Ugly Beauty


“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”

— attributed to John Cage

The sound coming from pianos (the physical, real sound) may displease the pianist. In trying out a concert piano, there are often several notes on the instrument that just can’t be made to produce what is wanted. Those notes may need “voicing” — a piano technician needs to prick with needles or apply lacquer to the felt-covered hammers that are inside the piano. After extended playing, hammer-felt gets compacted, making for an edgy or unpleasantly metallic tone, a tone that may not match well with surrounding notes that are more rounded in sound.

Here is a note on my piano — that has unpleasant plangency. Played louder than mezzo-forte, it has a quivery metallic edge at the onset of its sound. And there’s some sort of warble that happens as the tone continues, probably due to the interaction of sounds being made by the 3 strings inside the piano that produce the note. (For most notes on the modern piano, there are 3 strings all tuned to the same pitch.) The warbling is probably “beating” due to the discrepancy in the precise tuning of the 3 strings. Although it’s a bit wooden sounding as well. So, perhaps some more complicated problem… Such irregularities make it difficult to play smooth, legato musical-lines.

But wait. The very same qualities (faults) that make notes troublesome also give them individual character. So, a paradox: a piano of very homogeneous timbre and tonal intensity may not lead to expressive music making — it’s too bland. Practically it’s not an issue, because with an acoustic instrument made of wood and metal, it’s not really possible to have extremely even results. So though it may frustrate the pianist that our technicians do not achieve complete evenness of tone, we might consider that this is one ideal that’s better not perfectly met.

Some celebrated recordings of piano playing were made with pianos with sonic “faults.” Listen to Chopin’s fourth prelude, as played by Alfred Cortot in his 1933 recording. Or Sviatoslav Richter’s 1958 playing of Pictures at an Exhibition. In these cases, the particular beauty of the performances almost seems to depend on the irregularities of piano tone and tuning. I feel certain that a performer can incorporate the finely-discerned irregularities of a particular piano into performance.

Imagine a Cageian exercise. On a piano, play one note over and over. Make a list of every tonal and timbral irregularity (problem). Continue playing the note. Make a list of every particular aspect of the note’s beauty. Compare the lists…

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  1. says

    Such an interesting point of view. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes. Slight imperfections in sound truly give a piano an individual mark. Perfection is something that we all strive for, but is nothing more than an illusion. It may be attainable though in some fields, but imperfections are those that at the end of the day give so much personality.

  2. says

    I think that faults, as you call them, should be embraced. Pianos where the tuning and voicing is perfect are rare and they are typically only reserved for the highest level of performers. Those of us who don’t have access to top of the line pianos or older pianos should embrace the uniqueness and beauty that us, and only us, can produce.

  3. says

    I think that some of the best pieces ever recorded were taken with a piano that wasn’t well kept or tuned like we commonly see. Imagine all the late nights that you have stayed up playing piano and how your piano changed over that time. When writing music and performing, tuning is often the last thing I think about and it almost gives a piece an original sound. Also, some of the older wooden models have a sound that you really can’t replicate now. The irregularities are what are ingrained in our brain when we think of classics and that is why it is sometimes hard to replicate them ourselves.

  4. says

    Very Interesting post, and very true. Also, what sounds good to one person might be a “fault” to someone else. I’m surprised that even though I’ve been playing piano basically my whole life, I’ve never really thought of it this way before, but I will for now on. Thanks for sharing.

  5. billyeisele says

    I look forward to meeting a new/ old piano. I play a few notes to hear them spin into space, no piano is
    Perfect and this is where the beauty lies that we as performers must find. ( Peiseleiano )

  6. says

    As a piano teacher in the Netherlands, I must say I have never thought of this before. It’s a truely inspiring post. I’m taking this with me for my students. Thanks for sharing.

  7. says

    Very true and interesting, but that’s the beauty of piano. 10 experts can play the same masterpieces, but none of them will sound exactly the same.