The McGurk Effect: This Is How Pianists Are Illusionists

So your teacher tells you that you can have the pedal depressed and still make that note sound staccato.

She demonstrates this. She shows you why you are unable to do a staccato by playing the ‘ugly’ way you do. Then she plays that same note again, but this time with a very interesting flowery hand gesture. She looks like a magician.

And it indeed does sound staccato this time despite having the pedal depressed!!

Magic?? An Illusion?

I do agree that a dot above a note head isn’t merely an instruction of shorter note length. As an ex-flutist, I’m very well aware of that. But as long as your note sounded at the exact same volume as your teacher’s (and pedal depressed in both cases), then it should have sounded staccato too. It doesn’t matter what flowery gesture you use to hit the key, or even if you use a pencil to do it.

I have actually seen someone on YouTube demonstrating how using a pencil to hit the piano key results in a ‘percussive’ sound. Seriously, that was fucking hilarious.

You cannot have two different sounds for the same piano note if volume is kept constant.

So how is it then, that the sound your teacher makes does actually sound staccato?

Yes, that flowery gesture is actually the answer. It’s there to fool you.

What our eyes see has an influence on what we hear. This phenomenon is called the McGurk effect.

You wouldn’t have been fooled if you were blind!

Listen to Dmitry Shishkin’s phenomenal performance of Chopin’s famous Nocturne at 1:06:

See how he plays the three repeated Eb notes?

In the sheet music, those three notes have a dot above their note heads, and is also underneath a slur. This type of unique articulation is generally known as portato. It is quite possible that Shishkin is caressing the keys in that manner, precisely because of the type of articulation that is indicated in the sheet music.

So, do the three notes actually sound portato? Sure, it could give you the illusion that it does. Except that it isn’t. It is impossible to get a true portato sound from the piano. 

(Portato articulation: Listen to the first 3 notes of this.)

Does this mean Shishkin’s way of caressing the keys is pointless??

Not necessarily. I would play those three notes quite similarly to the way he does (even if the portato articulation isn’t indicated). In fact, you’ll notice that throughout the entire Nocturne, his hands are always dancing across the keyboard in a very elegant manner.

There is merit to this.

These gestures can help with sound imagination, phrasing, control, and quite frankly speaking, it is sometimes simply a matter of personal style and what comes natural to the pianist. 

You just need to know that it has no direct influence on the sound.

The ‘how-to-get-a-more-beautiful-sound-from-the-piano’ tutorial. Yeah, right!

If you’ve been playing piano for a few years, there is a good chance you’ve come across a pianist demonstrating how to achieve a fortissimo chord on the piano without sounding harsh.

She shows you two examples. The ‘harsh’ sounding first chord is played in a very ‘ugly’ manner, and the other more ‘rich and full’ sounding second chord is played very elegantly, with arm weight, a nice release, and all that technical jargon. Also with a nice flowery gesture I should add. Very often, this second chord is also played at a slightly softer volume than the first, although these pianists will never admit it.

So you watch the demonstration… and you believe it! The second chord indeed sounds beautiful!!

It’s hard to not believe that the chord is nicer sounding when the pianist is playing it so elegantly after all. We tend to want to match what we hear with what we see. But these are just illusions similar to the McGurk effect. 

However, it is quite possible that a fortissimo chord could actually sound harsh. I’m not a science person, but I don’t have any trouble believing that an extremely fast moving hammer could result in some stress on the piano strings upon impact, thus producing a slight distortion in sound. Even if this is true, it would simply be the result of playing too loud, and nothing to do with how ‘ugly’ you play the chord.

Listen to this:

At 3:01 and 3:14, I was going for the loudest bass sound a piano could possibly make. I don’t know about you, but none of it sounds harsh to me. So if you ever need a really loud fortissimo sound, then go ahead and bang away.

Yes, you can bang. I kid you not. 

I’ve never really believed in a harsh piano sound anyway. ‘Piano tone production’ will always be bullshit to me. At least until someone convincingly tells me otherwise.

But most have no proof. They just feel. Perhaps when they were studying music in a conservatory, some big name pianist demonstrated how to achieve that ‘rich sounding’ fortissimo chord with a certain flowery gesture, and they ate it all up. Not just one big name pianist, but several. Several illusionists I should add.

But you know what.

A thousand Rubinsteins shouting at my face “1+1=3” does not make him right.

Illusions in music has its place. But I think it’s important to first understand how our brain works, before any of that woo-woo stuff comes in.

Some people say that music is an art, and not science. It’s almost as if music becomes less beautiful if it can actually be explained with logic. Explaining piano tone production in terms of its mechanical parts becomes sacrilegious. Feeling is encouraged, thinking is not.

But music cannot be what it is without BOTH art and science.

And that is precisely the beauty in music.


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