Chopstix Stars in An Amazing Piano Video

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In case you haven’t seen it yet, please check out this remarkable YouTube video from Mark Rober (below). And don’t be put off by the rather sensational cover image, there’s a lot more here to get to grips with than just a piano catching fire—Spoiler Alert: it doesn’t.

Mark Rober is an engineer and inventor (he’s ex-NASA, and worked on the Mars rover). He is best known for his popular science YouTube channel which has an impressive 20 million-plus subscribers.

His latest project features Chopstix, a transparent Edelweiss U49 upright piano.

studio image of Edelweiss U49 upright piano with PianoDisc system fitted.
An Edelweisss U49 piano fitted with the PianoDisc system

Edelweiss pianos incorporate the PianoDisc self-playing system which can trigger up to 30 notes at once. But for the video, Rober needed the piano to play all 88 notes simultaneously. So the engineers at PianoDisc uprated the software of their Prodigy piano player system to facilitate this request.

The video begins with a super-fast description of how pianos, and player pianos, work. Nicely done, but most pianists will know this. But the section of getting the piano to talk/sing is something pretty new.

Why 88 note polyphony?

Grant Sanderson from 3Blue1Brown (another fascinating YouTube science/maths channel) neatly explains how speech can be recreated by adding together sine waves of different amplitudes and frequencies. And with the ability to play any combination of the piano’s 88 notes, all with different volumes, Chopstix can generate these waveforms and in fact be made to speak (well almost).

Fast Fourier transform diagram mapping a sound to the piano's keyboard
How sine waves are mapped across the keyboard. Image:

The slight problem here is that each note produced by a piano isn’t a pure sine wave, but a rich combination of harmonics. But, to some degree, the maths (math—US) can allow for this.

The PianoDisc Prodigy system delivers an impressive 1024 levels of expression for each note. And it is this resolution that helps Chopstix to assemble actual words.

Mark Robert and Chopstix

So Chopstix talks, which is amazing in itself. But when you can trigger 88 notes simultaneously you can do other things… like play the world’s most complex piece of piano music — the impossible version of “Rush E”!

Rush E was written by Australian composer/arranger Andrew Wrangell of The video clearly shows why it is impossible to play, but if you fancy a challenge a user-friendly version is available here.

image showing the complex geometric structure of the Rush E composition
Piano scroll showing a section of the piano composition”Rush E”

This is a remarkable video, and hats off to Mark Rober for his fun, yet informative presentation. And I think it is only fair to all concerned to add that this unique video is sponsored by the problem-solving website

Mark Rober
Edelweiss Pianos
Jared Owen (animation)
see also:
The Electromagnetc Piano
New Video Series — The Evolution of the Piano


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