The Art of the (Piano) Reduction

Piano Reduction – noun

‘A musical score having the parts condensed or simplified in two staves, 

to render the music playable on the piano by one person.’

Ha. Hahahaahaaahah. Ha.  ….   Clearly, whoever wrote this definition has never seen most piano reductions.

Today, we explore two major problems around the “reduction” occurring in most choral and orchestral music today:

  1. This definition – particularly the part declaring that a reduction should ‘render the music playable on the piano by one person’ – has been ignored due to pure ignorance or laziness on behalf of the composers and arrangers. 
  2. Pianists either aren’t taught the necessary skills to read open score or multiple clefs, or haven’t invested in learning these skills.

I enrolled in 15 weeks of piano lessons during my sophomore year of college despite having a full plate as a music ed/saxophone/organ major. And yet, that one semester contained some of the most foundational and lasting lessons I have ever learned and found useful in my music career. I studied two skills in particular: jazz voicing (the work of Jimmy Amadie) and score reading (Morris/Ferguson). 

amadiebook2prep exercises in score reading

The latter provided extensive exercises for reading multiple clefs and open score passages. I cannot stress the importance of these studies and the impact on my career as a professional pianist working with conductors, choirs, students, and composers. Through these various experiences, I have seen and played many piano reductions over the past two decades. So, let’s take a closer look at what a reduction is, why we should bother, and what it should look like.

What is a reduction, really?

Again, per the definition, a reduction seeks to condense parts into two staves for use by a single pianist at the keyboard. Some reductions are notated in a separate stave, while others simplify the actual parts to make them readable by a pianist. While the following applies to both orchestral and choral music, let’s use choral music to demonstrate how it is commonly seen IRL. Most choral scores are notated in one of the following formats:

1. Short score: more common form and often used for standard octavo repertoire for church and school. Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 3.22.40 PM

Soprano and Alto parts are placed together with opposing beams in the G-clef;

Tenor and Bass parts are placed together with opposing beams in the F-clef;

PROs: easily read by pianists; vocalists can quickly see relationship to other parts

CONs: vocalists must focus more to read their part alongside a different part

2. Open-score: often seen in choral-orchestral music, collegiate/professional level editions, coro spezzati, or any time when the voicing may exceed four parts for the choir.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 3.22.58 PM

Each individual vocal part receives their own stave

99% of the time the tenor part is placed in the sub octave clef (example above)

PROs: easier to read for vocalists as they have a dedicated stave to their part

CONs: harder to read for pianists (particularly when reading multiple divisi scores (SSAATTBB), and certainly when reading orchestral scores with 13+ parts and multiple clefs and transpositions


WHY bother?

Although short-score tends to be the norm and therefore removes the need for a piano reduction, open-score format often requires clef-reading, transposition, and mental skills to be able to effectively and efficiently play the music from the piano. Much to the surprise of most conductors (see one blogger’s thoughts in Rule #3 of this article), this is not easy.

I recently served as the pianist for the Colorado Symphony Chorus’ production of Aida with the Aspen Music Festival. It’s Verdi – so already fairly complex – but the piano/vocal score is absolutely frustrating. Here’s a snapshot of two pages for an idea:

IMG_4098 IMG_4097

The photo on the left shows two sections of choral parts in open-score (SATB and TTBB), with a piano reduction of the orchestral parts. The photo on the right shows six solo parts (SSTTBB), a choral part (TBTB), and again, an orchestral reduction.

The conductor(s) expect the pianist to play all of it, maintaining the integrity of the orchestral parts while providing support to the vocalists. On one hand, the orchestral reduction is fairly on point. On the other hand, there is no choral reduction to aide quick reading.

You can see from my notes that when I arrive at a section when I don’t have time to think instantaneously to determine the part, clef, and vertical harmony, I quickly jot down my own reduction or simplification of the harmony so my fingers know what to do without focusing on a particular stave. Again, thanks to the Morris/Ferguson book above, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading open-score at sight, but when you have 300+ pages of this, it’s a real challenge.

So, What SHOULD it look like?

First, I re-address the second problem I mention at the top of this article and offer a solution: pianists need to learn the skills to read scores in any format. Learn your transpositions, clefs, how to read open-score, and improve your knowledge of theory and harmony to predict what’s coming and quickly identify chords. Teachers – please include these skills in your lessons.

If you’re a composer or arranger or conductor that is putting music to paper,  here are six basic rules that I humbly submit when considering a piano reduction:

1. Don’t consider it – do it. Music notation is cake nowadays, so just add the extra stave and your pianist will thank you for it.

2. Know what to omit. This requires knowledge about orchestration, both chorally and orchestrally. For orchestral reductions (who does write these, anyway?) identify doubling and core melodies, and make it feasible to play with 10 fingers. For choral reductions, utilize stems to identify parts, words like unison, and articulation and breath marks.

3. Keep the melody and the bass parts. 

4. Maintain the vertical harmonies, but remove those unison notes.

5. Always maintain the rhythmic integrity, but…

6. …Know what is idiomatic for the piano. Some notes shouldn’t be played in that octave on the piano. It sounds terrible. Some passages are too fast for most rehearsal pianos, particularly repeated notes. The keys won’t respond. Make it a tremolo.

With gratitude,

The Pianist

10 thoughts on “The Art of the (Piano) Reduction

  1. Incredibly useful post, thank you so much.
    Just a word about “who does write orchestral reductions, anyway”? Well, everyone did so before we listened to LPs and CDs, a long time ago. I still think for musicians who are – like me – no professionals, it adds so much trying to read the scores and trying to make a piano reduction for 2 or 4 hands. At the moment I am about to try to play parts of Sibelius 7 on the piano. And am trying to begin a piano reduction for a tenor aria from Theodora by Handel after I listened to an incredible version sung by Alexander Young. To amateurs it is horribly complicated, of course.
    I think teaching interested people how to read all kinds of scores would be simply a task even at school for those few really interested. (I know young musicians studying music and music-producing at university, unable to read any score…well they do not need it for nowadays’ electronic dubstep, they tell me). To me the humblest of tryings to get a reduction of Sibelius 7 adds a whole lot to how I listen to this piece. And, as a sidenote, it even frees me from postmodern crap I read in a book by Tomi Mäkelä where he tries, the millionths of times, to cram postmodern theory into a Sibelius biography – making it a book about how not to listen to music but blurbing about postmodernism. Just getting back to the score – feels like the music is coming back, heavenly…

  2. As someone who arranges music for piano solo from Orchestral reductions, it’s always a challenge to try and cram in as much ‘meat’ as possible, but still make it playable. A very good article.

  3. What about for those of us who don’t want to make reductions but need to find reductions composed by others? Do you have any suggestions for websites that offer this for more obscure pieces?

  4. Any suggestions for websites that offer piano reductions for more obscure pieces? I don’t want to make the reductions myself, but I do need them for several pieces that I sing.

  5. If the pieces you seek are public domain, look to both or to see if any have already been created or uploaded. If they don’t exist there, you’d have to commission a composer like myself to create one.

  6. If the pieces you seek are public domain, look to both or to see if any have already been created or uploaded. If they don’t exist there, you’d have to commission a composer like myself to create one.

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