Piano keyboard
Photo by Daniel Spase on Unsplash

Real and Virtual

I’d quite like a new piano. My not very good piano playing has reached the point where I am increasingly aware of the limitations of the beginner digital piano I’ve been using for seven years or so. I play the piano almost every day, love doing it and although it is never going to make me a living, or even particularly provide pleasure for others, it is important to me. There are many things I spend money on that give me less joy and have less use. There’s no hurry, with such an important purchase, and researching the possibilities is fun anyway. What I did not expect when I started my research, was that it would lead me to think deep thoughts about the impact of new technology on our world, how we think about and employ what new technology gives us and how our assumptions and expectations shape what we can do with it.

A traditional piano, like any traditional musical instrument, is a work of art, even before a single note is played. There is a long tradition of craft, in which people have solved challenges and learnt by trial and error, passing on their knowledge and skills through apprenticeships and by building specialist companies, which work closely with the top musicians who play them. Hundreds of years of often closely-guarded secrets go into making a well-understood and well-defined product.

Even so, every piano is unique: no two pieces of wood are identical, and other materials vary too. The way that hundreds of individual pieces are produced and combined and so how they interact with each other cannot be precisely controlled, no matter how much care is taken. That’s not to say it’s random. The quality of materials and the skills of the particular makers will make some pianos much better than others, but even within the same level or range, there will be variations. At the highest level, musicians will seek out named instruments, with well-known histories, for their individual and particular quality. Sadly, at the other end of the traditional piano market, there are literally millions of ways in which an instrument can be less than ideal, where the choice of materials, shortcuts and lack of skills of its makers, and maybe a less than perfect history or environment, gives it an individual character that detracts from the music played on it.

To some extent, this is all academic unless you are running a concert hall, music teaching facility or studio. I could not fit a traditional piano into my house, without radically changing how we live, and I could not afford to buy even a fairly good one. I would not be able to keep it tuned and maintained properly, or to provide the environment it would need.

Fortunately, there is a wide choice of electronic or digital pianos and keyboards. I bought one quite a few years ago, which has given me great pleasure, but which I feel I am now growing out of and want to replace. A new digital piano is the only feasible option for me, and I am happy with that, but that’s where the deep thoughts open up.

Real and Virtual

In a traditional piano, the music is produced by a complex physical process. A finger depresses a key, causing the movement of several levers, which lift and cause a hammer to strike a wire string or strings stretched tight on a frame while a damper is moved away to let the string vibrate. The resulting sound is amplified and modified by the resonance of a metal frame and the mass of the soundboard and piano body.

In a digital piano, a finger depresses a key, closing a switch, sending a signal to a circuit which produces a waveform, which can be the result of previously recording a particular piano, or can be made (synthesised) directly by the circuit, or both, that is amplified and modified electronically before being sent to loudspeakers to make the sound in the room, or in headphones. It’s still a physical process, of course, but it has none of the physicality of the traditional method. It’s the movement of electrons around circuits, not the vibration of strings.

Physicality means that there are many, many variables, all of which interact. The properties of materials will change with temperature and humidity as well as varying from piano to piano. The mechanisms (hammers, keys, levers etc.) by which the piano is played respond to the player: there are constraints and limitations about how fast the keys can travel, how force at the key is modified and translated into force onto the tuned wires that make the notes. The vibrations we hear as sound will travel through the materials and couple into the air in infinitely complex ways, affected by the pitch, loudness and duration of the notes being played. As the sound emerges, it interacts with the room in which the piano is placed, further modifying and developing the sound. Very little of this is consciously controllable by the piano player, but there is an intuitive interaction with a particular instrument, room and set of environmental conditions that will aim to express the music appropriately and sensitively using all these factors.

On the surface, even an excellent digital piano is a radical simplification of all this. The way that each key is played is passed to the “sound engine” as a set of parameters, controlling how the sound waveform is generated, modified and amplified. The sound is coupled to the air through a limited number of loudspeakers and by how those speakers are attached to the materials from which the digital piano case is made. Once the sound emerges, it is further shaped and modified by the room and environment, but from a limited number of simpler sources compared with a traditional instrument.

This makes it easy for many pianists and teachers to simply say that a traditional piano is the “real” instrument, which digital pianos attempt to simulate or copy. Some digital pianos are better simulations than others, but none of them are ultimately “the real thing”.

The manufacturers seem to accept this perspective and, having read a lot of their information and looked at a lot of digital pianos recently, I think they all focus their attention on three aspects of their digital pianos. Firstly, they attempt to make the keyboard itself look, feel and play as much like a traditional piano as possible. Secondly, they attempt to build a sound engine and speaker system that will create sounds as much like a traditional piano as possible and thirdly, they embody traditional piano aesthetics in the design of the case.

The lengths to which digital piano designers will go to copy or mimic traditional piano keyboard mechanisms is fascinating. There is no intrinsic need to have the levers, springs and weights that are essential to make a traditional piano work, but many of the better digital pianos have what are essentially copies of traditional mechanisms, with advertising underlining this by proclaiming that the keyboard is taken from a particularly impressive grand piano. I saw one model where you could lift the lid and see hammers and dampers moving inside as you played the keyboard, but without any strings for them to work with. There is much discussion about key length, how the keys are balanced and weighted, how similar it is to specific models of grand piano and so on.

Some digital piano keyboards do feel much nicer to play than others. Some seem to enable much more nuance and sophistication in the way you can play them than others. A few feel too light or too heavy or even inconsistent, but I am not sure how far it is essential to have the lower notes needing precisely the same increase in key pressure to play them as in a grand piano (a by-product of how traditional pianos work) or to have a built in “take-up” between beginning to put pressure on a key and the piano responding (which would be the effort needed to overcome friction in a traditional piano mechanism). Are the manufacturers focused on copying traditional keyboards or making keyboards that help us to be better pianists? They seem to think it is the same thing, but it may not be.

Wanting a pleasing, rich and realistic piano sound is understandable. It’s the central thing that makes it an expensive and prestigious digital piano instead of a synthesiser or keyboard. There are two basic approaches to this. Some sound engines are built around recordings of the sounds of particular traditional pianos (usually flagship instruments in a flagship setting) and selecting and blending those sounds depending on how the key is pressed, aiming to reproduce how the original instrument would sound if played like that. Others (mainly made by Roland) employ a computer “model” of how a traditional piano makes sound and generate a waveform by computing and merging fundamental elements (like the raw sound of the string, the resonances of the frame, the resonances and reverberation of the soundboard and even the clicks and responses of the mechanisms) based on sensing how the key is played. In my experience, both approaches can sound wonderful and convincing. Both can sound artificial and less than convincing. A lot is to do with the speakers, amplifiers and even the room where you are playing, with the more expensive models having more and bigger speakers and amplification. Wanting a digital piano to sound great is obviously right, but does it need to be an exact copy of a particular concert grand?

There’s no intrinsic reason why digital pianos need to be in polished ebony cases, or even matte black or rosewood ones. Some of the manufacturers do offer alternatives, a few of which look very good (e.g. light oak) but I guess people want their piano to look like a piano. There are plenty of plastic-looking “keyboards” around, and a few with that grey or black metal, heavy-duty “stage” appearance but digital pianos work hard to look as if they have been made in the same way, and with the same care, as traditional pianos.

In short, companies making digital pianos seem to want to make copies of (very good) traditional ones, using a keyboard, sound engine, amplifiers, speakers and case to simulate the experience of playing, listening to or looking at an excellent grand piano, but without the costs, huge rooms and complicated logistics involved and without the need for technicians and tuners to keep the piano in form. The marketing framework is about how close the experience of playing one is to playing the pianos they simulate. This marketing video (and there are similar from all the main companies) illustrates this perfectly:

The pros and cons of Skeuomorphism

This approach is common in digitally-based industries. It’s called “skeuomorphism”. The word has taken on specific meaning and weight when talking about computer interfaces (making icons and buttons look like “real world” objects rather than simpler or flatter abstracts, e.g. the contacts app icon is a picture of a leather-bound contacts book), but has an older and wider sense of “an ornament or design on an object made to resemble another material or technique.” For example, some pottery includes “rivets” and “seams” copied from metal prototypes, where they were essential to hold the metal pot together, but are purely decorative in clay.

Skeuomorphism can be reassuring. If you are familiar with previous designs (e.g. traditional pianos), making a digital piano look, feel and behave similarly immediately puts you in an appropriate relationship with it. if you can play a traditional piano, you can soon play a digital one (and to some extent vice versa). You don’t have to “figure it out”: you already know. Obviously, this applies to the keyboard, with notes in the same place and played in the same way, but it could be argued it also applies to the case, seating position, colour and size too, even if none of these things are actually intrinsic to making music with a digital instrument.

On the other hand, there is a point where slavishly copying features which were required in traditional pianos limits or even diminishes digital pianos. An obvious example is size: You can buy full-sized “digital grand pianos” whose cases are mostly empty and mostly add nothing to the sound or playing experience. Roland make digital pianos the same size and shape as traditional uprights and have marketing (and sales people) claiming this allows speakers to be placed to give the pianist an “authentic” experience. I personally felt the moving hammers and dampers I saw in one model without strings was a gimmick. It did not make the piano sound better (it did not sound good compared with others in the same price range) and although the keyboard did feel good to play, other manufacturers manage that without installing a full keyboard mechanism.

The biggest risk of skeuomorphism though, is that it holds back development of what is really a new design object, and more than a copy of the previous one. In this case, that the development of digital pianos might be held back by manufacturers’ determination to simulate traditional grand pianos.

There has been a strong move away from skeuomorphism in computer interfaces for exactly that reason. Someone realised that most people had no idea what a leather bound contacts book was for, let alone a reel-to-reel tape deck (icon used for podcast app) or even what manilla folders had to do with making a collection of your photos or music files or paper envelopes to do with sending electronic messages. Within just a year or two, daily computer and phone-based tasks were understood and used for themselves, not as an analogue for a previous manual process. Simpler, flatter and more abstract icons and designs reflected this. Skeuomorphism got in the way and confused people instead of helping and reassuring them.

A personal outcome

As someone who knows and has played traditional pianos, but who has done most of my learning and playing on digital ones, I found myself simultaneously helped and hindered by the quest to emulate traditional pianos. I found myself growing weary of marketing that told me how accurate a copy this piano was of a superlative and astronomically expensive instrument that I would probably never get the chance to play, let alone own. I want a digital piano that is good to play, that will help me learn well and to better express myself musically and that sounds great. I want it to fit into the decor in my house and into the room I have available. I want to be able to afford it: it’s not a statement, but something I want to enjoy. I want to exploit all the benefits of digital technology (e.g. easy recoding, using apps to learn with, having a library of sheet music instantly available, vast arrays of recorded sounds, using the great sound system for listening as well as playing, connectivity, record keeping and excellence at low cost etc.) and for all that not to be an afterthought (with a half-hidden midi socket round the back). I want my piano to have downloadable software and sound updates regularly so it will get better over time.

I think I have found a piano that does what I want it to do and I like it very much, but even it could easily be so much more. The hardest thing in design is to be the person who sees a new way of doing something that people have been doing for a long time. To give just one example, replacing rooms full of scribes with printing presses did not come easily, and many aspects of printing, even today, are there because they are trying to copy what people were doing by hand 500 years ago.

I have no idea what digital pianos (and other instruments) will be capable of in 20 or 50 yers’ time, but I suspect they might get there more quickly if they did not have to be painstakingly careful copies of traditional pianos. It might be even better if we emulated other aspects of traditional pianos, rather than ebony and ivory keyboards and lovely french polished cases. A hundred or so years ago, traditional pianos were everywhere: mass produced, relatively cheap and reliable and with little to rival them for entertainment purposes. Lots of people could play them fairly well, learning from other pianists and by ear, and there was a lot of pleasure in sing-songs and bashing out the hits of the day.

Maybe digital instruments can be a way of helping to put music learning and music-making in the hands of every child and not a rare and esoteric practice. It’s already happening in some genres, like hip-hop or EDM, where people make amazing musical breakthroughs in their bedrooms and beyond them, with relatively cheap tools and software, genius and enthusiasm, but it would be great to see that extend to piano playing too.

I have not reached any firm conclusions on all this, but I have a feeling that there might be a turn away from skeuomorphism in digital musical instruments, just as there has been in computer interfaces, and for the same reasons. Companies making and selling digital pianos think that their market demands it, but perhaps it is getting in the way of developing something better, just as computer companies were convinced for a long time that we all needed an animated paperclip to tell us where we were failing to use a word processor properly, or a picture of a leather-bound book to tell us where we could look up our contacts’ details.

Perhaps somewhere there is the digital piano equivalent of simple, abstract icon design, about to move into the market and take over.