Why can piano covers of anime openings sound meh?

Anime openings exist for a reason. They are not just about featuring already established or up-and-coming artists. They are not just about advertising anime franchises, their corresponding mangaka or authors through the J-pop scene. If we put promotion aside, we can tell that anime openings are about narrating a story, about giving us an inside look as to how the characters feel through the lyrics and the music, about making us feel excited and hooked with the show.

The fact is that when we play anime openings for solo piano, the result can turn out to be quite far from the vibe of the original composition. So we would be talking about an arrangement, rather than simply an interpretation. And the thing about arrangements is that all instruments have their pros and their cons. Knowing both is what makes the performer a true ‘virtuoso’, not just how fast his/her fingers move on the piano keyboard.

What about the piano?

It’s the ‘king of instruments’ not only because it has a big range, it’s also because it is a big instrument with a big and bulky sound. Most pianists -including me- have spent years after years of practicing their scales, arpeggios, chords, Hanon exercises, Czerny études, etc. And being able to nail those is the alpha and omega while being a student, as well as after. Unfortunately, there isn’t always a good balance between technique and style of performance while still learning and it is even trickier for younger ages (with adolescence and stuff being in the way). I know, I’ve been there. Now, imagine an angry teenager trying to perform jumpy, joyful and playful Mozart, who was also a womanizer btw, or a full-on romantic (and maybe a bit cheesy) Chopin nocturne. Well, doesn’t that sound like a nightmare? Getting into the right mood is key and visualization is arguably the most common way to do it. As not all people are able to visualize (I can, but barely) scenes that would work well with the composition so as to interpret a piece nicely, not all performers are able to get into the right mood. And in comes the tutoring. Prospective musicians need to be tutored how to be expressive with each composer, how to interpret each composition and how to improve each section, from a technical or any other standpoint. And for some reason, it mostly comes down to arpeggios… yeah…

Now, the interesting part is that arpeggios -although not hard- are a wow factor; not only for the audience but for musicians themselves. So when arranging a song for solo piano, pianists feel the urge to showcase their dexterity and try to include arpeggios, glissandi or whatever else with each and every opportunity.

But wouldn’t it be nice to include extra things? It wouldn’t hurt anyone, would it?

In many cases, it would. And that’s because the sort of embellishments we usually play are directly linked with the popular music of a few hundreds years back. Now, you wouldn’t want your interpretation of Steins;Gate OP1 sound like you’re playing warm-up exercises, would you? So, depending on the context of the composition, on its instrumentation and even on the setting of the anime, it’s probably better to keep your arpeggios and scales to a minimum. Why? Because everything will start sounding quite similar when showcasing your dexterity or when trying to stuff a filler or a transition in there. It’s not just about changing the vibe of the composition anymore. Similarly, following the melodic line of the vocals to the letter could sound quite odd at times, like when extensively repeating the same note, ie. once per syllable (of the lyrics) or adding every little garnishing at the ending bits of the phrases. So, a lot of trial and error on this one, I suppose.

What happens if I play all the right notes, then?

Then, the problem could be the articulation. Playing the right notes and keeping them resonating for the appropriate durations, is only half the feat. Articulating properly the sounds is equally important.

You see, the mechanism of the piano is straightforward, yet complicated. You have the soundboard and above it you have the strings. Those strings are struck by small hammers (each note has a corresponding hammer) and their motion is initiated by the pianist pressing on the weighted keys of the piano keyboard. Depending on how the keys are pressed, the sound changes. The thing is though that as the strings are struck, the sound is evoked in a single instance and then it just keeps on resonating. But again, that’s half the story. Apart from the hammers, there are some dampers thrown into the piano action (aka. mechanism) as well. They rest on the strings and move back individually, when a single key is pressed. So, when a key is pressed down, the damper moves away from its corresponding string and when the key is released, the sound stops resonating because the damper moves towards string and touches it.

Now, allow me to introduce the pedals. There are usually three pedals down there: one that sustains the sound, one that reduces the sound and one that reduces the sound even further so that you don’t disturb your neighbours while practicing. *dem late night complaint calls, though*.

The furthest to the right is the sustain pedal and when pressed, it moves all the dampers slightly back, so that they no longer rest on the strings of the piano. Meaning that even though we no longer hold down a key, the sound will keep on resonating. The sustain pedal comes with all pianos, no matter how many pedals they have. Always. Similar to cars. All cars have throttle pedals and they are always located to the furthest right.

Similar to the sustain pedal, we have a pedal that doesn’t come with all sorts of pianos, as we usually find it on grand pianos. It’s called the sostenuto pedal. Again, it sustains the sound, but with a significant difference. You need to press the keys of the keyboard first and then press the pedal, as this pedal lets you sustain only the notes that you are pressing at that time, not all the others. This means that you can sustain a chord and play fast and elaborate stuff on top of it.

The una corda [Italian: one string]. This is the one to the left. So, if you have two pedals, it’s the one on the left. If you have three pedals, it’s the one on the left. If you have four pedals, it’s probably the one on the left(?), idk read your manufacturer’s instructions… See? You got me confused… Again, it’s a mechanism that is included on grand pianos, as upright pianos don’t have enough space for it. When pressed down, it moves all the hammers on a horizontal axis, so that they strike only a single string, instead of all three of them per note, thus producing softer sounds.

The misconception happens with the upright pianos. As they are meant to be more compact, the mechanism of the soft pedal reduces the distance between the hammers and the strings, so that the hammers strike all three strings per note with less force, hence producing sounds that aren’t as loud (and sometimes, especially in heavily used pianos, it doesn’t always work all that well). As this kind of mechanism produces a sound with a different quality when compared to the una corda, some manufacturers choose to include it in grand pianos too.

BONUS: On pianos that are mainly used for studying and not performing, there may be a pedal with a small step, located in the middle. It mutes the sound by adding a piece of cloth between the hammers and the strings. As it’s mainly used for practice purposes, there’s a small step where you can move it slightly to the left and let it rest there instead of holding it down for your entire session.

That’s a lot to remember, right? The issue is though that remembering all that doesn’t mean anything by itself. You need to understand the mechanism and the changes in the quality of the sound. You need to understand that the mechanism of a piano is only capable of doing certain things, not produce every sound imaginable. And all that needs to be taken into consideration while creating a new arrangement. The short notes are easier to recreate on a piano. What would happen to the longer notes, though? How should they be tackled if the original part is written for a bowed string instrument? A half note played on a violin sounds different when compared to the same half note played on a piano. And that’s because the sound of a piano decreases in loudness (amplitude) over time, while the sound of a violin can maintain the loudness (amplitude) of its sound, as a constant amount of friction can be maintained by using the bow. Hence, after all this analysis, the answer to the question “So, how should I choose the right articulation?” is that… I cannot give you a straight answer. It depends on the genre, it depends on the style you want to follow, it depends on the instrument of the part you want to arrange… It depends on so many things meaning that all sorts of answers could be right.

As I was talking earlier on about the pedals of the piano, let me say this. The sustain pedal is quite heavily used. The thing is though that as most pianists learn how to play the piano by studying classical compositions, sometimes we tend to use the sustain pedal like we would if the composition was written during the classical period. Plainly speaking, what I’m saying is that we tend to overuse it. Which in turn means that the bulky sound of the piano becomes bulkier and more cloudy (not as in ‘fuwafuwa’, but as in foggy). So what could we do instead in order to sustain a good amount of volume in our sound? We could use the sostenuto pedal, in case we have a grand piano sitting quietly on the room next door or if we have the budget to buy one that is equipped with a sostenuto pedal… It’s not as common. OR we could keep a few keys that work well with the harmonies pressed down. However, this wouldn’t work every single time and it’s something that requires a tad extra dexterity, as it closely resembles Bach’s Fugues. And that’s a pain. If you’re a pianist, you know exactly what I’m talking about… Now, although this could ‘mend’ your arrangement, it wouldn’t be a free-for-all, passe-partout sort of thing. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, your sound could become ‘dirty’ but on the other it could sound baroque-ish. And I’m not sure you’d want that every single time…

Right… So you talked about the right notes. If I play the right notes on different octaves, wouldn’t that be OK?

Well, again, the register plays an important role. Why? Because the sound of an instrument’s lower register has different qualities and characteristics than the sound of the (same) instrument’s mid and high registers. So, we’re using lower or higher frequencies depending on what we want to do. Obviously, we need to take into account the differences in register of the original instrument, as some instruments have more distinct changes than others.

Quite broadly speaking, there are two timbral differences in a piano’s low and high registers. As far as the low register is concerned, the strings are no longer grouped in threes. From a point downwards, there’s only one girthy string per note. Still though, this change is quite minimal. On the other end of the frequency spectrum, notes that belong into the higher register tend to be sustained in some pianos. So at the top couple of octaves or so, the notes played keep resonating, even though just for a little while.

Yet again, all this brings us to a conclusion. The choice of octave isn’t random. We select an octave that isn’t just compatible with the singer’s voice, but with the instrument we’ll be performing on. If we are to arrange a song written for an X instrument or a Y set of instruments and a voice -a bass to be more exact- we need to take into account the accompaniment, as well as the melodic line of the vocal part. So, naturally, we wouldn’t place the melody on the lower register of the piano, as when we combine it with all the other elements of the composition, we would most likely create an almost incomprehensible auditory mess. Another factor that plays a role when selecting an octave or moving to another octave is to create a form of build-up, increase anticipation or lessen the factor of boredom when listening to a song.

Well, it has gotten quite out of hand (no pun intended) and this article has become lengthier than I was expecting and aiming for. It seems like I had quite a few things to share and quite strong opinions on this topic. Frankly, I can still go on but I’m stopping myself here. Composure is a virtue, I guess…

The thing with music is that there are some rules that musicians are urged to follow. Not just in classical music; it’s a phenomenon that exists in any genre. But if we follow these rules all the time and don’t divert from them even a tiny bit, wouldn’t everything just start sounding the same? Wouldn’t the audience start becoming bored of the same old sound?

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