Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

On the Aesthetics of Playing Piano


In the penultimate measure of the first movement Clementi’s Sonatina No. 36, there is a short cascade of notes:

This sonatina is often used as a teaching piece, because it’s a great introduction for the early intermediate pianist to the techniques required in more complicated piano pieces. This little cascade is a good example of why. It’s short, only eight notes long. In the numbering system every beginner learns, your thumbs are ones; your pinkies, fives. The G and A keys are right next to each other on the keyboard, and one might expect that the prescribed fingering of two adjacent notes would require two adjacent fingers. Perhaps, because the sequence continues down the keys, the four and five fingers, so that other fingers are properly positioned to reach the next notes.

But that’s not what happens. The G is struck with the thumb, and the A with the fourth finger. To do this, one must curl the edges of the palm toward each other like a taco. Then, the second finger crosses over to reach the D, the third follows to strike the E, and then the sequence repeats. 1, 4, 2, 3.

To the early intermediate pianist, i.e., me, it is not immediately obvious why this should be. The sequence does not cover a great range, it’s not terribly fast, and at first, it’s terribly awkward. My first reaction was to reflect that no one is going to force’s my fingers into any position (I’m an adult; I don’t have to listen to the piano teacher if I don’t want to!), and anyway, isn’t it the production of the sound that’s artistically and aesthetically most important? Who cares how it happens?

(Above: a young Yuja Wang, playing Clementi No. 36. better than probably everyone on the planet.)

Of course, I was wrong, but it struck me that a similar approach is common in the philosophy of music. The aesthetics of music in the contemporary analytic tradition is the aesthetics of the experience of the audience. So when we investigate what a musical work is, or how music expresses emotions, we adopt the perspective of someone whose relationship to the artwork is that of the consumer. The artistic performance of a work of music is valued for the aesthetic experience of the audience, and speculating how this came to be is irresistible as it is irresponsible. Perhaps the analogy with the contemplation of the visual arts was drawn too tightly; perhaps once our attention was focused on music as art we focused on the only role available to those of us who aren’t artists, the passive consumer, focused on the hedonic experience of listening. The aesthetics of the production of music drops away; even if we attend to the experience of listening to live music, we write from the perspective of one in the seats. But how needlessly narrow! The divine madness of Ion is the madness of the performer. We shouldn’t overlook the dimensions of aesthetics of the creation of music.

Of course, the performer may experience the music as if she were part of the audience, finding pleasure in the sounds of the music. Yet even in this she experiences the work differently than the audience. A concert grand piano is designed to project sound, and it’s heard best at some distance from the piano, because the sound waves need space to propagate. (This is one of the many reasons you don’t want to put a concert grand in a small room.) The player is also close enough to the instrument to hear every little resonance and feel every vibration, pleasant or not. A player can feel the bass notes on her face, and through the vibration in the floor. Less musically, I once spent an hour trying to determine the source of an annoying resonance that occurred whenever I played the middle E, discernible only to me, the player, only to discover that the small buzz was the result of the sheet music perched on the music desk.

Moreover, playing the piano is an intense physical activity, the piano itself a disguised piece of percussion that requires not just dexterity in the fingers but strength in the arms. It’s kinetic in the way of sports or dance. Overeager newcomers are often cautioned not to practice too much at once, because as the muscles in the hand fatigue they are likely to become injured. The action of the piano, the mechanism that transmits the motion of the keys to the hammers which strike the strings, in a fine instrument is so sensitive as to respond precisely to the speed and pressure that the player applies. The keys become extension of the fingers. There is a beauty in mastering the strike of the keys beyond the mere production of a pleasing sound, the feeling that this is right and correct and perfect.

Playing with proper technique facilitates the production of beautiful tones, and allows for the development of graceful phrasing. The reason the end of the Clementi sonatina prescribes such a fingering is not for the sake of those eight notes, but that mastering that pattern will allow the player to learn longer, more difficult passages. At the end of those eight notes, the hand is position to run up the keys or continue down. Keeping the hand compact and controlled helps in the production of sound.

But there’s just something gorgeous about the feeling when the fingering, after lots of practice, becomes natural. It’s hard to describe, and all of the immediate language that comes to mind is tired and overused: it clicks; it falls into place; it fits like a key in a lock; with the satisfaction of the last puzzle piece snapping into place. The joy of the fluidity of the phrase, even in such an elementary piece, can be understood only from the seat on the bench. The small point is that the aesthetic satisfaction of mastering a sequence is different from the aesthetic appreciation of the music. Yet both are indispensably, and one hopes, indisputably part of the aesthetics of music.

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