Piano tone is also very complex. The most basic aspect of tone, and the one most easily changed, is its brightness or mellowness. A bright tone, sometimes described by purchasers as sharp or loud, is one in which higher-pitched overtones predominate. A mellow tone, sometimes described as warm, dull, or soft, is one in which lower-pitched overtones are dominant. Most pianos are somewhere in between, and vary from one part of the keyboard to another, or depending on how hard one plays. The key to satisfaction is to make sure that the tone is right for the music you most often play or listen to. For example, jazz pianists will often prefer a brighter tone, whereas classical pianists will often prefer one that is mellower, or that can be varied easily from soft to loud; i.e., that has a broad dynamic range. However, there is no accounting for taste, and there are as many exceptions to these generalizations as there are followers. A piano technician can make adjustments to the brightness or mellowness of the tone through a process known as voicing.
Another aspect of tone to pay attention to is sustain, which is how long the sound of a note continues at an audible level, while its key is depressed, before disappearing. Practically speaking, this determines the ability of a melodic line to "sing" above an accompaniment, especially when played in the critical mid-treble section.
Most pianos will play loudly quite reliably, but providing good expression when played softly is considerably more challenging. When trying out a piano, be sure to play at a variety of dynamic levels. Test the action with your most technically demanding passages. Don't forget to test the pedals for sensitivity commensurate with your musical needs.
Room acoustics have a tremendous effect on piano tone, so you'll want to note the extent to which the acoustics of the dealer's showroom differ from those of your home, and make allowance for it. Hard surfaces, such as bare walls, tile, and glass will make the tone brighter. Absorbent surfaces—upholstered furniture, heavy drapes, plush carpeting—will make it mellower. Once the piano is in the home, a technician may be able to make adjustments to the tone, but to avoid unpleasant surprises, it's best to buy a piano whose tone is already close to what you want. Adjusting the room acoustics through the strategic use of wall hangings, scatter rugs, and furniture can also help. See the article "How to Make Your Piano Room Sound Grand," elsewhere in this issue.
The Piano as Sculpture
Both grands and verticals are available in Designer versions, with such decorative features as inlays and marquetry, carving, wood veneer or chrome accents, burl woods, two-tone effects, decorative moldings, painting, and more. Some designer pianos are outrageous or defy categorization, while others attempt to be very "modern," or combine both the modern and the traditional.
The highest form of piano art is embodied in Art-Case pianos. These are usually highly decorated instruments, their embellishments organized around a theme and designed by a famous furniture designer, who in his work may make use of inlays, paintings, gem stones, or just about any other medium one can think of. These pianos are very expensive and considered works of art as well as musical instruments.
Under the heading "Piano Art," examples of designer and art-case pianos are scattered throughout this publication for your appreciation and amusement.
SPRING 2010 -- page 32
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Hybrid & Player Pianos
New-Piano Buyers’ Reference