piano block

Piano block


What's so hard about the piano?

To answer this question let's ask another. What's so easy about a Nintendo games console? Why does Johnny spend all his pocket money in the arcade when he should be doing his practice? And yet look at what he's achieved: in a short time he has developed amazing speed and reflexes on his instrument. Such a shame the only music that comes out are those pre-programmed stings (is that the right word?)

Imagine we want to make him lose heart and go off his game. We could fix a bug in the game program so that when he hits the button that is supposed to deliver a swinging left hook to floor his opponent, his opponent hits him instead. To avoid having Johnny adapt his strategy, or worse still, join his opponent's side, we make it random. Just one time in a hundred to begin with. But the rate doesn't really matter. As soon as he's aware of the problem, Johnny knows there is something wrong. He can't fight on equal terms and he will lose points through no fault of his own. This is serious: it means that there is no justice out there. So criterion number one for games designers: a consistent result for each action.

This has nothing to do with the piano, I hear you say. Each time I hit a B, I get a B. But I ask you, is that what you heard in your head, a B? If so, you are one of the lucky 3 percent who have perfect pitch. Go back to your piano and read no further. This is for the rest of you, the vast majority who have relative pitch and are in no sense less musically gifted - and can recognise a melody without knowing what key it's in. Let's give you a simple problem as an illustration. Go to the piano and starting from any note play the beginning of Yesterday. Just the melody. Those of you who have only learnt the white notes (level one) will have a five in seven chance of getting it right Those of you who like to explore the other notes as well (level two) will find four different ways of getting the melody (which is your reward), namely white to white, black to black, white to black (jumping a white) and black to white (jumping a white). But if you think any of these formulas will always get you Yesterday you are about to get annoyed. Their success rates, in the order given are: 5/7, 3/5, 2/7, and 2/5. You can only be 100% sure that moving to the left will get you a lower sound.

Level three is another cup of tea. By now we are acquainted with the degrees of the major scale and can guess that Yesterday begins on the second. So all we have to do is decide on a key, give it a name and count one tone up from it to start. But wouldnt it be nice to play music without that hassle? To play it the way we sing in the bath - without worrying what key we are in? And to have all the possibilities of the piano (and more - read on) on a genuinely gremlin-free keyboard?

Piano design faults

The piano keyboard, whose design dates back to before the discovery of equal temperament, simplifies the execution of one scale (C major) and in so doing complicates the other eleven. What is more, because of its physical configuration, the correct division of function between the thumbs and the remaining fingers necessitates a high level of training to master. The problems of technique specific to the piano in its current state fall into the following categories:

  • Fingering. Primarily a problem of placing the thumb undertuck, through scale practice.
  • Memorisation of chord and scale shapes in all twelve keys. (If you are unacquainted with this problem, you can twirl the dial in "What's in a chord?" or "What's in a scale?" and see the chaotic effect on the piano keyboard.)
  • Muscle training. Physical interface problems arising from weighting, relative keyboard and hand dimensions, and responsiveness of the mechanism.
  • Independence and co-ordination of hands.

The fourth is a problem for the brain, and will require practice whatever improvements we make. The first three are design issues.

The guitar as teacher

The enormous success of the guitar in the last century reveals one of the main design criteria for a successful improviser's instrument. Because people conceive and recognise a melody by its intervals, the improviser's ideal would be an instrument on which an interval looks the same regardless of its transposition. (For still more efficient single line improvising try retuning the guitar to "oriental" tuning in fourths, viz:  E A D G C F.) You could say the guitar's most important role has been as a surrogate musical university for musicians who hate reading or Beethoven or both. The problem is that guitarists tend to hit a wall when they discover its limitations compared to keyboard instruments.

See and play my interactive guitar chord dictionary.

(This invention has a bit of history. I once made a hard-wired version of this which had stability problems not unconnected with output transistors overheating while trying to run 72 LEDs and buffers upsetting the logic ICs by not buffering properly. Undaunted I managed to show it in person to Sir Clive Sinclair of the erstwhile Sinclair computer and bubble car firm. He took one look, realised what it was for, and said "no". Almost as if he knew I would be giving it away twenty years later.)

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