What Is A Prepared Piano?

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Pianos come in all shapes and sizes, from grand pianos and baby pianos to upright pianos, but have you ever heard of a prepared piano? A prepared piano is basically one that has various objects inserted into it to create different sounds and effects.

Prepared Yamaha Grand Piano
Image by Freimut Bahlo

These pianos are altered in a way to give the pianist more versatility in their performance and can change the sound and pitch of the instrument for increased diversity of sound. So, what exactly is a prepared piano and how does it work?

What Is A Prepared Piano?

The definition of a prepared piano is a grand piano that has been altered for the purpose of some musical compositions. These prepared pianos will have different objects attached to the strings in order to alter the sound and pitch, for a more interesting and dynamic performance.

With a prepared piano, the pianist may play the keys, pluck the strings, slap the body of the piano and tap the keyboard lid in order to create sounds. Prepared pianos have been altered temporarily by adding screws, mutes, rubber erasers, bolts, and other objects onto the strings in order to change the sound.

The origin of the prepared piano can be traced back to John Cage, who wrote dance music for Bacchanale circa 1938. The initial idea was to create a percussion orchestra with just one instrument, the piano.

With a prepared piano, each key may have its own unique characteristics and timbre, and the pitch may not be easily recognizable, as they have been tweaked, altered, and changed to sound like other instruments.

John Cage’s prepared piano was created by inserting nuts, bolts, and rubber erasers into the strings of the piano to mimic percussion instruments and effects, which is an Avante-Garde solution to putting tacks on strings to replicate the sound of a harpsichord.

Who Invented The Prepared Piano?

The prepared piano was invented by noted composer John Cage. Cage was an American composer based in New York, who is largely credited with the invention of this unique and altered instrument. It is said that John Cage was initially inspired by his music teacher, who once plucked and strummed the strings of his instruments in order to create various different sounds.

However, it was John Cage himself who thought of inserting the physical objects into the instrument and its strings to further change the character of the piano.

What Is The Purpose Of A Prepared Piano?

The praised composer John Cage changed the game when it comes to piano music by integrating various objects and items into the grand piano to change and diversify the overall timbre. This in turn created the ‘prepared piano’ .

The main purpose of the prepared piano is to manipulate the sound of a piano in order to create a more percussive sound and rounded piece of music or musical performance. The avant-garde classical music composer John Cage originated the prepared piano for his piece Bacchanale, but since that, other pianists and composers have used this technique to impact the sound of the piano.

How Does A Prepared Piano Work?

For a prepared piano to work, the individual piano strings need to be either altered or muted by objects and items that are inserted by the player or composer. Many of these objects will be coins, screws, bolts, erasers, or even bits of plastic that can interact with the strings, mallets, and dampers in the piano to create various sounds or no sounds at all.

When a prepared piano works effectively, the sound can be surprising, interesting, and different from anything else you have heard. When playing the prepared piano, the pianist can either follow sheet music that is notated for the effect of the instrument, or they may improvise to create their own sound, performance, or composition.

How Is The Prepared Piano Scored?

As the prepared piano is an example of a composer or player’s innovation to create customized and more in-depth sound, it is no wonder that you are asking how on earth this instrument is scored for the purpose of sheet music.

The answer is that different composers may develop or create their own systems of scoring piano preparations and notations for playing their pieces with a prepared piano. For instance, some composers will provide piano preparations including text-based scores and graphic notation as a model for how the piano should be prepared and played.

Some of John Cage’s own scores are a great example of this, as at the beginning of each piece, he provides a key that identifies the pitch, the perfect object or material to use, and which strings to place the object to prepare the piano. There are also in-depth instructions on how the preparation should be placed and located in terms of the dampeners.

Best Pieces Of Music For Prepared Piano

The best pieces of music for a prepared piano are those like John Cage’s Bacchanale and Sonata X (1948), which you can listen to here:

You may also be interested in The Prepared Piano by Hauschka from 2005, which you can listen to here:


To summarize, a prepared piano is an innovation in the art of piano playing. With a prepared piano, the player or pianist inserts various random objects such as cutlery, metal screws, bolts, rubber, and plastic in order to manipulate and change the sound of a regular grand piano.

With this technique, the strings are altered, changed, or silenced in a way that creates a more dynamic and unique sound. Most prepared pianos are changed in such a way that they can sound like percussion instruments as well as a piano for a more diverse, interesting, and unique timbre and performance.

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