Perception

Yesterday, my piano finally got tuned. And the experience was very interesting since it led me to a topic I had never heard of or considered before yesterday: psychoaccoustics. This isn’t the science of sound – it is the study of the perception of sound. And this distinction became all too clear to me yesterday.

The entire reason for me wanting to have my piano tuned yesterday was because I heard things that just sounded plain wrong. I heard twangs and wobbles. And certain octaves didn’t sound like they were quite octaves any more. The question the tuner and I were faced with yesterday, is how much of this was real and how much of it was in my head.

And here’s where the perception part comes in. There are days when I think piano sounds ridiculously amazing and I wonder whose instrument this is. And other days when I feel like all the off-tune notes decide to rear their ugly heads at the same time. And it all depends on my mood and perception – because the human mind is just as dynamic as the instrument itself.

I found this disturbing and intriguing all at once. Those things that sounded wrong to me didn’t seem like little things. They seemed to be miles away from what I thought they should be, and prompted me to call my tuner. And to consider that they were 1) minute little things and 2) all in my head is a little bit disconcerting. Because either I have superhuman hearing, which I highly doubt or I’m going crazy which I’d rather not be at this young age.

And as if all this isn’t enough to sort through, there was something more at the end of the tuning. After the tuning, I gave it a go and well, it was different but it was in tune. And yet, it wasn’t quite right. I stumbled and fumbled for the vocabulary to explain what I was hearing and the best I could come up with at the time was that it sounded two-dimensional. That one couldn’t touch and feel the sound … lacked depth. Yeah, I still can’t describe it terribly well I suppose.

Considering what I did hear was not necessarily simply the note being wrong or out of tune, but more the remaining wavelengths and overtones that seemed off, there is another side to the complex mechanics of sound creation in a piano. I ended up at “Five Lectures on the Accoustics of the Piano”, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this. It talks about longitudinal frequencies, which are different from the transversal frequencies that a tuner changes. I will not pretend that I understand much of this quite yet – it will take many reads and a lot of catching before I’m even close. But, for what it’s worth, it gave me hope that it’s not all in my head. And the complexity of the piano in conjunction with things like the unique character of the wood, the player and the weather makes the perception of sound, a very intricate subject.

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