Piano Questions and Answers
A piano makes its sound by having tuned strings which are struck by hammers. When a key is depressed it activates a mechanism which throws the hammer at the appropriate string (or strings) and lifts the damper off to allow the string(s) to vibrate freely. The hammer strikes the string, bounces off and is caught by a checking device. The string(s) vibrate at a set pitch or frequency (different for each note). The strings are stretched tightly across "bridges" which are mounted on the "soundboard" to which the vibration is transferred. The sound is amplified by means of the soundboard which is a large flat piece of wood which effectively acts as a large loudspeaker.When the key is released, the hammer falls back to its normal resting place and the damper is pressed back onto the string(s) to stop the vibration and thus the sound.
The sound of a piano is made by hammers hitting the strings. There are bass strings and treble strings.
The bass strings, found at the left hand of the piano, produce the lowest notes. These are made of a steel core with copper wound onto it. When the strings are new they are very shiny like polished brass but they soon tarnish and become dull. When bass strings are very old the tone becomes deader. Sometimes the copper windings become clogged with dirt and the string just goes "donk" when struck!
The treble strings, found at the right hand of the piano, produce the highest notes. They are made of steel, the highest (thinnest) being gauge 13 (0.03 inches) and the lowest (thickest) being around gauge 22 (.048 inches). They are together in threes, called a trichord.
There are over two hundred strings in most pianos. Each string is under a tension of up to 220 pounds. This means that the combined tension can be twenty tons in a concert grand! (Less in smaller pianos). This enormous force is kept in check by a very strong cast iron frame. (Some old pianos have a wooden frame. This tends to move under the tension of the strings and the tuning is not stable in these.)
The string tension is held up (and can be adjusted) by the tuning pins. The bottom end of the string goes over a "hitch pin" and the top end of the string goes through a hole in the tuning pin and is wound round three or four times.The piano is tuned by adjusting the tension on each string. This is done by winding the tuning pin tighter or looser.
This refers to the type of stringing applied to upright pianos (almost all grand pianos are overstrung). All modern pianos are overstrung apart from a very few ultra small short compass examples.
Overstrung pianos have their bass strings fitted diagonally from the top left of the piano (uprights) to the bottom right "over" the treble strings which go from top right to bottom left. In an overstrung frame, the diagonal lengths of most of the strings provide a richer sound than its straight-strung counterpart.
In a straight-strung frame, all the strings are strung parallel, and are vertically (or obliquely) positioned, whereas in the overstrung frame the bass strings are strung over the middle section in an `X' style.
What are "overdamping" and "underdamping?"
The terms overdamped and underdamped apply to upright pianos only. Overdamping is where the dampers are above the hammers, near the top of the strings. This method of damping is not as effective as underdamping and the notes on an overdamped piano often tend to "ring on", this is where the note continues sounding even when the key has been released.Underdamping is where the dampers are below the level of the hammers. The dampers are near the middle of the strings and so the damping is quite effective. This arrangement usually gives a nice clean note cut off once the key is released. See an example of an underdamped action.
This is the mechanism between the keys and the strings that controls how the piano responds to the key presses. Sometimes the word action is used to describe the way the piano responds. Click here to see a virtual grand piano action working
Regulation or action regulation is essential to having a well responding piano. Regulation is the setting up of each part of a piano action so that it does exactly what it should. This involves leveling the keys, fixing any broken action parts, and setting up each action part to its correct position / travel etc. A regulated piano has a uniformly graduated touch response and tone throughout its compass.
This is an overdamped piano where the dampers are controlled by long wires which are connected to the back of the whippens. Thus the action looks like a birdcage.
Concert pitch means merely that the note A above middle C is vibrating at exactly 440 times per second. Assuming that the piano is in tune with itself the whole piano is "at concert pitch."
Sometimes, in older pianos, the frame will not take the strain of concert pitch (the higher the pitch, the more tension on the strings and frame). This means that it has to be tuned "lower", "flatter", or "down." This is where, with the piano in tune with itself, A above middle C would be vibrating at less than 440 times per second.
A common pitch for older pianos is "one semitone down." This means that if you strike the C key it will actually make the sound B, if you strike an F key it will make the sound E, etc. When a piano is tuned "one semitone down" you cannot use it to accompany other instruments unless you transpose all the piano music back up a semitone (which is a feat done only by rare musicians!). It also plays havoc with people with "perfect pitch," as their hands tell them one thing and their ears tell them another.
Grand pianos come in many different makes, types, and sizes (see below for the different sizes). Grand pianos are considered to be better than upright pianos for two reasons:
- The bass strings are longer (in a six foot or larger grand) than in an upright piano. As the tone of a piano depends mainly on the length of string, the longer the better.
- The "Roller" action found in modern grands gives a much better playing response than the best upright pianos vertical action.
Concert grand pianos are over nine feet long. The sound they produce is very powerful. Some models even have an extra eight keys in the bass so they have ninety six notes all together (compared to the usual eighty eight or eighty five.)
Baby grands go down to four foot in length, but their sound may not compare favorably to a good uprighy.
Today, grand pianos are classified by size. We have provided the older names as a point of reference.
5' 8" or smaller Baby Grand 5' 10" Boudoir Grand 6' (183 cm) Professional Grand 6' 4" (193 cm) Drawing Room Grand 6' 8" - 6' 10" (203 - 208 cm) Parlour, Artist, Salon or Music Room Grand 7' 4" (224 cm) Half Concert or Semi Concert Grand 8' 11" (272 cm) and larger Concert or Orchestral Concert Grand
(Credit to Arthur A Reblitz's book Piano Servicing, Tuning and Rebuilding for the list.)
A sticky note is one where the note does not respond quite as it should e.g. it can be played once, but the key or the action does not return to its original position.
There are many causes of sticky notes!
Common symptoms / causes and cures (upright pianos)
The note is played and the key stays down:
The key is free but the action has not returned:
- The key itself is physically stuck down:
- The front of the key is fouling on the slip rail
- Slip rail is warped - shave some off or reposition it
- The front bushings are binding on the key pin
- The key pin is rusty - clean or replace
- The bushings need lubricating and / or easing
- The note is played and the key returns but when struck again the note does not sound
- The hammer has not returned
- The tape has broken - replace
- The hammer flange is stiff - lubricate or repin
- The butt spring is broken - replace
- combination of the above
- The jack (spiral spring) has not returned under the hammer butt
- The jack is broken - replace
- The jack flange is stiff lubricate / repin
- The key capstan is adjusted too high - adjust down
- The whippen has not returned to its correct position
- The whippen flange requires lubrication / repining
- The front of the whippen (or the frame) is fouling - shave some off (leave this to a professional!)
- The damper spoon is corroded / caught against back of damper bottom (underdamper only) - replace damper box cloth and / or clean / replace spoon
Piano caseworks are finished in several different ways. Modern pianos often have a black polyester finish or another synthetic finish. These are very durable but still need to be looked after with care. The best thing to do is simply use a wax-impregnated duster.
Older pianos are often "French polished" which is a process which many layers of fine polish are built up and cut back to produce a very shiny finish. Some cheaper old pianos are brush polished and veneered or simply scumbled. Some rebuilt older pianos are spray polished with French polish or another synthetic finish such as a lacquer. These old pianos do not take kindly to any kind of spray on furniture polish which contains silicone (most do). A beeswax polish is the best thing to use as this will bring out the shine of the piano.
For more information on maintaining your piano, visit our piano care page.
How often should my piano be tuned?
This is a matter of personal taste. There are two extremes. Some people never have their pianos tuned because they say "I am tone deaf" (which is a myth). Pianos used for concerts are usually tuned before each concert and often during the intermission as well!
Most domestic pianos require tuning every six months. This is not because they suddenly "go out of tune" at the six month mark. It's because they are gradually going out of tune all the time, but it's after about six months that most people notice the piano sounds "off."
This depends very much on the make of piano, the type of piano, its age, general condition, and many other factors.
Cristofori's gravicembalo col piano e forte was designed after the pattern and usage of the harpsichord to meet the demands of the ever more technical keyboard compositions (for more information about the pre-history of the piano, visit our ).
The piano forte did not attract much attention in the early 1700's. Builders simplified the action for ease of manufacture, eliminating the escapement and the check, the two features most essential to good control over dynamics and articulation. The piano forte was grouped with other keyboard novelties of the day and few were made.
Many developments by numerous independent builders and design engineers since 1700 resulted in a wide variety of cabinet styles, tones, and touch characteristics. Many combinations were rejected through the years, so that the "modern piano" is the result of a natural selection of the most popular features to date and will continue to evolve as needs and tastes change.
In the 1760s and 1770s, more significant advancements began to appear. For example, Johann Andreas Stein of Vienna included an escapement on his piano that pleased Mozart in 1777. Johann Christian Bach was the first to perform in public on the piano forte in England. His promotion of the small, "square" pianos of Johannes Zumpe made them fashionable. By the late 1770's, hundreds of the Zumpe-style pianos were being made each year by various s builders in England. It was a small, rectangular Instrument with a simple action without escapement or check. The sound was louder and brighter than a clavichord and more capable of musical expressiveness than a spinet (small harpsichords popular at that time).
By the late 1700's, John Broadwood and Company had made many improvements by taking a scientific approach to design. Broadwood's "grand" piano action had escapement and check. His scale was engineered by a scientist for proper string length, composition, and striking point of the hammer. The large, harpsichord-shaped case was sturdy, and concern was given to the balance of string tension. At that time, some manufacturers began to build various types of upright pianos. A number of devices for sustaining or altering the tone were added. Several dozen manufacturers In London were producing less than 40 pianos per year each by 1800. In contrast, Broadwood, with a factory employing 300 technicians, was then making 400 pianos per year.
1791 and 1815, 135 keyboard instrument builders are listed
in Vienna and many changes were being made in the piano. Key
color changed to white with black sharps, having previously
been the reverse. Cases became heavier as longer, thicker,
higher-tension strings were used with large hammers. By 1820
the typical Viennese grand piano was nearly 2.5 meters long,
with a range of 6 or 6 1/2 octaves, and had two to six
pedals each activating some device to alter the tone of the
Around 1800, iron bracing began to be used to strengthen the frame which allowed the use of heavier hammers. Many types of hammer coverings were tried to replace the harsh toned leather covered style of early days. By the middle of the 19th Century, felt over wood became the norm for hammers. Improved actions were more complex for grands and included a sticker or stick reaching up from the end of the key to operate the upright pianos, which at that time were more like awkward, upended grands.
In the early 1800s a smaller
upright "cottage piano' and a larger square piano were
developed for the popular market. Large numbers of there
were sold In England and France to those who could not
afford a satisfactory musical instrument but were enthused
by the piano's charm and appeal.
The first piano built in the United States was made in 1775 by Johann Behrent in Philadelphia. The first American piano patent was applied for In 1796. The first U.S. born piano manufacturer was Jonas Chickering. He started his firm in 1823 and became successful and innovative In piano design. His full cast iron plate for the grand made possible more advances In string tension and a resultant big piano sound. Heinrich Steinweg immigrated to New York from Germany in 1853, changing his family name to Steinway. The Steinway and Sons piano company that he developed made significant improvements in reliability and resilience.
In the 1860s, Steinway applied the new piano technology to the uprights, opening a new era of piano manufacture. Specialty houses began to supply standardized parts to manufacturers. Expensive, technical procedures were replaced by efficient assembly line techniques. Quality pianos could then be built by every size of manufacturing firm. Traditional European builders resisted these changes and American manufacturers, following the Steinway manufacturing model, took the lead in world trade. Square grands consisted of 90% of the U.S. market in the 1860's, but were almost entirely replaced by grands and especially the uprights by the 1890's.
The 18th and 19th Centuries were an age of innovation, trial, and error in piano design. Every style and combination imaginable was attempted, including building into the piano a harpsichord, an organ, or harmonium, disguising the piano as some other type of furniture, or installing innumerable devises to alter the tone. One Interesting experimental category is the "Sostente Pianos", referring to the attempt to make a sustained sound like the organ or the violin. Methods attempted include:
In the 1890's, the "reproducing pianos" (commonly called player pianos today) started to gain popularity. The earliest type of player was a device that was pushed in front of the piano. While the operator pumped the foot treadles, the player mechanism played on the keys with wooden "fingers." In the early 1900's manufacturers began installing player mechanisms inside the large upright and grand pianos. By 1904, mechanisms and rolls were developed that more effectively reproduced the special nuances of the performer. One such, the Welte-Mignon (Germany) was available in 115 brands of pianos. Many famous artists made piano roll recordings, most of which are still available today. The popularity of reproducing pianos reached its peak In the early 1920's. After The Depression, sales never recovered due to alternatives to reproduced music that were less cumbersome and expensive, such as the gramophone and the radio. Player pianos are still manufactured today In many styles, both old fashioned and modern, large and small Some play the old style paper rolls, others use electronic media such as tape or disk.
In an effort to recover from the devastation of the Great Depression, manufacturers who remained created new styles to stimulate interest. Like the markets of the 18th Century, the mid-20th Century emphasis had to be on economy rather than quality, and appearance rather than performance. Thus, the great number In the 1930's and 1940's of varying styles of small pianos such as the "baby grand" (small horizontal piano).
Most pianos built after 1900, and many of the pianos of the 1890's and 1880's, reflect modern technology, style, and performance. They are similar to the modern piano of today in most respects. Reblitz (1974, p.l) divides pianos into three chronological periods: 1700-1830 "antique", 1850-1900 "Victorian", and 1900 to now "modern". These demarcations generally are characterized by the style of cabinetry as well as the maturity of the action design and quality of the tone production of each period. That the piano has been popular can be exemplified by the fact that over 5000 different brands have been produced (Reblitz, 1965).