Reality whispers

9 November 2020
9 Nov 2020
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

I wrote this piece while listening to Ludovico Einaudi’s “Day 7: Ascent”. If you can, I’d suggest you read the rest of this post while listening to the piece, and looking out for the sounds I describe. You’ll hear the words as you hear the sounds the words are speaking of, and I think you’ll find the whole experience much more worthwhile.

Not many people know that a piano has many voices.

There is, of course, the voice of the musical tone, the resonant note that rings out from the string that’s hit when the pianist strikes a key. This voice sings clearly. Sometimes, the voice is mellow, ringing hollow like a cry in a castle. Other times, it’s bright, like a songbird ascending into the sky. But regardless of the timbre of the note, a ringing string of a piano rings a consonant note. A pitch reverberating across the room, filling space in uniform tone.

But a piano also has other voices, hidden in the details.

When a key is pressed, there is the whisper of wood brushing against wood as the lever mechanism that levitates the key shifts against the levers of its neighboring keys. This is a quiet, gentle kind of shhhh, letting us know that there is motion in the machine, even before the key makes contact with the string.

Once a key is hit, the waves of sound fill up the piano’s acoustic chamber. Sometimes, the sound escapes all at once. But other times, like pouring syrup out from a tall cup, the last little echo of sound remains in the chamber, and drips out more slowly. And when you strike a note, let go, and listen carefully, you can hear the faint ringing of echos that didn’t quite make it out in the first wave slowly leak out of the piano later, eager to be heard.

At the release of a key, the wood-and-cloth lever mechanisms that hold the key in place bounce back from its pressed position. When this happens, there’s a slight bounce as the key arrives back into its resting place. If you listen carefully, when your finger leaves a key, you can hear a faint bump as the key knocks itself back into place, ready to be struck again.

All this time, through all these sounds, there’s also action happening underneath the keys, in the pedals. When a pedal is pressed down, if you listen closely, you can hear the same brush of the lever mechanisms moving against its pivots. You can hear a faint whoosh as the pads that mute the strings are lifted and the strings are set free to vibrate all their small micro-vibrations absorbed from the atmosphere. When you let go of the pedal, you can hear the same bump as the pedal knocks itself back into place.

All of this happens – all of these sounds are whispered – underneath the ringing, singing musical line that soars above and fills the room.

Most people, even people who love the music they hear from a piano, miss these sounds underneath the song. But these whispers of the instrument are part of the music. They remind us that the instrument singing the song is physical, made of wood and cloth and metal that we can touch, and that can brush up against each other to make new sounds of their own. It turns out, the piano does not simply sing. It also whispers. And in the whispers we find surprising detail that both grounds us in the physical reality, and elevates the art that reverberates from within the instrument to beyond.

I suspect it isn’t just the music of a piano where we find whispers of detail hiding underneath a colorful first impression. There are whispering details everywhere, in every corner of our day to day experience. There is detail that whispers in the faint aftertaste of a cold drink of water, in the perfume of a freshly brewed Earl Grey Tea, in the way a pen scratches against the surface of paper, in the texture and temperature of carpet underneath your feet.

These finer details of reality usually go unnoticed, buried underneath a cascade of more colorful, more resonant, louder feelings that overwhelm our senses. But reality holds a surprising amount of detail, and if we just slow down a bit in the course of our days and listen a little more carefully, we might be able to make out the way reality whispers, the finer grains and hidden details revealing themselves right in front of us.

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