Skip to content

The Piano Equivalent

Post date:

Everything in the world is a expression of its place and time and so it’s not wrong to think good architecture is an expression of its place and time. It’s just that every other kind of architecture is too.

Unworried, we understand it to mean good architecture represents its place and time. There are many cultural- and location-specific factors that can be called upon to create associations of place. And making a building look like a product of its time shouldn’t pose a problem since we can’t build in the past and we can’t build in the future. Nevertheless, it’s all too easy to contrive a building to look as if it’s been built in the past, and making a building look like it comes from the future is actively applauded whether it’s achieved by new materials, new technologies or new-looking styles. We never question this, even though new materials, technologies or styles can’t create a “new” architecture any more than new sounds can make music new. It’s not that simple.  

If we exclude the human voice and singing, it’s probably safe to say the first musical instruments were percussion and the first music was rhythm accompaniment. Chords and melody were possible but each note required its own instrument and player. People must have wanted more notes in more inventive arrangments because the drum kit and instruments such as the xylophone solved this problem. The vibraphone is on one branch of this evolution.

With only the digeridoo as evidence, I’d say wind instruments came next. With wind instruments, the limitation of one note per instrument/player was overcome by adding holes to the tube to alter the length of air resonating inside. Instruments such as the fife with six finger holes allowed one person to play many different notes. The modern fife with ten or eleven holes allows a player to make even more. Hitherto – Greek mythology time – melody had been possible by pan pipes with their multiple pipes but now a single person could make melody with only one.

Early trumpets had a single resonator and a fixed pitched but modern ones use three valves to alter the effective length of the tube. The trombone alters the real length of the tube. There are six types of modern flute, all with different ranges.

The dimensions and key system of the modern western concert flute (#3 in the photo) and its close relatives are almost completely the work of the great flautist, composer, acoustician, and silversmith Theobald Boehm, who patented his system in 1847.

These next two diagrams show the relationship between the notes and fingering. The greater the number of open holes the higher the note. Nine different finger combinations produce three different registers, depending on the speed of air blown. Accomplished flautists make all this look completely natural.

This is what a piece of flute music for a beginner looks like.

All musical instruments have their respective strengths but their limitations are usually set by principles of mechanics. Recorders and woodwind instruments are closely related to the flute family but differ in how the air inside is made to vibrate. One of the most difficult things to do on a clarinet is play a high note immediately after a low note so, accordingly, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major has just that, about 2’40” into the second movement. It takes skill and bravery to nail. A player just has to go for it and hope for the best.

The Egyptian bowed harp and the Greek lyre were practically simultaneous developments circa 2,500BC but both evolved from the African Mesolithic stringed bow for which evidence points to circa 15,000BC.

These three types of simple instrument kept people entertained for quite some time. Up to and including the Middle Ages, I can’t imagine too many people having the time or inclination to learn how to play them but it’s easy to imagine the nobility with court musicians and peasants having to make do with wandering minstrels at festivals. Both ends of this spectrum are subject to the same limitations. Humans have only two hands and ten digits and, whether percussion, string or wind, there’s a limit to the number of sounds a single mechanical instrument can make and to what a single player can operate. There’s also a practical (and economic) limit to the number of players of different types of instruments that can be assembled at one time and place. [Orchestras defy this and it’s not for nothing that classical music is regarded as the opposite of popular music.]

The Renaissance was the first time in Western history that people had the resources to devote to cultural pursuits as well as have the leisure to appreciate them. Developments in music and musical instruments paralleled those in art and architecture. The evolution of musical instruments is not just a quest for a more complex musicality but a response to the demand for novelty and new forms of entertainment. The theorbo, for example, wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been a demand for novel sounds and for novel music to make use of them. The theorbo is a lute supersized, with two pegboards and an additional six strings for added bass. It’s a bass and lead guitar in one but there’s still a limit to what two hands can do.

Robert de Visée’s Prelude and Allemande for theorbo illustrates this new instrument and the musicality it enabled. It’s loses a lot when transcribed for conventional lute or for modern guitar, even a seven-stringed one.

Richard Sweeney can tell you everything you need to know about the theorbo.

Even without threat of wardrobe malfunctions, a player has their work cut out for them. The inherent limitations of manual plucking meant the theorbo never evolved into a harpsichord. For the same reason neither did the zither, variations of which exist in many cultures. The Arab version is a qanun and here’s an 1859 etching of one being played.  

The invention of the keyboard made it possible to play the supersized wind instrument that is the pipe organ. Instruments such as the accordion downsized the pipe organ into a portable and popular instrument capable of complex and sustained chords. Alexander Sevastian will make you think again about the accordion.

The invention of the keyboard also made it possible to play multiple chords on string instruments such as the harpsichord. The key mechanism didn’t allow for soft or loud as strings were plucked to the same volume regardless of how strongly or quickly the keys are pressed. Even without this quality of “touch” Bach did his best to satisfy the desire for new sounds with complex polyphonic musical inventions such as the fugue, but it was the invention of the piano with its metal frame and the substitution of wires for strings that resulted in an instrument that, while not portable, had a large range and [to my mind] a reasonably rational method of playing it.

Ludvig van was the first to realize and exploit the capabilities of this new instrument and, ever since, the piano’s range of pitch and expression has made it the instrument of choice for composers. In the two centuries after its invention, the (upright) piano found its way into churches and village halls, pubs and taverns, and into many households across society. It made access to music more egalitarian than it had ever been before. If a household had a piano and one reasonably accomplished player who could sight-read music, then published sheet music meant many people anywhere could hear simplified transcriptions of new classical works as well as new popular music. Live music was the only music there was and home recitals were much more common than they are today.

I once stayed a summer night in a tent at the bottom of a garden of a house in Bregenz. This next photograph is a bit higher up but basically the view. We’re in Austria, Germany on the right, Switzerland on the left.

When I woke there were sailboats flitting across Lake Constance and someone was playing Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, a bit too loudly I thought, until I heard a mistake – they were actually playing it! This is what music was until the advent of the phonograph. Music travelled as scores and the music you were exposed to depended upon the skill of people you knew and their access to sheet music. Salons and living rooms were as much education as entertainment.

Léon Theremin (Термéн) is an interesting character and had an interesting life. He invented and named the theramin in 1922. It’s unique in being the only musical instrument a person doesn’t have to touch in order to play it. It permits the theatricality we associate with a certain type of performer but it never looked easy to play. The characteristic wavering quality comes from players not nailing the notes in one. He was an accomplished cellist so he knew a bit about nailing notes in one. The man’s good – he’s not using vibrato for cheesy effect.

The electro-theramin was easier to play because it had a dial to replicate the coil for the left hand and a slider to replace the right. Notes could be now be assigned to marked positions on the slider, as frets do, but you either liked the sound or you didn’t. One commentator said, “it sounds like a cello lost in the fog and trying to get home”. It was part of a greater argument about the authenticity of electronic sounds. [N.B.: The Beachboys’ Good Vibrations, features an electro-theramin, not a theramin.] The theramin may have been the world’s first electronic instrument but all this means is that it didn’t rely upon physical impact to make air vibrate to produce sound.

The theramin produced new sounds and came with a new way of making them but it did not change music. It did not herald a revolution in musicality. And nor did any other the other fantastical musical instruments developed in Soviet Russia in the 1920s. This may have been because “only a few professional, academically educated composers were involved in it.” 

I suspect there’s another reason. In music, it is not assumed that every new sound and every new technology will advance something called MUSIC. It is understood that MUSICALITY does not work that way. It is something different. This is accepted and understood as obvious. It is ludicrous to think otherwise. 

The Harpeji, the Medusa Guitar and the Marble Machine are all inventive and produce new sounds but are still waiting for a Beethoven to fully exploit their capabilities.

Internet users more attentive than me will know this redesigned violin has been around since 2005. It has only two strings but an interactive surface links to a computer and turns it into a species of synthesizer. The addition of a Star Trek vibe, a computer, and a second string takes us a long way from that first string instrument in Africa 15,000 years ago.

This next image is of a Bogányi piano. Its more open design and fewer legs are said to better direct the sound to the audience. Extensive use of carbon composites is claimed to produce a higher quality sound and make the piano relatively unaffacted by humidity and hold its tune longer. These and other improvements are all incremental and welcome but it is still a piano on which the same repertoire will be played, even if with greater clarity.

The theramin and other Soviet experiments in sound made possible the Moog synthesizer which was a more versatile electronic sound generator operated by keyboard and (as with a pipe organ) a multitude of dials and swiches for various registers. Herbert Waltl’s 1968 album Switched on Bach quickly incorporated these new sounds back into the old musicality and, though it was undeniable evidence of the expressive capabilities of these new sounds, it was not an expression of a new musicality.

It was a new way of expressing an established musicality we were already receptive to. [Thought: Perhaps this is what all newness eventually boils down to.] 

Musicality ended up evolving in different routes through rock, disco, metal, punk and hip-hop and a myriad variants, most of which were driven by novelty of rhytmn and not sound. Synthesized sounds were everywhere but [well, for me anyway] Kraftwerk were the first to give them an original voice.

The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) is a digital synthesizer, sampler and digital audio workstation introduced in 1979. It was one of the first music workstations to have come with a digital sampling synthesizer. This is a series II from 1983. 

(By Peter Wielk – Peter Wielk Permission to use has kindly been given on 8 may 2016 via email., CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Fairlight made it it possible to make any new sound at will by simply altering the waveform of a sampled sound but even this ultimate power to shape sound did not lead to a new musicality. Contemporary musicians such a Kid Koala may combine and manipulate sampled music and sounds into sophisticated and entertaining compositions in which every sound – no matter what it is or where it came from – has the inevitability of art but it is still a conventional art despite its unconventional sources.

Although we think architecture now has the means to make buildings in any and many new forms, this should not be mistaken for a new architecturality. 

Architecture has never had the equivalent of a piano – an instrument that can be used for the creation, research and development of new embodiments of the art at one end while simultaneously facilitating their dissemination and appreciation at the other. 

The Georgian townhouse was an architectural invention that disseminated and appreciated across the social spectrum but, once it was invented, development stopped. Was it even an architectural invention? It seems more like a popularized construction invention, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Perhaps during the short period of overlap between the residential output of Frank Lloyd Wright and the residential output of Le Corbusier, the private house might have been said to be a generator of architectural ideas that could be disseminated and appreciated across society but, since the appreciation and subsequent dissemination was dependent upon other architects, it’s probably not as valid as we would like to believe. Architecture still awaits its piano equivalent.

• • •