How to Get A Unique Sound on the Piano

Piano Lessons / piano care / How to Get A Unique Sound on the Piano

Welcome to LivingPianos.com. I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about how to get a unique sound out of the piano. It seems like all that’s involved in getting a sound out of the piano is just the speed at which the hammers hit the strings. So how could you possibly get a unique sound? Obviously, singers each have distinctive sounds because the physiology of everyone’s body and vocal chords are unique. With wind instruments, it’s the same thing because the whole vibrating chamber within you is essentially part of the instrument. But the piano is a mechanical contraption. How could you possibly get a unique sound? Yet, if you listen to different pianists, you hear drastically different sounds! You might wonder how this is possible. Well, there’s a lot to this subject.

First let’s talk a little bit about the mechanics of a piano.

I just happen to have an instrument with the action of a nine-foot concert grand piano I use on many of my videos. It’s my second prototype, modular piano system. You see that you push a key and the hammer goes up. Key goes down, hammer goes up. Really the only thing affecting the key once it’s pushed is its speed. It’s the only thing being measured. You might wonder how you can possibly get a unique sound. Is it really possible, the physics of it? The answer is yes! I’m going to explain how this is possible.

First of all, of course the speed has a lot to do with the tone and the loudness. Before we get into the subtleties of pedaling, what about just playing with your hands? Can you really get different qualities of sound just with your hands? For example, if I were to play Bach’s Sarabande Movement from his G Major French Suite no. 5, to see if it’s possible to achieve a different sound playing it with two completely different types of touches, I wonder if you can hear any difference.

See the accompanying video to hear for yourself!

You might have noticed some different shadings of expression. It is possible to play with completely different techniques in order to create different qualities of sound. The first time I just let my fingers be totally relaxed and floppy. I just let them play the attack of the note without any regard to the sustain of the note. You might be thinking it doesn’t make any difference on a piano, but it does! Why it does and how it does is partly due to the fluidities from note to note. You have the analog of the breath by the weight of the arm being transferred smoothly from note to note. That’s one aspect of sound. And secondly, the precise balance between the hands. It can be achieved by having different weights in the two hands and even different weights on the different sides of the hands. So right there, already, you can hear some difference.

The sustain pedal allows for even more expression.

When you add the complexities of what the pedals do on the piano, there are dramatic differences! Of course, if you put the pedal down before you play a note, it’s going to have an echoey sound. In fact, it almost has a little plume right after the initial attack. But if you want to achieve a truly sustained tone, you wouldn’t want to necessarily have that large swell on the attack. You probably would want to increase the sustain of the tone by pedaling just after the initial attack. You do this to capture more sustain, to make the note hold longer so you can create a smooth line instead of a percussive quality of each note. By pushing the pedal down about half a second after playing each note, you can achieve much more sustain. There’s a subtle difference in the tone. The sustain is more full when you put the pedal down after the initial attack. Unlike putting it down before you play the note, which just makes the beginning of it very loud and doesn’t really achieve that continuous quality you want, to mimic the sound of a human voice or a bowed instrument.

Many modern digital pianos will do some of the same things I’m talking about by using physical models of acoustic pianos. But naturally doing this on an acoustic piano is the ideal situation for you. I’m using Pianoteq physical modeling piano software which is not sample based. So you can really get a feel for the sound of the pedals and all the complexities of piano tone.

The una corda pedal can also help to create a sustained tone.

The una corda pedal, or soft pedal, is the one on the left. On a grand piano it shifts the whole action over so the hammers are not striking directly on all three strings. They strike more directly on two of them. You get a warmer tone, because the initial attack is less intense, yet the sympathetic vibration of the three strings is relatively more prevalent. You get a more sustained tone just by using the una corda pedal. It’s not just softer, but the envelope of the sound is different. The initial attack is less and the sustain relative to the attack is greater.

Combining the una corda pedal with the technique I showed you earlier of depressing the sustain pedal just after the initial attack, you can get a very sustained, continuous tone. And that’s just scraping the surface, because you can utilize the pedal in innumerable ways. You can try half-pedaling techniques, where the dampers are just coming a little bit in contact with the strings, just to be able to dampen the tone a little bit to get different tonal colors. There are even ways of fluttering the pedal or just using little bits of pedal here and there to bring out certain notes within a line. So yes, there are ways in which you can get different sounds out of the piano with the pedals as well!

Support the weight of your arms when playing massive chords instead of hitting the keyboard.

When you hit the keyboard, it’s a rather harsh sound. Whereas if you keep your fingers on the surface of the keys, you can precisely depress all of the notes with the same energy. It’s a more musically pleasing sound. You do this to avoid some of the notes being overplayed and harsh while others are underplayed. You don’t have the same control when you are hitting the keyboard from above. Try that on a fine grand piano and you’ll really hear a difference!

Pianists have dramatically different sounds! Ultimately one of the most important components of getting a unique sound out of the piano is how you balance the notes within a chord or the lines within counterpoint. You can achieve a tremendous variety of sound on the very same pieces of music. I often love to listen to a great number of performances of the same piece with great pianists. It’s so enlightening! I encourage you to do the same thing. YouTube is a tremendous resource for that. Look up almost any piece of music and you’ll usually have dozens of different performances from professionals, up and coming pianists, and even students. You’ll hear a great variety of sounds on the piano.

So yes, you can get a unique sound out of the piano! I’ve just shown you many techniques, and there’s even more for you to discover. I’d love to hear your ideas for getting a unique sound out of the piano! Let me know in the comments! Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com

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6 thoughts on “How to Get A Unique Sound on the Piano”

  1. so interesting to think that it is possible to color parts of a triad. wish i could do so. but thank u for suggesting such. i truly luv your videos.

    1. There are many ways to bring out individual notes in a chord (or in counterpoint). Simply reaching with your fingers to the notes you want to bring out is one simple approach. Practicing playing notes you want to bring out legato while playing others with a gentle finger staccato is a great way to practice bringing out individual notes in your playing.

  2. I would love to hear the same presentation on a grand piano. I played your Bach a couple of times, and I am not sure I heard a whole lot of difference. Electronic instruments have their place, but there is simply nothing that can replace a really good grand piano. When you played the individual notes and the chords, then I could hear the difference.

    I often will listen to many different performances of the same piece on YouTube. I am amazed at the differences I hear. And in fact, one particularly troublesome transition in one piece I played gave me fits, and when I heard the COMPOSER play it, he did it completely differently, and it works so much better, that now I do it his way, and the difficulty totally disappears!

    1. The funny thing is, from physical modeled piano, to grand, to upright, all pianos offer different sonic possibilities. Of course the ultimate is a perfectly regulated, voiced and tuned 9-foot concert grand on the stage of a fine recital hall. And yet, each performer will impart their unique sound on whatever instrument they play!

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