Piano ear

Pianists may need different kinds of hearing than what’s needed to play the violin. Because the tuning of pitch doesn’t require constant attentiveness — I’m convinced there are rather good piano players who actually hear very little of what’s happening as they play.

More than other musicians, pianists are likely to intone or moan audibly while playing. It’s pretty conclusive evidence that whatever those players hear is not objective. The physical sounds being produced are less what is being heard than some “idealized” or subjective sense of the music being made.

A lot of piano music is multi-voiced or harmonically complex. I’ve been surprised that even some professional pianists are rather inaccurate listeners. In an audition, a young player flew through Chopin’s Étude, opus 10, no. 2. She omitted the middle notes of many of the three-note chords in the right-hand part. After she left the room, some remarked on the speed and perfection of her playing. When a colleague pointed out that the piece had been simplified by leaving out those middle notes, not everyone agreed that the notes had been omitted.

Pianists play more wrong notes than other musicians. We have a lot more notes to play. Hearing Hepzibah Menuhin play part of Schoenberg’s Suite on television, I was shocked to hear one wrong note she played consistently (it came around the same way in a repeat). Consulting my score, I found it was I who had been misreading! There are examples of recordings by quite well-known pianists where whole passages are read in the wrong clef…

When I have played Ignaz Friedman’s fanciful recordings of Chopin’s mazurkas for other pianists I’ve been surprised by fine players who tried to deny that Friedman added low bass intervals of a fifth that are clearly sounding.

The person with less accurate hearing (or less accurate memory) lives with greater uncertainty in the playing of scripted pieces. It can make for inaccuracy, or that uncertainty can even bring more flexibility, requiring more imagination and more careful attention to the real sound of music vibrating in a room.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Patrick says

    I have the unfortunate handicap (feature or bug?) of tending to moan when playing the piano. I don’t understand why you consider this ‘conclusive evidence’ that our hearing of what we are playing is subjective. Could you explain how that works?

    OTOH, I agree that we have our our inner subjective, perhaps idealized (at least in our mind) version of music. Could that be our muse?

    One example of not playing literally what is on the page occured when I played a James P. Johnson rag, The Trouboudor. My teacher pointed out that, instead of even eights in the right hand I was playing a dotted eighth / sixteenth rhythm. Perhaps a case of musica ficta?

    Finally, IMHO, some rhythms are un-notateable and must be transmitted orally or through recordings.

    • says

      With a piece you know well, try this: play through the piece as a performance (no stopping, one try) and record yourself. The next day listen to the recording. If you were vocalizing, you will hear it. Repeat this process for several days. You’re likely to develop more objective listening WHILE you are playing.

  2. says

    I’ve tended to associate vocalising while doing something else as a way to help access bits of the brain involved in holistic/spatial (as opposed to analytical/linguistic) thought. I’ve blogged about this here: http://www.helpingyouharmonise.com/whistle

    Interesting to note that pianists do it more than other musicians, though. I think you’re onto something when you associate it with pianists not having to control pitch, although we do have to think about tone, so I don’t know if it’s entirely that. It could be that other musicians have other means of getting into that bit of the brain. My brother (who was a violinist before he learned keyboard instruments) has a certain mannerism with his left hand when he’s trying to coax an idea from being a hunch to consciousness. The gesture has a very similar form to where he’d hold his hand to play the fiddle. So he seems to be accessing both pitch-based and intuitive thought through the left hand.

    I like your story about the Schoenberg, btw. Mind you, my first teacher used to counsel that if you play a wrong note first time round, play it again on repeat so it’s less likely to show!

  3. Deb Cunniff says

    Ii have a piano student who plays so much by ear that even when playing something like scales, if he doesn’t know the next note to play, he hums it first, then plays it. I, on the other hand, feel that I am such a sight reader that I would/could never play what wasn’t on the page!! It’s been a struggle to learn how to teach kids who play by ear, but they have SUCH a gift that I don’t want to squelch their ability because of my own limitations.