How To Create Color in Piano Playing

March 26, 2012

Dear Mr. Chappell:

Often a music critic will say that a pianist had nice colors, and teachers and pianists always talk about touch and tone. What does “colors” mean? How can an interpreter change colors? Doesn’t the composer decide the colors? Can you change the touch and tone without changing the dynamics, or is touch a myth? What is “voicing of textures”, “aural imagination”, and “orchestral sonorities”, for which Daniel Barenboim praised Radu Lupu’s playing in an article that I read recently?


Dear Simeon:

First of all, color, tone, tone quality, sound quality, sonority, and timbre are all essentially the same thing.

If someone says that a pianist has nice colors, it means that the pianist is using artistic ways of enhancing the basic sound of the piano.

The basic sound of the piano is what you get by simply pushing the keys down. Someone who is playing the piano just to hear notes—for example, while working on a theory exercise—simply pushes the keys down.

But pianists who study compositions written specifically for performance on the piano spend their lives developing the artistic enhancements that create colors, in order to convey nuances of musical expression.

The composer doesn’t decide the colors, unless the composer is writing for and combining the sounds of several instruments, and especially for an orchestra. Then the composer decides what the desired colors are. The composer for the piano can suggest colors by writing in a certain way or another, but it is the prerogative of the solo instrumentalist to create an interpretation according to his or her own sense of color.

In relation to this, I recently heard someone say that the advantage of the piano is that it can suggest many instruments other than itself. For example, a melody written in the range that a flute would play in, or that a cello would play in, can inspire the pianist to create sounds like those other instruments. This would account for the mention of “orchestral sonorities”.

How pianists create colors is to use touch, pedaling, overtones, and the balance of simultaneous layers of dynamics. A change in any of those categories will change the sound of the piano, and there are variables within each category. Their effects on sound are not a myth, but they are subtle and they can also depend on psychological states to some extent.

The variables of touch are: in what direction your arms, hands, and fingers move; how fast or how slowly they move; how heavy or how light they feel as you push down a piano key; whether they move from a position above, below, or level with the keys; and whether they push the key down from its surface or by landing on it from the air.

It also includes whether they are loose or firm and whether they are curved or straight, and it includes whether the finger slides on the key or stays on one point of contact.

Another variable is how far down you push the key. After you push it down enough to make sound, there is still a fraction of an inch farther that it can go. This is called the “aftertouch”.

To find the aftertouch, push down two adjacent white keys, such as A and B, with fingers of your left hand. Now leave your them there while pushing down the B with your right index finger as hard as you can. The B will go farther down than the A, into the aftertouch.

The most substantial piano sound is produced by getting the key all the way down into the aftertouch, even at soft dynamic levels.

This brings up the relation of touch to dynamics. Changing touch has to do with more than changing dynamics. But there is a side to this that is somewhat intangible. It has to do with having an imaginative concept of the sound that you want to produce.

I could ask you to play something louder. Or instead I could ask you to play it with a fuller sonority that is more projecting, perhaps emulating the sound of an opera singer. In that case, the loudness is the effect of an intention that isn’t really about playing louder. This would account for the mention of “aural imagination”.

The remaining points can be dealt with more briefly:

The primary use of the pedals is to enhance the sound color of the piano, and you can read more about this in the article “The Use of the Pedals” on this website.

You can become aware of activating overtones on the piano by putting down the pedal and repeating the same note several times slowly. Notice that there are slight differences in the sound quality with each strike of the hammer on the strings. Some strikes of the hammer reinforce lower overtones and have more of an “oo” sound; others reinforce higher overtones and have more of an “ee” sound. Experiment with reproducing these results to create different colors.

You can balance simultaneous sounds by having, for example,  the highest note of a texture be the loudest or instead have the lowest note of a texture be the loudest. Enhancing the high notes is said to give the sound a brighter color and enhancing the low notes is said to give the sound a darker color. This would account for your mention of “voicing of textures”.

Something not commonly realized about layers of different loudnesses is that in some cases, particularly with contrapuntal compositions like those of Bach, the assignment of a dynamic level to a melodic line has the effect of giving it an identity not of being loud or soft but of simply having a sound that is distinct from the other melodic lines. This allows for all of the simultaneous lines to be heard distinctly and as having equal importance. This is a different sonic concept from, for example, playing an accompaniment softly while playing a melody loudly, which produces a subordinate/dominating relationship between the parts.

Thanks for your question covering much of the subject of color in piano music.

—Jeffrey Chappell