Prepared Piano

A prepared piano is a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects between or on the strings.  


The first composer to use it extensively was John Cage, who is often credited with inventing the instrument. Cage himself said he was greatly inspired by Henry Cowell's experiments with the so called string piano, where the performer plucks and scrapes the strings of the piano directly.

In Cage's use, the preparations are typically nuts, bolts and pieces of rubber to be lodged between and entwined around the strings. Some preparations make duller, more percussive sounds than usual, while others create sonorous bell-like tones. Additionally, the individual parts of a preparation like a nut loosely screwed onto a bolt will vibrate themselves, adding their own unique sound. By placing the preparation between two of the strings on a note which has three strings assigned to it, it is possible to change the timbre of that note by depressing the soft pedal on the piano (which moves the hammers so they strike only two strings instead of all three).

Although it is possible to prepare an upright piano in this way to some extent, it is far easier, and far more common, on a grand piano.  

Piano1.jpg (2382670 bytes) Piano2.jpg (1098281 bytes)

The phrase prepared piano is also sometimes applied to other kinds of preparations. Lou Harrison, for example, used something he called the tack piano, a piano with small nails stuck in the hammers to produce a more percussive sound. Conlon Nancarrow adapted his player pianos in a similar way, covering the hammers with metal and leather.

Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell (March 11, 1897 - December 10, 1965) was an American composer and teacher. He is considered one of the most influential of early 20th century American composers.

Cowell began to compose in his teens, producing the piano piece “The Tides of Manaunaun”, which calls for the pianist to use his forearm to play many notes at once. This is one of the first uses of the tone cluster in music, and he continued to use it liberally in his later works.

In 1919 Cowell wrote and published New Musical Resources, a widely read work on the variety techniques used in his own music. Shortly thereafter he began to tour as a pianist, playing his own experimental works. Aeolian Harp (1923) is one of his first pieces for what is termed the "string piano" - rather than using the keys to play the instrument, the pianist reaches inside the instrument and plucks and scrapes the strings directly.

Cowell's interest in harmonic rhythm, as discussed in New Musical Resources led him to commission Leon Theremin to invent the Rhythmicon or Polyrhythmophone, a machine capable of playing periodic rhythms in proportion to the pitches and vice versa. Studies of the musical cultures of Africa , Java, and North and South India enabled Cowell to stretch and redefine Western notions of melody and rhythm; mastery of the gamelan and the theory of gamelan composition led to further explorations with exotic instruments and percussion.  

Cowell subsequently began to use indeterminacy or "elastic form" in works like the Mosaic Quartet (where performers determine the order and alternation of movements). He is often said to be instrumental in the rediscovery of Charles Ives' music, and also promoted (published) the music of Edgar Varese. His students included John Cage, George Gershwin and Lou Harrison.

John Cage

John Milton Cage (born September 5, 1912, died August 12, 1992) was an experimental music composer and writer, notorious for 4′ 33″, often described (somewhat erroneously) as "four and a half minutes of silence." He was an early writer of aleatoric music (music where some elements are left to chance), used instruments in non-standard ways and was an electronic music pioneer.

In 1931, Cage began lessons in composition from Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg (whom he "literally worshipped.")  Schoenberg told Cage he would tutor him for free on the condition he "devoted his life to music." Cage readily agreed, but stopped lessons after two years when it became clear to him that he had "no feeling for harmony."

Cage began to experiment with percussion instruments and non-instruments and gradually came to replace harmony as the basis of his music with rhythm. More generally, he structured pieces according to the duration of sections.

In the late 1930s, he went to the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. There he found work as an accompanist for dancers. He was asked to write some music to accompany a dance by Syvilla Fort called Bacchanale. He wanted to write a percussion piece, but there was no pit at the performance venue for a percussion ensemble and he had to write for a piano. While working on the piece, Cage experimented by placing a metal plate on top of the strings of the instrument. He liked the sound this produced, and this eventually led to his inventing the prepared piano, in which screws, bolts, strips of rubber and other objects are placed between the strings of the piano to change the character of the instrument. It is likely that he was influenced by his old teacher Henry Cowell who also treated the piano in a non-standard way, asking performers to strum the strings with their fingers, for example. The Sonatas and Interludes of 1946-48 are widely seen as his greatest work for prepared piano.

Cage began to use the I Ching in the composition of his music in order to introduce an element of chance over which he would have no control. He used it, for example, in the Music of Changes for solo piano in 1951, to determine which notes should be used and when they should sound.

In the late 1940s, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes. They are also generally soundproofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he "heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation." Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected there to be no sound, and yet there was some. "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music." The realization as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of his most notorious piece, 4′ 33″.

The premiere of the three-movement 4′ 33″ was given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, at Woodstock, New York as part of a recital of contemporary piano music. The audience saw him sit at the piano, and lift the lid of the piano. Some time later, without having played any notes, he closed the lid. A while after that, again having played nothing, he lifted the lid. And after a period of time, he closed the lid once more and rose from the piano. The piece had passed without a note being played, in fact without Tudor or anyone else on stage having made any deliberate sound, although he timed the lengths on a stopwatch while turning the pages of the score. While nobody produces sound deliberately, there will nonetheless be sounds in the concert hall (just as there were sounds in the anechoic chamber at Harvard). It is these sounds, unpredictable and unintentional, that are to be regarded as constituting the music in this piece. The piece remains controversial to this day, and is seen as challenging the very definition of music.

Conlon Nancarrow

Conlon Nancarrow (October 27, 1912 - August 10, 1997) was an American composer who took Mexican citizenship in 1955. He is remembered almost exclusively for the pieces he wrote for the player piano.

Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He played trumpet in a jazz band in his youth, before studying music first in Cincinnati, Ohio and later in Boston, Massachusetts with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Nicolas Slonimsky. Later still, he went to New York City and studied with Henry Cowell.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Nancarrow went to Spain to fight against Francisco Franco. While there, he joined the Communist party, as a result of which he was refused an American passport after his return. He subsequently moved to Mexico City, which remained his home until his death.

In Mexico, where the contemporary classical music scene was poorly funded, and there were even fewer musicians capable of performing his works, the need to find an alternative way of having his pieces performed became even more pressing. He found the answer in the player piano, with its ability to produce extremely complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far beyond the abilities of humans.  

nan_piano.jpg (73324 bytes)nan_composing.jpg (66586 bytes) Untitled-1.jpg (177440 bytes) wills1.jpg (162586 bytes)

Nancarrow had a machine custom built to enable him to punch the piano rolls by hand. The machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and using it was very hard work, and very slow. He also adapted the player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism, and covering the hammers with leather or metal so as to produce a more percussive sound.