The Lippens Keyboard and MusiScript is a Lippens family affair.
It starts with grandpa, André, who at the age of 11, when for the first time he looked at a conventional piano, he could not understand why this musical instrument had been designed in such a bizarre fashion: a succession of repetitive twelve keys, seven white and five black (three plus two?) with an equal musical interval of half a tone between each key. The physical appearance of the keyboard did not correspond in any way to the intervals. What's going on? How come that if you play a chord, a scale or a tune, you need to change the fingering when starting on a different note?
André graduated as an electrical and mechanical engineer from the Ecole Polytechnique of Brussels in 1955 and spent his professional life in plastics. He understands that no one actually designed the conventional piano the way it looks now. It is instead the result of a lengthy evolution leading to the adoption of the even temperament tuning.
Nevertheless grandpa encouraged his three kids to learn how to play the piano. He paid for the lessons and followed their progress. Only his son, Luc, became very good at it. I mean very good at playing the piano, but not good at reading the traditional notation (TN). He could decipher TN but could not read it fluently and learned by memorizing the music. One day, André accompanied Luc to his piano lesson. The teacher congratulated him for his performance and set to give him additional advice. Pointing to the sheet music in front of Luc, he told him to take it back from here. To the teacher's astonishment Luc did not know where to start; he simply could not read TN fluently enough.
So, this was the beginning of our efforts, André and Luc, to do something about this piano and music notation business. André remembers suggesting to Luc to ask his teacher the following question "Why is the piano designed the way it is?". The answer came back "I don't know". So Luc asked André "Why are you asking this question? How would you do it?". This led to our redesign of the von Janko keyboard. Later, still in his youth, Luc attended the Perkins Piano Technology Institute in Cleveland, Ohio and learned from a student in the school who possessed a book entitled "Men and their pianos" that Paul von Janko had patented an isomorphic keyboard design in 1882.
In the process of moving to a new house, André looked for a house in Wayside, New Jersey, with a large and full height basement in order to accommodate a wood working machine shop. Luc, at that time was making a living tuning and refurbishing pianos. André and Luc inquired further into the history of the von Janko keyboard. They learned that several companies had built von Janko type keyboards in the New York area; that a school existed in New York city where students were taught to play the von Yanko keyboard and actually did well making unusual rapid progress in their endeavor. Yet, the von Janko fervor did not last. Reason? We suspect that the young von Janko pianists did not find many instruments around to show their skills; also, if they possessed their own piano, they must have had some difficulties moving around a 1500 lb piece of equipment. The electronic piano hadn't arrived yet!
Pursuing their inquiries, André and Luc learned that two von Yanko pianos existed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. They made an appointment with the curator of the Institute and had the opportunity to examine two von Janko pianos stored in the Smithsonian attic. They were not thrilled. The keyboards looked rudimentary. The touch-plates were relatively small giving the impression of being cramped. von Janko had acquired the reputation of being a virtuoso pianist; he toured Europe and America with great success. Yet, looking at the two keyboards in the attic, André and Luc thought that von Janko must also have been an acrobat.
We thought that we could do better. Our first endeavor was to modify an existing upright piano. Luc was familiar with all the technical aspects of the project. We machined completely new keys, defined the shape of the touch-plates, etc ... etc ... It didn't quite work the way we expected. The touch-plates were too large and the distance between them too great. There was also too much friction. So we went for a second round: smaller touch-plates neatly injection molded. There was still too much friction and also a lack of orientation on the keyboard. The keyboard was easier to play, but it looked more complicated: too many touch-plates of different colors in all directions. Hey, we have a problem we didn't foresee.
After some hesitation, we went for a third round. We solve the friction problem; we solve the orientation puzzle; but we abandon the idea of modifying an acoustic instrument. We need to think about an electronic keyboard. We don't have the resources to build one from scratch. So, where do we go from here?
In the mean time, we pursued the search for a better music notation. Not better than the traditional notation (TN) as far as providing information, but easier to read for the average amateur musician who has not spent countless hours every day for the ten years practicing TN. We were fortunate to discover a newsletter called "Music Six-Six Newsletter" edited by Tom Reed, where we learned about dozens if not hundreds of new notations. André was recently quoted in one of Tom Reed's publications, "With so many solutions there has to be a problem".
Among other interesting materials we read in the newsletter, we followed for about thirty years the story of Paul Vandervoort who is a professional musician playing the conventional piano in a band and simultaneously building at least two successive acoustic von Janko type keyboards before finally settling on an electronic model now being offered for sale under the name of Daskin. Although we never met or spoke with Paul, we appreciate the tremendous effort he has made to improve the conventional keyboard.
Luc has three kids whom he encouraged to learn music. His oldest son, Stephen, is the only one who took to it. His preferred instrument is the trumpet. He also plays the conventional piano, the French horn and some guitar. He reads TN fluently. During his high school years he assisted in transposing TN into MusiScript (MS) and feels MusiScript is much easier to read. He graduated as an engineer from George Washington University in Washington D.C. and currently develops apps for mobile tablets and phones. One of his projects is to develop a game, including a scoring feature, that will help people read MusiScript.
Where do we stand now?
We patented the Lippens Keyboard as well as MusiScript. The MusiScript notation is patentable due to the many direct correlations to the Lippens Keyboard. We are in the process of building a “piggy-back” version of the Lippens Keyboard that will overlay a conventional keyboard. We are also designing an electronic Lippens Keyboard with the hopes to make it publicially available in limited quantities.
The MusiScript notation doesn't only share characteristics with the Lippens Keyboard, it also applies to any situation, musical instrument, where TN is used, with the fundamental advantage that it is much easier to learn and use. Trying to compare TN to a natural language such as English or French, we might say that TN is made of 88 different characters; they all look the same but they are distinguished by their position on twenty-five different lines and twenty-five different spaces, with the addition of some modifiers like sharps and flats and naturals to boot. To make it even more tricky, in TN, the value of certain notes are modified, either half a tone up or half a tone down, according to the key signatures. MusiScript has only twelve different characters. They do not look all the same; they have different colors, blue and black; they have different shapes, oval and triangle (flag). They read the same in all octaves and in all staffs. From what we know, MusiScript is the only graphic notation that passes our "peeping hole test" described here. By looking thru a peeping hole a little bit larger than a note head, the reader can determine the name of the note in the octave without referring to any other note and without counting lines or counting spaces. What You See Is What You Get.
We think that countless students and amateur musicians will benefit from using MusiScript. We have developed a method to transpose TN into MusiScript and are offering MusiScript sheet music as well as custom transposing from TN to MS.
Once the Lippens Keyboard and MusiScript take hold, the general public will have the ability to become musical participants rather than just spectators.