Things I Refuse to Accept, issue #1

Welcome to a new “series” I may or may not continue after this entry.  It’s about things that are regarded as fact that I may have to acknowledge, but refuse to accept.

Piano as a percussion instrument.

If you don’t believe me, google it.  I’m not even going to provide a link because it’s that simple to find.  When I was in school, we learned about the different kinds of instruments.  There were the wood winds, like clarinets and flutes and saxophones.  They have a reed or reeds on the mouthpiece (the flute being the black sheep, but they used to be made of wood and are keyed like other wood winds).  Next, there were the brass, like trombones and trumpets and euphoniums.  They were usually constructed with brass and used valves and slides to make their notes when the player blew into a mouthpiece.  Next, you have percussion, from which you use sticks and mallets to hit something to get sound.  Lastly, you have the string instruments, which produce their sounds from the vibration of strings.  The piano was always part of that last group because, well, it has strings in it.  That’s what you hear when you press a key–a hammer hitting some strings.

Well apparently between the years of 1991 and 2003 there was some controversy surrounding this in the “We Categorize Musical Instruments” community.  Piano is now considered to be percussion and not string because, when you play it, you hit a key that triggers a hammer that hits a string, and all that hitting defines it as a cousin to the drums and not a cousin to the guitar.

I completely disagree with this.  Here’s why.

As I learned the classification of instruments, I understood their separation into families as “this is where its sound comes from.”  Wood winds get the bulk of their unique sounds from the vibrations of wooden reeds in the mouthpiece.  Hence, woodwinds need wood.  Brass instruments are also sometimes called labrosones, which means the sound comes from vibrations of the player’s lips.  They are therefore unified in how sound is produced in them.  This is even MORE true when it comes to string instruments.  They produce their sound by the vibrations of strings.  Simple enough?  We’ve now established that STRINGS need STRINGS.  Lastly, there’s percussion.  The first definition of “percussion” from my app on my iPod Touch is, “the striking of one body against another with some sharpness; impact; blow.”  Therefore, it would stand to reason that a percussion instrument’s sound comes from impact.

“Now hold on a second,” you’re saying.  “A piano’s sound DOES come from impact–when the hammer hits the strings.”  I will concede some overlap between the two, but notice that a piano’s sound comes from its strings, and the impact is what makes them vibrate.  We don’t place mandolins and cellos into different families because you use fingers/picks vs. a bow.  Other percussion instruments are usually objects designed to be hit, like wood blocks or a snare drum or a vibraphone, and the sound is the impact and not what is being hit.

“Now hold on another second,” you’re saying.  “That’s not entirely true.  It is the vibrations from drum skins and snares that produce a snare drum’s sound, and the vibrations from the metal in a vibraphone that produces its sound, so, by your logic, none of those instruments should be percussion, either.”  And to that I say, “Shut up–this is my rant.”

I’ve seen and/or heard of a new classification of instruments, keyboards or keyboarded, due to the existence of pipe organs, electronic instruments such as synthesizers and electric pianos, and harpsichords, etc.  It stands to reason that they should all be related to each other, and to the piano, as a trumpet is to a tuba, or a guitar is to a violin.  I’ve not seen this classification used extensively, and only did see it when I was in college like 9 years ago (and was too lazy to look up anything further while writing this), but consider me an advocate for that classification.  It was weird in second grade when they told me a piano was a string instrument, but that made less sense than it being a percussion instrument.  So let’s give it its own family.  After all, I would suggest that the defining traits of an instrument family would include transferability, meaning that if someone learns one instrument in a certain family, that knowledge should assist them in learning a different instrument in the same family.  I know that saxophone and clarinet are very similar, except that one hand’s key’s are upside down when on the other.  Moving around a fretboard on a guitar helps you understand the grid of a fretboard when you pick up a banjo or viola, even though the tuning is backwards.  You may think that trombone and trumpet are pretty different, but in actuality they’re very similar in that holding certain valve combinations produces the same range of notes as putting the trombone slide in a certain position.  And find me a drummer that can play a full set but wouldn’t be able to figure out the tympani.  Sure, maybe the xylophone would take some more work, but there’s a lot of arm usage and proper form involved, too.  In light of all of that, I rest my case that pianos and other keyboarded instruments should be placed into their own family, because if you can play the piano, you can play the harpsichord, and you’re well on  your way to understanding the organ or a synthesizer.

So we should drop all of this “percussion” nonsense.  I wouldn’t consider a pianist a percussionist anymore than I’d consider a drummer an organist.


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