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Does approaching notes in different ways at the piano affect tone production?

Emanuel Ax, well-known concert pianist and teacher asserts that one note struck cannot be varied by physical approach (except for volume) and I’m assuming duration (a clipped staccato release vs. a lingering sustain without pedal) Yet he didn’t provide enough specific details about duration, dynamics, and how delays into notes using supple wrist motions could affect phrasing. Therefore, I was left in a quandary about what he really meant since pianists deal with many notes in sequence.

As an aside, Ax declared woefully, that most of his pianist colleagues doubted his views.

About chords, the pianist inserted a qualification, saying that decisions circumscribing voice balance factored into tonal variance.

Yet his overall thoughts lacked an imaginative dimension about creating illusions in the course of playing. Perhaps, if he had more time to expand upon his ideas, he would have been more specific about physical motions as they relate to phrasing groups of notes.

Seymour Bernstein, pianist, teacher, and author of With Your Own Two Hands chimed in that “Emanuel misses, or perhaps doesn’t understand a serious point concerning the resultant sound of hitting a key. True, the hammer knows nothing about such an attack. But what we hear is the friction of the finger or an object as it hits the key. And because the blow is done with uncontrolled speed, the key is propelled down to the key bed producing an added percussive sound…The truth is these things have been measured scientifically. There is no difference whatsoever in tone production whether you lower a key with your finger or a pencil, and whether your wrist is supple or not. We recognize sound or tone changes when two or more tones are played.”

In one of his teaching videos (“You and the Piano,” Part 4), Bernstein demonstrates an “upper arm roll” with an “undulating wrist” that together produce an enviable singing tone.

Irina Gorin, piano teacher and Tales of a Musical Journey creator uses “weeping willow” arms as her imaginative springboard for imbuing awareness of the singing tone in her youngest students. Here she partners relaxed breathing with flowing supple wrists:

Here’s her dead weight arm/wrist drop approach using a hairband with a pupil:

In my demonstration, I extract a few measures from J.S. Bach’s Sarabande, French Suite in G, BWV 816 to model supple wrist delays into notes that create tonal nuances or differences that a pencil point cannot produce.

Elaine Comparone, harpsichordist/pianist responded forthrightly to the above:

“I think it’ s impossible to play the pencil-point note and the finger-played note in the same way.

“I think what you are talking about ( and you said it a few times) is a delayed attack or approach to the note. But what one hears ultimately is a dynamic (a loud-soft) difference. I listened to your spiel with my eyes closed. What I heard was a dynamic difference.

“I’d take a position slightly between yours and Ax’s. You are striking the key with a slow stroke with your finger. The pencil touches the key more speedily. But I think you could get the same sound if you struck the key with the pencil using a slower and slightly indirect approach. The flexing wrist makes this happen with the finger.

“I don’t think you can ever resolve this to my satisfaction.

“Harpsichord-wise, you have to make a speedy stroke, especially if you have more than one set of strings engaged, unless you have your plectra voiced very lightly, in which case you’ll get a lot of thud in the attack. With light voicing, you really have to pussy-foot around the keyboard.”


Rada Bukhman, pianist/teacher/author, insists that “one note can be played beautifully with anything, even one’s nose. What’s important is how you relate sounds to each other.”


Irina Morozova, pianist and faculty member at the Special School/Kaufman Center, and the Mannes College of Music, noted the use of “illusions” when playing the piano, making reference in her comments, to “chords.”

“What about ‘”impersonating”‘ orchestral instruments on piano? There is a simple way to make a chord sound differently depending on whether or not one is trying to play a beautiful “piano” chord or an “orchestral” chord.

Here she begins a lesson with a six-year old, demonstrating a fluid wrist approach to playing a chord that’s allied to a relaxed breath. (no pencils in sight!)

Morozova also asserts, “that a most important concept to teach, is weight distribution, or a feeling of a ‘”grounded”‘ sound.”

Rebecca Bogart, a local East Bay area pianist/teacher added the following to the mix of opinions:

“One of my greatest pleasures as a pianist is manipulating the color of the sound through subtle adjustments in key depression, so I guess I would have to say that I totally disagree with Ax. Personally I do experience that how a pianist relates to the key from the key at rest (level with all the other keys) to the bottom of the key stroke makes a HUGE difference in sound. For me, many of today’s performers have very high key speeds, especially in louder dynamics, which result in a very bright, almost harsh, sound.

“How you interact with the key determines volume and duration of the sound you produce. Variations in key speed and weight are how you make dynamics and tonal changes. Otherwise, why not play the harpsichord or the organ???

“Of course Ax is correct that the relationships between notes are also very very important. And I realized after watching his video that possibly dynamic interrelationships (voicing) and agogic expression are a bigger percentage of the pianist’s toolkit than they are for other instrumentalists.

“In terms of posture for playing the piano, I think that there is a posture which is most efficient .i.e. gives the maximum results for the minimum amount of muscular effort. An efficient posture is one which allows the fingers and hands to be in the midrange of motion when playing the keys. More specifically, the bottom of the elbow (the part closest to the floor) should be level with the top of the white keys. Also, the wrist needs to be in a place where the kinetic energy and mass of the arm can be transmitted to the key.

“Of course determined and skilled people can play amazingly well with all sorts of postures – it’s just my opinion that their experience and/or results would be even better if they adopted the posture I just described. But hey – to each their own!”

Rami Bar-Niv, pianist, teacher and author of The Art of Piano Fingering, agrees with Ax on the unwavering sound produced by a single note key depression:

“I agree 100% with what Ax says and I said it many times on various groups.
A single note can be only louder or softer (+ the duration factor that happens after it’s being struck) — nothing else!

“Everything else in the magical hands of a pianist happens between the notes, due to balancing them, the relation between them, and timing. All other ideas are just untrue illusions and beliefs.

“Correct wrist motions and other correct techniques are there to produce good sound and protect your hands.But producing one sound can only be louder or softer, however good techniques help you match the next sound(s) according to your desires.

“We talk only about a single note because the next note already brings in the relativity aspect (which makes the music).”


While it’s instructive to gather opinions far and wide about an individual note approach, it’s the gestalt of many notes played in sequence that’s of prime importance to pianists as they explore an expressive tonal universe.


Emanuel Ax:

Irina Gorin’s You Tube Channel:

Elaine Comparone’s You Tube Channel

Official Website:

Rada Bukhman’s Website

Irina Morozova:

Seymour Bernstein’s Official Website:

Rebecca Bogart’s website

Rami Bar-Niv’s You Tube Channel

The Art of Piano Fingering by Rami Bar-Niv

Learning from Our Colleagues

Piano Technique: Avoid Pencil Point Playing

9 thoughts on “Does approaching notes in different ways at the piano affect tone production?”

  1. As a piano technician, I have spent much time thinking about this question of tone v.s. how the key is depressed. First of all, if we look only at a superficial level, it is true that the key is accelerating a hammer which releases a split second before striking the string, meaning, that at the time of impact, the pianist no longer has any control over the hammer, and is not physically connected to it. HOWEVER, this begs the question: Can the method of accelerating the hammer to it’s final strike speed have an impact on tone. I believe the answer is yes due to the following. The weight of the hammer above the shank is not perfectly symmetrical. No matter how careful the technician is when hanging the hammers, the exact center of gravity of the hammer head will never be perfectly aligned directly over the line of acceleration. So…This means that the hammer will always be leaning slightly to one side of another, and as it is accelerated, it will twist towards that side, with the shank acting like a spring (torsion bar) When let-off is reached, the spring will unwind twisting the hammer head back in the opposite direction just as it hits the string. Peaks in accelerating force will cause this spring to twist even more, such as when there is a sharp jabbing of the key, this will cause the hammer head to be even more out of control as it strikes the string. If the key is accelerated smoothly and evenly, it will have a minimal twist per final velocity, thereby hitting the strings in a controlled way, without sideways motion generated by twisting of the hammer shank. Hitting all three strings at the same time, with the mass of the hammer traveling perpendicular to the strings is critical in tone production. Therefore, in general, a slow even acceleration to the final strike speed is going to give a more focused warmer sound than a sharp jabbing acceleration which will throw the hammer into uncontrolled twisting around the center axes of the hammer shank. Just my two cents…Chris Smythe


  2. I want to clarify one more thing, with regard to Emanuel Ax’s comments. He is quite right to suggest that one size does not fit all, and that there are many approaches to playing the piano, at least in terms of the mechanics of playing (which, by the way, ought not be confused with technique). But that is merely a truism, and does not mean that this or that approach will result in what is widely regarded by professionals as well as asute listeners as the beauty of sound, that is, a lyrical, unforced ambiant hush that proceeds from deep within — not only from within the instrument of the sound, but from within the pianist — the person — himself. While a virtuoso pianist may indeed, as Ax suggests, successfully master a given set of pianistic problems with admirable dispatch, and in such a way that all the notes and rhythms are pristinely adjudicated , does not necessarily coincide with the aesthetic disposition of the composition itself, nor that of the composer. Thus, no matter how mechanically adept the pianist, the larger musical issues of balance, inflection, affect, intonation (intonatsiia), polyphonic savoir faire, and rhythmic vivacity may be given short shrift in favor of merely, and perhaps naviely, nailing down the basics.


  3. Shirley

    With the qualification that we are talking about a single note (not a phrase or what have you) and that Mr Axe is not speaking of making “ugly sounds” (per the previous post citing distortions caused by hitting the key to hard/fast) I believe he is largely correct.

    You can produce a “warm rounded tone” with the eraser end of a No 2 pencil and an ugly, harsh twanging sound with a finger. ( and it goes without saying that the vast majority of ugly, harsh, twanging sounds produced on the piano have been produced solely by fingers with no erasers in sight)

    It is solely the velocity and acceleration of the hammer that produces the sound. End of story.
    Indisputable. (and this applies to ugly sounds too!)

    But this is not making music. The human machine requires a keyboard choreography inspired by imagination in order to make music from the ingenious machine that is the piano. It takes great skill to make the piano seem like a living thing expressing feeling, ideas, beauty and so on.

    It really is all an illusion that must be carefully thought out and rehearsed, just as a movie is all illusion comprised of many single frame pictures moving to fool the eye with acting by people pretending which has been artfully constructed and rehearsed in such a way that it looks and feels real.

    So I see nothing wrong with realizing the piano is a special, intricate machine that has a way in which it works and ways in which it doesn’t work well, and in search of better understanding how to make music, to realize the piano has limitations and great possibilities due to the way in which it is made.

    Also important in my view is that many pianists injure themselves, sometimes permanently with excessive force… the number 1 reason (as I recall) for injury, especially males. I have done this as well.

    It should be of great importance for the pianist using too much force on his way to injury, to realize that it only takes 50 grams to push the key down, and probably not a great deal more to propel the jack with sufficient speed into and past the hammer knuckle escapement at which time the hammer head on its own strikes the string with resonance, and no amount of further effort by the pianist will make any difference whatsoever — except negative effects to the muscles, tendons, nerves and other delicate structures.

    Weight alone, will not produce much of a sound, so the notion of “carrying the full weight of the arms on the fingers” is a terrible burden for the hands, and the result over time is certain injury.
    The idea of “weight” really is a horrible one in that it is really a poor description of using leverage in which light floating arms should enable and enhance quicker finger action used in fast louder playing.

    So it can be quite valuable for the pianist wishing to play the heavier, more complex romantic literature to realize it will be the clever choreography and quickness and ease of the key stroke — not brute force — which is what will enable he or she to play these pieces.

    In the end, the technique of learning to play the key to the point of escapement, and developing the tactile sensitivity to “know when to quit” (making effort) I think is paramount to advancement. But once this is learned and really absorbed, it is best to “forget it” and think of the music.

    With injury free finger control, it will be the overall beautiful pianistic choreography of the hands and arms that will produce beautiful sounds.



    1. In truth Patrick each artist applies an individual physical/musical/expressive approach to artistic music-making. And that’s what I have to say, as to the long and short of it. There’s something very intangible about shaping and sculpting phrases so how to manuals are irrelevant in this discussion. Or saying don’t put burden of arms of fingers has little meaning for me or others as we are spinning phrases from one to the other. Emanuel can believe what he wants, and many other pianists will agree to disagree.


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