01 June 2013

Noisy Pianos

To be without a book is to feel naked.  It’s a friend whose company you crave at any free moment of the day.  Returning to it at night makes going to bed something to be eagerly anticipated, while there is joy in the morning when a few minutes can be grabbed while the tea cools down and the story left reluctantly the night before can be briefly revisited.  The pain of travel is immeasurably eased in the company of a book, while flight delays are little more than heaven-sent opportunities to get back to where you left off earlier. 

I am sure that e-readers, Kindles and whatever else you call them have exactly the same lure, but for me one of the great joys of a book – apart from its physical presence, changing substantively with each new one picked up – is the rooting around in bookshops to find the next.  While CD emporia and record shops seem to have given up on large parts of Europe and Asia (although Hong Kong and Japan are still nirvanas for record collectors and my experiences of the USA have revealed a surprisingly rich seam to be mined, albeit only after much frustrating searching), book shops are positively thriving.  From the aluminium and glass pseudo-offices (there’s a Barnes and Noble in Baltimore which I swear was designed as a factory and turned into a bookshop only at the last minute) to tiny carpeted and clubbish backstreet hideaways - there’s the most endearing one tucked in a close behind Winchester Cathedral – you can find a bookshop just about anywhere.  (Of course, as in so many other things, Singapore is the exception where, in its mindless striving after the latest gadgetry, what ghastly skeletons of bookshops exist are merely fronts for arty cafés and Japanese Animé picture books.)  I don’t pack books when I travel; I know I shall find something in a bookshop wherever I go.
It was browsing through a branch of a mighty chain store, assailed on all sides by the nauseating stench of hideous Starbucks undrinkable coffee (unless, it seems, you add so much to it, the coffee element is all but omitted) and the glaring piles of “Three for Two” Chick Lit, that I stumbled across my latest read.  It’s a pretty unexceptional book, although I’ve only just hit chapter five; an uneasy mix between autobiography, fact and fiction.  Nevertheless, while it’s not exactly un-put-downable, it is most certainly happily-pick-uppable, and I cheerfully took it up just now whilst lazing by the pool after a lengthy swim.  My concentration, barely able to hold the book up to block out the sun let alone take in the words on the page, was suddenly lurched into top gear by the following sentence, giving the author’s childhood impressions of his first encounter with a piano;

“It seemed unimaginable to me that adults would conceive of an entire contraption, at once huge and respectable, whose sole function was to make noise.”
My initial thoughts were of utter amazement.  A piano is a musical instrument, not a machine designed for noise.  But then my conscience reminded me of what I tell all my organ students; “The organ is merely a machine to make noise.  Only a true musician can turn it into a musical instrument”.  So, the thought crossed my mind, if I believe (as I do) that the organ is a machine designed to make noise which only a musician can transform into music, is that not equally true of the piano?

It is a fact that the organ was first designed merely as a noise-making machine, and it’s equally true to say that was its sole purpose for at least 1000 years before anyone thought to look at it as a musical instrument.  To this day, the world is full of organists who still seem to regard it as a machine for making noise, while a substantial number of non-organist musicians look on it in precisely the same way. 
The piano, though, was designed to make music from the very start. In 1700, or thereabouts (we know only that it pre-dates 1711), when Signor Cristofori first hit on the idea of using a keyboard to operate a system of hammers hitting strings, his sole objective was to make a musical instrument; even if its mechanism, so scientifically labelled, seems more like the design of torture apparatus used during the Spanish Inquisition.

And surely the natural sound of the piano is more inherently musical than that of the organ?  Play a piano note and it dies, as all living things must; play a note on the organ and it lives to eternity unless you die first or, alternatively, decide to cut the note off in its prime.  (Is there anything less musical than the dire church organist reluctantly releasing the final chord in each verse of a hymn?)  No other musical instrument needs such care over the release of a note than the organ; even trumpeters naturally expire when the need for a pint of beer presses. 

On the piano the sound is wholly governed by what the human being in control feeds into it.  On an organ, the inevitability of ciphers and mechanical breakdowns ensures that the human being in charge is never entirely free from the tyranny of mechanical intrusion.  However, I have spent more than my fair share of days subjected to human beings who simply seem unable to extract from the piano the music they are so obviously trying to put into it.  As an examiner sitting through interminable candidates forced, by parents and well-meaning teachers, to battle their way through some trifle conceived in all innocence by harmless men like Muzio Clementi and Johann Burgmüller, I have frequently yearned for a cat to walk into the room and march arrogantly down the keyboard, preferring pussy’s purring pianism to grade three’s gut-gripping grotesqueries.   Go into a second-hand furniture store where old out-of-tune uprights adorn the walls, and from the cacophonous jangling of hideous ill-matched strings and moth-eaten felts, the last thing you think of is music.

That, though, does not really support the notion that the piano was conceived to make a noise.  Just like the hideous screeches of a Stradivarius when someone like myself gets a hold of one, or the strangled wailings of an oboe in the hands of someone busily masticating the reed, no musical instrument is really a musical instrument unless a musician is playing it.  Aren’t they all, at heart, cleverly disguised instruments of noise? 

The Book I'm reading:
The Piano Shop on the Left Bank
by Thad Carhart
published in 2000 and in this
Random House paperback in 2008


  1. Dr Marc,
    I think the answer to your question is rather simple:
    Noise is simply defined as unwanted sound. 
    Whereas music is a kind of sound that is wanted - by the  maker and/or listener - at least in theory.
    A piano is a machine that makes sound. If that sound is welcome, people will admit it to be music. When it ceases to be welcome, it will be described as noise. So anyone can make noise, but not everyone can make music.
    Doesn't the same apply to the organ, the violin or the drum ?

    I would have said that the term musical instrument refers to the intended purpose not the nature of the object, namely that it is designed (primarily) to make sounds that are musical. That is what distinguishes a trumpet from a hose pipe or a kitchen sink, a violin from a saw, and a timpani from an oil drum,  hydrodactulopsychicharmonica from a wine glass. But as the so-called "land fill-harmonic" shows, with desire and creativity, almost anything can be turned into a musical instrument.

    Dr Peter

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