Piano Teacher Islington N19

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How metal created Romantic


Have you ever used an old typewriter before? Before they went out of use, you'd have found them in offices everywhere. When the squarish buttons - each with a rounded depression in the middle - were activated by the touch of the fingers, they initiated long metal legs bearing letters or numbers at the end to extend across the middle of the machine, hit a ribbon of ink and hence produce an impression of a character on the paper, before quickly retracting to get out of the way of the next approaching metal leg. And when you got to the end of the page, you hit the carriage return lever to reset for the next line.

The weight of the characters made on the paper varied according to the pressure on the keys. Press a key a little too lightly, and you would end up with a faint character - perhaps a "g" that ended up looking like an "a". But that did not mean that the way to go about typing would be to hit the keys really hard; do that and you would get a strong bold print, but your typing speed would be impaired and you would also get wrist ache.

When typewriters were superceded by computers, there was more consistency in the printed text - there were no characters that looked darker or lighter than others. The printer produced them all the same, unless we specifically made some bolder than others. But it is not just the finished product that changed. The way we went about achieving that altered too. With a typewriter, you needed to have a written draft, or know what you were going to type more or less as you set down to do it; or you might have had to think on the go pretty quick. Otherwise you would have spent the majority of your time unproductively, trying to produce a final copy first time, and avoiding liberal use of Tippex.

But with the word processor, you could type the text in first, then make any revisions at a later stage, because you could now save the work and keep returning to it. And when you were satisfied with what you had typed, you could look at the formatting before printing it out. Computers now allow us to quickly insert images such as graphs or tables within the text and format the presentation easily. In the past, the inclusion of images on text would have necessitated leaving a space on the page, then making multiple tries at the Xerox maching at reducing or enlarging an image on a separate sheet, cutting it out and then photocopying the text and image together onto one sheet.

The improvements in print technology have not only changed the processes but also the products.

The typewriter, as an instrument, has similarities with the piano. Press a key, and a leg hits the ink ribbon and the page. On the piano, the mechanism is similar - you depress the keys and the hammers inside hit the strings. For slightly softer and muted sounds, stepping the left pedal brings a layer of felt between the hammers and the strings of the piano. And just as the improvements in printing influenced the product, developments in piano production had significant effect on the kind of music that was being produced. In the Classical era, when pianos were still in their infancy, keyboard music featured broken chord patterns in the left hand. Arguably the greatest technological improvement in the late eighteenth century was the use of a metal frame instead of a wooden one to hold the strings in place. Strings on earlier pianos were mounted on wooden frames, and the disadvantage of this was that any significant amount of pressure on the keys would translate indirectly to the strings and the bolts that held them in place in the wood. Play too many notes at the same time, and over a prolonged period you might find cracks in the frame, where the bolts to tension the strings were fixed, and this would then render the tuning of the piano almost an impossible task.

On later pianos, the strings were strung on a metal frame that was able to bear more pressure. This completely changed the landscape of piano music. We often associate a Romantic sound with chords, sometimes played emphatically for long passages; this was only possible with a piano with a inner metal frame that was more resistant to pressure on the strings. On wooden-backed pianos of the classical era, such music could not be played. Hence music of the classical era was comparatively lighter in touch, a running accompaniment in the left hand, and in terms of dynamics, less extreme.

Improvements in instrument technology have always affected music. Just as the invention and use of the electric guitar changed the face of folk and rock music, the hammer action, along with the metal frame, were key phases that impacted strongly on the type of music that was written and performed.

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