Sticks and Stones and Other Stuff

IN 1940, composer John Cage came up with a solution for getting a wide variety of percussive timbres without filling up a stage with instruments.

Fig. 1 I’ve prepared two notes; one with a golf tee, and the other with inexpensive speaker cable.

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A beginner’s guide to the prepared piano


IN 1940, composer John Cage came up with a solution for getting a wide variety of percussive timbres without filling up a stage with instruments. By weaving objects within the strings of a grand piano, he was able to create sounds that resembled wood blocks, gongs, and marimbas, as well as new and unusual sonorities. Thus, the prepared piano was born.

Although the concept may seem esoteric, it’s very easy to prepare a piano, and the resulting sounds are great for adding a melodic, rhythmic, or atmospheric element to a song. Preparations can be used to isolate a string’s harmonic, dampen a note so that it sounds percussive, or create a complex, belllike timbre. In fact, getting unusual sounds is as easy as placing a golf tee between two strings (see Figure 1).

Where Do I Begin? Start by using objects from around the house, such as screws, bolts, pencils, erasers, dimes, and packing tape. Note that the upper notes of the piano have three unison strings for each pitch, whereas the lowest notes have one and two. Some objects work best when there are three strings. For example, you can weave a dime between the three strings in the middle register of the piano to get a gong-like sound. Put a large, rubber eraser between two of the lower bass notes to get a percussive sound with a clear harmonic above the fundamental pitch.

A preparation object’s mass and location on the string help determine the resulting sound. Once you find a timbre you like, try moving the object along the string to see how the sound changes.

If I’m in a hurry, I alternately install golf tees and 1-inch sections of plastic-coated speaker cable in the middle and upper registers. The former gives me complex ringing tones, while the latter gives me a pitched thunk. In the highest octave or two, I’ll cover the strings with 3M shipping tape, which yields pitched woodblock-like sounds.

If I have more time, I will place some screws or bolts in the middle register. To get a tambourine-like sonority, place the bolt through a washer before setting it between the strings. Be sure to leave room for the washer to bounce around when the note is struck.

Preparations work best on grand pianos, because the objects don’t fall out. If all you have is an upright piano, you can get great sounds by weaving dimes between strings, or by securing bolts and screws with a nut on the other side of the strings. (Before you try this, please read the section at the end of this article.)

Infinite Sustain Once you’re working inside a piano, you’ll quickly find ways to excite the strings without using the keyboard. For example, you can pluck the strings with fingers or a guitar pick, or tap them with a yarn or rubber mallet. You can also hold down the sustain pedal and scrape on the metal crossbars or frame with a moistened finger, a rubber ball on a chopstick, or the fl at end of a drum stick or mallet handle: The strings will resonate based on the harmonics you get from the material you’re scraping with. With a little practice, you can get a ghostly wail that rings for half a minute or more.

If you’re looking for a sustained pitch, there are a couple of ways to bow the string. The easiest is to rosin a couple of long strands of horse hair from a violin or cello bow, weave them under the strings you want to play, hold down the sustain pedal, then drag the hair from side to side across the string. Getting the hairs under the strings takes a moment, so if you need to do this in the middle of a piece, weave them around the strings ahead of time, but place the hairs at the far end of the piano string until you need them. Rosined fishing line also works well for bowing.

Another common way to bow the strings requires a wooden Popsicle stick or coffee stirrer. Glue short lengths of horse hair or fishing line around the bottom of the stick, parallel to its length. Then, while pushing down the sustain pedal, quickly brush the stick up and down the string. The resulting sound is more percussive, but it doesn’t require you to set things up ahead of time. I’ve also seen pianists bow the notes with rosined sticks to get this effect.

My favorite way to get sustained sounds is by using an Ebow, a battery operated device designed by Heet Sound for use on guitar. The Ebow works the best on the middle register, where there are three strings per note. Push down on the sustain pedal to lift the dampers, then gently press the Ebow down on the outer two strings of a note. The center string will start singing almost immediately.

If you need to locate specific pitches while you’re playing inside the piano, but the string layout confuses you, it’s easy to mark the notes. Simply cut little squares of masking tape, write the note names you want on each one, and place them near the corresponding string. (Be sure not to put them on the string itself.) By marking the strings ahead of time, you’ll quickly identify each pitch in the heat of the performance.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T If done correctly, piano preparation doesn’t damage the instrument or put it out of tune. Leaving the piano as you found it should be your goal.

Concert pianists (and many piano tuners) will tell you that it’s never a good idea to touch the strings; oils from your fingers get left on the strings and attract dirt, which holds moisture and eventually oxidizes, leading to corrosion. So don’t be surprised if some piano owners are reluctant to let you near the interior of their instrument. Respect this, because a piano is a major investment.

However, there are plenty of people who don’t mind if you play their instrument like a game of “Operation.” Before you lift the lid of a high-quality piano, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, be sure that the material with which you prepare the strings is softer than the strings themselves. Avoid metal objects that may damage or mark the strings. Although this seems restrictive, you can get a lot of mileage from wood, rubber, felt, and plastic. When I inquire about preparing a piano for a concert or recording, I pull out my non-metal objects fi rst, just to assuage any fears the piano owner may have. However, if the piano is a beater, I’m happy to put the bolts and screws into action.

The second rule is to press down the sustain pedal before inserting anything between the strings. This keeps the damper felt from being damaged as you spread the strings apart with a preparation.

Finally, when selecting materials to place between strings, be sure the object’s diameter is similar to that of the distance between the strings, so that the preparation doesn’t inordinately increase the string tension or damage the instrument.

Once you start exploring the interior of a piano, you’ll find a seemingly endless universe of sound. And with some creative use of effects and editing, don’t be surprised if you wind up with a hefty library of unique samples.