Manual symmetry

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at the piano and contemplating what I had been learning about the Janko keyboard. I was thinking about all the different scale patterns on the traditional piano keyboard and how different they are. There are 12 of them. (I would tend not to count the minor key scales separately, since they’re essentially just offsets from the major scale, as are the other modes.) Johannes Drinda introduced the Janko keyboard to me and in that same email wrote:

The advantage of the uniform Janko keyboard pattern is mind-boggling:
The Janko keyboard pattern does away with practicing scales, would you believe?! This is the true reason, why so many hobby musicians (like me!) got stuck with playing mostly in C-major & A-minor scales and lost out on a great deal of musical joys and creativity.
With Janko one only needs to learn one major and one minor scale-pattern. From then on one can play all 24 major & minor scales.

As I sat at the piano considering these words, I realized that there are really twice as many scales as that, if you count both hands separately. My left hand is not a copy of my right hand. It’s a mirror image of it. The muscle movements and fingering for playing D-flat major in my right hand are much different than the movements and fingering for playing it in my left hand. So then there are actually 24 different scale patterns to learn (12 for the left hand, and 12 for the right hand), or if you count major and minor scales separately (as Johannes did in his email above), then there are 48 separate scales to learn (24 for the left hand, and 24 for the right hand).

The fact that one hand mirrors the other also reminded me of Vincent Persichetti‘s “Mirror Etudes”, a selection of which I played in my junior or senior recital in college (I can’t remember which). One thing I liked about this piece is that all I really had to do was learn the right hand, and then make the same movements in my left hand, taking advantage of the fact that the piano keyboard mirrors itself (pivoting around D and A-flat). Persichetti used this algorithmic device (where one hand’s part is a simple function of the other hand’s part) to very nice effect, perhaps in some ways in spite of the device.

The next thought I had was: “What if each hand had its own keyboard, so that the same movements and fingerings would produce the same notes?” If I traverse the five-finger position from my thumb to my pinky in my right hand, then the pitches go up (get higher). On a regular piano, if I do the same thing in my left hand, they go lower. That’s the mismatch. What if they both went higher, so that playing a given part in the right hand felt exactly like playing that part in the left hand? I then supposed that this would require two different keyboards: one for my left hand and one for my right hand. The right-hand keyboard could be the “normal” one, and the left-hand keyboard would be reversed: moving to the left causes the pitches to rise, and moving to the right causes them to descend. We could then speak, instead of moving left or right, of moving outward or away from the body (ascending in pitch), and inward or toward the body (descending in pitch). With a setup like this, if you act as if you’re playing the Persichetti etudes on a traditional keyboard, you’d now actually be playing both hands in unison (robbing the piece of its character, but that’s not the point).

Google can have a tendency to quash creative thinking. What seems like an original idea turns out to be not so original. Then again, it can also have a validating effect. Regardless, someone has already had this idea (and patented it). There’s also a diagram showing how the left-hand keyboard is re-mapped. Actually, now that I look at the diagram, I see that it’s not quite the same as what I had in mind. I was thinking of just reversing a traditional piano keyboard. The diagram for this patent shows a 6-6 pattern (like Janko) for both keyboards. So in that case I suppose you could truly say that the user would only need to learn 1 single diatonic scale pattern, as opposed to 24. Not bad.

But that’s not all. A pianist named Christopher Seed has actually built a left-handed piano. (Be sure to check out his videos page too, where he shows off his ambidexterity.) Not only that, but his website offers a simple hardware module called The Keyboard Mirror that transforms a MIDI keyboard into a left-handed (reversed) MIDI keyboard! This probably wouldn’t be too difficult to implement in software too. So to try my idea out, all I’d need is two MIDI keyboards, one unmodified and one with the Keyboard Mirror plugged into it. To keep things really interesting, I could try switching them around: not only right/normal, left/reversed; but also left/normal, right/reversed.

I just had a funny thought: playing Persichetti’s Mirror Etudes on a left-handed piano would be almost exactly like playing them on a traditional piano! (Except that when you try to voice the upper parts, you’d start wondering why the bass part is getting louder!)

Now, for a real mind-bending exercise, try playing the Mirror Etudes using a left-handed (reversed) keyboard for the left hand and a traditional (not reversed) keyboard for the right hand. Of course, that seems about as sensible as using Vim with a Dvorak keyboard.

Update: When I wrote that last paragraph earlier tonight, I hadn’t realized that playing the actual Mirror Etudes using symmetrical manuals would be “as if” you were playing both hands in unison on a traditional keyboard. The simplicity of this two-way function (reverseHalf mirrored = unison; reverseHalf unison = mirrored) obviously hasn’t sunken in yet, since it’s still all just up in my head. Yes, I’ve gotta try this out!

1 Comment »

  1. Johannes K. Drinda said,

    August 31, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

    Here’s a summary of the advantages of Janko keyboard layout:
    As a keen hobby musician I’m very much interested in the revival of the Janko piano. Here is a summary of the benefits the Janko keyboard layout offers to hobby musicians:
    The Janko uniformity is based on simplicity: like remembering a phone number of 999999999, whereas the traditional (zebra) piano’s irregularity, is comparable to a phone number of: 984761359. Guess, which number is easier to remember? :)
    Thus, I believe in breaking down the barriers to playing a musical keyboard. The ideal being to making playing an instrument as easy as singing in the shower, for most people manage to sing in the shower without knowing what key they are singing in.

    For professional musicians it is important to play a keyboard layout and musical notation, which is universally in use, because they have to play on pianos in different concert halls together with different musicians. – Ones pianists acquire a high level of dexterity skills on the grossly irregular zebra piano, their daily keyboard play keeps them in practice.
    Yet, hobby musicians are not playing their keyboard daily and thus the grossly irregular traditional (zebra) piano requires lots more practice time to keep them in practice.

    That’s where the Janko shines! The Janko layout requires far less efforts to keep them in practice. – In fact, to hobby musicians all uniform keyboards, such as button accordion, Wicky, Hayden, Dualo etc. offers the same advantage, only that different layouts have different levels of learning challenges.
    All uniform keyboards cut piano scale practice by twelve, make transposing and improvising a piece of cake, and allow wider interval stretches. The Janko layout is the closest to the traditional (zebra) piano layout and thus, requires less relearning.

    The piano keyboard, whose design dates back to before the discovery of equal temperament, simplifies the execution of one scale (C major) and complicates the other eleven. What is more, because of its physical configuration, the correct division of function between the thumbs and the remaining fingers necessitates a high level of training to master. The problems of technique specific to the traditional piano fall into the following categories:

    1) Fingering: primarily a problem of placing the thumb under-tuck, through scale practice.
    2) Memorization: of scales and chord shapes in all twelve keys.
    3) Muscle training: physical interface problems arising from weighting, relative keyboard and hand dimensions, and responsiveness of the piano mechanism.
    4) Independence and co-ordination of hands.
    The fourth is a problem for the brain, and will require practice whatever improvements we make. The first three are design issues. The Janko keyboard completely eliminates the first two problems by making the fingerings the same for all keys (like a guitar), and by offering extra rows to provide total freedom of thumb under-tuck. In addition, because the danger of getting a finger stuck between two black notes is removed, a wider interval can be covered by one hand-stretch without making the keys narrower.

    The Janko keys are all of the same size, offering more finger space, for all Janko keys are wider than conventional black keys, and the conventional keyboard sometimes requires the player to play in between black keys, which allows very little finger clearance. This factor is important when playing fast passages.
    Also, with Janko there is no need for crossing the arms/hands and arpeggios are greatly simplified.

    It is difficult to realize the manifold possibilities which this keyboard opens up for the composer and performer. Entirely new music can be written by composers, containing chords, runs and arpeggios, utterly impossible to execute on the ordinary (zebra) piano. It is not nearly so difficult for the student to master the technique of the Janko, as to become efficient on the ordinary (zebra) piano. Liszt and Rubinstein praised the system.
    The main reasons for its demise of the Janko layout were:
    1) Most performers could not afford to take their pianos with them on tour, and many concert halls did not have access to a Janko piano.
    2) The music that the pianists were performing was supposed to be difficult, often extremely difficult, and the Janko keyboard made it too easy. The tension inherent in listening to a performer play a complex piece of music disappeared.
    3) The Janko layout required relearning.
    4) Piano teachers were to lose a considerable amount of income, due to the Janko layout’s simplicity.
    Thus, the Janko piano failed to achieve wide popularity. Music educators were not convinced that the benefits of the new keyboard were enough to challenge the traditional keyboard. Few pianists were willing to relearn the new keyboard with entirely different fingering. Both reasons left piano manufacturers afraid to invest in this new piano design.

    Yet now, that technical advances enable the revival of the Janko keyboard, many hobby musicians rediscovered it and are keen to enjoy its layout simplicity. Please feel free to amend this summary.

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