PIANO SELECTION


by Roy E. Howard

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Piano History | Piano Care



Pianos for Sale

The Author
INTRODUCTION
PIANO STYLE AND CABINET DESIGN

PIANO ACTION AND TONE PRODUCTION
STRUCTURE OF THE PIANO
SELECTING AN OLDER PIANO

 Text by Roy E. Howard 2002 Cantos Para Todos
Photos and Cartoons by Roy E. Howard 2002 Cantos Para Todos

 Manufacturers recommended care instructions

 Piano Cleaning products: http://professionalpianoproducts.com/





 INTRODUCTION

 

Buying a piano is as complex as buying a car. There is a make and model and color and style and touch and tone and price to fit every taste and every pocketbook. However, it is probably a far better investment to buy a piano than a car. For a fourth to a half of the price of a car, you can get a highly technical machine with a 300 year history of reseasrch and development behind it that will likely serve you and your grandchildren, and maybe their grandchildren. A new style of music may come, but the piano will not go away. Your car will depreciate in appearance, price, style, and operating ability, but a well cared for piano will not.

With almost one million new pianos manufactured each year in the world, you are not alone as a piano buyer. Many thousands of different brands still are on the market, either new or used. In the United States, it is estimated that 36% of the adult popoulation play the piano. There have been many books and articles written on the art of buying new or used pianos. If you want to read more deeply before buying a piano, one of the most authoritative books on this art is by Larry Fine (1988).

The following four topics are briefly covered to help in the selection of a piano: style and cabinet design, action and tone production, structure, and selecting an older piano. The first three explain the main parts of a piano to be considered in selecting an instrument, new or used.


 PIANO STYLE AND CABINET DESIGN

 

Your first consideration can well be to selct an instrument with a cabinet that matches your decor. Among the pianos tha match your needs for color, period, and style, you will probably be able to find one that also meets your requirements for tone, touch, and durability.

THE CABINET

The first thing to understand is that the exterior appearance of the cabinet has no effect on the tone, touch, or any other musical characteristic. Pianos are designed with an exterior that is furniture. The appearance may contribute to the overall aesthetic effect of seeing, hearing, or playing the piano, but the cabinet is not a part of the musical production.

The best pianos have two layers of veneer glued to a solid hardwood core. Less expensive pianos mave have only one layer of veneer, or a core that is made of pressboard. The exterior veneer is made of a furniture quality hardwood. The more expensive models will have had more care put into the selection and matching of the grains and patterns and quality of appearance of the exterior veneer.

Be careful that your selection of a style of finish matches your taste. The traditional hand rubbed lacquer so popular for bringing out the grain on American pianos for years is very different in appearance from the high gloss, thick plastic sheen popular on Asian pianos. The manner of caring for the various finishes is very different also. Be sure that you learn the manufacturer's recommendations. Most modern finishes look better and last longer with no polish or wax of any kind.

Nearly every manufacturer makes a wide variety of styles. Each cabinet is designed to match the characteristics of some popular style of interior decoration, from Chippendale to Louis XV, from Oak Satin to Snow White Polish. Illustration Seven show the variety of cabinet styles of one manufacturer. Illustration Eight shows how another manufacturer produces a variety of finishes all in the same style. Consider your current and future needs for many years to come when selecting a cabinet style.

GRAND PIANOS

Pianos come in two basic types, grand and vertical. The term "grand piano" covers every type that has strings horizontal to the ground. Some manufacturers will use a term like "small grand", or "petite grand", or "baby grand", to describe an instrument that is one of the smaller sizes they make. Measured from the front of the keyslip to the back of the case, five feet is a small grand. Some manufacturers have marketed even smaller instruments. Small and very small grands are designed for those attracted by the beauty of the grand shape, not the quality of the tone. Medium grands, around the six feet mark, are often very beautiful in tone and performance. Concert quality instruments in the seven to nine foot range are designed for the acoustics of very large performance halls. The term, "concert grand" refers to pianos around nine feet long, though some have been longer. The larger the sound board and the longer the strings, the more potential there may be for a high quality tone, though many other factors are also involved, as discussed below.

VERTICAL PIANOS

Among the vertical pianos there are instruments with long strings and large soundboards, also. Studio pianos of 45 inches in height or more are usually designed for professional or institutional use. Of all the lines of verticals produced by any particular manufacturer, these are the most rugged and durable and are designed to have the biggest sound and the best performance characteristics. In recent years some manufacturers have returned to the practice of making very tall upright pianos over 50 inches, to meet professional requirements for big sound, outstanding touch, and performance closer to a grand. A studio piano may be the most long lasting investment in a vertical for the home, the only logical choice for an institution, or the most beautiful and economical choice for you. Less special cabinetry features usually make a studio piano less expensive than an smaller but fancier model.

Console models are around 40 inches tall. Usually these are the sizes with the most variety in style and price. They are distinguished from the smaller "spinet" models by a full sized "action" that sits on the end of the keys. The spinet pianos have a "drop action"; that is, they action or mechanical part of the piano with the hammers is below the level of the keys. Drop stickers reach down to pull up on the action of a spinet. In constrast, in a console or studio, the end of the key pushes up on the action. Some people prefer the touch of a console or studio over a spinet. Also, the shorter strings and smaller soundboard of a spinet make it less suitable for a large room. However, the smaller size makes it more suitable for a small space and more economical to buy the nicest cabinet. The least expensive pianos of most brands are usually designed as spinets. Low end models may economize on the quality of the cabinet, structure, soundboard, and action as well.

In selecting a piano, consider the various factors of appearance, including quality and style of the cabinet and finish, as well as the size and type that suits your taste, performance needs, and living space. Illustrations 9 through 16 are included for your convenience in referring to the various parts of a piano. Since there is a variation in nomenclature by manufacturer, more than one brand is included. Other names may be used as well.


 PIANO ACTION AND TONE PRODUCTION

 

The action is the mechanical part of the piano. It consists of thousands of moving parts that work together to activate the musical part of the piano: the strings, bridges, and soundboard. The design and quality of the action, strings, bridges, and soundboard are what affects the touch and tone. How the piano plays and how it sounds are important considerations in buying a piano.

KEYTOPS

Since the1940s, pianos have not been built with ivory keytops. A few modern pianos have keytops cast with an ivory-like grain. All keys are made of wood and topped with some type of plastic. If the chemical process was done properly by the key company that supplies the piano manufacturer, the keys should las a very long time. If they ever need to be replaced, it is a standard procedure. Your piano tuner can send the keys to a shop to do the whole set, or can do individual keys at your home. The key to evaluating keytops is to be sure that they are covered under the warranty. If they start to crack, get the whole set replaced.

Keys rest on a center "balance rail", on a "back rail" under the action, and rock forward onto a "front rail". The balance rail and front rail have pins for each key that control the height, square, travel, and other factors of movement critical to touch. Shorter keys found on may spinets and some console pianos can be harder to balance, an important factor in how the piano responds to your playing. Try different pianos and find one that has an even, responsive touch to the keys. The adjustment and balance of the keys relative to the rails affects all of the rest of the action.


 THE ACTION

At the end of the key is a screw, wire, or sticker that is attached to or touches the "whippen". The whippen rocks when activated by a motion of the key. Attached to the whippen are a variety of mechanical parts that affect the motion of the dampers and the hammers. As the key moves the whippen, the whippen moves the damper off the string and the key toward the string. Before the hammer hits the string. Before the hammer hits the sttring, it is released form the jack which is tripped by the let off button. It flies towards the string with a velocity adjusted by the energy you apply to the key. After hitting the string, it falls backward and is caught by the backcheck, ready to play again. The damper stays off of the string until you let the key rise. If a key is stuck, or a note wont' play, or if the hammer hits the string several times, or if the string keeps ringing after you release the key, or if the tone of one note is different from the others, there is a problem with the adjustment of one of the many moving parts of the action.

In comparing the actions in different pianos, you may want to consider the weight and quality of the hammers for appropriateness compared to the length of the strings. Longer strings need a heavier weight or density of wool in the hammers. More expensive pianos will have been voiced more carefully in the factory through a series of steps that bring the moving parts of the action into fine regulation and adjust the density and hardness of the hammers to a very precise standard judged by the tone of the strings when played.

The action is one place where pianos differ, resulting in a special touch and tone for each brand and model. Here also is where individual differences appear from one piano to another of the same model. There is much individual hand work in the adjustment of keys, hammer felt, dampers, and all the action parts. Even every concert grand, on after another from the same assembly line will have a distinct tone and touch. In selecting your piano, study the claims of each manufacturer for differences, but ultimately select a piano that plays and sounds to your own standard. Every piano is unique. Select one that meets your needs for playing characteristics such as touch and tone.


 THE STRINGS

When the compressed wool of the hammer strikes the taught steel of the strings, the strings begin to vibrate. For example, the A above middle C vibrates at 440 cycles per second. The vibration is picked up by the hardwood bridge and passed on the the broad, thin soundboard for amplification. All stringed instruments operate on this same principle. Modern instruments such as the electric guitar lack a wooden soundboard, so must be amplified electronically. The design and quality of the strings, bridges, and soundboard are critical to the tone of the piano.

Each string vibrates in a complex pattern that includes a series of harmonic partials. The shorter the string, the stiffer it is, and the less in tune are the partials. Compare the tinny, harsh tone of the bass section of a spinet piano with the full, clear, powerful tone of a larger grand piano. You are demonstrating a principle of the physics of sound. Short strings cannot sound like long strings. A short grand piano cannot meet the sales pitch claims of a "majestic grand piano sound".

Each note of the treble section of the piano has three strings. The low bass has single strings that are heavily wrapped with coplper wire. There is a middle siction with thinly wrapped double strings. A better quality piano will be disigned so that the tone is not distinct when you move from one section of strings to another. It will have the hammers carefully adjusted to strike the strings evenly and squarely. If it is tunes well, the double and triple string notes will sound as one note, with no vibrato, beats, tinniness, or sourness. Each sting manufacturer claims that they have patented a distinct sound. Whenyou compare pianos, listen for buzzes, beats, tone, and loudness variations of the strings, and select a tone that matches your taste.


 BRIDGES AND SOUNDBOARDS

If you study the literature for each brand of piano you will become involved in mamy debates about how the brindges and soundboards should be designed. Since each model of piano is designed uniquely, each manufaccturer claims that their design is best. Some say that their bridges or soundboards are best because they are laminated and can be guaranteed not to split or warp for many, many years. Others say that theirs are best because thay are not laminated, that the solid spruce soundboard produces the best tone, even if it may crack. Some studies have shown that a group of impartial piano teachers preferred the tone of the mahogany soundboard over the spruce, yet that same manufacturere uses only solid spruce on the most expensive models. I have seen people reject the tone of the more expensive pianos in favor of the sound of the laminated maple soundboard on the promotional line. Furthermore, the soundobard is only and amplifier. The tone is greatly affected by every aspect of the action as well as the strings and bridges.

Before you make your selection, listen to many pianos. Form an opinion on your preference for piano tone. Keep in mind that every piano is different and select an instrument that meets your own standard for what a piano should sound like. Then set a goal to keep the tone adjusted with periodic action regulation by a qualified technician.


 STRUCTURE OF THE PIANO

The strings of the modern piano exert eighteen to twenty tons of pull on the back of the piano. This is a force comparable to weight of nine or ten cars. The early pianofortes had strings desinged with a differnt type of metal with much less tension. This high tension string not only demands a heavier hammer and a sturdier action, but a very strong structure, consisting of the pinblock, plate, and backposts. The string is strung from a steel pin driven into a laminated block of hardwood, stretched across the plate and over the bridge and arond a hitch pin at the other end of the cast iron plate. The combination of the pinblock, plate, and back psts support the tension of the strings, and are crucial to tuning stability and the length of serviceability of the instrument.

Each manufacturer will make claims about the structure of the back, such as the type of laminations in the hard rock maple pinblock, the shape of the cast iron plate, and the number size, and composition of the backposts. As you compare features, you should be forming opinions about individual models, not brands. As with every other feature about pianos, structural design varies by model within the same brand.

There are no standards for safety or quality imposed by the government. Only the marketplace influences piano design, but do not trust in the age of the company. Even the older companies will experiment with less expensive designs, and often compromise with the critical structural components because they are so expensive. It is easy to pour a little less iron into a plate, or use less material in the back, or rush the drying process of a pinblock material. If any of these crucial parts is less than satisfactory, there is no inexpensive solution. Even the best, most experienced companies havde made mistakes with these components and had to replace tuning pins, or make other major adjustments. In comparing structural components, be aware that this is a critical factor, and choose a model that is built to last.


 SELECTING AN OLDER PIANO

The first rule is selecting an older piano is that it may be a better investment to pay an experienced technician to evaluate the instrument before than after you buy it. The technician will determine the soundness of the structural elements, give a qualitative judgement about the tone and touch, and may even discuss features of the cabinet that deserve your attention.

One of the first things you want to determine is whether it can be tuned. After an inspection of the plate and back the tuner can test the tightness of the tuning pins. Over the years the wood in the pin block will expand and contract with changes in humidity and temperature. If these changes have been severe, the block can be damaged, or even destroyed beyond repair. One sign that indicates a need to check the condition of the pin block is if individual notes sound like more than one note is playing. Such a condition does not guarantee a high repair bill, but should always be evaluated to be sure.

The condition of the strings, bridges, and soundboard are critical to the evaluation of an older piano. Glue can loosen and make ribs rattle on the soundboard or create dead spots in the bridge observed when playing certain notes. Bridge pins can loosen or wear larger holes in the bridge cap resulting in individual notes making peculiar noises, or having a dead tone. Bridge parts can warp and seperate making whole sections of notes buzz or sound dull. Strings can become brittle or suffer metal fatigue and break when tuned. Unsightly cracks can affect the appearance of the soundboard, or even buzz when certain notes are played. A cracked or split soundboard can sometimes be a sign that a piano has been exposed to climatic conditions that may have damaged the unseen pinblock and make the piano hard to keep in tune. However, the best sounding boards are also the most susceptable to cracking, so do not reject a piano simply on the appearance of the board.

Most people and institutions do not insure that the action is regulated on a regular basis. That means that most older pianos you look at will not be performing at their best, making it difficult to compare them. What seems to be an unseemly feature of touch or tone may simply be a symptom that adjustments need to be made in the mechanical part of the piano. One of the most common questions directed to piano technicians is, "how much does it cost to repair a stuck key?" this is a question that cannot be answered over the phone. The most likely answer is, "nothing". It is no extra charge to remove a pencil or penny during a tuning. However, if a hammershank is broken, or a flange needs to be repinned, or a set of keys needs to be rebushed, or for any of a very large number of possible repairs there is a charge. According to the job it could be a few, or many dollars. One simple test for tone and touch is to play each noe individually and listen and feel for variations; then play your style of music to see if the piano matches your idea of what a piano should sound like.

Take a close look at the exterior of the piano. Examine the condition of the veneer and the finish. Chips, scratches, gouges, stains, and many other defects can be repaired by a qualifed touchup refinisher. It is common to replace old, broken casters so the piano rolls easier.


  Go to PIANO HISTORY
CLASSIFICATION of the PIANO
ANCESTORY of the PIANO
PARENTAGE of the PIANO
CRISTOFORI, INVENTOR OF THE PIANO
TECHNICAL HISTORY of the PIANO
PIANO PLAYING HISTORY
MARKETING HISTORY of the PIANO
 Go to PIANO CARE
Tuning
Humidity
Tuning Pins
Soundboards
Strings
The Action
The Cabinet
Moving
Go to beginning of PIANO SELECTION
Style and Cabinet Design
Action and Tone Production
Structure
Selecting an Older Piano
 The Future of the Piano