BUILDING A DEDICATED MUSIC ROOM
When building a music room, it's best to use multiples and divisions of 3 or 5 for interior dimensions (rather than 1, 2, or multiples of 2). For example, let's say you plan to buy a Steinway model B grand, which is 6 feet 10 1/2 inches long (I'll round that off to 7 feet for purposes of discussion). Applying the principle that the total wall length should be at least 10 times the length of the piano, this gives us a minimum total wall length needed of 70 feet (10 x 7). If we take one-fifth of 70 feet (=14 feet) for each of the two short walls, that would leave 42 feet, or 21 feet each, for the two long walls. The ceiling height would be calculated as one-fifth of 21 feet (the long wall), x 2 = 8.4 feet. Therefore if your room is approximately 14 feet by 21 feet by 8.4 feet high, the piano should sound good, particularly for practice purposes. However, if you want a room in which you can perform for others on the same piano, or play chamber music with your colleagues, I suggest that your minimum total wall length be 15 times the length of the instrument. This could give you room dimensions of 21 feet by 31.5 feet by 12.6 feet high.
These specific proportions are offered only as examples. Unless you're building your room from the ground up as a dedicated piano studio, you may not be able to strictly adhere to this formula. If your chosen piano room doesn't come close to any optimal proportions (using the 3 and 5 multiply/division formula, you can come up with quite a few), all is not lost. It might take a little more time to get the sound right, with the possible addition of some acoustical treatments to absorb coincident low-frequency room modes. But the larger the room, the less critical of an issue this becomes.
If you're building your piano room from scratch, I suggest you consider making all of the interior walls nonparallel, in order to avoid the typical flutter echo often produced in small and medium-size rooms with parallel walls. Splaying the walls (sort of like a trapezoid) at angles of 5° to 10° can do a lot to prevent flutter. You'll hardly notice that the room isn't a perfect rectangle, and it will sound a lot better.
Something else to consider when building a dedicated piano studio: Don't make the inside walls of the room too stiff by using several layers of gypsum drywall or similar material. The interior walls of your music room should be able to flex a little bit to allow them to resonate—like the skins of a huge drum—and absorb the low frequencies produced by a larger piano in a smaller room. The more the walls can flex, the more excess sound energy they can absorb. For walls, use one or two layers of drywall set on 16-inch centered wood studs (or metal studs, in most high-rise and commercial construction). If you need to acoustically isolate your piano room from the rest of the house, build an additional, heavier, outer wall separated from the inner wall by at least 6 inches of air space. Suspend your music-room ceiling from the ceiling joists using "Z-channels" or a similar system, so that it, too, can flex a bit.
What you put under your grand piano can make a huge difference in its sound. In designing a music room, whether or not it will contain a piano, I normally specify hard floor surfaces, whether of hardwood, ceramic tile, or marble. The center of the floor should be covered with an acoustically absorbent surface, such as a carpet or rug. The idea here is to have sound absorption in the central part of the floor to cut down on reflections, while keeping the edges of the room more "live" for resonance. If the best-sounding location for your piano is not far enough out into the room for the instrument to be placed on the carpet or rug, place under the piano a separate area rug large enough to cover the piano's entire footprint. The bottom of a grand piano's soundboard produces a great deal of sound that a hard floor will reflect, thus making the sound harsh and brittle — unless something is there to help absorb that energy. If you don't mind how it looks, you can store piles or boxes of music or recordings on the floor directly under the piano, which will provide absorption and diffusion. In very "live" rooms, a thick fabric cover (similar to a full piano cover) can be suspended under the instrument's soundboard. This is especially useful in practice rooms, where clarity is more important than generating a big sound.
Vertical pianos, normally placed against or near walls, don't interact with hard floor surfaces as intimately as do grands. However, if your vertical is in the middle of a very "live" space, such as a dance studio or theater rehearsal room, it can benefit from some sort of floor covering under it that extends a few feet out from the piano on all sides. If a vertical's sound is still too resonant or bright, whether the piano is up against a wall or out in the middle of the room, you can eliminate some of this by hanging a heavy fabric cover or blanket over the back of the instrument. Not very stylish, but it works.
Some high-end piano dealers will give you time to audition an instrument in your home or studio before you make a final commitment to purchase. I strongly recommend taking advantage of any such offer — the room in which you place your piano is as important as the instrument itself in determining the ultimate sound.
Lewis Lipnick is the principal contrabassoonist of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, and an internationally-acclaimed soloist and teacher. His consulting firm, LipnickDesign, specializes in designing high-resolution audio and video systems, recording studios, and home theaters; in environmental sound control; and in the acoustical design of commercial and residential spaces. Visit his website at www.lipnickdesign.com.