TABLET (max. 1024px)
MOBILE (max. 640px)
Return to Top

Classical Music 101: The fascinating relationship between tone and the method of attack

By on

J.S. Bach
J.S. Bach

Stroke a string that plays an A and you get a different sound than if you pluck it or hit it with a hammer. But we rarely think about how our experience of a piece of music changes with each method of attack.

As someone who moves between a percussion instrument (piano) and a wind instrument (pipe organ), I’ve long been conscious of how our sense of rhythm and tempo is affected by the presence or absence of attack, that split-second moment when a note begins to sound.

On a wind instrument, the basic note that comes from air passing through a cylinder is as continuous as the airflow, with a momentary blip as the air enters the space, and another one at the end, as the last breath escapes. But the main tone is continuous and even.

Glide a bow over a string gently and evenly, and, with the exception of a slight change in the velocity of the bow at the very beginning or end, the tone is also continuous and even.

The art of the interpreter, in both cases, is in finding ways to add clear attack when notes need more definition. An artist’s toolbox of ways and means grows over time, adding subtlety to just this one tiny aspect of the art of performing.

A plucked harpsichord string produces a ping at the attack — the point where the player’s finger releases the plectra — which is not necessarily related to the tone of the vibrating string that follows. The shape of that tone is a two-humped bell curve, as the string’s vibrations bloom and then die away.


On a modern piano, a felt hammer hits the string(s). Given a hugely greater range of control from the keyboard as well as a high degree of string tension, each tone’s bell curve in hugely malleable in duration and intensity, but it follows a similar curve pattern.

The art of the pianist and harpsichordist — and harpist — includes learning how to manage those individual bell curves, even in the lighting-fast passagework of a Chopin Etude.

(Wind and string players also manage the bell curve, using a variety of techniques. One of the reasons violin and cello students sound so deadly isn’t the wrong notes, but that they haven’t learned the art of varying tone.)

Or, as Stephen Hough quipped on Twitter a couple of weeks ago: the art of playing the piano is learning how to throw hammers at strings.

All of this is highly uninteresting to a listener. What counts is the result — all of it highly influenced by laws of physics overlaid by the ever-so-subtle art of making music.

Once in a while, the sound world gets turned upside down when a familiar piece of music is played by a different instrument. Tone is different, but so is the overall sense of rhythm, even if the underlying pulse is the same.

I had one of those Ooh! moments last night during Tafelmusik’s transcendent performance of three Bach fugues that Mozart had transcribed for strings.

The music’s angularity was gone but the beautiful underlying structure remained intact.

Here are a series of performances of the F-sharp Minor Prelude and/or Fugue from Book II of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier (this fugue is not on this week’s Tafelmusik programme).

1. On harpsichord, with Kenneth Gilbert:

2. On piano, with Glenn Gould (from a 1969 recording), followed by Angela Hewitt (to show the modern piano’s range):

3. The Fugue alone, on an organ, with Ernst Stoltz (the attack sound — called chiff — is supplied by the design of the wooden pipes chosen for the first half of this interpretation):

4. Both the Prelude and Fugue in Mozart’s arrangement for string trio, with violinist Rémy Baudet, violist Staas Swierstra and cellist Rainer Zipperling:

John Terauds

Share this article
comments powered by Disqus