How To Make a Piano Room Sound Grand

How To Make a Piano Room Sound Grand

Lewis Lipnick

SINCE I JOINED the National Symphony Orchestra in 1970, I have performed in large, small, and medium-size rooms. Some have sounded wonderful, some not so wonderful. One night we play at the Kennedy Center, and the next in a high school gymnasium. Same music, same conductor, same musicians, but the two performances sound like two different orchestras. Why? The room. Change the room, and you change the musical result. Taking this one step further, we can even say that the room is an integral part of the performance. But where does the sound of the performer end and the sound of the room begin?

Our music rooms, whether large concert halls or smaller spaces in the home, can help or hinder our performance. Too large a room can strip our sound of energy and resonance, while too small a space can cause sonic overload, making the sound muddy, harsh, and overbearing. To enable an instrument built to fill a great concert hall to also work in much smaller domestic spaces and studios requires proper planning. Do you want to practice in an environment in which clarity of sound is more im-portant than volume and resonance, or do you want to be able to play solo and chamber-music concerts in your home, in emulation of a small concert venue? These will require different approaches to room design, and possibly the choice of instrument.

The art of acoustical design for live music is part science, part empirical knowledge, part musical intuition, and part common sense. I call it an "art" mainly because one has to be creative when working in a space that needs to be both sonically and aesthetically pleasing. After all, few piano owners want to see their living rooms turned into sound laboratories simply to achieve their desired musical goals.

Based on my twenty-five years of experience as an acoustical consul-tant, as well as a professional musician, in this article I will tell you about the things you can do yourself to im-prove the acoustical qualities of your piano room. However, if you plan to buy a larger, higher-quality grand piano, I suggest that you consider allocating some additional funds to have your room tuned by an acoustical pro-fessional or by a contractor experienced in the acoustical treatment of small music rooms. Acoustical treatment techniques have come a long way in recent years, and there are many products that can be integrated into just about any domestic environment without making the room look like a recording studio. I have done this many times, without sacrificing musical or visual aesthetics.

Piano Room Acoustics: Highlights
  • For best sound, the total length of the walls of a room containing a piano should ideally be at least 10 times the length of a grand piano (or the height of a vertical piano) for solo playing, and 15 times for ensemble playing.
  • Opening the doors of the room into adjacent living spaces can enhance the piano's bass clarity; the longer wavelengths of the lower notes require more space to be heard as specific pitches.
  • It's best to use or design a room in which the short and long wall lengths and ceiling height are in ratios of 3 or 5, not 1 or 2. Avoid square rooms.
  • Do not position a vertical piano or the tail of a grand in a room corner. Place a vertical piano along the short wall, one-third or one-fifth of the way from a corner. Place a grand piano across a corner at a 45° angle to the walls at a distance one-fifth or one-third of the way between diagonal corners.
  • Use irregularly shaped objects, wall hangings, and furniture on or along the walls to break up or diffuse hard reflections. Except in very "live" rooms, use absorptive objects such as upholstered furniture and heavy draperies only sparingly, to avoid deadening the sound.
  • Place a rug under the entire footprint of a grand or vertical piano to absorb excess reflected sound.
  • If given the opportunity, audition a high-end piano in your room before committing to buying it.
  • For best results, consider using the services of an acoustical professional and/or acoustical treatment products to fine-tune your music room.