Piano Myths: Part III

(See Part I and Part II)

There are many young women, who, when they sit down to the piano to sing, twist themselves into so many contortions, and writhe their bodies and faces about into such actions and grimaces, as would almost incline one to believe that they are suffering great bodily torture. Their bosoms heave, their shoulders shrug, their heads swing to the right and left, their lips quiver, their eyes roll; they sigh, they pant, they seem ready to expire! (Wolfe, 1891)

Music as Visible

I love the art and craft of creating movement to physicalize music. As choreography, it is all too easy to do badly, but deceptively difficult to do in ways that reflect elements of music beneath the surface. That opens up infinite choices for guiding the audience’s perceptions of music through their kinesthetic sense, resonating with the movement they see.

Dance and music overlap in core elements – time and energy – but of course, they take different forms. Movement occurs in space, and music occurs in sound. Naturally then, we don’t watch music; we hear it. Elements outside of sound can influence the audience’s perception, as well as the performer’s experience; but let’s be honest about it. Whatever a pianist “expresses” beyond pure sound exists in the imagination of the listener, not in the mechanism of the piano. 

As Kurt Knecht explains, dryly:

Your “warm” tone is being communicated through the key drop into the capstan which pushes the warmness into the wippen which then makes the jack feel warm and fuzzy, so it gently nudges the hammer shank. The hammer shank is so tingly that it rises up and envelopes the string in its felt in a more gentle way than it would have if your finger had come straight down on the key.

Watching Watts

I enjoyed hearing (and seeing) André Watts several times when I lived in New York. Seats in the left side of the hall tend to sell out first because audiences like to watch the pianist’s hands. But an orchestra seat on the front right side could offer a great view of Watts’ very expressive face. (And if it became distracting, you could always close your eyes and just listen.)

To what extent must we, do we, should we, rely on visual sense when we listen to music?

Piano teacher Samantha Coates blogs:

I recently saw a post on Facebook from a piano teacher who had given his student a Shostakovich prelude to play. He had uploaded the video of the student playing it after only 2 weeks of learning – and it was totally amazing! Incredibly fast, even, balanced and wonderful. Most of the comments consisted of ‘wow!’ or ‘you’re such a lucky teacher!’ … but the comment that really got my attention was ‘Just tell him to keep his left wrist higher, otherwise it sounds great!’

This intrigued me. Why on earth was this random other teacher concerned about the height of the wrist, when it clearly did not inhibit the playing? Vladimir Horowitz plays with flat fingers. James Morrison plays with puffed cheeks. Should we criticise these incredible musicians just because it doesn’t look right?

Looking at Liszt

Robert Schumann has been quoted as saying, “If Liszt played behind a screen, a great deal of poetry would be lost.” (Borio, 2015.) 

What does that mean for music recordings? Do we miss out on poetry of music, as Schumann suggested, if we can’t see the musician’s movement? (Have we forgotten how to move, ourselves?)

If it’s true that our visual impressions of movement can influence our perceptions of sound, whether or not the sound is actually affected, then some might argue that movement is a necessary part of staged music performances. After all, the “TV Generation” is in old age now, and we’ve become accustomed to visual spectacle. Just sound? Where’s my spectacle? Where’s the drama? 

The drama is DIY. A Canadian study suggests that audiences project various qualities onto their perceptions of sound, and thus experience music as being “sad,” “joyful,” “impassioned” etc. based on combinations of visual and aural impressions (Bergeron & Lopes, 2009). 

“Feeling” in music can mean different things to different people. To many, it is an emotional sense, perhaps with programmatic meaning attached. To others (myself included), it is more likely to refer to the physical sensation of music in movement or stillness. 

(A dear friend, John Colman, once recounted someone asking him what Mozart was thinking about when he composed one of his symphonies. “What was he thinking about? He was probably thinking about violins!”)

Or close your eyes.

Of all instruments, research concludes that vocalists have the greatest capacity for movement to influence audience perception (Schutz, 2008). Singers are unencumbered by external instruments and are free to move onstage, gesture, and make dramatic facial expressions. In my view, that makes them actors as well; and it’s hard to say characterization doesn’t affect their sound. (That’s a study I’d like to see!)

Must instrumentalists be actors, too?

Similar to the tests with umbrella tips depressing piano keys cited earlier, another study isolated visual and auditory perceptions of a master percussionist playing single tones on a marimba (Schutz, 2008). Long and short gestures accompanied long and short durations. Then researchers switched the audio and video, so that the long gestures were shown for short durations of sound, and short gestures for long durations. Even when asked to judge the sounds only, when music students viewed the (switched) video, they identified gestures instead. Without any visual input, they identified the durations of sound correctly. (The researchers conclude this a useful “trick” for instrumentalists like pianists who can do little to control duration.) 

Maybe there’s something to be said for playing behind screens… Wishful thinking! On the other hand, blind auditions help orchestras overcome their lying eyes in several respects.

My sisters and I did expert impersonations of our parents as duo-pianists. Dad was very stoic, reserved, with not a single movement wasted. Mom swept around the keys, made faces, and seemed to be in an intense dialogue with the music. And yet, they made one sound.

The moral of the story is: Listen to Yourself.

Don’t believe everything you hear from “experts.”  Just listen… and believe what you hear.



Bergeron, V. & Lopes, D. M. Hearing and Seeing Musical Expression. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, (1), (2009). 1. Retrieved from http://proxy-bc.researchport.umd.edu/

Borio, Gianmario, ed. Musical Listening in the Age of Technological Reproduction. Surrey: Ashgate, 2015

Schutz, Michael, S. Seeing Music? What musicians need to know about vision. Empirical Musicology Review, Vol 3, No. 3, Pp 83-108 (2008), (3), 83. doi:10.18061/1811/34098

Wolfe, Richard A. Manners, Culture and Dress (1891), quoted in Advice from the Attic, Monica Dale. Hatpin Press: 2003