Digital musicology exploration of György Ligeti's Études for piano

Mark Sexton, Malcolm Miller

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Analytical discussion about register and space in musical structure is seldom foregrounded as of equal importance to the parameters of rhythmic, harmonic and motivic processes, and where mentioned, is often relegated to the highlighting individual moments of registral interest. Yet it is striking that register and what Wallace Berry termed ‘pitch space’ forms a crucial element in the aesthetic vocabulary of modernist and postmodern composers, and especially in the music of Ligeti, for whom exploration of innovative processes formed a lifelong quest. Indeed, writing in his Music Since the First World War (1976) the British musicologist Arnold Whittall underlined that Ligeti’s technique ‘can best be discussed in terms of process rather than of argument’, and citing the Double Concerto (1972) as an example, he notes how ‘the music evolves by means of expansions and contractions, … distinctions between simple and complex textures and the use of narrow registral areas.’ Such use of register and space as process is especially telling in the piano music such as the Études, and it is fascinating to hear Ligeti himself, in a BBC Radio 3 Interview in 1997 (available on YouTube) describes this work as “tactile music, not only auditive”. He continues “These pieces are growing out of …simple ideas, then I develop them with my ears but always in feedback from my ten fingers on the piano…” Indeed Ligeti’s notion of ‘feedback’ of the hands includes motion around the geophysical environment of the keyboard, the changing registers and pitch space, aspects which take on a structural and expressive role. And Amy Bauer has written (2019), Ligeti’s compositional approach places a premium on such ‘corporeality’, linking the sonic and the tactile, as shown in Ligeti’s own sketches for Étude no.1 in which the spatial splitting of section 1 into high middle and low registers is clearly marked.

It is the purpose of this paper is to focus on the registral processes of some of Ligeti's piano Études. Looking in detail at Études no 1 and no 4 from Book 1, we aim to shed light on Ligeti's unique approach to register and its role in shaping music’s overall narrative and emotional trajectory of the études. Through a combination of computational tools and traditional musicological analysis, we will uncover the patterns, shapes and formal uses of pitch space that Ligeti employed in his exploration of the piano's sonic spaces and landscape. We first offer some background context, introduce our computational methodology, and analyse the registral processes in one or two of the first Book of Études. We conclude with more general observations about the Études as a cyclic whole and possible directions for computational analysis.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 19 Oct 2023
EventLigeti, Musica ricercata et Études pour piano – Profils d’une œuvre - Online
Duration: 19 Oct 202319 Oct 2023


ConferenceLigeti, Musica ricercata et Études pour piano – Profils d’une œuvre
Internet address


  • digital musicology
  • digital humanities
  • musicology
  • music analysis

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