Piano Touch and Tone

Led by: , The MARCS Institute, University of Western Sydney

Project running from April 2011 to February 2013

Keywords: , .

When we listen to several different pianists perform music, often our descriptors mention timbre or tone. Phrases such as “they have a beautiful singing tone” and “their ability to bring different colours out of the piano” are often heard. However, in physics and acoustics, it has long been the statement that pianists only have control over timing and key velocity i.e. loudness. So where does this tone come from?

Pianists and piano teachers alike talk of different types of “touch” whether it be using different parts of the arm to provide weight to the fingers, or using different parts of the fingertip or pad to produce a sound. What are the physical implications of these different types of touch?

Studies of body movement in musical performance and theories of embodiment suggest that the body is used as a mediator for the performer in order to transmit their thoughts about the music to the musical instrument in order to produce the desired sound. So what do these particular finger movements look like? And do they have connections to the produced sound for any one particular performer?


This project aims to examine current teaching methods relating to piano touch technique and to examine the physical, physiological and psychological contributions of fingering technique to the produced sound.


From previous work conducted in Jennifer MacRitchie's PhD thesis, motion-capture and audio recordings of pianists performing Chopin's B flat minor sonata, Op.35 4th mvt, provided an opportunity to explore whether pianists would always perform similar rhythmic and pitch change patterns in the same manner with their wrist and finger movements. Looking at the first five bars of the piece, correlation analyses of the movements between bars for each separate performer showed that rather than use a standard set of movements to physically perform the same notes, movement patterns changed as the piece developed, implying that some expressive movement takes place in the midst of these low-level, functional actions. A project on exploring what the physicality of piano touch desired from pianists was then designed in the following way:The first stage consisted of surveys of current experienced piano teachers at international institutions for their opinions and methods on the techniques in playing the piano with different parts /weights of the finger. These interviews were then coded for themes such as musical context, intended sound, weight, pad/tip of the finger.A second stage consisted of recordings through motion capture and MIDI devices which together record each finger movement as well as the changes in velocity of the key and the associated hammer. Two pianists performed four pieces: Mozart's Sonata K283, andante movement, Schumann's Traumerei Op.15, No.7, Debussy's Voiles and Bartok's Mikrokosmos N.112. They were asked to perform each piece in four different conditions: first a normal performance manner constituting the performer’s own interpretation of the piece, then performances with the sound intentions of dolce cantabile, deciso marcato and con dolore. Video-based and image processing motion capture techniques were used to look at motion of the wrist-arm-shoulder system and position of the fingers as the pianists used their body to realise these different sounds.


From examining interviews on current piano techniques used in European conservatoires, it is noted that pianists use gestures to express a certain desired sound, mood or atmosphere for the music being performed. These most likely are passed down in the traditional master-student model rather than being informed from any written literature on the subject. Context is also a large factor in the decision of how to play a note, and therefore will have an effect on the gesture used to produce such a sound.From the video results of the two pianists, differences in rigidity of the arm and movement when pressing and releasing the keys was evident in the different intentions recorded. Interestingly, musical context was a factor in the movement for one pianist, with large relaxed movements for the dolce cantabile in the Schumann piece versus tightly controlled rigid movements for the deciso marcato version. On the other hand these types of movement were reversed for these two intentions in the Bartok piece. The second pianists, however, made almost exactly the same movements for each intention of piece. Further exploration is most definitely required to examine which movements are themselves indicative of expressive intention and whether these are common across a set of pianists.

Related publications