If you are thinking of buying something expensive like a piano you may want to know a bit (or perhaps a lot!) more about the subject so you can make an informed choice. This section is designed to give a crash course in pianos and can be used as a guide and aid to buying a piano.
A few useful terms:
This will probably be the first technical term you will come across when faced with buying a piano. For many people it’s enough to know that Overstrung is the ‘good one’ and Straight Strung is the “bad one”. If you want to know more read on; if not just skip to the next bit!
Over a hundred years ago a certain problem dogged the world of pianos. The simple problem turned out to have a beautiful solution.
You can imagine a conversation between Beethoven (already probably deaf) and John Broardwood the piano maker who sent a pianoforte grand by ox cart over the Alps for the Maestro to play. At best a feat of undying love for the instrument, at worst a very long-remembered publicity stunt.
“BUT I CAN’T HEAR IT!!! Why can the lowest notes not boom out like the beautiful middle of your piano?”
“I’m sorry Maestro, you see it is just not possible. The low notes must be at the corner of the soundboard and thus cannot resonate as much as the middle notes. (see fig 1) It is the nature of the instrument and can never be changed…” Broadwood did try by dividing the bridge into two, but this was only half the answer.
It took a young American upstart to change all this. Born in Germany and, as the story goes, having made his first piano on the kitchen table in 1825, he moved to New York in 1849 and Steinweg became Steinway and Sons and started to write the rule book of what we still call the Modern Piano.
As for the problem which dogged the world of pianos Steinway solved it in one fell swoop. He simply cut off the offending end of the bridge and stuck it in the middle of the soundboard (almost) thus making the bass boom just like the middle notes.(fig 1)
The bass strings are raised over the ones they cross giving rise to the term Overstrung (and sometimes cross-strung). Steinway exhibited his first iron framed, overstrung piano in 1855, which was eventually patented in 1859, the same year Darwin published his Origin of Species.
Before Overstringing, all the strings on one bridge (fig 2). Not generally a good type of piano. All modern pianos made now are without exception Overstrung.The straight strungs have became discontinued and obsolete, although interestingly Broadwood hung doggedly on to the straight strung (and made some wonderful exceptions to the rule).
In an upright, the dampers can easily be spotted if you peer inside a piano. They are pressed against the strings and lift up when you press the right pedal. A good piano will have its damper UNDER the hammers see (fig 3). An inferior, antiquated piano will have its dampers OVER the hammers,obscuring them from view (fig 4).
You can therefore confidently say you are looking for an “Overstrung Under damper”.
“Nothing has brought home to me more forcibly, the nature of the pianoforte than a scene from a Marx Brothers film seen many years ago. In this scene the dumb character Harpo sets about destroying a concert grand by furious hammer blows. When he has succeeded in reducing the lid, the body, the pedals and the keyboard to an unrecognisable mass of rubbish, only the inner cavity- soundboard, strings and iron frame-surviving, Harpo is seen to realise that this part of of the piano not only looks exactly like a harp but can be played like one, which he then proceeds to do, most beautifully.”
This is the opening paragraph from the excellent ‘Piano’ by Yehudi Menuhin music guides.
The workings of pianos are often a mystery even to most advanced pianists, yet the principles are really very simple.
The first photograph (fig 5) shows the BRIDGE mounted on the SOUND BOARD. This is identical to the bridge of a violin resting on its soundboard.
The STRINGS press down on this BRIDGE thus transferring and amplifying the sound. The strings are strung across a CAST IRON FRAME. This frame has to be very strong (and therefore heavy) to withstand the tension of the strings.
The second photograph (fig 6) shows a frame being replaced.
The third photograph (fig 7) shows the replacement of STRINGS which are held (on the left hand side) by a TUNING PIN.
If we add the mechanism (ACTION) which transfers the pressing of a key to the striking of a hammer, we have all the constituent parts of a piano, all of which is housed in a CASE.
The workings of the action are too complex to be dealt with here and I would refer you to the bibliography for a more comprehensive description. However the workings of an action can easily be appreciated by a lay person. It is surprising both how few people (even professional pianists) are fully aware of the workings of the action and how fascinating a subject it is.
So here goes…
This quick test will allow you not only to appreciate the workings of a piano but also assess the REGULATION of a piano (setting the action back to ‘factory settings’ to borrow a phrase from IT). There are several POINTS of REGULATION (little adjustment screws)per note which allow for the subtle and exacting art of regulation.
It will make life easier if you have a piano handy to test as you go along.
Lift the top lid of the piano and you will see the hammers.
Put your finger on a note (say middle C).
VERY SLOWLY press the key down. If you hear a note, you have pressed too fast.
You will see the HAMMER (FIG) slowly approach the strings (you will see there are three per note known as a TRI-CHORD).
When it reaches ABOUT HALF the distance, the DAMPER (the white felt which was pressed up against the string) will begin to lift. The hammer continues its slow journey towards the string. Then just before reaching the string (about a millimetre and a half away) it stops (SETS OFF) and drops AWAY from the string before coming to rest a few millimetres away from the string.
This is known as ESCAPEMENT. (it means the hammer is ‘thrown’ towards the strings rather than being pushed onto them by the action.)
But that is not all!
A piano has DOUBLE ESCAPEMENT.
This can be tested even more easily. Watch the hammer again very carefully.
Play middle C again but this time with force to produce a note in the normal way and keep your finger on the note after it has sounded.
Rather than returning to its starting point the hammer now comes to rest about a finger’s width from the string (IN CHECK)
The reason for this ESCAPEMENT is so that the note can be sounded again without going all the way back to rest position thus improving the REPETITION.
Both the above tests apply to a grand piano as well as an upright. There is also one further test that can be carried out.
Look down at the hammer ( you will need to slide the music rest forward to see clearly).
Play the note firmly in the normal way.
Leave your finger pressed down then VERY SLOWLY lift your finger upwards to release the key.
Something rather unexpected happens!
Rather than falling back to its rest position, in a grand the hammer GOES UPWARDS towards the string again as the key is SLOWLY released. Only when the key is almost fully released does the hammer fall back to rest.
This rising of the hammer is caused by the REPETITION SPRING and makes for faster repeating of a note. It is one reason a grand is better than an upright piano.
There is one final test which can be very telling.
Look down into the workings of the piano and slowly press the sustain pedal (Right).
The DAMPERS should all lift off the strings PERFECTLY together.
This is a very simple yet very effective test of any piano. In a poorly regulated piano dampers will lift in an uneven way with some lifting before others.
You probably have a picture in your mind’s eye of what your piano will look like. Perhaps a sleek shiny black grand or a victorian upright with candlesticks and ornate carving.
You have to live with the piano so you might as well enjoy looking at it. It might not seem like the best starting point but if you find a piano ugly even if it is a superb instrument you are very unlikely to purchase it.
If you have in mind a pretty victorian restored piano BE WARNED.
Firstly, if you live in a modern house an elderly piano is not usually suitable. Modern houses (built in the last 20 years or so) are usually too dry for an old piano which was built long before the advent of central heating. Modern houses are usually super-insulated and have smaller flues than older houses which makes them too dry for the wood in old pianos causing them to be UNSTABLE (go out of tune too quickly).
Thus for a modern house, a modern piano is by far the best option. Or a period piano that has been REBUILT. (A new piano in an old case).
If, on the other hand you live in an older house you can choose any type of piano old or new. However, whatever you choose, you must have a suitable position for a piano – at least a metre away from a radiator.
You may have had an upright for many years and be progressing on to a grand. You may have no suitable location for an upright which requires wall space AT LEAST A METRE AWAY FROM A RADIATOR (this cannot be over-stressed!) whereas a grand sits in the middle of a room. Perhaps you are buying for investment or have simply always wanted a grand in that bay window!
What are the advantages of grand over upright?
As has already been mentioned above, a grand has superior repetition.
A grand will usually have a fuller sound (more dynamic range) which makes it more rewarding to play. The sound is also more projected particularly when the lid is up making for an altogether more impressive tone. Added to this are the middle sostenuto and left una corda pedals which are usually only available on grands.
Upright pianos cost less than grand pianos.
A large upright is often equal to a small grand in tone quality.
Easier to house in an average size house if there is suitable wall space.
The ailments of older pianos (like older cars) are many and various.
Contaray to popular belief, pianos do not last forever. They do last a long time – perhaps 75 years. Many secondhand pianos are well over this age and, quite simply, past their sell-by date. As can be easily verified on eBay or similar, most old pianos are usually, unfortunately worthless. Pianos can be rebuilt, but this costs far more than the price of most new pianos.
As mentioned above, there is really no point restoring a piano with major faults. Occasionally a piano will have significant sentimental value and this could be a reason for pouring good money into a piano which has essentially passed its sell by date but I try hard to talk people out of it. GOOD STARTING MATERIAL is of the utmost importance.
The parts of a pianos action are designed to be replaced. The springs (3 per note on an upright) have a limited life span, they become tarnished and eventually break. Felt and cloth, although incredibly hard wearing become compressed and eventually wear out. If a piano has regular use its parts should last comfortably for 30 years or so before needing replacement.
All the wearable parts of a piano, down to the smallest spring, are replaceable. If only other machines were so user friendly!
It goes without saying that work must be carried out by a qualified professional. There is as much work regulating the piano (getting it to play like it did when it left the factory) as there is in replacing parts.
This can be a bit difficult. Paying another technician/tuner to look over the piano is a good option, however sometimes a tuner may pick faults partly to justify their fee or perhaps because they have their own restored piano for sale!
The only way to make a truly safe decision is to buy from a reputable dealer with a substantial guarantee (traditionally 10 years.)
Read the Inside Information above and try the tests out.
This often-heard sentence strikes fear in even the most hardened piano restorers. The term “cheap piano” means one which does not work very well. You do not give a learner driver a car with bad brakes and clutch!
1. Buy a cheap electric keyboard to see if the interest is there. We sell very good value digital pianos. Have a look.
or 2. Save up and buy a worthwhile piano.
There are always better pianos, you must find the right one for your needs. As a general rule, prices start between £1000-£1500.
But remember, a good instrument will always hold its value and as long as you buy wisely and maintain it properly, you have made a sound investment.