Book Review - Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos

My most recent piano-related read was the second edition of Edwin M. Good's “Giraffes, Black Dragons, and Other Pianos : A Technological History from Cristofori to the Modern Concert Grand.” The book is fairly dense and I spent a few months slowly making my way through it, but I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I would say that this book has a very wide intended audience. Those with an interest in pianos who are at all curious about how these musical behemoths came to be will find this book to be clear and informative. Professional pianists and piano restorers will also surely be inundated with new information about piano makers that they have been familiar with for years. Music history buffs will be left wondering what the piano might have sounded like before 1826 when felt-covered hammers were first introduced.

Good takes the reader through the full evolution of the grand piano action from the Zumpe square, early types of escapement, the evolution of the jack, the Viennese action, and the modern double-escapement action. As the name of the book implies, Good also shows us many of the oddities that piano makers have invented over the years – giraffes, Stodart uprights, “birdcage” actions, and Janko keyboards. The author covers all of the most famous English, French, American, Austrian, German, and Italian piano makers, as well as the more recent Japanese, Chinese, and Korean makers.

Good does a great job at keeping his writing interesting and entertaining. He will occasionally toss in an anecdote about “some wag” who misinterprets the origin of the word “fortbien” or about the first time the piano was made with white naturals and black sharps.

The book is incredibly well researched, includes fantastic illustrations, and covers every aspect of the development of the modern piano over the past 300 years, as well as touching of the future potential of the piano and electronic keyboard. The book is in its second edition, and it is quite obvious while reading it that a lot of extra work went into it between editions. Mr. Good it seems is quite dedicated to improving his work and continuing to provide compelling and historically accurate information. I'd like to commend him for his wonderful book and would encourage you all to acquire a copy for yourself.


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Between the Liner Notes: The Tuning Wars

BTLN.jpg

As a follow up to my recent book review of Stuart Isacoff's Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization, I'd like to share a podcast from the folks over at Between the Liner Notes. The episode is called “The Tuning Wars.” In the episode, the host, Matthew Billy, interviews Stuart Isacoff who elaborates on various aspects of the book.

 

Billy begins with the effect that Temperatment had on the public immediately following publication. People across the world lashed out at Isacoff, attacking him via blog posts, tweets, and Amazon reviews. One opponent may have even gone as far as comparing Isacoff's language to that of the Third Reich. To many, the issues discussed in Temperament are far from resolved and these people took Isacoff's claims as an attack on their beliefs.

 

The most interesting part of the podcast is when a portion of a Bach composition is played with several different tunings and in different keys: first with Pythagorean tuning and in a key that the piece was not intended to be played in, second with Pythagorean tuning and in the key that the piece was intended for, and finally in Equal Temperament.. Here, the listener can actually hear what Isacoff's entire book is dedicated to describing – the “wolf” intervals, the beautiful harmonies, and the compromise between the two. In addition, Billy describes the origin of the word “temperament” and its relation to the system of medicine known as “humorism” common to ancient Greek and Roman societies.

 

The Catholic Church was fiercely loyal to the Pythagorean tunings. The Church believed that the “godly” whole-number ratios that formed consonant musical intervals were a gift from Christ himself and were not to be tampered with. At one point, there was even a “Battle of the Organs” in which two leading organ-builders with differing opinions on temperament competed for their instruments to be permanently installed in London's Temple Church. Calling it a “battle” is only a slight overstatement, as one side went so far as to sabotage the other's organ the night before the contest.

 

Many famous names were involved in the battle of Equal Temperament. Galileo's father, Vincenzo Galilei, had a long and bitter dispute about the topic with his teacher Gioseffo Zarlino which often devolved into one attacking the other's character. Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler respectively claimed that the intervals of western music were proportional to the distance between colors in the spectrum of light and between planets in the solar system. Kepler went as far as to attribute male qualities to certain intervals and female qualities to others.

 

Between the Liner Notes does a fantastic job of expanding on some of the most interesting points from Temperament. I highly recommend listening to the podcast in full and am looking forward to their next episode this coming Monday.

 

Listen to the full podcast here:

http://www.betweenthelinernotes.com/episodes-1/2015/9/1/02-the-tuning-wars


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Review of Stuart Isacoff's "Temperament"

All of the piano repair books that I have read have included a short section on the development of equal temperament and it's predecessors, but none of them really dig deeply into the subject. These books did their job of piquing my interest in the topic. For those not familiar, equal temperament is a system of tuning for stringed instruments in which every note within the octave is equally spaced. Basically, this allows a song to be transposed into any key and still sound musically pleasing. In non-equal temperaments there exist so-called “wolf” intervals. Aptly named, these intervals produce sounds that resemble the howling of a wolf and thus had to be avoided by musicians and composers at all costs. So, how was equal temperament developed and why was it so difficult to achieve?

Isacoff's “Temperament” gives an in-depth history of the development of piano tunings and temperaments starting with Pythagoras's perfect fifths in 6th century BC, moving through Da Vinci, mean-tone temperament, Galileo, Zarlino, and Rameau, and finishing with contemporary minimalists such as Michael Harrison and Philip Glass. It also describes the many attempts to circumvent the problems presented by unequal temperament by adding anywhere from five to twenty extra keys to the standard twelve-note octave.

I have mixed feelings about this book. “Temperament” is advertised as an “engaging and accessible account” which to me means that it was not written with the professional piano tuner in mind. This is great news for people with a passing interest in how western music came to sound the way it does. However for those with a more technical interest, it is probably not the book you are looking for. This book does not really get into the math behind the development of equal temperament. The closest it gets to the technical aspect is describing the basic ratios that make a major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, etc. The book seems to be written for history buffs rather than people who really want to understand the mathematical qualities of different temperaments and how they were developed. Also, there is a lot of filler in this book that doesn't really seem relevant to the topic. There are sections of the book where the author will go on a tangent for many pages about the personal lives of 16th century royalty.

Some knowledge of basic music theory will help in understanding the content of the book. For people who are familiar with the word “temperament” and its meaning, but don't have the desire to dig into the hundreds of varieties of just-intonation and unequal temperament, "Temperament" is a thorough account and a fantastic read.


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Review of Arthur Reblitz's "Player Piano - Servicing and Rebuliding"

Player Piano : Servicing and Rebuilding

Arthur Reblitz

1985 Vestal Press, Inc.

ISBN978-0-911572-40-7

This is the first book on Player Piano repair that I have purchased. I had previously purchased the second edition of Reblitz's “Piano Tuning, Servicing, and Rebuilding,” which I found to be very well written, well edited, and comprehensive enough for a book its size with its intended audience. Because of my positive experience with his other book, I had pretty high hopes for this one.

As this is my first book review, let me just start off by saying that the content of this book is fantastic. There is so much raw information acquired from decades of experience contained within this text. However, the organization of the content is an absolute disaster.

CONS

Unlike “Piano Tuning, Servicing, and Rebuilding,” the editing in “Player Piano” is horrible. Maybe the original edition of “Piano Tuning” was this bad too and was only fixed in the second edition, but if that is the case, Vestal Press should have re-edited them both at the same time 20 years ago. Before even getting into the main text, I flip to the Table of Contents which is nothing but vague chapter titles with page numbers and large useless blocks of text beneath them. Finding information on a specific aspect of the repair process is a real pain when the only reference you have is the start of a new chapter every 30-40 pages. The index is similarly scant. Only about 50% of the time does it lead me to the information I want.

The mostly useless table of contents

The mostly useless table of contents

Once into the actual text, the photos are usually quite helpful, although occasionally there will be a photo that is unrelated to the text around it or a photo in which the parts indicated are indistinguishable from each other due to poor contrast. The book is also full of technical diagrams that appear to have been pulled from a different text, as they are covered in reference numbers, but the list of part names that the numbers reference is curiously absent.

Unable to distinguish parts in photos with poor contrast.

Unable to distinguish parts in photos with poor contrast.

Diagrams that would be wonderfully specific if I knew what the numbers referred to.

Diagrams that would be wonderfully specific if I knew what the numbers referred to.

The other thing about the layout of this book that makes no sense to me is the separation of Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 gives a series of broad tasks to be completed for each repair in sequence. However, the specifics of how to perform each task is withheld until chapter 5. This leads to constant flipping back and forth between the chapters to figure out what to do from chapter 4 and how to do it somewhere in chapter 5. It seems as though the book was written for the rare person who can read straight through the whole thing, retain every bit of information, and then proceed to perform every repair they need to without ever having to look at the book again.

My final criticism is a simple one: the text is monotonous and too much information is crammed into a single page. In “Piano Tuning, Servicing, and Rebuilding,” the text is given plenty of space between lines and the monotony is broke up with bulleted lists, bolding, and clearly marked section titles. “Player Piano” has none of these things. It is just block of plain text after block of plain text with the occasional (barely noticeable) italicized technical term included.

A typical page from "Player Piano"

A typical page from "Player Piano"

A typical page from "Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding."  Much easier to read and find what I'm looking for.

A typical page from "Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding."  Much easier to read and find what I'm looking for.

PROS

On the bright side of things, the content, as I said before, is wonderful. There are many pages of descriptions of the differences between many types of pneumatic covering material, glues and their strengths and weaknesses, types of cleaners and solvents, and even which species of wood is best for each application. The steps that walk you through each repair are very thorough and often give multiple methods for accomplishing the same goal, as well as many little tips and tricks that only come with years of experience and can make any player piano restoration easier.

One of the better images in "Player Piano."  This image still has poor contrast, but the important parts of the image are easily distinguishable.

One of the better images in "Player Piano."  This image still has poor contrast, but the important parts of the image are easily distinguishable.

A good 90 pages of the book are dedicated to providing specific information about variations between different brands of player mechanisms. Although I don't expect to ever use most of this information, it is reassuring to know that if I ever run into some odd proprietary system, it is probably covered in this book. About 30 pages worth of those 90 pages is dedicated to different brands of reproducing piano and orchestrion actions for those who want to dive into repairing instruments even more complex than the standard player piano.

Included at the end of the text is a “Troubleshooting” section. I like the idea of having a consolidated troubleshooting section, but for some reason it misses many troubleshooting steps that are discussed earlier in the book while including some great ideas that are not mentioned in the previous corresponding chapters.

Again, the content of the book is incredibly expansive. Almost any question I have come up with is answered somewhere in this book. However, it often takes me longer to find the relevant information in the book than it takes to perform the repair.


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