In addition to being an eLinguist, I’m also a musician, and so sometimes music stories catch my eye — or ear, as it may be. I heard this story on NPR this morning:
Most pianos have 88 keys. And most great piano music comes from the middle of the keyboard — only rarely do the player’s fingers venture onto the tinkly keys at the top of the keyboard, or the booming bass notes at the bottom. But a craftsman in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, thinks the instrument has room to grow; and he wants to nudge the piano out of complacent middle age. He has designed a grand with an unprecedented 102 keys.
The Stuart and Sons grand piano has 14 more keys than most, which means its lowest and highest notes live very much on the edge. Its designer, Wayne Stuart, says a few other grands can play as low as this 102-key model, but none can play as high.
“I’d hate to go back to the 88-key piano,” he says. “I couldn’t stand it. It’s too limited.”
Check out the actual article for more on why the piano has 102 keys, and the reaction to it by some composers and piano teachers. Some enjoy the new colors provided by the extremely low and extremely high notes; others think that the overall timbre of the piano is lacking that of your standard 88-key grand.
I, personally, think the piano sounds very cool, and I’d love to hear more compositions for it. I really love the sound of the very lowest notes; then again, I’ve always had a certain attraction to low pitches (hence my fascination with the bass trombone). I’m all for innovation, but I really can’t see this instrument breaking out of a very small niche. The ultimate success of this new style of piano is not in how cool the new notes sound, but in how useful they truly are. Many pianists are learning the great works by composers like Chopin and Beethoven, and people go to piano recitals to hear these famous and lovely pieces. None of these works have notes that go beyond the 88-key piano — most of them barely go beyond 70 keys.
Furthermore, on the piano, there really isn’t a lot of extra skill required to play such high or low notes. True, the player must stretch his or her arms farther, but the real trick is working the notes into the composition. For other instruments, winds in particular, playing very high or very low notes is a clear display of musical skill. This is why pieces written for winds with very high notes are usually deemed extra challenging, while most that are directed at a general musical audience are in the middle range. Performers on wind instruments can adapt the music to show their skill — take an entire piece up an octave, for example — but to do this on piano doesn’t really show the skill level of the player. Pianists have other ways of doing this. So the “playing of really high and really low notes” skill-display doesn’t translate to the piano, and requires a whole different set of behaviors in order to make use of these new extra keys.
In a linguistic connection, a friend mentioned that adding new keys to a piano is “like adding new words to English”. I beg to differ — adding new melodies in music is, perhaps, like adding new words, but adding new keys is like adding a new phonetic sound to English. Can you imagine someone deciding to insert [Φ] into English words? Would it catch on? A few people might think it’s cool, but English has gotten on quite well enough with our current phonetic inventory.
All in all, the 102-key piano is a neat idea, but one which is (unfortunately) doomed to a niche existence simply because of the nature of pre-existing music.