Last Thursday (actually nearly a year ago. I never published this post.) The Chattanooga Music Teachers Association (CMTA) was gracious enough to let me give a presentation on the psychology of piano touch and tone. We had a lot of fun. Summit Pianos hosted the event. They shuffled around their grand pianos to give us a large portion of their showroom and found a nice honky tonk sounding piano for my presentation, per my request. Greg Amburn, one of the teachers I service pianos for, gave me the idea a year ago and suggested that I contact Katheron Lathem. She is the current President of CMTA and also a teacher I have been serving for 5 years. She liked the idea very much and got an approval to move forward. Once approved I began writing my talk.
I titled it “Perceived Tone, Perceived Touch. Making Humble pianos sound better.”
During the talk we covered 5 key subjects: tuning, voicing, regulation, repair and friction reduction. And how they all come together to effect piano touch and tone. But they don’t just affect touch and tone. Our brain interprets things and often interprets opposite of what is really happening. For instance a bright piano feels light to the touch and vice versa regardless of the actual gram weight of the key movement.
The brain hears and feels sound and vibration simultaneously. Just listen to the adjectives and verbs used commonly used to describe pianos both good and bad: tinny, dull, slow, fast, harsh, heavy, light, mushy, bouncy, clear, loud, big, etc. These are all terms used when asked what we think of a piano. But notice some describe the tone and others the touch.
Not one of the 5 key areas can by itself make a piano play or sound well. When tuning, the most important aspect is clean unisons. Without clean unisons the piano’s tone will never bloom. But that alone will not give great tone and touch. Regulation, too, is necessary. Without good regulation the dynamic range will be small. The piano will lose its booming forte and whispery pianissimo. To get color change, the hammers need to be voiced. Over time the strings cut grooves into the felt heads and pack down the felt. This pulls the upper partials out more and creates a bright tone, usually referred to as “tinny”. Hammers need to be reshaped and voiced. Those are the “Big Three” but I like to add two more.
In addition to the Big Three I like to include repair and friction reduction. The repairs I am talking about here are not the obvious ones like broken hammer shanks or anything that causes the piano to not play. But I am referring to repairs that are necessary for tone but don’t’ stop the piano from playing. These are often key bushings needing replacement or smalls cracks in the bridges at the bridge pins. The key bushings will develop pockets over time causing them to loosen and wobble but still playable. But wobbly keys will affect the sensation of control, consistency and tone.
Finally, I consider friction reduction. The action has many metal pins, leather and felt that contact and rub against each other. I clean and lubricate them periodically. They can add considerable weight to the touch. I am often working on instruments with 10 to 15 grams of extra weight. Clean and lubricate them and magically the touch weight is back to spec.
I also mentioned how affordable it is to have piano touch and tone work done. We are just trying to make pianos play and sound better than they now do after years of likely neglect. The price points are all less than buying new and used pianos. this is good news for students and teachers alike who usually have good pianos that have lost their original voice.