Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Physics of the Piano


What an irritating little book this is!  I don't really know who it's aimed at, but it certainly wasn't me - it drove me nuts as I fought my way through it.

Jenny was given it as one of the books to select from for the Winton Prize last autumn, and I've finally read it.  I'm not planning to read all 136 books, but there are a dozen or so I liked the look of, and I've been slowly working my way through them.

The most irritating aspect of the book is that at the start of each chapter, there's a section discussing what will be covered in that chapter, and at the end is a short section summarising what's been covered.  Oh for goodness sake, what do I need that for?  Eventually I realised I could just skip those bits altogether.  Worst was a paragraph that started off by saying "In the last paragraph ..."  Jeez, give me a break!  Maybe it was just that it's already such a slim volume, if he threw away the dross there'd be rather little left.

The other niggle is that he's obviously in love with Steinways, which he regards as the best pianos in the world.  He might be right, I have no way of knowing, but the product placement that liberally bespatters the book was distracting and I could have done without it.

The reason I stuck with it, despite the numerous expletives issuing forth from my mouth, was that actually, there was quite a bit of really interesting stuff about the history and physics of music generally, and the piano in particular.

The first pianos were built by Bartolomeo Cristofoi in the early 18th century.  Musicians were crying out for something like a piano because of the limitations of the harpsichord and clavichord.  In the harpsichord the string is plucked, so there's no real control over the loudness of the resulting note.  In the clavichord, the action actually raises one end of the string on a rising bridge, but that only creates a very quiet sound.  (Guitarists will know that you can hammer down on a string with a finger of your left hand, the string will sound, even though you've not actually plucked it with your right hand.  This is how Jimmy Hendrix used to 'play' his guitar with his teeth!)

There are clear explanations of how the mechanism works and some of the ways in which it evolved over time, with some useful diagrams.  Also good explanations of how and why the tuning of the piano drifts away from what one might imagine the perfect physics of sound would predict.    I'd like him to have included a diagram of the action in an upright piano, because, as he explains in the text, you can't use gravity in the way you can in a grand piano, but there's no diagram, so I still don't know how an upright piano works.

So, oddly enough, if you're interested in knowing about how and why modern pianos are the way they are, I would recommend you read this book.  It won't take long.  You can buy it from Amazon.

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