Last week I heard some strange resonances while playing so I stopped and isolated the keys that were doing it. It didn’t sound like an off-note or a wonky wavelength. It sounded like someone held a tuning fork on some strange frequency when I hit those keys. Very high pitched but it was as clear as day when I was playing. Can you hear it too or is it just me?
Yesterday, my piano finally got tuned. And the experience was very interesting since it led me to a topic I had never heard of or considered before yesterday: psychoaccoustics. This isn’t the science of sound – it is the study of the perception of sound. And this distinction became all too clear to me yesterday.
The entire reason for me wanting to have my piano tuned yesterday was because I heard things that just sounded plain wrong. I heard twangs and wobbles. And certain octaves didn’t sound like they were quite octaves any more. The question the tuner and I were faced with yesterday, is how much of this was real and how much of it was in my head.
And here’s where the perception part comes in. There are days when I think piano sounds ridiculously amazing and I wonder whose instrument this is. And other days when I feel like all the off-tune notes decide to rear their ugly heads at the same time. And it all depends on my mood and perception – because the human mind is just as dynamic as the instrument itself.
I found this disturbing and intriguing all at once. Those things that sounded wrong to me didn’t seem like little things. They seemed to be miles away from what I thought they should be, and prompted me to call my tuner. And to consider that they were 1) minute little things and 2) all in my head is a little bit disconcerting. Because either I have superhuman hearing, which I highly doubt or I’m going crazy which I’d rather not be at this young age.
And as if all this isn’t enough to sort through, there was something more at the end of the tuning. After the tuning, I gave it a go and well, it was different but it was in tune. And yet, it wasn’t quite right. I stumbled and fumbled for the vocabulary to explain what I was hearing and the best I could come up with at the time was that it sounded two-dimensional. That one couldn’t touch and feel the sound … lacked depth. Yeah, I still can’t describe it terribly well I suppose.
Considering what I did hear was not necessarily simply the note being wrong or out of tune, but more the remaining wavelengths and overtones that seemed off, there is another side to the complex mechanics of sound creation in a piano. I ended up at “Five Lectures on the Accoustics of the Piano”, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this. It talks about longitudinal frequencies, which are different from the transversal frequencies that a tuner changes. I will not pretend that I understand much of this quite yet – it will take many reads and a lot of catching before I’m even close. But, for what it’s worth, it gave me hope that it’s not all in my head. And the complexity of the piano in conjunction with things like the unique character of the wood, the player and the weather makes the perception of sound, a very intricate subject.
Every so often, I get reminded of how sheltered from “reality” my current profession makes me. Playing piano the entire day has it’s own challenges, but it’s also a lovely escape from the harsh drudgery of more stereotypical 9-5 jobs. The result of not really interacting with anyone other than composers sometimes has me a little bubble of idealism that can get unceremoniously popped from time to time.
This happened over the weekend. (If you follow me on Twitter, you’d see part of the rant there as well). I was supposed to have my piano tuned this weekend and my piano tuner unfortunately forgot my apartment number. Now, I live in an apartment building that offers a concierge service – someone to greet people, take packages for you etc. Naturally, he went to the concierge for assistance – telling them who he’d come for. The concierge were unable to help him and ultimately, the tuning had to be rescheduled.
When I went down to have a word, wondering why he didn’t make it to my apartment, things became a lot clearer. The person at the desk was unable to direct him to my apartment because apparently my name didn’t show up on their computer screen. They had the nerve to suggest I wasn’t on the lease. When I pointed out that I was on the lease, they just shrugged at their list’s inaccuracy. Furthermore, my tuner was off on the apartment number by one door. They didn’t try to call and ask if we were possibly expecting a tuner that day. Rather than apologise for the lack of service, the woman told me proudly that my tuner emailed me on the off chance that I would check my email during lunch time and waited thirty minutes before rescheduling.
So let me get this straight … she sat there and did nothing while he waited a full thirty minutes. This kind of incompetence just infuriated me. I was seething the entire day. This wasn’t a charity, she wasn’t volunteering to be there – it was her job. And there she was, proudly telling how she failed at it and how apparently she’s ok with that despite the inconvenience caused. How can people be this way?
The hubby, who has more experience restrained my anger and said “Welcome to management”. A lot of people in managerial jobs deal with this kind of incompetence and stupidity every single day – and me? Well, it just didn’t make sense in my world. Mozart and Chopin don’t let me get away with failing at anything … but the ‘real world’ can be so different, I suppose.