A piano composer’s unique handprint: how playing shapes new music

A composer’s unique handprint

All keyboard music is shaped and formed by the first human hand that ever played it. It’s almost like a sonic version of an ancient handprint on a cave wall. This piece of art was formed by a human hand.

Paleolithic cave paintings in Argentina. In Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands).

All you have to do is play piano music that was generated by someone plugging notes into a computer notation program without first creating it on a piano, and you realize how important it is for piano music to be created by a real hand. Computer music is unplayable. Some intervals are so far apart they cannot physically be played. Or the rhythms are impossible.

As individual artists, each piano composer has a unique “handprint” in music.

My cat’s paw print in the snow. And his name just happens to be Mozart! 🙂

A few seasons ago I let my cat outside after it had snowed. There was just enough snow on our deck for his paw to make a perfect print. For the first time, I saw what his paw print truly looked like.

This got me thinking about humans and one-of-a-kind fingerprints, which led me to ponder composers’ hands and how hands impact the finished product of piano pieces.

How composers really work

While some believe that composers work with only their minds in silent rooms, filling up blank pieces of notation paper while streaming inspiration straight from above, this couldn’t be further from the truth!

Composers through the ages from Ludwig van Beethoven (Ninth Symphony) to John Williams (Star Wars) make a lot of noise while composing! After all, music is an art of sounds! Even Mozart composed at the piano. But that’s for another post.

Certainly musical rhythms, tunes and phrases can flow through a composer’s mind fully formed the same way words, sentences and thoughts run through any person’s mind. But composers everywhere definitely play the piano while working out the details of compositions!

Even as Beethoven slowly went deaf, he continued to compose at the piano. He removed his piano’s legs so he could better feel the vibrations through the floor boards, which helped him to “hear” the sounds he was creating. The piano allows composers to create music out loud.

And what exactly plays the piano? The composer’s hands.

Plaster cast of Beethoven’s hands.

A composer’s output largely depends on the repertoire they’ve played and also practical things like the number of keys their instrument has and the physical size of their hands. Chopin, for example, had more keys on his piano than Mozart did. (It’s always irked me that the cadenza commonly played for the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 in F exceeds the range of his own piano.)

The left hand of Chopin, composer.

In essence, each composer has a unique handprint that is stamped in the music they write, based on what they can play and what their ear likes (but ultimately, it comes down to their hands).

Living composers on handprints

My name is Rebekah Maxner, and I’m a composer of piano music. I recently caught up with two favorite composers of mine, June Armstrong and Susan Staples Bell. Here, the three of us talk a little about our composition processes and our own hand signatures imprinted in our music.

Here’s how our hands form, shape and sculpt our piano works.

June Armstrong, Ireland

June: As a composer whose initial response to creating a composition is nearly always improvisatory, my handprint is generally a very physically ‘comfortable’ one. But it is also an adventurous one.

I never feel restricted by expectations of the level of musical knowledge which might be appropriate at a certain level of technical development. But the result will always be appropriate to that level of development, even though it may use many black keys, the entire range of the keyboard, and may incorporate more advanced time signatures and rhythms than might be expected. Everything will be ‘easy’ to play, rhythmically ‘natural’ and always accessible, and to facilitate these aspects, may sometimes require some degree of rote explanation.

This allows the young learner to experience the entire range of the piano and a variety of rhythmic subtleties, as well as the magical world of the sustaining pedal, right from the beginning of their musical journey.

Elementary: M for Moonbeam from Alphabet

Intermediate: Brownie from Magical World

Susan Staples Bell, United States

The hands of Susan Staples Bell, composer.

Susan: I love to visit the piano in the early morning, when it’s still dark outside; put a spotlight on the keys and let my fingers wander. I follow my fingers, my ear; my heart. They lead me through many emotions; but always, it’s from the heart.

What makes my hand print unique? Perhaps it’s my varied experiences with jazz, concert band, choral music, church music, handbells, Praise music, as well as Classical piano give me permission to take what I like and mix them all together. I love that freedom; to create and explore music, with the hope it spark interest in the performer.

I love using 5ths. They have such an open, mysterious sound and can be used in so many ways: blocked, broken, repeated, held, arpeggiated left hand and right hand.

Early Intermediate: We Three Kings

Intermediate: We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Cha-Cha-Cha!

Rebekah Maxner, Canada

The hands of Rebekah Maxner, composer.

Rebekah: Composing is a very physical and personal experience for me. It’s when the space between me and my piano vanishes and I merge with the sounds I’m creating.

After composing for several decades, I began to notice several trends in my music. One is really distinct. Frequently, I’d create music with four part harmony, with each hand playing two fingers at a time. It took me a while to figure out why I was composing this way.

Then it dawned on me. At the tender age of 17, I’d taken over the position of organist at my church. Playing four-part hymns through my impressionable years left its indelible mark on my handprint in music. My fingers naturally like to make that shape on the piano.

You’ll see this through several pieces including Jazz! Goes the Weasel and Snow Angels.

Late Elementary: Jazz! Goes the Weasel

Early Advanced: Snow Angels

Identifying unknown works

I believe that musical handprints are so distinct that it would be possible for a statistician to create a computer program that could process known compositions by a composer, and then predict whether an anonymous composition was created by the same person. The program would use frequency of musical events and patterns to decipher the likelihood of an uncredited piece’s origin.

I searched for this and don’t believe it exists at this time, but I predict that someday, it will.

Isn’t it fascinating that the main factor in creating a composer’s unique “sound” is their handprint?

Challenge yourself to find music handprints

Are you a composer? How has your own experience playing piano music shaped your handprint?

Have you noticed this in other composers? If so, please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Just to be silly: my cat, Mozart, also has a unique paw print on the piano.

Do you like this post and want more? In the side menu click “follow” to get notifications of my posts in your inbox.

I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤

Rebekah Maxner, composer, blogger, piano teacher. Follow my blog for great tips!

Video of the Week

Forever, Ever After (Elementary, Prep B), takes you on a journey of fairy tale endings. This piano solo with optional teacher duet will take your breath away! Available in the print and eBook Rock this Town, 11 Elementary piano works, solos and duets that develop rhythmic drive and expressive playing! Also available as the Forever, Ever After studio-licensed eSheet.

Listen to Forever, Ever After on YouTube!
Listen to a sound clip of Forever, Ever After!

2 thoughts on “A piano composer’s unique handprint: how playing shapes new music

Add yours

  1. Thank you. This was fun to read, and interesting. It reminds us that we are all unique and shouldn’t compare ourselves too much to others, but we should just enjoy who we are as individuals and experiment and learn what WE can do with our backgrounds. Neat. The cat Mozart’s paws on the keyboard was SOOOO CUTE!!!

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    1. Anna, thanks for your comment! We truly are unique, and should definitely focus and celebrate our individuality as creators of music. It’s also a call to keep expanding so that we build on our experiences and grow. I’ll give Mozart (Mo for short) an extra scratch behind his ears from you. 😉

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