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Pianos

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

With over 8,000 parts and an intensive almost year-long manufacturing process, pianos can cost as much as a luxury car, or more. For those new to buying a piano, there's a lot to know about under the hood. Here's what we learned.

FEATURES & CONSTRUCTION

The first pianos were made in Italy around the end of the 1600’s. Instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori based it on the design of the harpsichord, but instead of using quills to pluck the strings, he installed hammers to hit the strings.

First named “fortepianos” because the instrument could play both loudly (“forte”) and softly (“piano”), the piano is one of the most complex instruments. While no piano is perfect due to inherent limitations of design and construction, there are key features to look for to determine quality.

Cabinetry

  • Though a piano is like a piece of furniture, remember to look past its good looks in order to listen for quality. Extra detailing or decorations are simply aesthetic and don’t contribute to performance.

  • The case must be strong enough to support the weight of the piano. No pianos today are made out of one solid piece of wood – this can warp and crack under stress.

  • Five-ply lumber-core plywood is the most common type used in piano cabinetry. Particle board is a cheaper substitute, but may affect the piano’s overall tone quality.

  • It is hard to judge the quality of the cabinet if you are not an expert. Look for thickness of parts and note the extent to which particle board is used, the ease with which panels lift off for service, and how well adjacent parts fit together.

  • If the piano has legs, give it a gentle nudge from each corner to check for stability.

Finish

  • Most high-gloss black instruments are treated with a thick coat of polyester lacquer. This is pretty durable but can show off every scratch and fingerprint and so requires a lot of polishing.

  • Silk-gloss (satin-finish) does not show dust, fingerprints, and dirt as much as high-gloss.

  • If you like the natural wood grain of veneer, choose transparent or coloured varnishes.

  • Cheaper pianos may be finished with a synthetic outer layer, which is easier to maintain.

  • Shellac is more easily damaged and more expensive than polyester lacquer. Look at reflections in lacquer to see how smoothly the instrument has been polished. Lacquer applied on the inside panels too reduces chances of warping. Also, you will always pay extra for special colours and lacquers.

Structural and Tuning Stability

  • A piano requires a strong frame to support the tremendous tension created by the stretched strings. The frame is usually made of cast iron.

  • A well-made piano will stay in tune for a fair length of time. Pianos do go out of tune over time, both from frequent use and also lack of use. If the piano is moved, it will also affect the tuning.

Scale Design and Strings

  • Almost all piano strings are made of steel. Bass (lowest) strings are made by winding copper around a steel core.

  • Most pianos have more than 220 strings, each tuned to one of 88 pitches. The strings should be perfectly and uniformly spaced. Take a peek inside. Poorly-made pianos frequently have odd string spacing.

  • For upright pianos, “over strung” is preferable to “straight strung”. Overstrung strings are longer and produce better tone.

Bridges and Soundboard

  • Strings run from turning-pins to hitch-pins. The quality of the pin block (which holds the pins) is important because it has to withstand a great deal of pressure and tension from the strings.

  • Soundboards are often referred to as the voice of the piano and come in varying qualities. Vibrations need to pass through the soundboard quickly to produce good tone. They move the fastest if the wood has straight, fine grain.

  • The soundboard is often made of thin planks of spruce. A bigger soundboard will produce “bigger” sound.

  • Some cheaper uprights have laminated soundboards. They are better than they used to be, but you will not find lamination in the very best instruments. This is important to keep in mind when buying a used upright piano.

Action

  • An elaborate system of mechanical devices transmit motion from the keyboard to the strings. This is referred to as the “action”. The action only works well if whole instrument is properly regulated.

  • A piano with a better action plays better, feels better and lasts longer.

  • For upright pianos, “under damper” action (referring to how the strings are quietened after being hit by the hammer) is usually much more effective than “over damper”.

  • Studio or full-size verticals usually have full-size, direct-blow action.

  • Check for unresponsive or stiff keys (don’t forget the black keys), heavy touch and even playability up and down keyboard.

  • Synthetic action parts are quite widely used – especially in lower price ranges.

Keys

  • A standard keyboard has 88 keys; 36 black and 52 white. The black keys are shorter and thicker than white.

  • On some older pianos the white keys are ivory and the black ones are ebony – ivory has been prohibited since 1989.

  • Most pianos now have plastic keys or synthetic key coverings. Plastic discolours less quickly and is easier to maintain than ivory. It’s also more easily replaced if one gets chipped.

  • Some more expensive pianos still have the black keys made of wood. Some pianists prefer the feel.

  • Keys must be well-balanced, properly weighted, and they should never slap. Keys should all be the same height, and gaps between should be equally wide. The keys should never touch.

  • Grand pianos have longer keys, giving you more control over tone.

Hammers

  • Hammers are what hit the strings after you’ve pressed the keys. For a piano to sound good, hammers must be precisely regulated. This is the same for dampers, which stop the sound after you lift your finger off the key.

  • Hammers need to be evenly spaced and straight. The hammer surface should be parallel to the line of strings. Be certain to watch for this on cheaper pianos, as the hammers may not be sanded flat and smooth.

Pedals

  • Pedals, at your feet, vary the quality of the tones played when pressed. They can quieten or increase the volume of the tone, or they can prevent the damper from hitting the strings, thus lengthening the notes played (sostenuto).

  • Most pianos have a damper pedal on the right and a soft pedal on the left. Some also have middle pedals with varying purposes, such as a “practice” pedal for dampening sound.

  • Listen for any unwanted extra noises when testing pedals.

  • On some cheaper pianos, the third pedal can be purely decorative and often does nothing or the same as the left pedal.

Warranty

  • Finally before you purchase the piano make sure that a good warranty comes with it, for both parts and labour.

  • Ask if the warranty can be transferred to the new owner if you decide to sell the piano. This could increase the resale value.

  • Note the regular servicing required to comply with the terms of the warranty.

TYPES OF PIANOS

The price range of pianos is wide. Knowing the types of pianos available can help you select the one that is right for your household and your budget.

Grand Piano

  • The action of a grand piano generally allows for faster repetition of notes and for better, more subtle control of expression and tone than a vertical.

  • Horizontal construction allows the tone to develop in a more pleasing manner.

  • This piano is always the choice of concert pianists because of its high playability, but it usually costs 3-6 times as much as uprights of similar quality and condition.

  • Grands come in concert, medium, and small or baby sizes.

Upright/Vertical

  • If you are not a concert pianist (or if you have a small practice space), a vertical piano is suitable for many levels of proficiency.

  • This piano style is easier to fit in your home, easier to move and considerably less expensive.

Electronic

  • A much smaller option is an instrument that reproduces piano sounds electronically. They can be small enough to carry, but can also produce enough sound to fill a large auditorium.

  • The number of keys varies from 54-88.

  • More expensive models can be interfaced with computers and can offer a number of features, such as built-in rhythm capabilities.

  • Electronic pianos are good for apartment use since you can use headphones to quietly practice when you do not have access to real acoustic piano.

  • An electronic keyboard has less maintenance costs than a piano because there is no tuning required.

  • While they’re good substitutes for practice, electronic pianos cannot really duplicate the tone and touch of a real piano.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

When you decide to buy a piano there are a few basic points you need to consider: proficiency level of the main players, available space in your home, and your budget.

Proficiency Level

  • If the primary user is only a beginner, you may not want to spend a lot of money at first. However, do not buy a really old or cheap piano because it can be difficult to play and a beginner can get discouraged if they are fighting flaws in the instrument while learning.

  • It is best to buy a piano of slightly higher quality than your current skill level – this way you can grow into it.

  • If there are several players in the family, aim toward buying for the most advanced musician.

Space and Size

  • For an upright, you need a total of 5 feet wide by 4.5 feet deep to accommodate it, including a bench and room to sit.

  • The width of a grand piano is also about 5 feet and length varies from 4.5 to 9.5 feet. Add another 2 feet for the pianist and the bench.

  • Uprights can be more easily tucked into corners.

  • Grand pianos may need more space for aesthetic reasons, and they really do take over a room as the focal point, whereas uprights can blend in with decor a little easier.

  • Verticals are measured by height, usually full-size, studio, console and spinet.

  • The size of the piano is probably the single most important factor influencing tonal quality. The longer the strings and greater the soundboard area the greater the volume and resonance of tone. The smaller the piano, the poorer the tonal quality.

Cost

  • Money is the biggest factor preventing people from getting the piano they want.

  • Prices vary widely according to size, brand, condition, and location. New verticals of reasonably good quality begin at about $3,000 (US), and Grand pianos at about $7,000 (US) and increase significantly upwards.

  • Pianos tend to be excellent investments, provided that you chose wisely to begin with and maintain them properly.

  • It is better to save up for the piano you want rather than temporarily settle for a lesser one. Poor quality will cost you more in the long run for maintenance and repairs. You also need to consider money for moving, tuning and other maintenance – about $200-$500 (US) per year.

  • Most piano dealers aim for a gross profit margin of about 40%. This means that 40% of the retail price is profit, and the other 60% is wholesale cost to the dealer. (Note that dealers often have high overhead (large commercial showroom space, climate control, etc.), so their NET profit is actually quite a bit less than 40%.)

  • A “list price” or “suggested retail price” is usually figured on a profit margin of 50%; double the wholesale price. This leaves room for offering “discounts” and negotiating. Like buying a car, negotiating for price is considered normal.

  • You should find several sources with the same or similar models that fulfill your needs. Let the dealers of those models bid for your business. See if a dealer will match or beat other dealer’s prices. Most dealers would rather make a smaller profit than not make the sale at all.

  • Sales are rare, most discounts are usually achieved through negotiation instead, so there is no need to wait around for a sale.

  • Stores that advertise themselves as “piano warehouses” or “discount factory outlets” usually have just marked up the list price higher.

  • Some stores also offer a trade-in allowance if you already own a piano. But this means you are less likely to get much of a discount off the list price. It is better to sell an old piano yourself and put the proceeds towards a new one than do a trade-in.

Where to Start

  • Set aside time such as an hour or two a week for a couple of months to examine what’s out there.

  • Try out as many pianos as you can, even ones out of your price range to get a better understanding of quality. Try playing a grand with the lid down to better simulate what it might sound like at home without the acoustical environment of a showroom.

  • If you are new to buying a piano and aren’t certain of your abilities to pick out a good quality instrument, ask a piano teacher or pianist friend to come and help you after you’ve narrowed down choices within your price range. Having a proficient player listen and play each one can make all the difference for choosing your long-term investment.

  • Finally, you may also want to have an independent technician inspect your piano prior to purchase. Be sure the technician is not attached to the selling store or a competitor to get a fair assessment. You will likely have to pay a fee to the technician, but it’s worth it.

TEST CRITERIA

We invited 15-year-old child prodigy Avan Yu to test five pianos at a music store. He played the same Mozart sonata on each piano while we, along with Johann Krebs, an expert who has been teaching and tuning pianos for over 20 years, listened with blind folds on.

We tested:

  • 48” Empire , used, 100+ years old, upright, $880
  • Baldwin, used, 15 years old, upright, $3,400
  • 52” Petrof, new, upright, $19,000
  • 6’ 1” Yamaha, new, grand, $37,800
  • 6’10” Steinway, new, semi concert grand, $102,000

PLAY TEST

  • We all loved the sound of the Steinway. In fact we preferred the sound of the 3 biggest pianos much more than the smaller 2.

  • Avan Yu reminded us that it’s important to try out lots of different pianos before buying one – each can sound very different.

POST PURCHASE

A piano is a great addition to any home, but you must be prepared to take care of your investment:

  • Pianos do not like to be too hot or too cold. Strike a balance between what you need and what the piano needs; around 65-70ºF.

  • Pianos also react to humidity, which may be harder to control. Consider getting a humidifier depending on your environment. The dealer or technician will be able to make recommendations for your area.

  • Keep the piano away from windows and heat sources.

  • A piece of cheesecloth, lightly dampened with water is the safest thing to use to for wiping away dust and finger marks on most finishes. Keys can be cleaned in the same way. Make sure dampness doesn’t seep between keys or down into the key bed.

  • NEVER use cleaners or furniture polish.

  • Do not put pots, vases, pictures, drinks or objects of any kind on top of the piano. This can damage the finish and affect the piano’s sound.

  • Tune the piano according to how much it is used. Usually it needs to be tuned several times during the first year as it adjusts to its new environment in your home, and about twice a year after that.

  • You may also need to get the action and/or tone regulated every so often.

 

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