Excerpt on Creating Rhythm at the Piano

Rhythm at the Piano (Playing in Time)

Contrary to popular thinking, rhythm at the piano is not a physical dynamic in the body that is transferred to the keyboard, but is rather an aural dynamic that is created at the keyboard solely in the pianist’s ear. Rhythm at the piano as a physical dynamic in the body separate from the piano has no relevance to piano playing; indeed, it is more an issue for the dancer than the pianist. This is because the human mind experiences rhythm principally as sound and only marginally as motion, music being pure sound, and dance, by contrast, being motion that actually derives its rhythm from sound, i.e., from music or percussion. This premise can be demonstrated at any dance event by simply stopping the music and watching the dancing, like a machine coming unplugged, instantly come to a halt. The premise can also be demonstrated on a personal level by first making a rapping motion with one’s fist in the air, and then making the same motion by rapping one’s knuckles on a table or desk. Until one HEARS THE SOUND created by the motion, it is impossible to tell if the motion is perfectly rhythmic or not!

Rhythm at the piano, then, in its most basic sense of playing in time is created by 1) depressing the keys in impulses and by 2) spacing these impulses at regular intervals in time. And that is all there is to it. The body’s only role in creating rhythm is in the first part of this dynamic: namely, in depressing the keys for the purpose of producing tone in quick but measured accelerating muscular impulses, and then in moving as rapidly as possible to reposition itself in a state of relaxed readiness to depress the next keys in impulses. The rhythm itself—that is, the actual timing of the length of the intervals between impulses—takes place not in the body but in the brain. This applies to the playing of all notes, both on beat and off. Rhythm at the piano, therefore, is not a product of some mysterious physical dynamic in the body, but is rather the result of a succession of MENTAL DECISIONS to time the depression of the keys, one after another, in a regular manner!

This being true, the assertion of some theorists that the real source of rhythm at the piano is in the pianist’s torso or upper arms—or in any other exclusive part of the body, in all its clumsiness—is completely warrantless. The graceful movements of a skilled pianist are not the source of his rhythm, but are rather the result of the efficiency of motion with which he moves to exactly the right keys and then plays them at exactly the right time. Thus the observer who thinks the pianist’s graceful movements are creating the rhythm mistakes cause for effect. The truth is that almost any part of the body can move in a rhythmical fashion, especially if the motion produces a sound that tells THE EAR that that particular part of the body is moving rhythmically, i.e., at regular intervals! Anyone, for example, who has sat down at a piano, depressed the damper pedal, and waggled a finger repeatedly on a single key for a few seconds knows that a perfectly captivating rhythm can be created with the finger alone. And Mozart once joked that he could depress a piano key expressively with his nose! Even wind and string players play the individual notes—and thus create rhythm—principally with their fingers and only marginally with their lungs and bows. Likewise the singer, who forms the notes not with his lungs but with his mouth and tongue.

Setting the Tempo—and Departures Therefrom

In creating rhythm at the piano the pianist also sets the tempo or speed of the rhythmic flow. So-called rhythmic subtleties—rubatos, ritards, accelerandos, etc.—are really, strictly speaking, changes not in rhythm but in tempo done for expressive effect. Like the creation of the rhythm itself, these changes in tempo are the result not of bodily mechanics but of purely mental decisions. This means that at the moment of key depression the pianist makes the decision whether the interval between the beginning of that particular note and the beginning of the next note will be in tempo or at expressive variance with the tempo. For the skilled player, this is an independent decision that is made at every single interval in the piece.

Control of the Interval

The interval in time from the beginning of one note to the beginning of the next note (or rest) can also be considered, quite simply, as the true VALUE of the note being played, as the playing of the second note also constitutes the precise end of the first note. And it is the control that the pianist exercises in giving that note its musically optimal value, as opposed merely to its mechanically designated value (e.g., whole note, half note, quarter note, etc.), that can differentiate a poor or perfunctory performance from a potentially sublime one. To achieve this musically optimal value—which for any given note is the value assigned to it by its role in a LIVING musical line (this can mean “neglecting”, shorting, or rushing some notes just as much as “favoring”, stressing, or elongating others!)—one must have the feeling of supreme control! This means, among other things, that one should never feel rushed, no matter what the tempo. On the contrary, one should have the feeling when playing, even when playing fast, of having all the time in the world, as if at every single interval in time between one key depression and the next one could chose, right then and there, to rush, to play in time, or to linger for an eternity on a single note. The secret of achieving this control, both physical and mental, is. . .”


[Excerpted from Chapter 3E entitled “Creating Rhythm: The Impulse and the Intervals in Time Between Impulses” from Richard Brodie’s book, SECRETS OF PIANO MASTERY, Revised 2011 Edition]