Robert Estrin - piano expert

Can You Bring Out Notes on a Keyboard with No Dynamics?

Interesting insights for instruments without dynamics touch

In this video, Robert talks about instruments like the harpsichord and the organ, which have keyboards that are not sensitive to the touch, and are therefore unable to express "dynamics."

Released on April 15, 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

Robert Estrin, The question today is, can you bring out notes on a keyboard with no dynamics? You might think it would be impossible. How could you possibly bring out notes in a chord, for example, on a harpsichord or maybe you have a keyboard at home that doesn't respond to touch or an organ. There are a lot of keyboard instruments that don't have loud and soft like the piano does. So you might think it's impossible to bring out notes. But there is a way. I've had the good fortune of not only performing on piano but also on harpsichord and other early instruments and the flip side is I've had vast experience with music synthesizers and samplers and other types of keyboards, some of which don't have touch. So how could you possibly bring out notes in a chord on an instrument that doesn't respond to touch? Well, the secret is holding some notes longer than others. Now I can demonstrate this extremely simply by playing just thirds. That is two notes at a time, going up and down like this.

I purposely didn't play anything louder or softer so you can hear what it sounds like. Now without changing the volume, I am just going to hold the top notes longer than the bottom notes, creating the illusion of those notes being louder. It draws your attention to those notes, even though they're the same volume. Listen to it. I'm going to bring out the top line first.

It's amazing, isn't it? Watch how we bring out the bottom line the same way by playing the top notes of the thirds in a detached manner.

Now, why do I bring your attention to this? Well, interestingly, even though the piano is capable of dynamics, I could play the top notes or the bottom notes louder. Here, I'll play the top notes louder, holding them both the same amount because a piano can do that.

And the reverse playing the bottom notes louder.

So you might wonder, why would you ever have to do that as a pianist? Well, first of all, if you're playing Baroque music written for the harpsichord, like Scarlatti for example, they didn't really have the capability of playing dynamics unless you have a two manual harpsichord where one keyboard is louder than the other. So it's a valuable technique in Baroque music for one and you can utilize this technique on a piano in your playing to get other colors and ways of bringing out notes, not just with volume. Not only that, but by practicing that way, you will be able to develop the ability of bringing out notes in volume because you've practiced bringing them out in the way I described playing some longer than others. So even on let's say a chord progression where there's four voices, it's possible to do this same technique. I'm going to play a simple classic establishing of the key and I'll do it in C major and I'm going to bring out first the top note, top line by playing them longer.

Now the bottom line.

And now the Alto line, the second to the top line.

And finally the tenor line, the one right above the base.

This is an extremely valuable practice technique for you, particularly if you're playing counterpoints, that is fugues where you have separate lines. But it's also incredibly valuable to develop the balance in your playing when playing chords. So for example, oh yeah, for example, let's say the second movement of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. You want to bring out that top line in the second movement.

A great way to practice this, as I discussed before, is to play those inner notes gently with finger staccato so you delineate them in your hand and in your head. You can control them. If you can play with different articulations, with different lines in your music, you will be able to control them in volume very easily. So this is a great practice technique to bring out the bass and the soprano that is the top line and the bottom line, and pay the inner lines gently, finger staccato without pedal.

So this is a great technique musically in certain contexts, certainly an essential technique on the harpsichord and the organ and other keyboards without dynamics. But it also is a tremendous practice technique to gain control in your music of all the notes you're playing within a chord. I hope this lesson is valuable for you. Again, I'm Robert Estrin here at, your online piano store. You're welcome to subscribe for future videos. Until then, we'll see you.
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