Monday, February 13, 2012

Chocolate Cake vs. Ice Cream: Rethinking Balance at the Keyboard

Chocolate Cake
Image by ralph and jenny
When you're creating your sound at the piano, one of the most important concepts is foreground vs. background. Melody vs. accompaniment. However, many pianists erroneously equate the idea of balance at the keyboard as the need to play all voices at the same level. As you play multiple voices, sameness of tone between the hands can often result in a bland sound with a melody that is much too soft and an overbearing accompaniment.

As pianists, we need to think like recording engineers. What is most important in a musical texture? What do you want the audience to hear? What technical decisions do you need to make in order to be able to bring out these differences? More often than not, performances that we dislike tend to be ones that all sound the same.

Here is some terminology that I've been developing over the last while in order to better explain this concept in lessons and classes:

Depth of toneLightness of tone
$2.3 million star forward$500,000 rookie defenseman
MercedesHonda Civic
Chocolate cakeIce cream
Gwen StefaniThe rest of No Doubt
StingAndy Summers and Stewart Copeland
Bianca CastafioreIgor Wagner
Bruce SpringsteenE Street Band
Business classEconomy class

When we listen to music, we need to hear its components in a hierarchy. Simply put, effective balancing decisions result in an attractive overall sound. Many apologies to The Police, No Doubt, and the E Street Band, all of whose music I admire and whose work is in no way demeaned by their inclusion in this chart. In fact, I admire the playing of Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland so much precisely because of the way that they put Sting's singing into such effective relief, and in a way that I feel has never been surpassed in his post-Police solo work.

A note for collaborative pianists: the concept of accompaniment is also by no means demeaning to the role of a pianist in an ensemble. Working with another musician is a prime opportunity to make decisions about foreground vs. background in the piano part in the ensemble. In string sonatas and chamber music, the melody is often in the piano and the rest of the ensemble needs to keep down. Even in songs and arias where the melody is exclusively in the vocal part, the pianist still needs to delineate between important and not-so-important elements of the score.

Do you use any other language or imagery to explain balance? If so, feel free to leave a comment and tell us about it.


  1. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Pianists don't think nearly enough about this. If possible, it's a great learning experience to go to an open rehearsal for a masterful string quartet. Here you have 4 soloists who must decide how they fit into the texture of the piece. It's an ear-opening experience!

  2. Love the food analogy - I've used it quite effectively a few times this week. I ask the student what their favourite food is then we go from there.