A few postings ago I mentioned a remake of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg variations. It was related to the topic of piano touch (or touché), a notion pianists and music lovers often talk about, and that is, nevertheless, surrounded with a lot of magic.
Several researchers are researching this topic, including Werner Goebl and Caroline Palmer at McGill University, Canada. They presented their recent findings at the SMPC conference on music perception and cognition in Montreal. Using a movement tracking device it was possible to track a pianist’s finger movements on a digital piano keyboard (Apparently a grand piano could not be used because of the need to film/measure these movements from the piano towards the hands; see photo).
By analyzing the performances of twelve professional pianists, they found that different finger movements did not lead to differences in timing precision or in tone intensity. That is a novel finding. However, the actual relation between the finger movements and the resulting velocity of the piano key after contact was not studied as yet (a replication of this study on a modern pianola —like the Yamaha Disklavier or Bösendorfer— seems a logical next step).
My hunch is that the finger dynamics will not matter so much (as was in part suggested by this study). The gestures made by a pianist, including finger movements and what is generally referred to as piano touch, have more to do with habit and a sense of control, then that they actually have an influence on the key velocity that, next to the timing, effectively contributes to the sound and musical quality of the performance. This type of research will find out soon …