Extemporising

Typebars in a 1920s typewriter

A Concert Grand Typewriter

I’m watching a friend practise piano with headphones. The effect is a little surreal. Stripped of sound, these purposeful movements could be almost anything. She could be sending telegraphic messages, firing off banks of weapons, controlling some vast and complicated high-speed power loom.

It makes me think about several things. Like why are music keyboards this shape while typewriter-style ones are so cramped? Both are designed to let you ‘play’ them as quickly as possible, both have around the same number of keys, yet they came out so different.

Maybe it’s simply pressure on space in an office environment that forced the adoption of the multi-row typewriter layout. I’m pretty sure you could type as fast if the keys were all in a line, but they don’t need to be so you can ‘fold up’ the letters into a neater space.

Why not do that with piano keys? Well you could, but laying them out in a straight line reflects something intrinsic about them – that they have order. Though the actual notes that make up the scale are pretty arbitrary – other cultures use entirely different ones – their order is not. On the other hand there is no order to letters except alphabetical order, and that is so arbitrary that typewriters can blithely ignore it.

Having found two reasons for the difference (never be satisfied with one – nothing happens for just one reason) I move on to the next question:

Could performance weaving, composing and improvising on keyboard-controlled looms with colour instead of sound, give us wonderful new ‘silent concertos’?

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  1. #1 by droog on February 8th 2012 - 8:33 pm

    I think you’re ignoring out a huge reason when you don’t consider acoustics and mechanics.

    The density of keys found on a typewriter can be found in musical instruments such as the accordion, bandoneón, concertina, etc . But in those instruments the bellows are a driving force in generating the necessary loudness. Just pump that sucker to your heart’s content (and our ears’ misery) and you get all the decibels you need. The keys are only opening valves and the force comes from pumping the bellows. So I think it can be said that if the physics of the instrument allow it people will produce instruments with dense playing boards.

    A piano, though, relies on a different mechanism. You need to strike those strings with that tiny little hammer and get some decent volume. There needs to be some requisite force in doing this. If you reduce the size of the keys too much the mechanism will begin to have some flimsy components and you’re less likely to get the necessary volume by striking the strings. This was all developed when wood was the primary material for construction. The instrument is moving in a different direction in terms of what is being asked of it.Pianos were never designed to be portable; they were designed to fill a room with sound and to kill your rivals when dropped from great heights.

  2. #2 by Amused on February 9th 2012 - 5:18 pm

    It’s an interesting thought. As someone who plays piano, I have some difficulty imagining a multi-level keyboard. The mechanics of playing would have to change dramatically. There is also the issue that when playing piano, stroking the key just the right way is necessary to produce the right kind of sound — that makes it very different from operating a typewriter. Having a multilevel keyboard would complicate that aspect of piano-playing as well.

  3. #3 by Mark V on February 11th 2012 - 10:54 pm

    If you take six piano keyboards, give the black and white keys equal weight to give a chromatic layout, and offset them by four or five half steps, you get a guitar fretboard. The denser layout allows fast leaps over large intervals and very broad one-handed chord voicings at the expense of certain very dense chord voicings (because you are limited to one note per string). For playing soft synths on my laptop keyboard, I use a vkeybd layout that maps the four rows of keys to the E, A, D, and G strings of a bass. The scale is shorter than on a guitar or bass, but I can play with both hands and can play more than one note per row, allowing chord voicings with elements of guitar and piano.

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