TO MOST PIANO BUYERS and owners, a piano's tone is probably its most important aspect, but also the most difficult to quantify or describe. Likewise, the shaping of the tone by the technician through the procedure known as voicing involves unfamiliar terminology, and techniques that are difficult for technicians to communicate to the customer. The purpose of this article, then, is to provide information about tone, voicing, and definitions of some commonly used terms so that piano owners and technicians can better communicate with each other, and piano shoppers can make more informed buying decisions.
Voicing, or tone regulation, comprises a variety of techniques that technicians use to change a piano's tone. Most involve adjusting the hardness, density, tension, and surface of the hammer felt to produce a spectrum of tonal qualities ranging from bright to mellow. Slight repositioning of the strings may also be part of this process.
Voicing differs from tuning, which is the adjustment of the strings' tensions to produce the proper pitches. In voicing, it is the timbre of each note, not its pitch, that is addressed. Voicing must also be distinguished from action regulation, i.e., the mechanical adjustment of the keys and action for evenness of touch and response. However, a piano needs to be tuned and its keys and action regulated before being voiced because these procedures themselves clear up many tonal problems. For example, a piano can sound tinny simply because it is out of tune — something that no amount of voicing can correct. An inability to play softly may be caused by a poorly regulated action, which can make the touch difficult to control.
Any piano's sound will gradually brighten over time, as its hammer felts are repeatedly packed down by the impact of the hammers on the strings; it will need regular voicing to maintain good tone. Since hammer felt absorbs moisture, the tone can become mellower in more humid weather, brighter in drier weather. The voicing can become uneven when some notes are played more often than others. Heavy use of the una corda pedal in grands also causes the voicing to become uneven. I usually do some voicing during each tuning. If this is done consistently, the tone of the hammers will remain good until wear demands that they be changed.
Alexander Kobrin, the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Gold Medalist, explains how an uneven tone can affect the performer. According to Kobrin, when the pianist can be distracted by notes that stick out or are weak in the scale, he or she has to remember which notes don't perform like the others. This inhibits the performance, and ultimately, the audience doesn't get the full benefit of the artist's interpretation of a piece. The student practicing on instruments with this problem will have much more difficulty performing on other instruments. Kobrin also states the need for young pianists to have a properly prepared piano for practice, because that is where they develop an appreciation for the quality of tone that, as future professionals or advanced amateurs, they will be responsible for producing.
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