Nothing says it’s nearly Christmas quite like a 3D-printed robot hand busting out a festive classic on the piano. Fortunately, this year the tradition continues (or, let’s be honest, starts) courtesy of researchers from the U.K.’s University of Cambridge. Using a 3D printer, they have created a soft robot hand — attached to a robot arm — that’s able to play the piano in a variety of styles, including clipped “staccato” and smooth “legato” notes. And what better way to showcase it than with a rendition of Jingle Bells?
While this isn’t the first piano-playing robot we’ve covered, what makes this robot neat is that it can achieve this fairly complex action despite being pretty limited in its movement. For instance, the hand is unable to move its fingers independently. That’s in stark contrast to the real human hand, which is capable of incredibly fine-grained motions thanks to its various points of articulation. The fact that it is therefore able to carry out actions as complicated as playing musical phrases on the piano is a testament to what can be achieved through some enterprising design. When it comes to this robot hand and its attached robot arm, the movement really is all in the wrist. Read more here…
Yamaha is a giant of many industries, but it’s best known for its massive portfolio of instruments – pianos in particular. For over a century, it’s made everything from concert pianos, to classy uprights, to cheap plastic keyboards for beginners.
Yamaha’s $4,700 CSP-170 is one of the companies newest digital pianos, and perhaps one of the most versatile digital pianos on the market.
Along with its cheaper sibling, the $3,500 CSP-150, it borrows elements from all over the company’s piano family. It uses sound samples from Yamaha’s flagship CFX and Bosendorfer Imperial concert pianos and comes in an attractive upright body. It’s real claim to fame, however, is its ability to teach you songs using LED lights like one of those cheap plastic keyboards. Even cooler, it’s not just built in songs either – it can analyze songs in your library and create basic sheet music for it through the magic of technology.
You don’t often see those kinds of smarts on a piano of this form factor. After all, console pianos are a piece of furniture as well, even when they are digital. All those lights and buttons and doodads aren’t very attractive on what should be a classy centerpiece.
Yamaha gets around this with a few clever tricks. For one, the l lights are hidden behind a black strip above the keys, which is completely inconspicuous when the lights are off. Second, there are only three control points on the unit: a function button, a volume slider, and a power button. Everything else is controlled via an intuitive Android and iOS app.
Before we delve deeper into the smarts, it’s important to note the CSP-170 is a solid digital upright even without any of techy features.
It uses Yamaha’s ‘Natural Wood X’ keyboard action, which the best Yamaha has to offer outside of its pianos with real acoustic actions (the CSP-150 features a very similar action, except the keys are all plastic and no wood).
It’s not my favorite keyboard action in the price range – I prefer those on Roland and Kawaii’s pianos – but that’s subjective, and it’s still one that feels far more realistic than what you usually get on a digital piano. A longer pivot length than most digitals means you can play further back into the keys with less fatigue, and the keys handle quick repetitions better than some real uprights.
Browse around piano forums and you’ll see thousands of messages debating piano actions. You can learn on any decent weighted action, but a good digital action will help you better transition to the real thing. Often, the only reason people upgrade their digital pianos is for an improved action, as you can always buy a better sound engine by hooking up a PC, but you’re stuck with the action you’ve got.
Yamaha’s sound system is impressive on paper. There are four speakers positioned strategically for a more enveloping sound. Yamaha pumps 180 watts into those speakers, allowing the CSP to get much louder than you’d need in any normal home – and many venues. Importantly, they also reach far down into the sub-bass, providing a tactility to the lowest octave you rarely get on digital pianos. When I used the CSP-170 as a giant speaker for my smart device, it easily filled up the whole home.
(Here too the CSP-150 differs, only offering two speakers and 60 watts of power.)
This is all fine and dandy, but the first time I played it, I was only impressed with the sound output, not the piano tone itself. Yamaha is known for its relatively bright and clear piano tone, yet the primary two piano voices both sounded so warm to as to be almost muddy. It might’ve just been my room acoustics – it was less pronounced when using headphones – but I expected better given this is Yamaha’s flagship sound engine.
Thankfully, there’s that app I mentioned.
Plugging in an iPad mini running Yamaha’s Smart Pianist app opened up a wealth of options and controls that were far more intuitive and comfortable to use than the usual tiny display and controls on most keyboards.
The first thing I did was check if I could make the sound a bit brighter. Lo and behold, there’s a ‘brightness’ option in the sound settings portion of the app. Dragging the brightness slider up and turning down the default reverb – artificial reverb on top of your room’s own acoustics can further muddy things up – made the tone oodles clearer, and far closer to the Yamaha studio grand I practice on during my lessons. I usually practice with a piano sound engine on my PC with my own keyboard, but I felt no need once I’d tweaked the 170’s sound to my liking.
And there are a lot of tweaks, including various mechanical noises, sympathetic resonance, a binaural recording setting for headphones, and the ‘openness’ of the lid. You can even change the tuning and volume of every individual note, should you be looking for a particular sound. None of these options are particularly unique among the competition, but Yamaha’s interface is the most intuitive I’ve seen.
But the heart of the CSP-170 is in the music learning features. Unlike some other pianos with guide lights, the CSP-170 use waterfall-style “stream lights” that help you time when you need to hit the notes, not just see which notes are next. As I wrote when I reviewed the similarly luminous One Smart Keyboard Pro, I think these features are no replacement for traditional sheet music – but they can be a useful aid to motivate younger learners and total beginners, or help with speed up rote repetition for those further along.
The app itself doesn’t display any Synthesia-style falling notes and defaults to the sheet music. There’s a solid selection of built-in pieces – including practice items from common lesson books – and you can download more from the internet.
My only real problem with the stream lights is with their colors. Red is for white keys, blue is for black keys. It’s somewhat redundant, as the lights already have different shapes matching that of the keys.
I would’ve much preferred each color represent your left or right hand. Sometimes when following along with the built-in music, I wouldn’t know which hand to use for the next note, especially if the melody jumped around a lot. Still, it’s a handy feature to have, and one that’s completely optional.
I’m more enamored with the CSP-170’s ability to analyze music in your library and create chord progressions for it. Though it can’t pick out the melody lines yet, it works surprisingly well with the popular tunes I tried – pretty much anything that wasn’t too harmonically complex. You can view the chords as either sheet music or as a list of chords – great for any guitar players following along. You can even bring in singers, thanks to a microphone port as well.
Jordan Kitt’s is pleased to announce a special concert event by our friends at Maryland Winds on Tuesday, October 9th at 7:30pm at Glenelg High School in celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday.
They will showcase a great American master in the year of his 100th birthday. This exciting season opener features the intoxicating music of Leonard Bernstein. Teresa Alzadon displays her vocal pyrotechnics with the dazzling Glitter and Be Gay. Relive the rivalry of the Jets and Sharks as Michael Ford tantalizes with snippets from West Side Story. Clarinetist Tom Puwalski will amaze with the jazzy Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, written for Benny Goodman.
Jeff Goldblum has an impromptu session on a Yamaha upright piano at St. Pancras station in London, to the apparent delight of London commuters.
Jeff attests that piano abilities were the result of his childhood lessons, which likely aided him in his quest for domination not only as an idiosyncratic leading icon, but also a master of Chaos Theory.
Your children can a head start in life also, with piano lessons from Jordan Kitt’s Music here
If you’re going to enjoy a lifelong hobby, you can’t beat the benefits of playing a musical instrument. In addition to bringing joy to yourself and any listeners you might have, you’re doing great things for your brain.
Marie Hampton, who has been playing the piano for more than 80 years, believes the science. “I don’t think I would continue to function if I didn’t play the piano!” she says. “I think it really helps you hang onto your brain. It’s mental exercise.”
Marie lives at Splendido, an all-inclusive community in Tucson for those 55 and better. She and her husband Joe moved there in 2012, and they had an interior wall in their new apartment home removed and another one moved to accommodate her 7-foot grand piano.
Marie plays popular music for residents at dinner time, using the piano situated in a hallway outside the restaurant entrances at Splendido. She is also the accompanist for the Splendido Singers, and shares piano-playing responsibility for Vespers in the community.
Building Benefits over a Lifetime
Marie has studied piano her whole life, from when she was four years old to when she moved to Splendido. She recalls, “When I was a very small child, my brother was taking piano lessons from a German piano teacher in North Platte, Nebraska—a 32-mile drive from our small town of Paxton. My mother would drive us in and I’d sit and listen to his lesson.”
She begged her mother to let her take lessons but was told she was too young. “I was about four at that time,” admits Marie. She found a way around her mother by paying the pastor’s daughter her 10¢ allowance in exchange for piano lessons. “When my parents saw that I was serious, they started paying for lessons for me,” says Marie. “Later, my Grandfather Cornick saw to it that all the children in our family learned to play the piano.”
Marie’s family moved around quite a bit during her childhood. “Everywhere I lived as a child, be it Nebraska, Wyoming, Oregon, or California, I found a piano teacher,” she says. “I always got to study with somebody.” As she grew older and more skilled, she started teaching piano herself—both private lessons and in a private school. “I’d use the money I earned for my own private lessons, every chance I got!” she says. Over the years, Marie has participated in master classes and had private lessons with Lili Kraus, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Wilhelm Schwarzott, Peter Vincent Marlotti, and Rosina Lhévinne.
Noteworthy Brain Benefits
Playing an instrument on a regular basis offers multiple benefits for your brain. That’s because it simultaneously works different sensory systems in the brain along with your motor skills. This coordination of efforts provides a workout for your brain—the kind of workout that strengthens connections within the brain and keeps you mentally sharp. In turn, this can improve your memory and cognition; one study showed that musicians perform better on cognitive tests than those who don’t play an instrument.
Musical training has been proven to increase gray matter volume in specific brain regions and strengthen the connections between them. Other research has shown that such training can improve long-term memory, verbal memory, and spatial reasoning. And multiple studies have shown that playing music helps improve concentration—not just when playing, but in all areas of daily life.
It should come as no surprise that playing music can reduce stress, but it can also lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and reduce anxiety and depression.