On the Digital Piano: Yua HONJO

The question, "Is a perfect synthesizer a musical instrument?"


This is the question I posed in my college thesis, in which I examined the relationship between music performance, its skills, and technology. In my dissertation, I discussed cases of "absence or lack of skill" in performance, such as changes in instruments, substitutions by alternative means, and the loss of performers. This is based on the question, "Should we exclude sound phenomena that are not based on skill as "non-performance"?


A "complete synthesizer" that has the sounds of various instruments other than piano and can perform automatically on its own was the subject of this study, but this time, "classical performance on a digital piano connected with speakers" is the new subject of consideration.


Let's look at the situation in this case. Two digital pianos are connected to speakers to deliver sound to the audience. Specifically, it is a combination of "CASIO PX-160 / Electro-Voice EVERSE8". In addition to these two industrial products, an important factor is the sound production. The physical impact of the keystrokes is transmitted through the two keyboards and converted into an electrical signal, the balance of which is adjusted by the sound director to produce the actual sound from the four speakers. Is the "sound phenomenon using a digital piano, through sound production and speakers," really acceptable as an authentic performance instrument for classical music?


Digital Piano DOES NOT destroy Institutions


 The opening question, "Q. Is a complete synthesizer a musical instrument?" evolves into such an agenda. "Is it possible to substitute instrument B for the performance of work X, which the composer originally intended to be played on instrument A?" In the present situation, the question is: "Can a grand piano be replaced by a digital piano?" In the case of classical music, the performance is a thing of beauty. In the case of classical music, it can be generally said that performance is an act of seeking aesthetic value. Therefore, it is necessary to enhance the aesthetic value of the work X in the performance at least. In addition, in the choice of instrument, it must not only be substitutable, but must have a reason to be "positively" adopted from that point of view.


Let us now consider the concept of "functional superiority" proposed by Godlovitch. The conditions for functional superiority of instrument A over instrument B are as follows:


 1. A produces better results than B.

 2. instrument A achieves results more easily than instrument B

 3. there is no risk that A will produce unexpected results.




It is true that alternatives that do not even have functional superiority will be eliminated by natural selection. This is precisely the proposition that electronic musical instrument manufacturers have been grappling with: functional superiority. The back of instrument catalogs contain detailed specification lists, and instruments with higher specifications continue to be developed. However, it should be noted that the functional superiority referred to there is "approximation to the grand piano," and the electronic instrument, which should be a superior alternative to the grand piano, is somehow trying to approach the original grand piano, and this is a perversion that is alarming. I would like to add that the functional superiority I am proposing is not the approximation to the grand piano that electronic instrument manufacturers are pursuing, but rather stability of pitch and sound, the fact that tuning is not required, and the fact that the instrument is portable.


The reason for this perversion may be due to considerations for the classical music performance community. The choice of an instrument is not only related to functionality, but also to social considerations such as "whether it will not disrupt the existing performance community. In the creation of a work and its evaluation, the process, not the result, is the object of assessment, and like many traditional performing arts, the essence of music performance is in the " craft skill," and it has survived by ranking and valuing it. In other words, classical music performance is an area that should be performed with socially cultivated and refined skills through the education of the performing community.


Godlovitch argues that the improvement of instruments is permissible in that genre only in these conditions as follow:


The demand for the skills must be equal to the demand for the existing instruments.

The same level of effort is required to acquire the skills as for existing instruments.

The ratio of the hierarchy of virtuoso, expert, and beginner is maintained.


"A digital piano does not demonstrate the skill of a grand piano. "

“Playing classical music on an electronic piano is a sham.” . etc.


These statements, often uttered by acoustic piano teachers, may seem at first glance to be disparaging of the electronic piano, but in fact they are not. They stem from the fear that the superficial simplicity of the electronic piano will destroy the identity of the "acoustic piano player" and the hierarchy of the performance community, and that the electronic piano will eclipse the grand piano. Acoustic players who are concerned about this should understand that the digital piano will never "replace the acoustic piano" if they are properly aware of the nature of digital pianos and their playing techniques.




Digital pianos are cheap and easy to play. However, given the internal circumstances of the performance community, it is precisely because there was a demand for the acquisition of skills by all but a few virtuosos and beginners that electronic instruments were favored as imitations, and unlike the situation in computer music, the digital piano is not a complete invader from the external realm. Unlike the situation in computer music, the digital piano is not an invader from the outside realm.


History shows that the world's first digital pianos were produced in the 1960s. The RMI Electra Piano, introduced by the Allen Organ Company, is classified as an "electric piano”. In 1973, Roland Corporation developed the prototype for today's digital pianos, and musical instrument manufacturers such as Yamaha Corporation and CASIO Corporation, which originally handled clocks and calculators, followed to it. The prototype of the Electra piano was also developed by a piano instrument manufacturer, and although it did not originate in the classical music industry, it is clear that it was an improvement of an instrument based on an internal demand closely related to the performance community. The use of these instruments as stage instruments for official performances is not likely to lead to repaint the existing acoustic instruments. We believe that it should activate electronic instrument users who are at the lower end of the hierarchy of the performance community and further strengthen the community.


Thus, digital piano is,


(1) a superior alternative that offers functional superiority over the grand piano, while

(2) It has been appropriately improved from within the community and does not go against the traditions of the playing community or the hierarchy of the piano industry's skill set.


Digital piano has a dual nature.


"Tool" and "Machine"


The instrument is a tool, an extension of the body. When the instrument becomes a "tool," the performer has a great deal of initiative. On the other hand, it also has the character of a "machine" with internal complexity. Machine" here does not mean that it has a mechanism like an industrial product or a machine, but rather that it has a black-boxed self-generating process that cannot be directly manipulated in terms of its output.


The "tool" aspect and the "machine" aspect coexist not only in digital pianos but also in acoustic instruments. From the piano player's point of view, even acoustic pianos are more "machine-like" than the audience imagines. There is a considerable gap between the sound imagined by the performer and the actual sound emitted by the instrument, and when using an unfamiliar instrument in an unfamiliar space, the unknown factor increases. The sound must naturally be left to the self-generation of the instrument. The performer can be overwhelmed by this unpredictability. Pianists who cannot carry their own instruments have struggled with this problem for many years, but is "adapting to a given instrument" itself a musically rich activity?

Does overcoming this disadvantage really contribute to the aesthetic value of the performance?


At first glance, digital pianos and the speakers connected to them appear to be more like industrial products. As you can see, they are "machines" just like home appliances. What about a "digital piano with speakers" like this one? Despite the use of a machine, it is clearly closer to a "tool" instrument. The output of the instrument is adjusted by a variety of parameters, including speaker settings, range balance, and other minutiae. The degree to which the audience is aware of the way the music is heard throughout the auditorium, and the degree to which it is corrected in advance, is incomparable to that of an acoustic concert.


For example, the "immersive sound" for this concert was created by the staff of Otai Audio (otto) and Bosch Security Systems. The digital piano itself has preset tones, which are selected and played. The concert is a collaborative effort between the performers and the sound director, relying on thorough analog fine-tuning by the director. How the pianist's skills are conveyed when the "machine" becomes a "tool" is the remaining question and challenge.


The 20th Century: A Response to Instruments and Technology


Atsushi Sasaki stated as follows about the relationship between musical instruments and technology brought about by the advent of computer music:


"To equate 'technology' with 'musical instruments' is already evidence of thinking inside the 'history=system' of 'music.

What has been overlooked is the powerful externality and independence of "electronic engineering technology".



In other words, technology has externally approached the site of artistic production and attempted to destroy the "system" of music. In the field of computer music, its creators took advantage of its characteristics, not merely as a tool for performance substitution, but by opening up a field independent of the existing performance community. Thanks to this independence, the "history (system)" that forms the basis of Western music was taken in for the time being and was not dismantled. However, this time, the "public performance of classical music on digital instruments" is different from what happened with computer music. It is a cross-border activity to bring digital technology into the "history=system" that has been filled with acoustics in broad daylight.


Digital technology is also powerfully attacking classical music.

Considering the arrival of digital technology, it has been attacking classical music for more than 50 years, but performers as well as listeners have not responded to it (or have rebelled against or rejected it). In performances featuring piano music, it is customary to perform on a grand piano in a "concert hall," even when dealing with repertoire from the 20th century and later or contemporary music.


In this project, entitled "The Power of the 20th Century," only 20th century piano repertoire will be featured. In the classical music industry before digital pianos, it was impossible to create details of musical performances while using multiple digital instruments in this way, but on the other hand, the ondes Martenot existed in the 1920s, and it was expected that the instruments would evolve with the times for curious composers.  As for the piano, the evolution of the acoustic instrument came to an end at the beginning of the 20th century, but the composers who left their compositions behind must have held out hope for a future in which their music could be performed. Rather than rejecting the idea of their works being played on digital pianos, they may have welcomed this idea.


This project, "In Black and White," deconstructs the privileged status of "acoustic" in classical and piano music, and questions the coexistence of performers and works with "non-acoustic things.




Born in 1995, and in Japan, Shiga Prefecture. Graduated from Nada Senior High School. Graduated from the University of Tokyo, Faculty of Letters and specialized in Aesthetics. Studied performance theory and the definition of art using the methods of  analytic philosophy. Wrote his graduation thesis, "The Philosophical Problem of the Substitution of Skills by Technology on the Definition of Musical Performance: Focusing on Godlovitch's Theory of Performance. After graduating from college and working as a company employee for three years, he completed his master's degree in piano performance at the Toho Gakuen Graduate School of Music. In October 2022, he performed Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1" with the Toho Academy Orchestra after passing an on-campus audition.  Got the second prize (highest prize) in the final of the POA section of the 19th Osaka International Music Competition. Has studied under Hiromi Okada and Aya Tsurumi, and has a YouTube channel, "Piano Coach Yua".