More extended piano techniques
Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Guide to On-the-String Piano Techniques

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Guide to On-the-String Piano Techniques

The beginner’s toolbox of preparations I’ve talked about in the previous two (1, 2) articles might be, in some ways, less scary to many pianists and composers than playing inside the piano because, once the foreign objects (paper, aluminum foil, glass rods, plastic straws, etc.) have been placed on or in between the strings, the pianist plays the instrument pretty much as usual. This is part of the disconnect—or the magical nature—of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The scores for Cage’s little pieces look so musically simple, and so easy to play. Look at the beginning of Sonata V, for instance, with its right hand melody and accompanying chromatic seesawing left hand—what could be easier?

For now, try turning your sound off and just looking at the first page of the score to Sonata V in this video.

But, what’s not clear from looking at this bit of score is that, in order to play this set of pieces, Cage asks for about 2/3 of the notes of the piano to have their strings prepared by inserting or threading materials between the strings, including various kinds of bolts, screws, bits of rubber and plastic, and an eraser. So, the piece asks for a ton of prep work, but then Cage gives the pianist a simple set of pieces to play on this modified instrument, which the pianist then approaches in much the same way as if she were playing a piece of Clementi. The result, however, is otherworldly.

Now turn your audio volume back up and play the video again.

Preparations are one thing; asking the pianist to reach into the instrument and play directly on the strings, as well as on the wood and other metal surfaces inside the instrument, may seem to be another kettle of shrimp entirely. Much as I started with minimally invasive and generally safe preparations, I’m going to suggest starting with a gentle-slope approach to playing inside the piano—minimal risk of wear and tear on the instrument, with, nevertheless, big timbral results.

First of all, before reaching into the piano, thoroughly wash and dry your hands (duh).

Rule of thumb: avoid touching the soft parts inside the piano—just don’t touch the dampers or any of the felt. The dampers are really delicate and a pain to adjust correctly. The felt is easily compressed, torn, soiled with oils from your hands, or otherwise damaged, and, again, some of the piano’s felt parts are labor-intensive to replace. (And, there’s mostly no reason why you should need to touch these parts in order to play inside the instrument.)

I’m going to stick to techniques that involve playing on the strings here. There are lots of other safe inside-the-piano techniques—ways of making sounds on the metal plate, on the soundboard, and elsewhere—but for now, I’m going to introduce a handful of techniques on the strings that will provide many new timbres to explore.

A pianist can even take advantage of further “training wheels” by wearing thin cotton gloves while experimenting with many of these techniques. When I was writing my book chapter on piano harmonics, I was exploring these on my prized home piano—which, after years of dreaming and saving for, I had just purchased a few weeks before. I admit that even though I had performed inside-the-piano techniques many, many times and had always been careful with other folks’ instruments, I found myself facing potentially harming my own new pride and joy with a conscientious newbie’s extreme temerity. Touching the strings with clean hands shouldn’t do any damage, but it doesn’t take much transfer to the copper windings of the bass strings to open the door to marking the surface of the strings with tarnish. I’ve bought several pairs of these ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all-but-not-particularly-well-for-the-long-fingered-amongst-us cotton gloves for the purpose of experimenting with my new grand, and, really, here’s an investment of $1.49 that has no downside. Wearing a single glove for performance might take a little getting used to, especially if you’ll need both hands on the keyboard for part of a piece, but it is possible to play many of these techniques gloved—protecting the string but without altering the sound.

cotton gloves

Piano harmonics  

Lots of scores call for the pianist to sound harmonics. They are quite easy to play and can be sounded with one hand playing on the keys as usual, and a fingertip of the other hand lightly touching a harmonic node of one of the strings.

I won’t go into the physics behind harmonics, or the way that sounding many of the overtones can give the player access to just intonation notes that are pretty distant from their nearest equal tempered neighbors. I’ll leave that to further reading, or your own explorations.

So, put a glove on one hand and reach that hand into the piano. Start on the bass strings, because on these long strings there are lots of partials that will ring loudly on each string. Locate the approximate midpoint of any one of the lowest bass strings, lightly touch that point with a fingertip, and set the string into motion by playing the corresponding key with a finger of your other hand. If you’ve located the midpoint, playing the key should sound the second partial, which will be the octave above the fundamental (in other words, an octave above the string ringing as a whole, here produced by the string in halves). If you want to hear the sound of a second partial harmonic in performance, there’s a repeated 2nd partial harmonic D flat at the beginning of Annea Lockwood’s Red Mesa (1993). Note that this is a high note, not one played on a bass string. Watch a performance by pianist Andrea Lodge here. If you want to get an idea of how fast a pianist can play a single line of harmonics, check out Johan Svensson’s Study No. 2 (2015) available here in a performance by Jonas Olsson.

Depending on how large the grand is that you’re using and the length of your arms, the bass strings may be long enough to require that you stand up to touch the center node of the string. Further your experiments by then slowly moving your gloved finger along the string closer to the keyboard end of the string, while repeatedly sounding the string from the keyboard. You can try to locate the third partial, which sounds a perfect fifth above the second partial you’ve already located. Keep searching for the successive harmonic overtones; one I’m particularly fond of is the 7th partial, which sounds two octaves and a minor seventh above the string’s fundamental, and is 31 cents flatter than the nearest equal tempered note. On the lowest strings of a concert grand piano, it’s possible to sound some very high partials, so there are a lot of harmonics to explore even if you restrict yourself to a single bass string. You could then experiment with playing a simple melody in harmonics on one bass string.

Once you’ve found the first several partials on one bass string and gotten comfortable with sounding those, you can easily locate those same partials on any of the neighboring bass strings.   Play a cluster of three notes by fingering the third partial on three neighboring strings and playing all three keys simultaneously. (George Crumb uses three-note clusters like this in his trio Vox Balaenae.)

Muting with the fingertips

The weighted cloth-covered mutes described earlier are a better choice if you’d like a range of strings muted and for them to remain muted for a whole passage. However, if you’d like just a few different notes muted, and would like to alternate quickly between muted and unmuted notes on the same pitch, then muting with the fingertips might be the way to go. Touch a fingertip to the string close to the end of the string and depress the corresponding key to produce a rounder and darker sound than without the mute.

Though touching the strings with your clean hands should do no harm, it is possible to tarnish the outside of the bass strings with prolonged handling (a cosmetic effect, not an aural one). But, if you’re worried, don one member of your $1.49 pair of gloves and use your gloved fingers for muting. Either way, it’s an easy technique to learn.

Composer and pianist Henry Cowell explored a lot of on-the-strings techniques in his music, especially in the first third of the 20th century. Some of Cowell’s techniques I’d classify as advanced, but a few are easy and now widely used—and are probably familiar sounds to many of us, including glissando across a range of strings, various kinds of pizzicato on the strings, and the Aeolian harp or autoharp technique.

Glissando (on the strings)

Depress the damper pedal and run a fingertip or fingernail across a range of strings, perpendicular to the strings. Experiment with the differences in sound depending on register and range for the glissando, plectrum (flesh of fingertip, multiple fingertips, fingernail(s), guitar pick of various thicknesses), and contact point on strings (a gliss at the middle of the string sounds different from one played very close to the end of the strings).

Autoharp (or Aeolian harp) technique

Cowell introduced a specialized on-the-strings glissando in his piece Aeolian Harp: finger silently a chord with one hand, then perform a glissando across all of the strings in that register with the other. Doing this will cause the strings of the chord notes to ring freely, and will add a bit of noise from the strings of the other notes in the register (which will not ring freely, since their dampers remain at rest on them). Judicious use of the damper pedal to mask the transitions will allow the player to connect one chord to another smoothly. Since actual Aeolian harps are played by the breeze, whereas an autoharp has the player choose/finger the chord with one hand and strum across a set of strings with the other, this technique is closer to autoharp playing, and I (and several other composers) use this label for it.


Plucking the piano’s strings is very easy to do! Depress the damper pedal or hold down keys to raise the dampers off of the strings you want to pluck, and pluck with your fingernail or the flesh of your fingertip. Experiment with plucking near the middle of the string for a full, round sound, or near the end of the string sul ponticello for a brighter, less-focused-on-the-fundamental sound. You can get a very harp-like sound by plucking in the middle register with the flesh of your fingertip, plucking close to the middle of the string. (Just think, harp sounds without waiting 15 minutes for your harpist friend to tune their instrument. Harpist-friends: I’m only joking…I meant 20 minutes.) Try muting and plucking together! Then, muted, plucked and sul ponticello placement!

Cowell, when he started his inside-the-piano playing, referred to his new approach to the instrument as if it were a new instrument, saying that his pieces were for the “string piano.”

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I think you can hear the big, big sound world that can open up to you if you start reaching into the piano and exploring some of its resources that aren’t available just at the keys.

Even though there are many more techniques for the piano to explore, next week I’m going to move from the piano to the toy piano and delve into some preparations, inside-the-piano techniques, and even some instrument alterations for this unique instrument.

Raised in Warm Springs, Georgia (population < 475), Alan Shockley holds degrees in composition and theory from the University of Georgia, and advanced degrees in composition from The Ohio State University and Princeton University (M.F.A., Ph.D.). He has held residencies at the MacDowell Colony, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Italy’s Centro Studi Ligure, the Virginia Center for the Arts, and France’s Centre d’Art Marnay Art Centre (CAMAC), among others, and has received grants from the American Music Center, Pittsburgh ProArts, the Mellon, and the Heinz Foundations. His works have... Read more »

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