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The Definitive Piano Buying Guide for
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.
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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.
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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.