Coarticulation in piano playing

Music is far more than a string of individually-sounded notes, and the way pianists strike the keys has similarities with how we speak.
15 August 2013


Kate - So, what can David Beckham tell us about playing the piano? Beethoven playing the piano

Dominic - I'm not sure he's a very natured concert pianist you see.

Kate - Well, I don't know if his keyboard skills are as good as his free kicks, but in this case, it's all about his name. And that's because David Beckham is a really good example of coarticulation. Now, that's something that we find in speech, where basically, we change the sounds that we produce based on the sounds that have come just before and just afterwards. 

So, if I say his two names separately, David and Beckham, you can hear that I say a 'D' on the end of David  like they should be. But if I say his whole name together, David Beckham, I'm actually saying Davib Beckham.  I'm missing off the 'D' and doing a 'B' instead. Do you have a go at home, listen very, very carefully. Slow yourself down and see what actual sounds you're producing and you will find that you're actually mispronouncing it. But we don't notice it because we're so used to it. Essentially, our muscles are trying to move so fast that we're ahead of ourselves by the time that we start to pronounce the sound.

So, we've known for a really long time that this happens in our speech, but what scientists of Minnesota have done is they've had a look at ten piano players - some of them amateur and some of them professional. They've asked them to play 14 pieces of music for them. While they've been playing, they've been measuring a couple of things - how hard they've been hitting the keys, how closely they stick to a metronome, to a timing device. And also, they've been putting electrodes on their hands to look at the muscle activity.

They've been finding that as they play the piano, they do exactly the same thing. They use coarticulation and how they play the notes depends on the notes that have come just before and just afterwards. So obviously, if you're changing how hard you're hitting the notes or fluency or the rhythm with which you're playing it, you play the notes in a slightly different way. So that means if you're plodding along playing the piano, sometimes you learn just by pressing the individual keys one after another and tt doesn't quite sound like the tune that you're trying to play at home. You're trying Green Sleeves and it's sort of sounding a bit ploddy. Now, that's probably because you're not doing the same coarticulation that piano players are when they become fluent. You're playing the notes individually with exactly the same force and the same rhythm, and playing them together adjusts the way play it, makes it sound more fluent.


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