamental frequency, etc..   But the more three dimensional the instrument is the more it deviates from this simple linear pattern.  A bell, for instance, whose vibrating mechanism does not approximate a one dimensional line, has a different arrangement of overtones.

And if a four-dimensional creature were to suspend a four-dimensional bell from a string, and then set it into vibration, there would be an less linear overtone series.  It does not matter that we cannot construct such an instrument, for mathematics enables to predict what the overtones would be, and they can be reproduced exactly on an electronic synthesizer that is set up for microtones.   So we can form scales out of the overtone series for n-dimensional objects (where n goes beyond three).

Here is a list of sample possible constants for generating an ‘altered’ linear overtone series on a particular note:

In the following n is a whole number, and ff the fundamental frequency:

(pi) x (n) x (ff)

(e) x (n) x (ff)

Here are some other possibilities of generating a linear overtone series not based on multiplying the fundamental frequency by whole numbers.


2 to the 1/2 power

pi times e

sine of an angle

* There was work by Maurice Béjart’s modern ballet company which was set to the music of Stimmung which was sung on stage at Carnegie by the “Swingle Singers”.  Each singer intoned the pitch corresponding to one of the linear overtones of a single fundamental pitch.  So that the tones were not too widely separated pitch-wise, they used a part of the overtone series where there were approximately as many overtones within the scope of one octave as there are notes forming one octave of a more familiar scale.  For instance the following numbered overtones, in the fourth octave about the fundamental, span an octave and divide that octave into 8 parts: 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15  

4. Graphing a mathematical function:

There is an aesthetic fallacy in trying to find a means of translation between something spatial (as a graph) and something temporal (as music).  However, if one is willing to experiment, one could try to derive the notes of microtonal chord from the y-values of some function f(x).  Each next note in the chord would be f(x) for each whole number value of x.  What would a parabola sound like?  A hyperbola?  A sine way?  We don’t know until we ‘hear it’.  We may stumble on a function whose sound as a chord is pleasing and unique aesthetically.

5. Expanding or compressing a tonal piece around a constant center of pitch:

This is more productive of interesting sounding tone groups.  Bach Chorales lend themselves nicely to this procedure.

Take each chord, translate it into cents, and then either increase or decrease each pitch in the chord relative to some stable frequency that is either be one of the pitches of the original chord or a pitch that is chosen randomly but which remains throughout the chorale as the center of expansion and/or contraction.   Or, another way would be to use the notes in one of the four voices as the “stable” pitch (even though it may change from beat to beat) and contract or expand the pitches of the other three voices relative to it.


For those of you who dabble in microtones would you let me know what methods you use or whether any of the methods described above have proven useful.  Thanks, Joe

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The Importance of What is Not Heard

Brahms: Intermezzo: Op 116 No. 4 in E Major

Often in a well constructed piece, the meaning of something lies in how it stands out in contrast, or in relief, to something else.  Much of this has to do with memory, and what the listener may expect to hear at a certain time.

An example:

In the recapitulation of the Classical sonata movement, the second theme comes back in the in the tonic, not as we remember it, in the Exposition, in the dominant (or relative major).  What happens at that moment is that an expectation is momentarily revived and  enhanced by the composer but a new present reality is superimposed upon it. For a moment the two tenses interact*, but a moment or two later our ear has taken up its bearings in the new.

The ears of a sensitive listener will even prick up before the second theme, at the exact moment when the composer deviates from the harmonic path that led to the second theme in the exposition.

One of the things that makes late Brahms difficult to hear lucidly is that when something stands in relief with something else, we often haven’t had an opportunity to hear that something else earlier in the piece.  So how does the pianist make a contrast with something that is not ever heard, but whose meaning lies entirely in its contrast to this unheard base or reference?

An example from the Brahms Intermezzo:

Consider the passage in measures 10 through 14.  Contrapuntally, what is going on has less to do with the triplets in the right hand but in implied, but not literally heard, duplets, which are formed from the second and third triplet notes, if the first triplet note is put back onto the beat, omitting the first triplet note entirely, and playing the third triplet note as the second note of a duplet.  If we do this, we suddenly hear a very conspicuous appoggiatura.  In measure 12 for example the e5 is clearly heard as an appoggiatura to the d5.**   As we shall see, this perception need not become vitiated by the delay of the restoration of the appoggiatura to its original position in the measure (one triplet eighth later than the sounding of the chord in which it functions as an appoggiatura).

The same relation of appoggiatura applies to the c5 to b4 and the a4 to g4.   When performed successfully, this passage haunts the listener with the sustained feeling that something else is going on other than what is most obvious to the ear (delayed triplets).  There lurks this implication of regularly arriving appoggiaturas on the beats.  Similar appoggiaturas occur throughout the passage.

Brahms doesn’t stop there.  Once he establishes to the ear that this comparison to the implied simplified counterpoint,  he is able to take a further step to hide the actual appoggiaturas by attracting the ear, in measures 11, 12 and 13, to a descending scale in the top voice.  But let’s pause for a second.  Do we hear a scale?  Almost.  At least we get the feeling that there is a scale present.  For here too, there is a layer of removal from what is heard to what one might call what is meant-to-be-heard.  We hear a melody stopping and stopping in two note groups, which if there were no interruptions would be a coherent, fluid scale: b5 a5 g5 fs5 | e5 d5 c5 b4 a4 g4 | etc.  The beauty of a melody arising from following this scale depends on the implication that our consciousness is able to pass lightly over the first the first of each group three triplet notes (a note that is merely part of an  accompanying chord) so that the notes of the scale seem to flow connectedly one into the other.

I have my students leave out the first triplet note, and change the next two notes to regular eighth notes, putting the first of the eighth notes back onto the beat.  The scale is now much clear to the pianist’s ears.  Crucially, if that point, the student goes back to playing the written notes, the reference to the fluid duplet scale is not lost.  It attempts to maintain itself in spite of the pauses.  It haunts the image of the passage and changes a somewhat trivial passage in triplets to something more transcendent sounding.

Thus a passage can transcend itself.  It becomes beautiful only in relief to something more basic, not literally heard, to which it yet can refer itself.   Generally, in late Brahms, we often must try to make a passage sound like what it isn’t! (something clearer in harmony, clearer in rhythm, and clearer in voice leading and counterpoint).

* This momentary contrast, if it were prolonged would lead to a confusion in the sounds, like when a person accidentally takes a double exposure with a camera.  If, however, the process could be frozen in time, and experienced just in space, we would have the equivalent of a biologist looking through a microscope that allows on eye to view one slide and the other eye view another slide, as for the purpose of noting what contrasts there are between them.  A side by side comparison.  In music it is more sublime.  It is a a sound image from time past that melds with a sound image from time-present.  The past isn’t gone it lives in memory, for many in the form of a sound-memory.  The past sounds do not really sound in the glare of the light of present, but colors it.  But a comparison is made.


e5  d5



Clearly there is a D Mjor chord trying to fully form and as an e5 yields to the partially formed chord and resolves to the chord note d5.


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Technical Challenges in Moszkoski’s Etude in F and Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op 14.

A.J’s lesson today.  Two works he is preparing for a competition.

-From: 15 Etudes de Virtuosité, Op.72 No. 6 (by Moritz Moszkowski), “Presto” in F major/.

#1. The “ear” as the abstract creator of the figurative shapes of  sounds:

#2. The balance of sound between the two hands.

#3. A ladder falls apart if there are no rungs connecting the sides.

#4. The undulating patterns of three-note groups in the right hand:

-Beethoven: Sonata in  E Major: Op 14 / 1 :  I : The left hand sixteenths in the development section.

#5. “Additive” Clusters as a unit of pulsation through the passage  with                    sixteenth notes.

#6. The desired effect in sound does not always follow upon a logical  or                   teleologically designed set of causes.

-From: 15 Etudes de Virtuosité, Op.72 No. 6 (by Moritz Moszkowski), “Presto” in F major/.

#1. The ear as the abstract creator of the figurative shapes of  sounds:

The ear, as the observer of the flow of sound content through time, may seem at first to be but a passive instrument.  It listens, it notices, and only with a slight lag as the sound has already been physically produced.

If not distracted by the physical actions we make to start the sounds, there is an exact in knowing in the accuracy of the notes.  The awareness of sounds in the ear and the more it is divorced from any muscle movements that physically give rise to the sounds–the more accurately and subtly it  judges the sound characteristics of the music being played.

Through a miraculous confusion of tenses, the ear as a passive listener, after the fact that the sound has begun, yet can be the most effective force in controlling our sounds.  In this regard it is far more efficacious than consciously controlling and gauging the quality of quantity of our muscle movements.  This present tense in consciousness is not a mathematical instant, a point of zero duration.  It contains, according to the French philosopher Henri Bergson, the spilling over of the past into the present and the impetus of the present to be on the verge of becoming the future.  A duration, though recognized as the present, has yet the efficacy of having what has just happened to have an undefinable but definite effect on what is just about to happen.

#2. The balance of sound between the two hands.

A.J. is having difficulty coordinating the two hands in the Moszkowski Etude in F.  His left hand seems to be pursuing its own course–not blending with the right hand, but merely showing up at the same time as the right hand – at the beginning of every third note in the right hand.

I suggested that as he played one of the left hand chords, hold it for a few moments along with the first of the three triplet notes in the right hand.  He should see if his ear could spread its attention over the sounds from the right hand as well.  And then determine quickly whether together, the sounds of both hands formed a cohesive whole.

With just a little attentiveness, just a split second after the notes start sounding, one will notice whether the sounds from both hands seem to reach out towards each other eclipsing the distinction between them and creating a larger sound-whole than either hand’s sounds alone.  And this fusion takes place as he listens to the sounds.  It takes but an instant for this synthesis to occur.  At the first instant there are disjointed sounds from two sources, but a mere instant later these sounds have instinctively reached out towards each other to form a synthesis in consciousness.  Or, to put it another way, it takes just a bare moment for the ear to note and to form a larger whole out of the sounds of both hands.

To his surprise, A. had no difficulty in causing these sounds to fuse together though physically they were made by separate physical acts pertaining to a coordination of the individual sides of his body.  He was surprised since in as much as he wasn’t aware that had done nothing physical to effect this balance, but merely remained attentive to the sounds for more than a split second.  This synthesis had nothing to do with any physical effort to make the sounds be simultaneous.  Nor was there any specific mental ‘effort’ involved.

The combined power of his ear and his brain focusing on the notes, brought the sound together. His previous preparation and physical muscle memory came through in a moment where his head may have easily gotten in the way–thus is the power of the ear.

#3. A ladder falls apart if there are no rungs connecting the sides.

As an analogy for what had just happened, I suggested that the left and right hands were like the two vertical sides of a ladder.  They can remain upright only if there are rungs crisscrossing between them.  These sides had nothing to keep them together without the ear forming the rungs.  Without the attentiveness of the ear those side pieces would fall apart.

Once such a sound-synthesis has been effected at any point in the piece, the possibility then exists to ‘mold’ and shape the forms of these connections.  It now became possible to mold how one of these composite sounds morphed into the next one.  Though intangible in nature, the pianist now has a focal point to help steer all the course of all the individual notes of the composition through the medium of time.

Though to the body, the sounds originating from the right and left hands seemed to exist spatially apart and separate, from the point of view of the attentive ear they were (already) fused together.  It is more the ear, something intangible, than the body, something tangible, that ’causes’, these sounds to meld and form a resonant four-note chord.  We need only seek whether they do.

It is only after the fact of their fusion into a single sound that we can, for analytic purposes, speak of these fused sounds as having two spatially distinct origins.

#4. The undulating patterns of three-note groups in the right hand:

Next we turned A’s attention to just the right hand’s stream of notes, a rapid stream of triplets.  I suggested that each and every group of three such notes comes to life in a molten state, which the pianist can then form into a well-rounded shape.  Despite their melodic and harmonic differences, all such three-note groups should cast into the same shape.  This creates a form ‘texture’ that holds the entire piece together.

The most recalcitrant triplets, the ones that would most resist such shaping, occur when the right hand is playing a chromatic scale.  No group of notes yields up so little harmonic value to a repetitive pulsation, The chromatic scale is most innately without a shape.  If started on a C Natural, and if accompanied in the other hand by a C Major chord, the scale tries to break down into uneven units of, first four note (C C# D D#), then three notes (E F F#), then five notes (G G# A A# B).  This is too much of a strain on the scale which therefore yields up little by way of harmonic implication.  It is the changing size of the harmonically influenced note groups that render the scale inchoate rather than redolent with harmony.  In this etude, the smithy of the mind resists this falling apart of the chromatic scale and obstinately takes every three note group, regardless of its harmonic implication, and shapes those notes into a three note melody without reference to harmony.  If I had to express this using a spatial analogy, each three notes would be, in its unformed state a straight line, which the agency of the ear then coerces into the shape of a letter ‘U’.

Beethoven: Sonata in E Major, Op 14 / 1 :  I : the development section:

#5. “Additive” Clusters as a unit of pulsation through a lengthy passage with sixteenth notes:

The chord with which the left hand commences, c3-e3-a3-c4, is a first inversion A Minor chord.  For many hands this is an uncomfortable arrangement that promotes flitting moments of tension.  There are two ways out of this dilemma.  One is for the hand to change its overall shape as each finger takes its turn enunciating its note, removing if necessary the other fingers from the previous notes they played.   The other way does away with all the physical difficulties by having the ear take on a constructive role, building up, one note at a time, the eventual cumulative sound of the 4-note chord (c3-e3-a3-c4).  When doing this, each single note, in its turn, prepares the eventual and cumulative sound of the four notes occurring at the same time.  It is only through the first iteration of this four-note sequence of tones that the full chord does not sound until the fourth note.  But after that, and with the pedal down, the simultaneous sound of the four notes is continuous.  The evenness in the balance of this four-note is not the result of mechanical manipulation but the result of the expectation of an ear focused on the simultaneous sound of the four notes.

#6, The desired effect in sound does not always follow upon a logical or teleologically designed set of causes:

A.J. didn’t see how such a passive, ear-based, technique could possibly effect the evenness and balance of the four sixteenth notes.  This prompted the following conclusion from him, his most significant realization of the lesson though at the same time not a logical one.

“Mechanically what I did makes sense as a way of achieving the sound effect that I want in sound.  And yet … the result is the sound which I desire.  This apparent disconnect between cause and effect is a normal sign of a sudden breakthrough technically.  The physical means of doing something, when considered in and of itself, may or may not seem to be capable of logically producing the sound effect that the ear is after.

Yet that effect is what is achieved.  So it makes no sense.  It takes bravery to abandon physical/logical sense of consistency between cause and effect and be accepting of what in “Big History” is called an “emergent form”; or a form that is not contained in the some of its parts.

You find that the way to the newly emerging form is not foreseen in its physical and mechanical causes.  The means happens to produce the ends, but cannot predict the effect.


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“I don’t get this piece of 20th century music”

I sent my friend Roy a recording I made ages ago with the Polish violinist Hanna Lachert.   Among other things it contained the three “Myths” Karol Szymanowski*.  Part of his response was:  “What’s the structure of these pieces?  They seemed episodic, and I did not recognize the music as being in any traditional form.”

I responded:

I once read an article by Sir Donald Francis Tovey*, about the first movement of Beethoven’s “Arch Duke” trio.  He compared “side by side” a phrase taken from later in the movement with one taken from near the beginning of the movement.  At first they seem totally unconnected: different number of notes, different rhythm, etc..  However, Tovey demonstrated that if you connected the two phrases with a series of in between phrases heard during the interim in the same movement, they form a chain in which each link in the chain was clearly related to the link before it.  If you skipped from the beginning to the end of the chain, the ends seemed to have nothing to do with one another.  But if you followed the chain one link at a time you could always see, going on, a process of gradual transformation, or morph-ing.  Each link “developed” into the next.

If we let the links of the chain be made out of statements of the same musical theme, each next version of the theme brings out things that were more hidden in earlier version of the theme, though, ‘in retrospect’, were clearly based on what was latent or implied in the earlier version.

Something that was potential in the previous version the theme, had become actualized in the next version.  Tracing the history of these statements of the theme, from one version to the next, you would discover that each next step has kept something essential of the spirit of the preceding manifestation of the them, and so on all the way back to the beginning of the movement.  When looked at from this perspective, one not only grasps intellectually, but literally ‘hears’, the later material as a true derivation of the beginning theme.

The above process is contained within a single movement of a piece. What if we extend the process to one composer and the another through the span of a century?  In the case of Szymanowski the links  were forged from the eve of  the nineteenth century through the early twentieth.

We would witness the analogous process at work.  Each next, great composer, more fully developed something that was lying there in the previous composer, but now developed more fully.

One of the things that makes it harder to see this relationship over decades or even centuries is from our standpoint in the 21st century, what Brahms or Mahler realized out of the essence of Beethoven or Schubert, we now take so for granted, that we “see it” already when we look or listen to Beethoven or Schubert.

If we arbitrarily pick three times: Beethoven’s, Brahms’s and our own era.  The quality that was first fully exposed in Brahms’s works we attribute it “backwards” to Beethoven.  We hear things in Beethoven that he would not have heard.  This leads to some odd observations.  Due because of the order within my personal life in which I got to know, let us say Beethoven and Brahms, I would say: “how clever of Beethoven to have stolen this idea from Brahms.”

I think the way to understand the structure in a work like that of the Szymanowski, is to conceive of a process that begins historically with a very clear structural ordering of parts in a movement, perhaps that of a late Haydn Symphony.  That the next step in this process takes place a number of years later, say at Beethoven’s time.  Comparing the Haydn with the Beethoven we see that the latter has changed the way one of the structural parts of the Haydn evolves into the next.  Same two parts, but differently connected.  Or the greater or lesser aesthetic significance one of the structural parts has for Beethoven than for Haydn.

Then another decade or two goes by, and similar transformation takes place to the Beethoven.  And so on.  We continue this process until there is a linked chain of developments from the structure of Haydn to that of Szymonowski, with the latter being simply the “latest” but probably not the “last” state of the evolution of the structure in a movement, a process continuing in our day.

I got this response back from my friend***:

“What a great reply!  This explains to me, actually, why a work like Szymanowski’s Myths seems so familiar in its structure, but when your mind tries to analyze what your ears receive, it’s difficult to understand the form.  The listener’s emotions flow right along with what’s happening, indifferent to any question of logical process, because, I feel, that that historical underpinning, as you so eloquently have said, is there, even though it’s so difficult to pinpoint.  This seems like an In Medias Res kind of issue.  Whereas in the Beethoven, as Tovey points out, there is a beginning and a conclusion, both related to and supporting one another, in these Szymanowski pieces, he starts in mid-historical stream, so to speak, and then has a problem about how to conclude.  In popular recorded music, they just do the “fade out”, where the music just gets softer and softer, until it disappears.  Szymanowski does something similar, sometimes concluding pianissimo, but with a short little epigrammatic phrase that is really quite clever and surprising.  In a sense (or so it seems to this musically uneducated mind), he is able to enact a temporary resolution to the piece.  You’re mind says, this is the conclusion, but your emotions tell you that nothing really ends, and the music is still going on, but inaudibly, awaiting another composer or composition to revive it.  Schubert often does something like this  in Die Schone Mullerin (sorry no umlats) by creating a running figuration in the piano, which breaks right through the last sounded note, and keeps going as an earwig in the listener’s mind.   Feel free to post this on your site.


Sir Donald Francis Tovey (17 July 1875 – 10 July 1940) was a British musical analyst, musicologist, writer on music, composer, conductor and pianist.

***  Please search for Roy Doughty’s poetry on line; you won’t regret it. Here is a link to some older poems:


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3 Brief Blogs: Technical Situations That Seem the Same But Aren’t; Counting Out Loud; Sustaining a Dying Note

Three brief blogs:

#1 . Two similar technical situations – with an important difference.

#2.  Difficulties encountered counting out loud while playing.

#3. Rekindling a note (“geriatrics” for old notes


#1 . Two similar technical situations – with an important difference.

Two similar technical situations – with an important difference.

Sometimes what appears to be a single technical difficulty, in need of a single solution. resolves upon closer inspection to involve a rapidly succeeding series of moments in time, during which one and then another technical issue arises.  As if performing cognitive therapy upon ourselves, what had seemed an instant becomes filled with a number of separable events, one leading to the other, each one dependent on the one before.  We have to disentangle the chain of events before we can understand how we got from place A to place B.

Related to this is when what appears to be one technical issue preventing a certain spot in the music from sounding its best, turns out to be affected by several, often unrelated, technical issues.  In such a case they each needs to be addressed, before the passage as a whole works well.  Initially, the pianist may be aware of only one of the issues, and when the pianist solves this issue, they are surprised that passage has not sounded any better. The other technical issues that affect that spot, were hiding in the wings, and now come to the fore.  They all must be solved, even if they seem dissimilar to each other.  The passage will not be executed as the pianist wants until they have successfully identified and, in turn, solved all of the technical issues affect the sound of that passage.*

* This reminds me of the long process by which a mountain builds up from the floor the ocean, getting taller and taller over a prolonged period of time, but is not seen by the sailors until its top just appears over the water’s surface.  Everything leading to that moment is important even if it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.  It is always important to recognize your success as each step is accomplished while trying to sort through a tangled maze of issues.

#2  Difficulties counting out loud while playing.

Some students have a difficult time counting out loud while playing.  It is not hard to understand why.  The counting is done in one rhythm (all be it a simple one) but nonetheless a different rhythm than being executed by the figures.  So counting is actually a ‘duet’ between two drummers, all enacted by the same person within the same body.

Rachael was playing the slow movement of K 488 in A Major.  When she tried to count with her playing, her voice abandoned the counting-rhythm and followed the rhythm of the music, which is also to say the gestures of her body.  The result was sometimes the counts were made with succeeding eighth notes, sometimes with sixteenth notes, and sometimes with notes longer than an eighth.

We tried a bunch of things all of which were designed to take the initiative and the control away from her ear and body and place it, somewhat arbitrarily at first, into her voice.  So, often, the speed of her counting suddenly doubled or halved.

I played the first four measures.  She sat next to me, turned off all her musical instincts, and robotically counted 1 2 3 4 5 6.  This act was done impassively, as if daring me to throw her off course by my playing.  Then we switched roles.  I counted and she played.  It was successful, in large measure I think to the close proximity between trying it one way and then trying it the other way.  It became mostly about continuing a known experience.

I had her try to develop an alert ‘sense’ of when her counting might be going off.  And, if she noticed it happening, then we made the default reaction be to stop in her tracks and make no further sounds, no matter where she was in a phrase.  In so doing it required her to abort the inevitable forward flow of the music which was so instinct within her body.  We then found a neutral starting point that preceded the moment when her counting diverted from the music.

The next step was far harder.  We played together at the two pianos.

I played some of the orchestra part but mostly I played in unison with her.  This time, as soon as she noticed that we were out of step with each other, I kept on playing and she had to find some way get back in step with me.  Sounds simple; but it is not.  What made it possible for her was letting go of having to go on to the next notes following the moment she became aware of the problem.  Once her will was no longer committed to going on, she could assume a more reflective and listening posture, figure out where I was, and be able to skip the notes in between and start up again with me from the new location.

Often, when doing this together, the student will stop if they make a mistake, and attempt to play the note over again.  But that would have simply triggered the condition of our not being in step with one another, which in turn meant she should stop playing and figure out where I was now.  Sometimes she would know within an instant, sometimes it took more than a measure or two.  What was important wasn’t how long it took her to re-synchronize, but that her default reaction to being out of step be not to continue on any further (until she deduced her whereabouts).


#3. Rekindling a note (geriatrics for old notes)

If, when a long held note held and gradually loosing its loudness, you choose a specific moment somewhere between its start and its finish, and listen to it anew, a curious phenomenon happens.

Sometimes I think of conscious attention as having entered a dark room, unable at first to see any of the objects that are in it, and then turning a light on and seeing those objects for the first time.  We know that they were there all along, just minus the light, but the light is a necessary condition for our seeing them.   Extending the analogy, when we turn the ‘light of  consciousness’ on something it shines with a renewed brilliance.

If we apply this to listening to a long held note, updating our consciousness awareness that we are hearing the note, we seem to notice the sound having suddenly got a little louder; after which of course it continues to get softer.  It may indeed have been present up to this point in time, but suddenly instead of decaying further it comes back to life, it seems to shine a little louder than it did an instant before.  We have momentarily changed its course of getting softer.   It is similar to that when we blow on a dying flame, it gets momentarily brighter.

One may well object that the sound doesn’t really get louder, only appears so to us.  The listener does not hear the change, so of what use is it to the performer.  But how I hear the in my consciousness in turn effects how I connect that note to the next note, and how I do that is something that the listener does notice.  If I keep on doing it, the listener may turn to their companion in the concert hall and say “how marvelously that pianist connects her sounds, one to another; there is almost something magical about her sound – it doesn’t sound what I think a piano normally sounds like.”

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