A Chopin Nocturne; the Boundary Between Heard and Imagined Sound
S.B.’s lesson on 7/11/19: Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48 / 1.
The piece begins with two solitary c-s (c2-c3). A beat later C is joined by other notes belonging to a C Minor chord. At what point do we begin to hear or sense the full C Minor chord? We may think that one beat is not a long time. That very soon after we play c2, any ambiguity as to identity of the harmony during the first half of the measure will disappear, as the hands complete the C Minor chord on the second beat. But subjectively that first beat can last a long time. Either the pianist, or the listener already quite familiar with the piece, must imagine the rest of the C Minor chord sounding (c2–g3-ef4-g4–g5) before the second beat arrives, while only the C naturals on the first beat are still in the outer ear.
The same applies for all the other half measures in the opening. The pianist should have a pre-vision (sic) – a “pre-audition” – of the full chord in their imagination, as if it is already fully sounding into their outer ear. One of the most subtle and masterly things a pianist works with when constructing with sound is the middle ground between heard and imagined sound. Memory and anticipation are always weaving together in the consciousness of duration in time. The boundary between the two should not be fixed and definite, but blurred. What the pianist imagines has a tangible effect on what the listener thinks they are hearing.
#2. Things that can spoil a legato in a long phrase.
The first phrase is four measures long. There are several places within it where it requires increased additional focus to keep the sense of legato flow alive.
A. Measure one and the first half of measure two
The presence of a rest can indicate two very different things. One
is to force a break in a melody: to consider something as being two
separate things rather than one continuous thing. The other is to
increase the sense of connection in the melody by having to overcome
an obstacle or gap that has been superimposed upon the melody. It is
like the electric charge crossing the gap in a spark plug. It is like
water building up behind a dam. A pressure, or force, builds up
behind the stoppage of the first note which makes going on to the next
note even more inevitable and accomplished with greater momentum.
B. The first two notes in measure two
The g5 comes in as a quarter note but starts on the and of one. If
you think of this quarter note as two eighth notes tied together, the
easiest place to loose the legato is as the first half of the quarter
note ties over the end of beat one into the first part of beat two.
It is in effect a tie to connect two beats. The force of the flow of
that sound has to spill over the boundary between the two beats. It
is not enough to hear one note, but as if that note began a sudden
crescendo just prior to its second half. It is the rhythm and the
meter that forces this imaginary crescendo upon the otherwise formless
sound that lasts two eighth notes.
C. The tied d5 in measure two going to the ef5.
Immediately after the imaginary crescendo during the first d5 in
measure two, we encounter another situation which can attenuate a
continuous legato. It occurs when a relatively long note is followed
by a relatively short note. In this case the first d5 of the measure
is the longer note, lasting for three sixteenths, and the following
ef5 not only is one sixteenth long, but it also comes in after a tie. A
We normally rely on there being enough resonance left to a note to
effect a soldering of one note in a legato to the next. Otherwise the
sudden change from the end of a longer note. which has already
decayed, to the sudden attack of the next note sounds too much like an
sudden accent and defeats the attempt at the legato. To overcome this
difficulty, the pianist’s ear must track the full duration of the
longer note, instant to instant and, in their imagination, sustain
(prop up) the loudness of the note so as to counterbalance the
decrescendo of the decay. Then they must connect this heightened form
of the end of this note not to the attack of the following note but
the level of sound the next note will have a moment after the attack.
Even when it is just a short note.
D. The repeated c5-s in measure three.
When playing the same note several times in row, do we let the legato
come solely from the pedal? Or do we use the more cumbersome but
elegant way of controlling the key dip and not resorting to the pedal.
Or perhaps some of both? This is the pianist’s decision. The purer
legato is always attained by manipulating the key in question so that
at the instant that the key is released, and a minimal fraction of
inch before it reaches the top of the key dip, the arm is already
overriding the upward motion of the key with a strong downward force
to send the key down again.
E. The g4 in measure four going to the the grace note bf4.
This falls under the heading of a relatively longer note going to a relatively shorter note (see letter ‘C’ above). Pianists will often inadvertently make the legato connection occur from between the note before the grace note to the note to which the grace then goes to. The more sublime legato connection is from the note before to the grace note itself, in spite of its very short duration.
#3. Other things contributing to maintaining constancy of flow in the piece.
The way the pianist releases a chord unintentionally affect the way they
attack of the next chord. Thus, when playing the chords on the offbeats in beginning of the piece, don’t “telegraph” the release of the left hand chords into the attack that started the same chord. Regardless of the duration the pianist wishes to hold these chords (some editions show them staccato) there should be two physically dissimilar gestures, one for the attack, one for the release, with a stasis in between them.
The middle section of the Nocturne, where a series of wide chords is
arpeggiated from one hand into the other. The broken chord is
difficult, regardless of the distances between the notes and fingers,
if the chord is first rendered as a melody of single notes, starting
with the bottom note written in the left hand for that chord, and
ascending leisurely a pitch at a time until finishing the melody with
the highest note of the chord that is written in the right hand. The
pedal can be kept down. The finger that has just played one of the
notes can come off that note the moment the next finger has started
its note. This discourages over-stretching the hand when the melody
is turned back into a chord.
C. The section with double octaves.
S.B. has a small hand and was reluctant to learn the piece.
She pointed out that her fingers are hyper-flexible. Watching her
carefully as she played the octaves, I found myself wanting to say, for
the first time to a student, “You may want to not use all that flexibility.”
I called her attention to the shape of her hand and wrist when playing
an octave, in particular along the length of the fingers and a projection of that axis through the hand and wrist. Her wrist was elevated. The third knuckles of her fingers were at a lower altitude in comparison to the wrist, but because the third knuckles hyperextended to a strong degree her second knuckles were at a much higher altitude than the third knuckles.
I suggested that this contour had innate disadvantages when seeking the greatest extension between the fingers without inducing tension. That without coercing anything, she could encourage a shape from wrist to fingers that was more in the spirit of being like, or in the direction of a
straight angle. To coax her hand into that shape, she could rest the
three middle fingers on the surfaces of random keys lying in between
the pinky note and the thumb.
This improved the sound of her octaves, as well as their quality of
resonance, evenness, and her alacrity in changing from one octave to
* Often when I said I noticed a difference she did not. Sometimes it
wasn’t so much that she didn’t notice the improvement, but that the
improvement was short of her ultimate goal and desire. This time
however, she smiled and said, “Oh, that was much better, and much
Creating Harmonic Clarity
Bach: C Major Prelude, Book I, Well Tempered Klavier
Part of A.B.’s quest is to play the notes of this prelude “evenly”. Achieving this has to do with the chord outlined by the notes of each measure, and the balance of the notes in the chords in creating a clear impression of that chord as a whole. To make this chord more obvious to the ear, the player, when practicing, can “densify” each chord: if there are openings between adjacent written notes in the chord to squeeze in additional notes from the same chord, add those notes in. For instance in measure 2, there is room for an f4 between the d4 and a4. If we add in that f4, we create the denser five-note chord: c4 d4 f4 a4 d5. We can take that chord a step forward and add a c5 between the a4 and the d4, forming a six-note chord. The chord has been a D Minor-7 chord the entire time, but the additional chord tones just make it stand out more clearly to the ear what chord it is. Do this for every chord in the Prelude when Bach’s written notes allow for such additions.
An equally valid technique to add density to the character of a chord is add in chord tones in lower and/or higher octaves not used in the printed chord. In this form a chord could contain 8 – 10 notes, or by adding the pedal, larger numbers of notes, spanning the low bass to high treble. In this form, the “quality” of the chord reveals itself at its most obvious. This technique, helps “set” the sonority of the written chord inside a larger entity to which it in turns belongs.
Whatever are the sound characteristics and the mood characteristics of the individual chord, they become in this manner magnified to the ear. From this form of the chord we can then re-compress the chord (through the aesthetic equivalent of a ‘trash compactor’) without losing any of the sound ‘material’ present in the larger version of the chord: the larger instance of the chord being condensed into a smaller chord without losing any of the fullness or meaning of the uncompressed version of the chord.
Two Shorter Blogs: 1. Two Types of Staccato 2. Playing a “Vamp” to Bring Out the Rhythms of a Piece
There are two basic types of staccato depending on how the pianist executes it physically.
In one type, the physical action that is used to push down the key contains within it the action that in a moment will release the key. Sort of a “follow through”.
In the other type, instead of basically one action, as in the above case, there are three different actions: pushing the note down; holding it down even if for a very brief time; and releasing the key.
In the first type the release lies inside the attack. The initial motion telegraphs the release. In the second type there is a neutral body posture in between the attack and the release. The effect of these staccatos on the sound of the phrase is very different.
Generally, staccato does not imply any specific ratio of duration of silence to sound, but covers all cases from the shortest of staccatos, bordering on being unheard or unnoticed, and one that is just shy of being played détaché. Regardless of these variations in the length of the staccato, it can be executed is such a way as to fall into either of the two types above.
A ‘long’ staccato can be of the first type. All it means is that the downward motion, while transitioning to upward motion, gets stuck for a while; gets absorbed into the key, before the finger can get away. But, when the finger does get away from key, it is still a component of the overall motion begun when the note began.
Human consciousness is capable of awareness down to very small durations of time. Thus a ‘short’ staccato can be of the second type. All this means is that, pauses in a neutral, inactive position, for a very small fraction of a second. During this moment, all sense of motion recedes over the mental horizon, so that the release, when it comes, has nothing to do with the attack.
#2. “Vamping” to bring out the rhythm and pulse of a piece
I’m thinking of the vamps played by the pianists or pit orchestras for old-time vaudeville shows. A singer is waiting in the wings to come on stage. There is introductory music that is meant to accompany her while she walks out on stage. The vamp is obvious and blatant in nature, with a very stressed rhythm. It recycles for a while until the singer is ready to sing the first note. At this point the vamp morphs into the proper accompaniment for the song.
Often I will sit at the second piano and play a vamp while the student is playing their piece. It almost seems as if I were trying to turn the piece into something obvious like a Sousa march, like a German oom-pah band. I’m yanking out of the inside the underlying pulse, the meter, the chords, and depositing them onto the outside of the piece.
The general effect of this procedure is that the student becomes more aware of some of the most basic qualities of the piece they are playing, by hearing them emphasized in an accompaniment into which they have no choice but fit their performance. The playing transforms itself so as harmonize and “get along” with the vamp. If effective, when my vamp ceases, the student continues playing in a very alive fashion. Once the outside of the piece is enlivened and comes to life, the more subtle aesthetic effects of the piece can be relied on to come into focus.
Sometimes I will take a vamp that is based on one chord alone, and play it continuously and unchanged as the student’ plays through his piece. Why do this, when there will be many places in the piece where the vamp does not conform harmonically to what the student is playing? Because that makes the pulse and rhythm stand out even more obviously (as the harmony clashes with piece).
Where Does Sound Come From?
Stranded on a dessert island.
Imagine a person born blind, living alone, on a proverbial deserted island, out of touch with society, surviving through what she can grasp with her hands. Sight has never had an influence on her notion of reality.
From a hidden vantage point we notice that a bird is singing near where she is standing. We assume she hears it; but cannot see it. For her there is only a certain quality of sound, to which only we can give the name bird. For her, it never gets beyond being just a sound, although she can distinguish one sound from another on the basis of its quality.
Thus she is someone who 1) has never seen, 2) never seen a bird, and 3) wouldn’t be able to conceive that there is something called a bird. There are simply no past connections between the sense of sound and the sense of sight. There is nothing linking the sound of the bird with the sight of a bird.
If the question “why” arises in her mind, probably in the form of “why this sound and not another sound”, the question can only be posed by her within the domain of time and not space: “why do I hear that sound now and not at another time.”
At this moment, a miracle occurs.
Our subject can now see. One of the first things that happens is that she sees a bird, although it is not at that moment singing. Thus at this point there is no reason for her to form any sort of link between the sound of the bird and the image of the bird in front of her.
Some scientists now enter the scene.
They introduce themselves, and present her with a series of pictures. Included is a picture of the same species of bird that she has been hearing. She is asked to choose from among the pictures the one she thinks would be most closely associated with the sound she already knows.
This request perplexes her. She cannot even understand the general form of the question. At this stage of the story, sight is still new to her. She knows of no reason why a sight and a sound should be related to each other, even that they could be related to each other. While the sound, for the scientists is the “sound of a bird“, she has no need to make, or even conceive, such a statement.
She has no grounds for choosing one picture as against another. This makes it arbitrary which picture she chooses. If she is “artistic” by nature, perhaps she may form an aesthetic comparison: which sight feels like it goes with this sound.
Her judgment in this matter cannot yet be based on cause and effect. And even if she has a notion of cause and effect from her previous experiences in which there was no sight, sound as far as she can tell, needs no cause.
“Excuse me”, she asks, “are you saying that a sound requires a sight to cause it? That among all the random lines and shapes I see, which seem aimlessly distributed in space, there are certain lines and shapes that for a reason I cannot conceive ‘belong’ to each other, stand out from the other lines and shapes because of a mysterious relationship, which in turn you call the cause of the sound I have been hearing – not just now, but whenever I hear it.
When you speak of this mysterious connection between just certain lines and shapes, you use the strange word ‘object’, as if by saying that word it should be obvious to me why just those lines and shapes clump together with each other. And then, now that I supposedly believe in something called ‘the object’ whatever an object is, it is also the cause for the sound – something that never seemed necessary to me for the sound to occur. Why should there be such a complicated and seemingly arbitrary way of connecting things in my mind, based on an invisible (at least to me) concept called ‘object’, without which, you say, I would not hear my sounds. Furthermore that I have to choose among several of these objects, and pronounce the words ‘this object is the cause of what I hear?’ That sounds like an enchanter’s spell. My universe was full and complete without sound requiring a cause. Being sighted is sure a complex thing.”
At last she picks one of the pictures. “If I pick this picture today can I pick another picture tomorrow to be the cause of this particular sound in my head? I ask you this because for now, none of the pictures that you show me bear any inner resemblance to the sound that I know.” The psychologists say: “No, you must believe that a sound arises in your consciousness because of a certain event happening in space, which something has to do with a particular object that you see, and always that object and not another.”
She comes to her “senses”.
She is left alone for a few days to ponder this perplexing situation, a situation that until now, without sight, had no reason or necessity to exist.
During one of these days she just happens to hear the sound of the bird at the same time that she is looking at a bird. This may have happened on the preceding days, but this time she notices that the beak of the bird moves in tandem, in time, with the occurrence of the sound. She knows this much more because of time rather than space. The togetherness of the sight and the sound is based on a common moment in time.
This forms the basis of a series of ongoing experiences by which the sound of the bird is gradually linked in her mind to the image of the bird.
As with the pictures of shown by the psychologists to the girl, sights that are visible to a growing, young child at only at certain times, during for example a concert, are only gradually coordinated by that child with something seen in space in the concert hall. It turns out that the people who are holding musical instruments in their hands seem to make motions that are most consistently synchronous in time with the changes of the qualities of the sounds.
Here’s the first important point. Once such an association is made by the child, he or she forgets that there was a time when no such association had been made.
The second point is: was either the woman on the island, or the person in the concert hall, missing anything crucial when they was unable to relate the object ‘bird’ or the object ‘violin’ with a certain specific sound quality of sound? I say no. Nothing essential to our understanding and appreciation of sound is added to by the tacking onto the sound a relationship with sight. And in the concert hall, it adds nothing important to essential qualities of the music as sound alone.*
For those of us who do not need such distractions as sight offers, and can remain glued to the sounds of the piece, we enter an ideal realm of pure relationships between pure sounds, closed off from everything else, and not lacking a thing.
* It is for some but not all of the concert goers, that visual impressions can serve as a distraction or refuge from just having to listen to sound from one moment to the next. For them there are the distractions of the appearance of the concert hall. For them, too, there is the all important information in the program notes, which they are relived to believe captures something essential that they miss in the progression of the sounds alone. But thanks to the program notes, they are able to go up to someone at intermission and say, wisely: “wasn’t it wonderful how the composer used the brass section in the second movement of the symphony to create a delicate halo of sound around the rest of the orchestra!”.
The printed score and its limitations
A lesson with Irving on the Chopin: F Minor Nocturne
He is an intermediate level student, and has not had enough years of experience in reading scores to not be thrown off by ambiguities in the music notation. In particular the rhythmic counter-intuitiveness of even an unusually fine edition like “Henle.” Here are some of the issues we encountered.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell that a series of eighth notes in the right hand line up simultaneously with a series of eighth notes in the left hand. This is simply because of the optical illusion produced when the stems of the notes in one hand go up and the stems of the notes in the other hand go down. We tend to be less aware that the note centers are vertically aligned and more aware of the left-right offset of the stems.
The printed symbol for a whole note often takes up more horizontal space than that of a shorter note, for example a half note. If there is a whole note and a half note in the same chord played by the same hand, before we can interpret the rhythmic relation between the two notes, we have to first ‘translate’ the feeling of horizontal imbalance on the page into a more mathematical sense of the ratio of the durations of the notes.
In the edition of the Nocturne we are using, the first measure of the cadenza-like, cascading downward run in sixteenths, begins after a quarter note. The publisher has left very little horizontal space between the quarter note and the first of the sixteenth notes. The intuitive impression is that the sixteenth notes start sooner than they actually do. As a result we may find it harder than usual to play the simple rhythm of a quarter followed by four sixteenths.
The width of two measures containing the exactly the same number of notes and in the same rhythm, vary because of the extra horizontal room taken by accidental signs, especially the double flat sign.
Near the end of the piece there is a wonderfully chromatic and somewhat dissonant pair of voices converging in the right hand. The printed notes are already counter-intuitive because of a sort of staggered chromaticism between the two voices. This makes the notes even more difficult to read because the edition compresses the width of that particular measure to save room. The notes seem harder to read, not as much because of the composer’s unique choices of pitch, but because they are jammed together left and right.
One can adduce many more such examples.
In general, a publisher assumes that the exact rhythm of a passage can be gleaned from, or sometimes in spite of, the horizontal spacing of the notes on the page. That it is up to the pianist to “translate” the spatial information into a durational awareness of what the rhythm is. Only sometimes does the rhythm on the page “look like” what it “sounds like” through time.
We forget this because of years of unconsciously making this translation, but for the less experienced pianist it helps to point out the when the appearance of the notes on the page make the rhythm even more ambiguous than usual to discern.
In Irving’s case we discovered just how strongly his subconscious brain rebelled against all of the above types of visual incongruities on the page. And since this was occurring on a subconscious level, he did not stop to make himself aware of the cause of his discomfort. He assumed that he somehow was doing something badly, or was having more trouble than other pianists learning the piece. But once he became conscious of these ambiguities, he was able to stop blaming himself for the results of those ambiguities. Irving could feel himself in the privileged position of a critic who is looking down upon the spatial appearance of the rhythms, but who out of kindness will correc in his mind the incongruities so that the rhythm sounds as the composer intended.
Singers have a particular issue with one aspect of the printed display of rhythms. It results from which notes are beamed together with others notes as against a note having its own self-standing flag. The publisher is more interested in showing where the last note of one syllable changes to the first note of the next syllable and does so by not beaming together those two notes. They have prioritized syllabification over a clear portrayal of rhythm. The result of seeing all the resulting isolated stems is to confuse the eye so that we cannot divine even simplest of rhythms, as when a quarter note divided into four sixteenth notes.