The Keyboard as a Musical Interface

The keyboard functions as the control mechanism for a variety of musical instruments, from harmoniums to carillons. The haptic experience of keyboard playing thus links together instruments that otherwise have little in common. As a musical interface, the keyboard enables and constrains the ways in which its users conceptualize, create, and experience music. In seventeenth-century Italy, performance canons of sacred polyphonic vocal music were shaped in no small part by the availability of organ continuo parts. Research into pedagogical partimenti in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe shows how keyboard playing and composition were intertwined during this time. The addition of a keyboard interface to the Moog synthesizer was paramount to its commercial success. But keyboards have not always been welcome: Hector Berlioz wrote of “the tyranny of the fingers, so dangerous to thought,” while synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla described the keyboard as “dictatorial,” and negative reception of the harmonium in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India hinged in part on the inflexibility of pitch that the traditional keyboard interface affords. Indeed, throughout history, the limitations of the keyboard have occupied inventors, from Nicola Vicentino to Adriaan Fokker, who have produced alternative, utopian interfaces. Finally, the haptic experience of playing a keyboard has spread beyond the domain of music-making through the adoption of the interface for non-musical devices.

This conference intends to bring together curators, instrument makers, players, and scholars to explore the ontology of the keyboard interface and its relationship to instrument design, music-making, and style.