The piano is a wonderful instrument. It’s big and imposing and loud (or quiet) and not that hard to write decent music for. In the world of electroacoustics though, the normal sound of piano playing doesn’t always blend into a piece very well. It tends to sound somewhat out of place next to all those sines and sawtooths. That is, if you play only the keys! Take a look!
Look at all that surface area! Wonderful opportunity often overlooked for the easy button-pushing of the familiar keyboard. Here are some ideas to try next time you’re around a piano:
- Run your fingernails over the white or black keys, to make a clicking sound. Helmut Lachenmann uses this fingernail technique extensively in his piece, “Guero”. Unfortunately, this is normally a very quiet sound and somewhat lame-sounding compared to a real guiro. Alternatively, run a plastic guitar or banjo pick over the keys for a louder sound. (These days, I always carry a banjo pick in my purse for emergency piano plucking.) Or run the palm of your hand over the keys to produce an even quieter sound.
- Hit every piece of wood you can see with either your palm or your knuckles. Moritz Eggert uses many of these techniques in his piece, “One Man Band”. They sound best when the damper pedal is depressed before hitting. My favourite hits are:
- Knocking on the top of the piano just behind the fallboard. Sounds like a horror movie.
- Slapping the front of the piano behind the fallboard, with the fallboard down. Very echoey, but hard to access. When the fallboard is down, it can also be hit. Note that Yamaha fallboards are equipped with a safety spring so they cannot be closed or opened quickly.
- Slapping the underside of the keyboard. A bit hard to reach when playing on the keys, but produces a nice echoey sound.
- Knocking the piece of wood right underneath the keyboard. This piece is connected loosely with the rest of the piano, so it produces a higher-pitched hollow sound. It’s also narrow and in an awkward position, so it’s hard to hit quickly.
The best way to find good knocks and slaps for your piece is to sit at a piano and hit it. Some parts of the piano are more resonant than others, and there is a surprising range of dead to boomy sounds you can produce.