Piano Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)


by John M. Zeigler, Ph.D. and William Leland, D.M.A., R.P.T.
Rio Rancho, NM USA


he modern piano is a complex mechanical device with hundreds of separate parts, much like a car in that respect. Also like a car, it constitutes a major investment. Here we compile answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about pianos, their construction, purchase and maintenance, and use in lessons. Also below, you'll find links to other parts of The Piano Education Page with more extensive information about pianos, as well as links to other useful sites. There is considerably more information about pianos and their maintenance on our Learning to Play page.




Piano Basics and History

Q: How and why was the piano invented?
The mechanical genius Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano around 1700. The name piano is actually a shortened version of the Italian term pianoforte, meaning soft-loud, and referring to the fact that the pianoforte could produce sound volume covering a much larger range than its predecessors, the harpsichord and clavichord. To get more of the story behind the invention and evolution of the piano, see our article The Why of the Piano.

Q: Is the piano a string instrument or a percussion instrument?
The piano is really a "hybrid"--a combination of two types. It's a string instrument because the musical tones originate in the strings; and it's also a percussion instrument, because the strings are set into vibration by being struck with hammers.
To be historically correct, it's classified as a "keyed zither" by musicologists.

Q: What types of piano are there?
There are two basic types: Grand pianos have their strings and soundboard parallel to the floor, and Verticals (or Uprights) have their strings and soundboard turned up perpendicular to the floor. Both kinds come in different sizes and styles. Grands can be anywhere from 4 and a half to 9 and a half feet long. Uprights can be 52 or more inches high; around 45 inches ("studio uprights"); about 40-42 inches ("consoles"); and as low as 36-38 inches ("spinets").

Q: Why does the piano have 88 keys?
Well, the piano started out with only about 60 keys, same as the harpsichord--in fact it WAS a harpsichord, except that the harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (try saying that 10 times fast!) got the bright idea of putting hammers on one (to HIT the strings) instead of plectra (to PLUCK the strings).  So the piano was invented--this was around 1700, or maybe a little before that. Anyway, as composers began to use the new instrument they started writing more and more complicated and brilliant music for it. Pretty soon, the keyboard had to expand in both directions.  By the middle of the 19th century, it had 85 notes--up to A--then finally they added the last three at the top. There's even a piano made today--the Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand--which has 96 keys; the bass notes go all the way down to C.  It's nine-and-a-half feet long and weighs almost a ton.

Q: How many strings does a piano have?
It depends on the piano. Each note has three strings in the treble, two strings in the tenor and part of the bass, and only one in the very low bass. One of ours has 65 trebles (X 3=195), 12 tenor/bass (X 2=24), and 11 single low bass, so it comes out to 230. But that's a large grand, so you need to look in your piano and count them up.

How the Piano Works

Q: How does the piano create sound?
When you push down a key, the mechanism inside (the action) makes a hammer go up (in a grand) or forward (in an upright) to strike the strings. The hammer is a round stick with a head on it (it looks something like a real hammer), and the head is covered with very dense wool felt. When the string vibrates it makes a musical sound; the string is connected to a large soundboard that amplifies the sound much louder than the string could do by itself. When you let go of the key, a felt pad, called a damper, drops back onto the string and stops the sound again. When you press down the right pedal with your foot it raises all the dampers so that the strings can keep sounding.

Q: What do the pedals do and how do they work?
A: The left (soft) pedal works differently on grands and uprights.  On an upright or 'vertical' piano--this includes spinets, consoles, studio uprights and large uprights--the soft pedal operates a bar inside that pushes all the hammers closer to the strings, which makes it easier to play softer.  You can watch this by opening the top of the piano and looking down inside while you work the pedal. A grand is more complicated: the soft pedal slides the whole action--keys and all--over to the right a little bit so that the hammers only hit two of the three strings that are assigned to each note (only two in the bass, and if you go down far enough there's only one).  This not only makes the sound softer, but changes the tone somewhat as well, because you're striking those two (or one) strings with a different part of the hammer.  If you have a grand, work the soft pedal and watch how the whole keyboard shifts back and forth. 

The middle pedal was invented to be used (and named) as a sostenuto pedal on grands, which captures only those notes being held at the time with the fingers. On those uprights and consoles which employ a felt muting strip, it's called the practice pedal. Some verticals have only two pedals, and a few (e.g., the Yamaha U3 and most Bösendorfers) have a true sostenuto mechanism. On older uprights and consoles the middle pedal is usually a bass sustain (acting like the right pedal but only on the bass register), or sometimes it's simply hooked to the left pedal lever and works the device that moves the hammers closer to the strings.

The pedal on the right is the same on all pianos--it's called the damper pedal, because it raises the dampers. Dampers are the wedges of felt that press on the strings to stop the sound--each key raises its own damper when you press it down, so the tone can keep sounding, but the pedal raises them all at once so that ALL the strings are free at the same time. Take a look inside your piano and watch the dampers move when you push the pedal.

Buying a Piano

Q: Is a "new" piano always better than a "used" piano?
A: Not necessarily. While several current manufacturers make fine new pianos (Yamaha and Steinway, for example), high labor costs and generally lesser quality of wood available today mean that an older piano, properly rebuilt or refurbished, may well be both a better piano and more valuable. Of course, various manufacturers' pianos have subtly different sounds that may or may not appeal to you in the setting in which you intend to place a piano. Some pianos are "brighter" in tone and may not sound their best in a room with basic gypsum board walls. Others are more deeply resonant and might produce a more pleasing tone in that environment. It's a matter not only of quality, but of personal taste as well.

For example, Yamaha maintains quality with the most sophisticated tooling and efficiency you could find anywhere; they sell more acoustical pianos than anybody in the world.  If you like the sound of a Yamaha, you've got one of the world's top pianos; but if you don't, there's probably little point in trying others because they all sound and feel exactly alike. The action is perfect and the sound is brilliant, but it's not as warm a sound as that produced by some other pianos. For more information on new vs. used pianos, please see our article on Piano Purchase Tips.

Q: Is a piano from a "good manufacturer" always good?
A: Again, not necessarily. In any given manufacturer's legacy or current line there are some piano models that are more highly regarded than others in the line. Similarly, as companies change hands over time, the production quality may change. For example, Mason and Hamlin used to be one of the world's great pianos, with a wonderful singing tone and an action similar to Steinway's.  But after the Depression of the 1930s it was taken over (as were Knabe, Chickering and others) by another corporation, which turned out a much less highly regarded product with a great old name on it.  Later, M& H was revived by Falcone Co. of Haverhill, MA, and manufactured with integrity again, but they have gone out of business.  PianoDisc is now manufacturing M&H pianos again to the original designs and specifications. Most of the traditional piano names are the products of conglomerates rather than the original families, just as with so many other products. 

Q: Should I buy a spinet piano to save space?
A: If a spinet is the only choice for you due to space considerations, then go ahead. However, we tend to discourage buyers from choosing spinets for several reasons.  The so-called "drop action" is a major compromise from the normal vertical piano action in that it employs an additional lever system to 'drop' the entire mechanism down below and behind the keys instead of above them; this is done solely for marketing purposes, in that it enables the piano to be much lighter and lower.  But the keys are necessarily so short and the action parts so small that it tends to be temperamental and difficult to keep in regulation, as well as hard to control; also, the string lengths and soundboard area are so small that the tone is poor, especially in the bass where the low registers are extremely difficult to tune.  Finally, spinets tend to be of poorer overall quality because the products are aimed at that segment of the market in which buyers are often more concerned with styling and convenience than with music. A good alternative for many people is a console piano; they are small and relatively light, but have a direct blow action and--usually--a better sound.

Q: Can you tell me the current value of a used piano?
A: No! Many factors, including local market, model, date of manufacture, general condition, and reputation, among many others go into determining the true value of a piano. We simply don't have all that information for any given piano. If you are contemplating buying a used piano, we strongly advise you to contact a local piano technician, preferably one who holds the "Registered Tuner/Technician" rating from The Piano Technicians Guild, for help in determining not only the current value in your market, but also what the cost of needed maintenance/repair/rebuilding might be. For definition and explanation of these terms, see our article Maintaining Your Piano Investment.

Q: Are there some good reference sources for information on pianos and piano value?
A: Yes, there are. We recommend that any piano owner or prospective owner acquire a copy of an excellent and relatively inexpensive book, The Piano Book by Larry Fine. Other good sources of information include the Pierce Piano Atlas or online at How Old Is My Piano? Piano World.

Q: Where should I locate my piano?
A: Generally, you want to locate the piano in a place which minimizes variations in temperature, humidity and lighting experienced by the piano. Do not place your piano against an outside wall. If however, that is the only room available, make sure there is at least 1 to 2 feet from the wall to the piano. Also, never let direct sunlight fall on the piano; keep all sunlight filtered or totally away from the piano. Exposure to direct sunlight can destroy the finish of the piano over time, and the heat from the sun can cause drastic changes in the soundboard, and pinblock, causing cracks and major problems. If you live at high altitude (over 5000 ft.), you must take special care with sunlight exposure, since the increased amount of UV in sunlight at high altitudes can be especially damaging.

Piano Maintenance and Tuning

Q: What can I do to determine the condition of my piano?
A: Untrained individuals should NOT attempt repairs or tuning of a piano themselves. The piano is simply too valuable to risk damage in such a misguided effort. However, you can safely do some basic examination of your piano to spot problems and help guide a trained repairer by following the procedures in our article, Diagnosing the General Condition of Your Piano.

Q: Why is a piano hard to tune?
A: A piano is hard to tune because it has more than 250 strings and they are held under very high tension, which means that the tuning pins they wrap around have to be set in a strong wooden block very tightly; and THAT means that you have to have a special wrench to turn them up or down.

The tuner starts with one string in the middle of the piano (where you can hear best) and gets the pitch for that from somewhere else, usually a tuning fork. Then he sets about 12 notes right in the same area (a chromatic scale). But if you've ever looked in your piano you've probably seen that each key has three strings (two or one in the bass)--so he has to block off the outside strings of each key with a strip of felt so only one string will sound at a time for each note. After he gets enough notes tuned in the middle he can work in both directions by listening to octaves that go with the notes already set. The final step is to pull out the strip of felt and tune the two outside strings of each note to the middle one. And that's about it. For more information on tuning and how it is done, consult our article Piano Tuning - How It Is Done and Who Should Do It.

Oh, one more thing: DON'T TRY IT YOURSELF!

Q: What do I need to do to maintain my piano?
A: See our page, Purchasing and Caring For a Piano or Keyboard, for basic tips on piano maintenance and cleaning. You may also want to view our page, Piano Hygiene in the Teaching Studio, for information on methods for cleaning and disinfecting the keyboard of your piano.

Pianos and Lessons

Q: What kind of "starter piano" should I buy for my children to take lessons?
A: This involves many considerations, both financial and personal. For more information on some of the tradeoffs and considerations that may affect your decisions, see our article Buying a Starter Piano.

Q: Can my children start lessons using a digital keyboard?
A: Yes, though we think that most people will want to get an acoustic piano within a year after starting lessons, if not sooner. Even the best digital keyboards, which can run several thousand dollars in price, can't duplicate the sound and "feel" of an acoustic piano, so they really can't "replace" a piano. However, for the neophyte student, there are some "all in one" packages which provide a 3-4 octave keyboard along with learning software for under $200. In the long run, you'll want to get an acoustic piano for your playing, though digital keyboards can be connected to your computer for composing and playing your own songs. For more information about digital keyboards and their use in lessons, please look at our articles, Digital Keyboards and Before You Start Lessons.

Page created: 9/28/04
Last updated: 12/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1, http://pianoeducation.org
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