Prepared Pianos and Musical Composition

Shirley Thomas

A prepared piano means a piano that has been tampered or manipulated in order to have its sound altered. The term prepared derives from the fact that various objects or preparations are used to effect the change in sound. These objects or preparations are either placed between the strings of the instrument or on said strings.

The technique of using foreign object to effect a difference in the timbre of a piano has been developing itself since 18th century. The term itself, however, was made popular by a John Cage who did a preparation to a piano in 1938, for the music he wrote for Bacchanale.

Bacchanale is a dance by Syvilla Fort and in 1938 it was to be performed in a stage that could not accommodate a percussion group. This became somewhat of a quandary for Cage, whose specialty was to write percussion music. In fact, he had only been writing percussion music prior to this commission.

Cage skirted around the problem by tackling the only instrument available to him, the grand piano. He soon found out that the piano could produce the sound of a whole percussion orchestra, provided the instrument was modified to have what he called ‘an exploded keyboard’.

old piano

One of the more popular preparations to a piano is what is known to the layman as the honky tonk. In the world of piano preparation the instrument that produces the honky tonk sound is also called Tack Piano.

The preparation calls for small nails or thumbtacks to be placed at the end parts of the hammering mechanism of the piano keys, resulting in a brighter timbre and giving off a more percussive feel to the overall sound.

As stated before, the manipulation of the piano to produce a different sound has been seen since as early as 18th century. It seems as if exposure to different kind of music from other countries is one of the biggest forces behind the need to prepare a piano.

By the end of 18th century, Turkish music was all the rage and pianos were made to accommodate it. Pianos would feature padded hammer and pedals so as to be able to effect the bass drum and bells that were the identifying sounds of the Turkish music.

Most preparations are not as elaborate; in fact a large number of piano preparations call only for papers to the placed on the strings, between the strings or at the end of the hammering mechanism of the piano.

Different scores and music call for different, sometimes tiny preparations. It is not unheard of for certain composition to require sheets of paper on every other piano strings; sheets of paper, a single paper, paper clips or even cutlery. It all depends of the music and the kinds of sound the composer wants the piano to produce.

Other compositions may call for the preparation to be done to the strings themselves. Said strings may be subject to some strumming, plucking, bowing or sliding, done using various everyday objects made of plastic, aluminum, or copper.

piano strumming

The smallest changes, however, produce wonderfully various effects. A piece of cardboard under a specific key gave a close semblance to the unique sound of an Indian drum, one that was very much needed by the composer Maurice Delage for his Ragamalika. Delage’s Ragamalika is a composition that is based on classical Indian music, one that is a part of Carnatic music.

Another instance, Erik Satie’s Piège de Méduse, saw the placing of several pieces of paper on the strings of the piano to produce the tinny sound of one of the character in the play, a monkey puppet.

Piano preparation opens up a wide horizon for composers and musicians to explore, try new things and have fun with their writing. It can be argued that with the advance of technology one does not have to resort to skirting around a problem the way John Cage did but perhaps in the eye of the creative crowd, prepared piano can be yet another branch of technology.


3 thoughts on “Prepared Pianos and Musical Composition

  1. I’ve always enjoyed playing piano and wondered how to create the different styles in piano but never really got down to learning about it fully. This is very insightful and well written, followed!

    • Thanks. I grew up with guitar playing uncles and I did see them trying out different things but I never thought of tampering with pianos. Because you know, they always seem so grand and sacred. Writing this was an eye opener!

      I’m following back — via this account (Cranky Teacher) because apparently you can not do anything with additional blog (which is what Harried Writer is).

      • Yeah, I play guitar myself and have tried out all sorts with my guitars, but I’ve never trusted myself to actually fiddle with a piano – the closest I’ve got to that is playing different settings on a keyboard!


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