Why is a piano like a calculator?

Well, if you press the right keys it will give you the right answer. [That’s not a joke by the way – I hope I’m funnier than that!]

The fact is, a calculator is a really handy bit of kit; quite often we can find ourselves using it to add up stuff which we could readily do in our heads, but frankly it’s just easier to get the calculator to take the strain from our brain.

It’s the same with sight-singing. Asked to sing a major third above a given note, it’s all too easy to say that’s too difficult to work out and reach for the piano. But I think we can work it out. It’s like mental arithmetic. In order to do this we need to do a few sums in our head using our inner hearing. Perhaps I imagine singing a major scale to myself and stop on the third note.  Or maybe I sing the first two notes of ‘While shepherds watched’, knowing that this also makes a major third.

I sometimes wonderKeyboard Keys Close Up whether children think that pitching notes is some sort of unfathomable mystery! How should I know where that note is? Well in maths we have systems for working things out, which we are hopefully taught from an early age, and which we then have drummed into us for years to come. 12 x 3 = 36. I happen to know that one now, but if I do forget it I have various strategies for working it out; on my fingers maybe [I call that Mostyn maths, but that’s another story], or in columns on a piece of paper or visualised in my head. So when I ask someone to sing the A above middle C, I’m not just expecting them to pluck it out of the air. Someone with perfect pitch can. Or else someone who knows their theory knows that C up to A is a major 6th, and remembers that’s the tune to ‘The day thou gavest’ – they can do pitch it too. Or someone who can sing up the major scale, rather like moving up successive positions on a number line; they can find it too.

But someone who has only ‘worked it out’ by playing the A on the piano and then singing it, what of them? Well they didn’t work it out. They cheated! They used a calculator in the non-calculator paper!

Mental arithmetic takes practice, and as a core subject our pupils spend a great deal of time each week crunching numbers in some form or other. Hopefully in their heads, which encourages them to develop their skills of retaining and retrieving information, which is of course a transferable skill. In contrast, how much time do our musicians spend doing the equivalent mental ‘arithmetic’, developing their inner hearing skills? Our instruments, be it flute, piano or guitar, need technical mastery of course, but I think we need to be wary of spending all of our time ‘tapping in the data’ and enjoying the instant answers, and perhaps need to spend more time working on the real stuff.


2 responses to “Why is a piano like a calculator?

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I am a trained Kodaly teacher working in the junior department at Monmouth School and I don’t really understand why similar approaches are not being used in both state and private education. I enjoy reading the insightful articles on your website.

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