Melody lead in piano performance: expressive device or artifact?

The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

PubMedID: 11508980

Goebl W. Melody lead in piano performance: expressive device or artifact?. J Acoust Soc Am. 2001;110(1):563-72.
As reported in the recent literature on piano performance, an emphasized voice (the melody) tends to be played not only louder than the other voices, but also about 30 ms earlier (melody lead). It remains unclear whether pianists deliberately apply melody lead to separate different voices, or whether it occurs because the melody is played louder (velocity artifact). The velocity artifact explanation implies that pianists initially strike the keys simultaneously; it is only different velocities that make the hammers arrive at different points in time. The measured note onsets in these studies, mostly derived from computer-monitored pianos, represent the hammer-string impact times. In the present study, the finger-key contact times are calculated and analyzed as well. If the velocity artifact hypothesis is correct, the melody lead phenomenon should disappear at the finger-key level. Chopin's Ballade op. 38 (45 measures) and Etude op. 10/3 (21 measures) were performed on a Bösendorfer computer-monitored grand piano by 22 skilled pianists. The hammer-string asynchronies among voices closely resemble the results reported in the literature. However, the melody lead decreases almost to zero at the finger-key level, which supports the velocity artifact hypothesis. In addition to this, expected onset asynchronies are predicted from differences in hammer velocity, if finger-key asynchronies are assumed to be zero. They correlate highly with the observed melody lead.