PIANO BUYING BASICS

LARRY FINE

Introduction

An acoustic piano can be one of the most expensive — and difficult — purchases most households will ever make. The "difficult" aspect arises from several factors that are peculiar to pianos and the piano business. First, a "modern" piano is essentially a 19th-century creation about which few people — even those who have played piano all their lives — know very much, and about which much of what they think they know may not be accurate or current. Thus, a person who sets out to buy a piano is unlikely to have a social support network of family and friends to serve as advisors, as they might if buying a car, house, or kitchen appliance. Even music teachers and experienced players often know little about piano construction or the rapidly changing state of piano manufacturing. They often rely on their past experience with certain brands, most of which have changed significantly.

Second, acoustic pianos are marketed nationally in the United States under some 70 different brand names (plus dozens of additional names marketed locally) from a dozen countries, in thousands of furniture styles and finishes — and that's just new pianos! Many once-popular brands have long gone out of business, yet pianos still bearing their name are made overseas, often to much lower standards, and marketed here. Add in more than a century's worth of used pianos under thousands of brand names in an almost infinite variety of conditions of disrepair and restoration. Just thinking about it makes me dizzy.

Third, new pianos can vary in price from $2,000 to $200,000. But unlike most consumer items, whose differences can be measured by the number of functions performed, or buttons, bells, whistles, and conveniences contained, most pianos, regardless of price, look very similar and do pretty much the same thing: they're shiny and black (or a wood color), play 88 notes, and have three pedals. The features advertised are often abstract, misleading, or difficult to see or understand. For this reason, it's often not clear just what you're getting for your money. This can lead to decision-making paralysis.

Last, while many piano salespeople do an honest and admirable job of guiding their customers through this maze, a significant minority — using lies, tricky pricing games, and false accusations against competing dealers and brands — make the proverbial used-car salesman look like a saint. And once you get through haggling over price — the norm in the piano business — you may be ready for a trip to a Middle East bazaar.

As you shop for a piano, you'll likely be bombarded with a great deal of technical jargon — after all, the piano is a complicated instrument. But don't allow yourself to be confused or intimidated. Although some technical information can be useful and interesting, extensive familiarity with technical issues usually isn't essential to a successful piano-shopping experience, especially when buying a new piano. (A little greater familiarity may be advisable when buying a used or restored instrument.) Most technical information you'll come across relates to how the manufacturer designed the instrument. You should focus on how the instrument sounds, feels, and looks, not how it got that way. In addition, technical features are often taken out of context and manipulated by advertising and salespeople — the real differences in quality are often in subtleties of design and construction that don't make good ad copy.

For 20 years, The Piano Book has acted as a textbook on how to buy a piano, but over the years many people have asked for something a little simpler. Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer is the answer, and this article is the beginning. For those readers who love reading about the finer technical details, The Piano Book is a must read. But in the interests of brevity and simplicity, we decided in this publication to keep technical details to a minimum.

The purpose of this article is modest: to provide an overview of the piano-buying process, with an emphasis on the decisions you'll have to make along the way, and on the factors that will affect any acoustic piano purchase. To do this succinctly, it will be necessary to make a number of generalizations, which you can discard in favor of more complete or nuanced explanations as you advance toward your goal. References are given to other articles in this publication, or to The Piano Book, for further information on selected topics. In addition, for answers to specific questions that arise while you shop, I recommend visiting the Piano Forum at Piano World (www.pianoworld.com), the premiere website for everything related to pianos and pianists.

A Little Bit of the Technical

Exploded View of a Grand Piano

 

Renner Action

For animation, click here.

 

A little bit (but not too much) of technical information about the piano is useful to have while shopping for one. Important words are in boldface.

A piano can be thought of as comprising four elements: mechanical, acoustical, structural, and cabinetry.

Mechanical: When you press a piano key (usually 88 in number), the motion of your finger is transmitted through a series of levers and springs to a felt-covered wooden hammer that strikes the strings to set them vibrating. This complex system of keys, hammers, levers, and springs is known as the action. Also, when you press a key, a felt damper resting against each string lifts off, allowing the string to vibrate. When you let the key up, the damper returns to its resting place, stopping the string's vibration. Pedals, usually three in number, are connected to the action and dampers via trapwork levers, and serve specialized functions such as sustaining and softening the sound. The right-foot pedal is called the damper or sustain pedal; it lifts all the dampers off all the strings, allowing the strings to ring sympathetically. The left-foot, soft pedal (on a grand piano, the una corda pedal) softens the sound. The function of the middle pedal varies depending on the type and price level of the piano (more on that later). As a sostenuto pedal, it selectively sustains notes or groups of notes, a function required only rarely in a small percentage of classical compositions. Other possible functions for the middle pedal include a damper pedal for the bass notes only, and a mute pedal that reduces the sound volume by about half.

Acoustical: Piano strings are made of steel wire for the higher-sounding notes (treble), and steel wire wrapped with copper for the lower-sounding notes (bass). They are graduated in thickness, length, and tension, and strung tightly across the structural framework of the piano. Each note has one, two, or three strings associated with it. Each such set of strings is known as a unison because all the strings in a set vibrate at the same pitch. The strings lie across narrow hardwood bridges that transmit their vibrations to a wooden soundboard, usually made of spruce. The relatively large area of the soundboard amplifies what would otherwise be a rather weak sound and broadcasts the sound to the ears. The dimensions, arrangement, and positioning of all the acoustical elements in a piano is known as the piano's scale design. The scale design varies with the model and is a major determinant of the piano's tone.

Structural: The strings are strung across a gold- or bronze-colored plate (sometimes called a frame or harp) of cast iron, which is bolted to a substantial wooden framework. This heavy-duty structure is necessary to support the many tons of tension exerted by all the taut strings. A vertical, or upright, piano is one in which the structural element stands vertically, and is most commonly placed against a wall. A grand piano is one in which the structural element lies horizontally. In a vertical piano, the wooden framework consists of vertical back posts and connecting cross beams. In a grand, wooden beams and the familiar curved rim comprise the framework. One end of each string is anchored to the plate toward the rear of a grand or the bottom of a vertical piano. The other end is coiled around a tuning pin embedded in a laminated hardwood pinblock hidden under the plate at the front (grand) or top (vertical). A piano is tuned by turning each tuning pin with a special tool to make very slight adjustments in the tension of its string, and thus to the string's frequency of vibration, or pitch.

Cabinetry: The piano's cabinet (vertical) or case (grand) provides aesthetic beauty and some additional structural support. A grand piano's rim is part of both the wooden structural framework and the case. Accessory parts, such as the music desk and lid, are both functional and aesthetic in purpose.

Although the acoustical and structural elements have been described separately, in fact the plate, wooden framework, soundboard, bridges, and strings form a single integrated unit called the strung back. A piano, then, consists of a strung back, an action, and a cabinet or case.

Vertical or Grand?

Probably the most basic decision to make when buying a piano — and one you may have made already — is whether to buy a vertical or a grand. The following describes some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Vertical Advantages

  • Takes up less space, can fit into corners
  • Lower cost
  • Easier to move

Vertical Disadvantages

  • Sound tends to bounce back into player's face, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
  • Action is not as advanced as grand; repetition of notes is slower and less reliable in most cases, and damping is sometimes less efficient.
  • Keys are shorter than on grands, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
  • Cabinetwork is usually less elegant and less impressive.

Vertical pianos are suitable for those with simpler musical needs, or where budget and space constraints preclude buying a grand. Despite the disadvantages noted above, some of the larger, more expensive verticals do musically rival smaller, less expensive grands. They may be a good choice where space is at a premium but a more subtle control of musical expression is desired.

Grand Advantages

  • Sound develops in a more aesthetically pleasing manner by bouncing off nearby surfaces and blending before reaching player's ears, making it easier to control musical expression.
  • More sophisticated action than in a vertical. Grand action has a repetition lever to aid in the speed and reliability of repetition of notes, and is gravity-assisted, rather than dependent on artificial contrivances (springs, straps) to return hammers to rest.
  • Longer keys provide better leverage, allowing for significantly greater control of musical expression.
  • Casework is usually more elegant and aesthetically pleasing.

Grand Disadvantages

  • Takes up more space
  • Higher cost
  • Harder to move

What Size?

Both verticals and grands come in a wide variety of sizes. The important thing to know here is that size is directly related to musical quality. Although many other factors also contribute to tonal quality, all else being equal, the longer strings of larger pianos, especially in the bass and mid-range sections, give off a deeper, truer, more consonant tonal quality than the strings of smaller pianos. The treble and bass blend better and the result is more pleasing to the ear. Also, longer grands usually have longer keys that generally allow superior control of musical expression than shorter grands. Therefore, it's best to buy the largest piano you can afford and have space for. Small differences in size between models are more significant in smaller pianos than in larger ones. However, a difference in size of only an inch or two is generally irrelevant, as it could be merely due to a larger cabinet or case.

Verticals

Vertical Piano DiagramVertical pianos are measured from the floor to the top of the piano. Verticals less than 40" tall are known as spinets. They were very popular in the post–World War II period, but in recent years have nearly died out. Verticals from 40" to about 43" or 44" are called consoles. Spinet and console actions must be compromised somewhat in size or placement within the piano to fit them into pianos of this size. The tone is also compromised by the shorter strings and smaller soundboard. For this reason, manufacturers concentrate on the furniture component of spinets and consoles and make them in a variety of decorator styles. They are suitable for buyers whose piano needs are casual, or for beginning students, and for those who simply want a nice-looking piece of furniture in the home. Once students progress to an intermediate or advanced stage, they are likely to need a larger instrument.

Studio pianos, from about 44" to 47", are more serious instruments. They are called studios because they are commonly found in the practice rooms of music schools. Manufacturers make them in both attractive furniture styles for the home and in functional, durable, but aesthetically bland styles for school and other institutional use. If you don't require attractive furniture, you may save money by buying the school style. In fact, many buyers prefer the simple lines of the institutional models.

Verticals about 48" and taller, called uprights, are the best musically. New ones top out at about 52", but in the early part of the 20th century they were made even taller. The tallest verticals take up no more floor space than the shortest ones, but some buyers may find the taller models too massive for their taste. Most uprights are made in an attractive, black, traditional or institutional style, but are also available with exotic veneers, inlays, and other touches of elegance.

The width of a vertical piano is usually a little under five feet and the depth around two feet; however, these dimensions are not significantly related to musical quality.

Grands

Grand Piano DiagramGrand pianos are measured with the lid closed from the very front of the piano (keyboard end) to the very back (the tail). Lengths start at 4' 6" and go to over 10' (even longer in some experimental models). Widths are usually around 5' and heights around 3', but only the length has a bearing on musical quality.

Grands less than 5' long are the musical equivalent of spinets and consoles; that is, they are musically compromised and are mainly sold as pieces of furniture. Grands between about 5' and 5½' are very popular. Although slightly compromised, they can reasonably serve both musical and furniture functions and are available in many furniture styles. (By the way, piano professionals prefer the term small grand to baby grand. Although there is no exact definition, a small grand is generally one less than about 5½' long.) Above 5½', pianos rapidly improve, becoming professional quality at about 6'. Pianos intended for the home or serious professional top out at about 7' or 7½'. These sizes may also satisfy the needs of smaller concert venues. Larger venues require concert grands, usually about 9' long.

When considering what size of piano is right for your home, don't forget to add two to three feet to the length of a grand or the depth of a vertical for the piano bench and pianist. Shoppers tend to underestimate what will fit and buy smaller pianos than necessary. Sometimes, the next-size-larger instrument can give you a great deal of tonal improvement at little additional cost. Dealers can usually lend you templates corresponding to different piano sizes to lay down on your floor so you can measure what will fit.

Budget

Your budget is probably the most important factor in your choice of piano, but it's hard to make a budget when you don't know how much pianos cost. Here is some rule-of-thumb information to get you started:

Most new vertical pianos sell in the range of $3,000 to $10,000, though some higher-end ones cost two or three times that, and a few cost less. Entry-level grand pianos generally go for $5,000 to $10,000, mid-range grands from $10,000 to $30,000, and high-end grands for $30,000 to $100,000 or more. Unrestored but playable used pianos cost from perhaps 20 to 80 percent of the cost of a comparable new instrument, depending on age and condition, with 15-year-old used pianos coming in at about 50 percent. The cost of restored instruments will be discussed later. More complete and accurate information can be found in the articles on new and Model & Pricing Guide" reference section, elsewhere in this issue.

Rent or Buy

If the piano is being purchased for a beginner, there is a significant possibility that he or she will not stick with playing the piano. To handle this and other "high-risk" situations, most dealers offer a rental/purchase program. In the typical program, the dealer would rent you the piano you are considering purchasing for up to six months. You would pay round-trip moving expenses upfront, usually $300 to $400, plus a monthly rental fee, typically $50 to $100 for a vertical piano. (Rental/purchase programs do not usually apply to grand pianos.) Should you decide to buy the piano at any time before the end of the six-month term, all money paid up to that point would be applied to the purchase. Otherwise, you would return the piano and be under no further obligation.

Two pieces of advice here: First, make sure you rent the piano you ultimately wish to buy, or at least rent from the dealer who has that piano, and not simply the piano or dealer with the lowest rental rate — if you eventually decide to buy from a different dealer, you'll forfeit the rental payments already made to the first dealer. However, if you decide to buy a different piano from the same dealer from whom you rented, it's possible that dealer would agree to apply some or all of the rental payments to the new piano — but check on this in advance. Second, clarify issues of price before you decide whether to rent or buy. Specifically, find out whether you'll be allowed to apply the rental payments toward, for example, today's sale price, rather than toward the regular price six months from now — or conversely, if you'll be held to today's price should there be a sale six months from now. Keep in mind, however, that a "sale" is generally a reduction in price designed to entice you to buy now.

Quality

Like just about everything else you can buy, pianos come in a range of quality levels. When we speak of quality in a piano, we are referring to how it sounds, plays, and looks, and how well it will hold up with time and use. These are functions of the care taken in the design of the instrument; the quality of the materials used and how they are assembled; and the amount of handwork put into the final musical and aesthetic finishing of the instrument. With a new piano, we are also concerned, to a lesser extent, with how much pre-sale service is required by the dealer to make the instrument ready — a dealer is less likely to perform a lot of "make-ready" on an inexpensive piano. Also important are the terms of the warranty and the manufacturer's (or other warrantor's) reputation for honoring warranties. The prestige value of the name and the history of the brand may also be perceived as a form of quality by some buyers. The Piano Book goes into great detail about what creates quality in a piano.

As you can imagine, any discussion of quality in pianos is likely to involve a lot of subjectivity and be somewhat controversial. However, a useful generalization for the purpose of discussing quality can be had by dividing pianos into two types: performance-grade and consumer-grade. Performance-grade pianos are made to a single, high quality standard, usually in relatively small quantities, by companies that strongly favor quality considerations over cost. Consumer-grade pianos, on the other hand, are built to be sold at a particular price, and the design, materials, and level of workmanship are chosen to fit that price. Most consumer-grade pianos are mass-produced at a variety of price levels, with materials and designs chosen accordingly. Throughout much of the 20th century, the United States produced both types of piano in abundance. At the present time, however, most performance-grade pianos are made in Europe and the United States, while virtually all consumer-grade pianos are made in Asia. Due to globalization and other factors, the distinction between the two types of piano is beginning to blur. This is discussed at greater length in the article "The New-Piano Market Today," elsewhere in this issue.

The above explanation of quality in pianos is very general, and some aspects of quality may be more applicable to your situation than others. Therefore, it pays to take some time to consider exactly what you expect from your piano, both practically and in terms of lifestyle. Practical needs include, among others, the level of expressiveness you require in the piano's tone and touch, how long you want the instrument to last or intend to keep it, and what furniture it must match — as well as certain functional considerations, such as whether you use the middle pedal, desire a fallboard (key cover) that closes slowly, or need to be able to lock the piano. Lifestyle needs are those that involve the prestige or artistic value of the instrument, and how ownership of it makes you feel or makes you appear to others. Just as a casual driver may own a Mercedes, or one devoid of artistic abilities may own great works of art, many who don't play a note purchase expensive pianos for their artistic and prestige value.

A couple of the practical considerations require further discussion. Concerning expressiveness: What kind of music do you play or aspire to play? One can play any kind of music on any piano. However, some pianos seem better suited in tone and touch than other kinds to some kinds of music. Quality in piano tone is often defined in terms of the instrument's ability to excel at pleasing players of so-called "classical" music because this kind of music tends to make the greatest expressive demands on an instrument. So if you aspire to play classical music seriously, you may wish to one day own a fine instrument capable of the nuanced tone and touch the music demands. On the other hand, if classical music isn't your thing, you can probably get away with a much less expensive instrument.

A key factor concerns how long you want to keep the instrument: Is it for a beginner, especially a youngster, and you're not sure piano lessons will "stick"? Is it a stepping stone to a better piano later on? Then an inexpensive piano may do. Do you want this to be the last piano you'll ever buy? Then, even if your playing doesn't yet justify it, buy a piano you can grow into but never grow out of.

A note about how long a piano will last — a question I hear every day. The answer varies for pianos almost as much as it does for people. A piano played 16 hours a day in a school practice room might be "dead" in ten years or less, whereas one pampered in a living room in a mild climate might last nearly a century before requiring complete restoration to function again. A rule-of-thumb answer typically given is that an average piano under average conditions will last 40 to 50 years. If past experience is any guide, it would not be unreasonable to predict that the best-made pianos will last about twice as long as entry-level ones, given similar conditions of use and climate. However — and this is the important point — most pianos are discarded not because they no longer function — in fact, they may go on to long lives as used pianos for other people — but because they no longer meet the needs or expectations of their owners or players. A player may have musically advanced beyond what the instrument will deliver, or the owner may now be wealthier and have higher expectations for everything he or she buys — or perhaps no one in the house is playing anymore and the piano is just taking up space. Thus, the important consideration for most buyers, especially buyers of new or relatively young pianos, is how long the piano in question will meet their needs and expectations, rather than how long that piano will last.

You'll get a better sense of what quality means in a piano if you play a wide variety of them, including ones that cost less than what you plan to spend, as well as ones you can't afford. Warning: The latter can prove dangerous to your bank account. It's not unusual for a buyer to begin shopping with the intention of buying a $3,000 vertical, only to emerge some time later with a $30,000 grand!

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