Learn piano online - Tonal effects

Learn piano online, discover how to produce tonal effects.

For days now, I have been struggling to get the tonal effects right to Beethoven’s ‘Adieu au Piano’ without much success. 

Frustrated, I took a break by visiting the Yamaha Piano Fair that was being held in town. Besides the gorgeous grand piano on exhibition, the main attraction was the piano concert. Sylvia was scheduled to play. An inspired rendition of Barcarolle (Chopin), Carnival Scenes From Vienna (Schumann) and Variations In B Minor (Szymanowski) were put on full display by her.

Watching Sylvia perform must have fired up my mirror neurons. Returning i my piano that night, my fingers pressed the keys in continuous fluidity uninterrupted by any mistakes. The tonal effects to a phrase in the piece I was learning that has eluded me for days miraculously began to present themselves.

"Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish" - John Quincy Adams. Conjuring up the tonal effects is by no means an easy task, albeit not impossible through patience and perseverance.

What is tone?
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  • What? - Tonal effects
  • Why? - Shade and gradation in tone color the music
  • How? - Loose wrists, Relaxed arms and hands. Good posture. Rested shoulders

What is tone anyway? “ A musical or vocal sound with reference to its pitch, quality and strength “ [reference: Oxford Dictionary of English @ Oxford University Press 2010, 2017]

A pianist’s skills in controlling the pitch, maintaining the quality and varying the strength of the sound he is producing on the piano determines the tonal effects.

How does one achieve this?

Observing Sylvia’s body movement at the piano gave me a clue as to how tonal effectsu are achieved.

She was sitting on the piano stool with her back straight. Even when she swayed a little bit to be in sync and fully immersed in the music, her posture remained straight.

The generator that is powering the music; her arms – frictionlessly floated through the air as her fingers danced from one key to the next producing a full tone on the piano as a result. A full tone is only possible when the hand is in a relaxed state, enabling loose wrists to move constantly, guiding the fingers over the keyboard of the piano before landing to hit the keys thus producing the intended tone.

Taking a closer look at how her shoulders were resting, I noticed they were always in their natural position. Together with the combination of the smooth movement of the arms, relaxed hands and loose wrists allow proper distribution of energy from the pianist through the keys of the piano – hence influencing the varying of the tone.

"A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence" - Leopold Stokowski. Sitting with her back straight maintaining good posture allows the pianist to paint brilliant pictures

Mirroring actions
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Transfixed, my gaze zoomed in on the agility of her fingers as they continued their graceful motions up and down the octaves on the piano. The fingers sank into the keybed producing the tone in its entirety, ample in sound.


  • What? - Watch other pianists perform
  • Why? - Put mirror neurons to work
  • How? - Attend live concerts, see videos

By using the fleshy area of the fingers to caress the keys of the piano and arms to manipulate their strength she could change and diversify the tonal effects.

In one of my articles titled “Grasping the rhythm”  I suggested that attending a live piano performance or concert can help improve your piano playing. Having benefited from watching Sylvia’s performance, I know for a certainty that this is true.

Moreover, there is a scientific explanation to it and for us piano students it is a stroke of good luck.

Humans are blessed with neurons in our brains that spark to life when we see someone else performing a certain act; be it playing the piano, picking up a cup of tea or kicking a ball. Our neurons mirror the action as though we were ourselves performing the act.

"Genius is nothing but a great aptitude for patience" - George Louis de Buffon. Sylvia acknowledging the crowd after an ingenious performance.

Grading the tone
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Maintaining the correct posture makes possible the proper distribution of energy required to influence tone. Components of the upper body such as the shoulders, arms and wrists work together forming a mechanical-like system which produces the tonal effects. The systems works best when its components are relaxed and without stress.

The pianists sense of listening is crucial for gradation of tone. A skilful pianist is able to differentiate the various tonal palettes and make adjustment to her play.

Put your built-in mirror neurons to work by watching other pianists perform.

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