Robert Estrin - piano expert

Piano is a Flawed Instrument!

Why the piano is different from other instruments

In this video, Robert explains why the piano can be considered a flawed instrument.

Released on December 30, 2020

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin with a really troubling title to a video, which is Piano is a Flawed Instrument. I had this come out and right there and say it. Now, what the heck am I talking about now? Now, first of all, a disclaimer, I love the piano. Even though it's a flawed instrument, it's incredibly expressive. One of the greatest instruments of all time. So I'm not complaining about the piano in any way, shape, or form, but I just thought I bring out this reality that if you're not already aware of it, it's important to understand the limitations of the piano. Now, first of all, because the piano is a tempered instrument, meaning it can play in all keys. That means that every single interval on the piano with the exception of the octaves are all out of tune.

So when you play a perfect fifth, that is not perfectly in tune. As a matter of fact, there were no two notes you can play on the piano other than the octaves that are in tune with one another. How can this be? Well, years and years ago, keyboard instruments were tuned for the specific key they were played in, because you see string players, and singers, and other instrumentalists will naturally adjust their tuning to make every interval pure. It's just not possible to do that mathematically on the piano to be able to play in all keys. So every interval is equally out of tune in all keys. That is what is meant by temper tuning, equal half steps. So every interval is a little bit out of tune, but they're all equally out of tune in all keys. And we're so used to it now that it sounds in tuned to us as long as the piano is in tune.

But it's important to understand this fact. Perhaps the most significant limitation of the piano as you well know is that the notes are all fading away as soon as you play them. Now in the bass, the notes last a pretty long time. But you can tell even there, by that point, there was very little sound left. Now, as you go high... Now, this piano has remarkable sustain for a piano in the high register, yet listen to how quickly the note dissipates even in the middle high register. It's all but gone. So how do you create the illusion of a singing voice on the piano? Well, that's a subject I've had many videos on. And there are many things you can do in order to achieve a fluid sound that imitates the sound of a wind instrument or a bowed instrument with a continuity.

But it's all an illusion, because it actually does not have a fluid line. You create that illusion by using the weight of the arm to finesse note to note with a smoothness that's the analog of the breadth. And it can be done amazingly convincingly. However, there are certain situations where that just doesn't work. As a matter of fact, I recently listened to... And this is remarkable, you should listen to this. It's on YouTube. I'll put the link in the description below of Gustav Mahler. A piano roll of himself playing his Fifth Symphony, the first movement. Now, if you're familiar with any Mahler symphonies, much less the Fifth Symphony, you know that these are incredibly complex orchestrations.

And by the way, this piano roll is remarkable in its expressiveness. Sometimes you listen to piano roll performances, these were actual performances of the great composers and pianists from years ago before audio recording existed. And a lot of times they don't sound quite right, because the playback instrument has to be regulated exactly like the instrument that was recorded on for it to work properly. Well, this is an amazing recreation of Mahler's piano playing, which is astounding. Now, the reason why I bring this up is because this is an orchestral work with lush strings and brass with a huge orchestration. In order to achieve the sustain of these rich sonorities, there's tremolos all over the place. Things of that nature.

Now that wasn't from the Mahler symphony, that was just an example of tremolos on the piano, because if you're trying to get the sound of a sustained string and you just go... You Don't get it as much as you do... Much less the ability to create a crescendo. A crescendo on one note on the piano is virtually impossible. Now there are nuances of tonal shading you can impart by the use of the pedal. A crescendo is a little bit of a stretch, but this is about the most the crescendo you could achieve by judicious use of the pedals. You may have noticed a little bit of a swell at the beginning. I started with the una corda pedal, and then put the sustain pedal on just as it was starting to would have faded out to give an extra little swell, but that's all we've got to work with.

So yes, the piano is a flawed instrument, but what a wonderful instrument it is anyway, because of all the things it can do. You have this huge range of keys from the very highest notes to the lowest notes. And you've got the ability literally at your fingertips to play complex orchestrations that are all but impossible on just about any other single instrument. So as flawed as it is, I love the piano. Love to hear from all of you, how you feel about this. Again, I'm Robert Estrin. This is Your online piano resource. There's more content on Patreon. You're welcome to subscribe here as well. Thanks so much for joining and see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Tosh Hayashi * VSM MEMBER * on January 4, 2021 @9:28 am PST
Thanks very much for your reply Robert. It seems to be a rather complex matter...I think string instrument teachers for the most part avoid trying to give instruction on the subject because of the sheer difficulty in (impossibility of?) setting down explicit principles or rules. I'm beginning to think that with all of the overtones produced by both the piano and a violin, for example, somehow one can find perhaps a narrow band of pleasing overlap of the 2 spectrums of tones, such that a sensitive string musician will just adjust his pitch so that the blend of the 2 spectrums of tones sounds just right. It's a rather slippery subject to deal with, I think.
Tosh Hayashi * VSM MEMBER * on January 2, 2021 @4:50 pm PST
Not sure what you mean exactly by "compromise": 1. Does that mean the string musician has to temper his/her pitch? 2. Or is some other sort of complex hybrid
compromise involved? And if so, how does this it just something that happens automatically when sensitive string musicians are involved? (I only ask because I've never been given a "clear" answer to my questions in the past, even from expert musicians...
...regardless of whether they play string instruments or tempered instruments. Perhaps there is no clear answer...but it seems there should be.)
Robert - host, on January 3, 2021 @12:24 pm PST
Playing in tune is as much art as science. Consider that all pitched sounds are comprised of not only the fundamental tones (the notes you hear), but a series of overtones which color the sound. Overtones (or partials) are not static either. They waver in pitch and intensity creating the unique properties of sound of each instrument.

Sometimes the overtones are pronounced enough that it is necessary to adjust pitch not only to sound pure with the fundamental tone, but also the overtones. This is one thing that makes tuning a piano so difficult!

Sensitive musicians adjust pitch naturally to blend well with the sound of all the pitches contained within the notes played. This becomes an intuitive process for experienced musicians.
Tosh Hayashi * VSM MEMBER * on December 31, 2020 @5:13 pm PST
Robert, you began by saying the piano is a tempered instrument and therefore can't be played with the pure pitches that string players and singers are capable of. My questions regarding this are: 1. How then does a string player, for example, play a duo with a pianist in terms of pitch? 2. That is, does the string player have to also play with tempered pitches? 3. Further: If the string player decides to play with pure pitches...does that somehow "clash" with the piano accompaniment which is in tempered mode? 4. What in fact do excellent professional string players do in this regard?
Robert - host, on January 2, 2021 @12:25 pm PST
Playing with piano is a challenge in regards to tuning. Ultimately, it is the art of compromise sounding in tune playing with any tempered instrument.
Meera Thadani on December 30, 2020 @10:09 am PST
It is the only instrument that can battle with an 80 piece orchestra alone. Your (and your father) make the piano sing.
Robert - host, on December 30, 2020 @2:04 pm PST
From the most delicate whisper, to a roar that will match a symphony orchestra, there is no instrument like the piano!
Elizabeth * VSM MEMBER * on December 30, 2020 @8:06 am PST
Where is the Mahler link?
John Beach * VSM MEMBER * on December 30, 2020 @4:02 am PST
"And you've got the ability literally at your fingertips to play complex orchestrations that are all but impossible on just about any other single instrument."
With the notable exception of the pipe organ.
Robert - host, on December 30, 2020 @9:45 am PST
You are right! While the organ lacks the expressive keyboard of a piano, adding the pedals offers rich orchestrations.
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