Creating an Orchestral Sonority — Applying Vertical Hierarchy

Creating an Orchestral Sonority — Applying Vertical Hierarchy


Knock on the sky and listen to the sound!

~ Zen saying


Defining colors is the first step toward creating an orchestral sound.  The next is applying what I call Vertical Hierarchy, a method of establishing orchestral dimensions at the keyboard. High sounds tend to hit the ear first, lower sounds more slowly.  In the Orchestra, lower-pitched instruments tend to emit sound more slowly than higher-pitched instruments (as do Brass and Winds compared to Strings and Percussion).  A good conductor learns to bring every player and section’s peculiar speed of sound production into a homogenous beat.  A great conductor knows however how to take full advantage of a spread beat when the style allows it.  No matter conductor — be it a precision wizard like Pierre Boulez or a free-spirited troubadour like Leonard Bernstein — the orchestral beat is always more spread than the pianist’s.  This is an important aspect of what lends the orchestra its multi-dimensional, surround-sound effect.


One of the peculiar acoustic qualities of the piano is that low sounds and high sounds seem to travel near the same velocity, hitting the ear at the same time.  Moreover, the modern pianist is trained to make the beat as narrow and precise as possible, resulting in a highly defined two-dimensional sound.  In order to obtain an orchestral feel at the piano, you must spread the beat, and it generally spreads most effectively by using this rule of Vertical Hierarchy — the higher the sound, the sooner it should be played; the lower the sound, the later it should be played. Furthermore, the greater the distance between notes, the more they can be spread (and vice-versa); and the greater the dynamic difference between notes, the more they can be spread (and vice-versa). 


Let’s return to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude and experiment with vertical hierarchy to show how it works.  Here’s the first measure-and-a-half again:




Applying Vertical Hierarchy to these first three attacks result in:



See how the beat has spread to about a quarter of a centimeter?  In traditional notation, you can imagine that the red level sounds as a tied 32nd note just before the beat, the light purple level on the beat, and the dark blue level a 32nd note after the beat, making the total spread the value of a 16th note:


This is a somewhat broad spread at this slow tempo, but with enough Dynamic Differentiation between the three levels, it could be made to work beautifully. 

A chord is like an atom — the enormous potential energy is only released as it splits. 

Experiment with this at the piano.  Begin by exaggerating the split, playing one note at a time. 

Gradually decrease the spread until it sounds like a single unit.  The normal listener will hear it as a single attack while sensing its orchestral effect.


Now let's discover why Vertical Hierarchy works top-to-bottom by spreading it bottom-to-top:



The spread becomes immediately apparent to the ear; even if tightly packaged, it sounds loose, open.  Open voicing indeed has its place, but closed voicing is the rule.  Note: closed voicing is not to be confused with 2-dimensional non-spread voicing.  Non-spread voicing (i.e. when every note in a chord is sounded at exactly the same moment) is used as an effect, as black-and-white can be used as an effect in a color film.


If you miss the present moment, 

you miss your appointment with life. 

That is very serious!

~ Thich Nhat Hanh