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#1
Old 04-20-2003, 01:39 PM
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The piano: Percussion or string instrument?

I've heard different theories on this, but I wonder if the Straight Dope has the straight answer on whether the piano should be considered a percussion instrument or a stringed instrument.

On the one hand, it makes sound through one object striking another: a percussive sound.

On the other hand, it depends on the use of "strings" (wires) or varying lengths and sizes to make its sounds: a stringed instrument.

The reason I ask is, my daughters' school has put together an Orff Ensemble, which uses (it seems) all percussion instruments. I'm wondering if a piano could or could not be included in that ensemble.

So, what say the Dopers? Is the piano a stringed instrument or percussion? Or neither?
#2
Old 04-20-2003, 01:54 PM
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It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping! Stop, you're both right!

This is one of those things you could argue either way, but nearly every musician I've ever known has referred to a piano as a stringed instrument. It was developed from the harpsichord, which made it's delicate sound by plucking the stings when the appropriate key was struck.
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#3
Old 04-20-2003, 02:03 PM
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When I was in HS Jazz Band, I played piano and was considered part of the rhythm section. But then too were the guitar and bass player, so that just confuses the question, doesn't it?

In Concert Band, instruments like xylophone, bells, and chimes were in the percussion section. Since their sounding parts are arranged like a pianos, I'd go for calling the piano a percussion instrument. The little hammers striking the strings also define it as percussion.

What confused me was the flute. It was metal, like the trumpet or trombone, but was called a woodwind even though it didn't have a wooden reed.
#4
Old 04-20-2003, 02:11 PM
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As you say, it's both. My take on it, as a (former?) musician, is that the piano is a percussion instrument with some unusual characteristics. So, I'd say it certainly could be appropriate for this orchestra. This being GQ, the factual answer is that it is usually classed with the percussion instruments, if it isn't classed by itself.

This is just my take on it, and it is subject to debate, so maybe not appropriate for this forum, but I think the dividing line is the answer to the question of whether the instrument is struck or plucked/strummed/bowed. I don't think it matters whether you strike something directly, as with a xylophone, or indirectly, as with a piano. Nor do I think it matters whether what you strike is strings, steel bars, or stretched "skin". (So, yes, I consider the hammered dulcimer to be a percussion instrument, also, but with some of the same unusual characteristics as the piano.) But, this is really just MHO.
#5
Old 04-20-2003, 02:15 PM
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Seems awfully close to a harpsichord to me, which is a string. Harp implies string, as does chord.
Relies on string harmonics, which are unlike a drum because they have secondary nodes and can hold a note.
#6
Old 04-20-2003, 02:21 PM
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The definitive answer: according to the Grove Dictionary of Music it's a string (or stringed) instrument (or "chordophone"), falling into the "zither" subcategory which also includes dulcimers (which are also struck).
#7
Old 04-20-2003, 02:22 PM
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I had 8 years of classical piano training in my youth. According to everyone I learned from, it's a percussion instrument. And every time the subject comes up someone says "but it's got strings!" and the response is always yes, but it's percussion anyways because of the hammers.

This came from several music teachers and band teachers. I never heard anyone assert that it was a stringed instrument except for classmates who questioned the teacher.
#8
Old 04-20-2003, 02:34 PM
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Quote:
Originally posted by AWB
What confused me was the flute. It was metal, like the trumpet or trombone, but was called a woodwind even though it didn't have a wooden reed.
It has nothing to do with the reed and everything to do with the instrument itself. Up to the 19th century flutes (like clarinets, oboes, bassoons, etc.) were made of wood, but as the orchestra expanded wooden flutes couldn't carry over the rest of the instruments (especially the growing brass section) and were gradually replaced by the more strident metal (usually silver) version. Flutes (and some other woodwinds) have also been made from ivory and other materials.

You can still buy wooden flutes, although in performance you'll pretty much only see them in period instrument ensembles and small chamber groups. Some modern orchestral musicians do, however, use wooden headjoints with metal flutes, because they prefer the sound (or feel) of them.

That being said, the category is no longer based on what the instruments are made of and now included any instrument "whose air-column is set in vibration either by the impinging of a stream of air on an edge or by a reed"; the category is technically called "aerophones". So this includes not only flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons, but also saxophones (made of brass).

If Grove says it, it must be true.
#9
Old 04-20-2003, 03:26 PM
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Lets say this: the piano plays like a percussion instument, but sound is produced like a stringed intrument. The guitar is a stringed instrument, but you use a guitar pick in a percussive way, i suppose like a piano. My answer is: a bit of both.
#10
Old 04-20-2003, 04:16 PM
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A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a kid who was miserable in her piano lessons. I learned that the piano is both a percussive and stringed torture device....

Seriously, though, it is both, and perhaps uniquely so. But I would like to raise the secondary aspect of intonation as a basis for considering musical instruments.

In any non-percussive instrument, the note has to be shaped (or found, or created, however you care to phrase it) by the musician, working through and in tandem with the gross mechanics of the instrument. So with brass instruments (e.g., trumpet), you adjust the slides to tune the instrument before the performance. When playing, you have to obviously have to use the correct fingerings to hit the notes, but working the valves properly does not ensure good intonation or even clean attacks (and stops) on the notes; for that, you still have to maintain the correct embouchure of the lips and tongue.

I've never played a woodwind, but my understanding is that the general principle applies to their instruments as well; although the mechanics (blowing through a moistened reed vs. buzzing into a mouthpiece) are quite different.

Perhaps someone with experience playing a stringed instrument can comment on the challenges of maintaining proper intonation when fingering the strings on a violin, viola, cello, etc.

Now, contrast that with the experience of playing the piano, where the one thing the pianist really doesn't have to worry about is intonation. (Once the piano is properly tuned in the first place, that is.) I can assure those without piano experience that the experience of playing piano is very much a percussive one. The player concentrates on striking (and releasing) the correct keys correctly (hard/loud vs. soft/softly). The challenges of striking the correct combinations of notes as musically as possible is the compensating difficulty of an instrument on which playing "in tune" is not a concern.

On a bit of a tangent -- although this may stand to be corrected by someone more knowledgable, it's my general understanding that it is the way a piano sounds when a note is attacked that, more than any other aspect, defines the characteristic sounds of various piano brands. Yamaha grands and baby grands have a reputation for having a "brighter," "cleaner" (or, derisively, more "plinky") sound than other more traditional-sounding piano manufacturers, whose pianos have the quality of having softer, more muted (or, derisively, "muddier") note shaping.

And correct me if I'm wrong on this, but didn't the advent of digital recording and CDs shift (if only temporarily, for the first decade or so) the classical recording industry in favor of those pianists whose playing styles emphasized the clean, precise attack (and who often chose to record on those bright-sounding Yamahas) -- resulting in a wave of classical piano albums that stood, collectively, as a revision of the muddier, comparatively muted sounding recordings of old? [O.K., end of tangent]

But if the piano seems on balance to be percussive from the player's perspective -- whether playing a Yamaha or not -- I can understand why it seems more like a stringed instrument from the listener's perspective. The piano has a timbre arguably more akin to other stringed instruments than to that of the percussive, woodwind, or brass, particularly during the sustained part of the notes. And certainly, the balance of the sound of a piano is in the sustained duration of the notes, beyond the initial fraction-of-a-second bite at the beginning of each.

There's another musical aspect worth considering, too, in the ability to sustain and vary the dynamics and intonation of a note. String, brass, and woodwind instruments all have a pronounced ability to carry a note at full strength for a long period of time (well, several bars, anyway). But consider the actual sound of a piano note: you have the initial "attack," followed by a potentially long fade (sometimes sustained by use of the sustain pedal). The piano note is loudest at its inception and its intonation is fixed; by comparison, one of the great freedoms enjoyed by the non-percussive classes of instruments is the ability to tinker with the dynamics and even intonation of a note after it is first played.

******
[self-spoofing of pedantic tendencies follows]

I would like to offer, none too seriously, a final point of observation in the debate over the classification of the piano as percussive v. stringed. I call it the "Don Martin Non-Musical Catastrophic Full-Bodied Application," in which the piano -- be it regular-sized, baby grand, or gloriously full-grand -- is depicted by that esteemed late "MAD Magazine" caricaturist most typically in the moment of its being precariously transported.

Most typically, said piano is being raised to or lowered from an elevated or walk-up apartment (or perhaps educational institution) in a pronouncedly urban setting (e.g., New York City). Said piano is being relocated by means of a none-too-trustworthy mechanical apparatus, such as a pulley or perhaps winching device, which is operated by a couple of -- variously -- blue-collar, under-educated, uncouth, unalert, inattentive, posterior-scratching, underwear-hitching, yawning, belching, or girl-watching morons.

The moment of crisis, inevitably, is signalled by the introduction of the oft-put-upon "Fester Bestertester" character. Said Mr. Bestertester will be, say, strolling along the sidewalk, happily minding his own business, inconguous and oblivious to the grand piano straining its pulley ropes, some fifty (or 500) feet above.

One should not be surprised if Mr. Bestertester should be suffering from a mild medical malady -- say, a bump on the noggin or a painfully ingrown toenail -- and may even be on his way to the doctor's office at that very moment. One shouldn't even be shocked if the star-crossed Mr. Bestertester tarries unexpectedly for a fateful moment (to pick up a nickel, say), while under the penumbral shadow of said piano (which, like many an immigrant to NYC, is yearning to breathe free), far overhead. Rest assured, only at that moment will the piano, accidentally and stupidly loosed from its bonds, be abused in the most percussive way imaginable. To say nothing of the abuse that will immanently be visited upon Mr. Fester Bestertester...

[/pedant]
#11
Old 04-20-2003, 04:21 PM
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I'd also say it was percussion if I had to choose, but the <i>practical</i> answer in your case is;

Do you want a piano in the band? Then it's percussion.
=)
#12
Old 04-20-2003, 04:32 PM
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Neither "Percussion" nor "String". It belongs into that category which I like to call "Piano". ;-))))
#13
Old 04-20-2003, 04:38 PM
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It's a keyboard instrument.
#14
Old 04-20-2003, 04:40 PM
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And of course, the immortal:

Quote:
Q: What sound is produced by a piano dropped down a mine shaft?

A: A flat minor
Wikipedia calls the piano, along with guitars, banjos, mandolins, and orchestral stringed instruments, a chordophone, as opposed to idiophone, membranophone, aerophone, and electrophone. As a traditional category, it falls into either string, percussion, or keyboard instrument, depending on what aspect of its music-producing mechanism you care to emphasize.
#15
Old 04-20-2003, 04:53 PM
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Music jokes, eh?

Q: What did the musician shout to the guy in front of the steamroller?

A: You better C sharp or you'll B flat!
#16
Old 04-20-2003, 10:26 PM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Polycarp
Wikipedia calls the piano, along with guitars, banjos, mandolins, and orchestral stringed instruments, a chordophone, as opposed to idiophone, membranophone, aerophone, and electrophone.
To be terribly precise, Wikipedia doesn't call it that; the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system calls it that, and Wikipedia just reports it, in addition to the traditional instrument classification.
#17
Old 04-21-2003, 12:25 AM
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12 years of formal Royal Conservatory piano training.

I've always heard it refered to as a percussion instrument so that's how I've always considered it, strings or no strings.

However, a pretty good arguement can be made either way.

So, to sum up: I dunno.
#18
Old 04-21-2003, 01:16 AM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Q.E.D.
Music jokes, eh?

Q: What did the musician shout to the guy in front of the steamroller?

A: You better C sharp or you'll B flat!
Q: Why do pipers walk while playing?

A: They're trying to get away from the noise.
#19
Old 04-21-2003, 01:27 AM
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Think about it this way. If you took one of the hammers from a piano and used it to hit the strings of a guitar, would that make the guitar a percussion instrument? Is the hammer dulicmer a percussion instrument?

Instruments are classified according to their primary means of producing sound.

Percussion instruments are membranophones (with a vibrating flat surface, like drums) and ideophones (with a three-dimensional vibrating body, like a xylophone)

Instruments with vibrating strings, regardless of how the vibration is set in motion, are chordophones. Like the piano.
#20
Old 04-21-2003, 01:28 AM
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A piano is a particle that sometimes acts like a wave.
#21
Old 04-21-2003, 06:32 AM
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Quote:
Originally posted by scotandrsn
(with a three-dimensional vibrating body, like a xylophone)
...Or trumpet, unless you'd say that's a flat though pretty bent surface...
#22
Old 04-21-2003, 08:28 AM
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Quote:
Percussion instruments are membranophones (with a vibrating flat surface, like drums) and ideophones (with a three-dimensional vibrating body, like a xylophone)

Instruments with vibrating strings, regardless of how the vibration is set in motion, are chordophones. Like the piano.
Well, that's the Hornbostel-Sachs system; there's also a less scientific but traditional and well-known system under which the piano is called a percussion instrument. So it's all a matter of which system you use.
#23
Old 04-21-2003, 08:58 AM
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Like in any classification question, the answer is "by whom and for what purpose?"

From a physics point of view, yes, the sound is produced by striking an object, rather than blowing air vibrating itself or a reed, or a horsehair bow setting up vibrations in a string, though the vibrating object in a piano is a string. So you can pick one and support it.

From a musical (listening/arranging) point of view, a piano is an instrument clearly capable of playing a melody, therefore not very similar to most percussion instruments; though at the same time, it is capable of (and often used for) playing chords and accompaniament, which for some musical forms makes it reasonable to put it in the rythm section (just as a bass guitar is part of the rythm section in a rock band).

From a musician (playing) point of view, a piano has very little in common with either percussion instruments or any other string instrument (guitar or violin families), and is most like playing a harpischord, organ or keyboard-controlled electronic synthesizer. They're all (to a player) part of the keyboard family (which isn't to say they're all played exactly the same, any more than a violin and stand-up bass are played the same).

For the OP's question, though, I think the piano, as a melodic instrument, probably wouldn't fit in an all-percussion ensemble, but it's up to the vision of the group's organizers, and what they want to do.
#24
Old 04-22-2003, 01:52 AM
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Thanks to everyone for some great answers. Sorry I let y'all talk into the wind for a while; real life intruded and I had to finish a Flash presentation for my wife. And cook dinner.

Anyway, the responses came down mostly as I suspected; the piano can be considered both a stringed and a percussion instrument, depending on how one looks at it. I think that of all the distinctions made, The Scrivener's makes the most sense to me. A player might see a piano as a percussion instrument, because they play it as one, while a listener hears it as more of stringed instrument. I can buy that.

And in the "Hey Maw, I lurned sumthin!" department, I wasn't aware of the membranophone/ideophone/chordophone distinction. That's a helpful system for classifying instruments, and I'll have to keep it in mind.

As for the Orff Ensemble, it occurred to me that the instruments used are chosen because they're easily-learned, and can be picked up with very little fore-knowledge. They serve as a good introduction to music; being able to play without as much of the work that goes into the piano or other more difficult instruments. So, even if a piano is a percussive instrument, it probably doesn't fit into the philosophy behind an Orff Ensemble.

Well, again, thanks everyone. I appreciate all the thoughtful responses (and the funny ones too -- "A flat minor," heh).
#25
Old 04-22-2003, 09:14 PM
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Well, everyone considers a xylophone a percussion instrument, and yet it can play melodies and cords.

What if you hooked up a device that allowed you to play a xylophone by means of a keyboard? Would the xylophone stop being a percussive instrument?

What about carillon bells? They're percussive, no? And yet, there exists carillons which are played through a keyboard mechanism.

The definition of a percussion instrument is that sound is created through striking the music-making apparatus. A string that is struck is percussive. A string that is bowed or picked is not.

A pipe that is struck is percussive (chimes). A pipe with a column of resonating air flowing through it (organ) is not percussive.

The piano is a percussion instrument. The harpsichord ain't. And if you think they sound the same, you need to go back to Music Appreciation 101.

Peace.
-------------
C'mere, let me see if your skull is a percussive instrument.
#26
Old 04-23-2003, 07:48 AM
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Quote:
Originally posted by moriah
What if you hooked up a device that allowed you to play a xylophone by means of a keyboard?
You'd have a celesta, that's what.

Celestas are idiophones, pianos are chordophones. The distinction is largely in what makes the noise.
#27
Old 04-24-2003, 01:10 AM
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"The piano is a wussy instrument, but playing it doesn't make you one." --Ben Folds

Is it a string instrument if you play it by throwing a piano stool at the keys from the top of a speaker stack?
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