by John G. Taylor

An engineer from Mexico has developed an evil plan. He’s plotting to replace us. Miguel Adad Martinez Genis, a graduate of Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute and now a member of the insitutes’ Interdisciplinary Engineering and Advanced Technology Professional Unit, has built a robot piano player.

Rohmus took two years to build and is said to be the “world’s most advanced robot pianist.” While other robot piano players have been developed in the US, Italy, and China, those musical imposters could only move their fingers up and down. Rohmus can open and close his hands as well, allowing him to play much more complex pieces.

“The project started with research on the anatomy and physiology of the hand (and) arm, the analysis of their movements and functions. Later, I sought out piano teachers and pianists from the Fine Arts Training School, who provided me with information about movements, the speed and strength with which you have to hit the keys,” Martinez Genis said.

Music-making automatons aren’t new, of course. Pianolas have been around since the nineteenth century. They ditched the player altogether and replaced the human musician with a roll of paper and a metal drum.

Robotic Tremolo

And right from the beginning, the limitations were clear. Early barrel pianos that were operated by turning a handle played the right notes and in the right order, but with a fixed dynamic and a tremolo action very different to the natural playing of a human pianist.

It’s in that difference that we can find not just the gap between music machines and people, but the heart of music itself.

In theory, every piano player should be a robot. We feed the sheet music in with our eyes and interpret the black dots and lines into movement with our fingers. If our reading is accurate and our technique perfect, the result should always be the same: a re-enactment of the music the composer heard in his or her head when they put the notes on paper.

In practice, it doesn’t work that way. The difference is between playing and performance. Every performance is different because somewhere between the eyes and the fingers, the music undergoes an act of interpretation. It picks up additional emotion that is derived from the player: a touch of melancholy felt in a lingering note, a sense of joy in a speedy transition, an impression of suppressed anger heard in an unusually forceful reach for a key.

Attend a performance of a piano concert and you know exactly what piece of music you’re about to hear. How you’ll hear that music, though, will vary from performer to performer and from day to day. It’s the emotion that the player brings that turns the notes on the page and the fingers on the keys into more than a rendition. It turns them into music.

And no piano-playing robot, however well it can bend its hand, can bring that to a performance.

Hollywood might predict a future in which robots wage wars and battle renegade humans. And it might be right. But they won’t be playing the piano.

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