Frequently Asked Questions

There was a time when people were advised not to put a piano against an outside wall. Today, however, most homes are insulated well enough that that advice no longer holds. That said, I would suggest allowing an air space of a few inches between an outside wall and an upright piano. Note: Sometimes heating registers are placed on outside walls. Pianos should definitely not be placed anywhere near heating registers. The warm air will dry out the piano and cause damage. For more information, see the Piano Maintenance FAQs and read this article about caring for your piano.

No, digitals do not need to be tuned.

That depends on what your long-term musical goals are. If you’re aiming to be a pianist, you’ll need only basic features, such as an 88-note weighted keyboard, a few different piano sounds, perhaps an organ or two, and a harpsichord. Transposition and the ability to record while practicing would be nice. If you plan on using the digital piano to do arranging, you’ll need a sequencer, and a full array of instruments such as those found on many "ensemble" digital pianos. Please read “Buying a Digital Piano” for full details.

Most vertical pianos weigh between 350 and 650 pounds, grands between 500 and 1,000 pounds. A 1,000-pound concert grand weighs about the same as six average adult men. Most floors should be able to support that easily. If in doubt, consult a building engineer.

Basically, if it physically fits and is aesthetically pleasing to you, you have enough room. Most vertical (upright) pianos are about five feet wide and about two feet deep. Most grands are about five feet wide, and the length varies by model from around five to nine feet. Be sure to add a couple of feet for a player and bench. Piano dealers usually have templates they can lend you, representing different types and sizes of piano, so you can figure your space requirements. See this article in “Piano-Buying Basics” for more information.

If you’re concerned about room acoustics, and fear that the piano might be too large or small for the space acoustically, we suggest you read “Ten Ways to Voice a Room.”

It depends on how much you play and on how conscientious you want to be about piano maintenance. Typically a piano will be tuned twice a year at a cost of $100 to $200 per tuning, depending on geographic region and the experience and reputation of the tuner. Some tuners in high demand charge more. In addition, every so often a piano will need regulating (adjusting the piano action to compensate for wear and bring it back to the manufacturer's specs), voicing (adjusting the tone for changes that take place as a result of use), internal cleaning, and repairs. For most piano owners, budgeting an average of $300 to $500 per year will suffice, although the actual outlay will be less in some years and more in others. Teachers and performers who use the piano more, or need to maintain optimal performance, should budget accordingly. See also the Piano Maintenance FAQs and Caring For Your Piano.

Not if you ever use the fireplace. The heat would likely do significant damage to the instrument, and the change in temperature and humidity from times of fireplace use to times of non-use would make it difficult to keep the piano in tune. For more information, see the Piano Maintenance FAQs and read this article about caring for your piano.

Until 15 years ago, it was not. However, virtually all the pianos being made in China today and sold in the West are competently made and suitable, at least, for beginning and intermediate-level players. Some are better than merely competent and are suitable for more advanced players. Due to the low labor costs, they can be a very good value. There are also higher-priced instruments that are partly manufactured in China and then finished up elsewhere. For more information, please read “The New-Piano Market Today.”

Pianos are, unequivocally, a great investment. However, the return on the investment is the joy of making music, having a hobby that will give pleasure for a lifetime, and other advantages of ownership. From a financial perspective (excluding instruments with special historical or artistic value), pianos are a depreciating asset. They depreciate quickly for the first few years and then slowly thereafter. They may eventually appear to appreciate in value, but the appreciation is entirely due to inflation. Unless you are a serious collector or dealer who trades in pianos with special historical or artistic value, buying pianos and holding them for the long term is not a good way to make money. See the sidebar “Appreciate or Depreciate?”, about buying a piano as an investment, in this article.

That depend a great deal on how much the piano is used, how well it’s maintained, and on the climate in which it resides. A piano played 16 hours a day in a school practice room in a cold climate might be “dead” in ten years or less, whereas one pampered in a living room in a mild climate might last nearly a century before requiring complete restoration to function again. A rule-of-thumb answer typically given is that an average piano under average conditions will last 40 to 50 years. However, even after a piano has ended its natural life for a particular purpose, it may still have a new life as a used instrument for a lesser purpose. And if it has enough intrinsic value, it may eventually be rebuilt and start its life all over again!

What is included in a purchase from a commercial seller is a matter of negotiation and should be clearly noted on the sales agreement. Typically included are a matching bench, pre-delivery preparation of the instrument (unpacking, tuning, and adjustments), tuning in the home at least a few weeks after delivery (giving the piano time to acclimate and be played in a little bit), and either a manufacturer’s or dealer’s warranty covering defects in material and workmanship for a specified period of time. Other common negotiated inclusions are delivery, a more expensive bench, and additional tunings during the first year.

It’s probably not necessary to have a new piano inspected by a piano technician unless you have specific issues or concerns of a technical nature about which you need advice. Sometimes a teacher or piano-playing friend can be helpful in selecting an instrument. We definitely recommend having a used piano evaluated by a piano technician before purchase, especially if it is more than 10 years old and/or being purchased from a private party. Pianos can have expensive problems that are not obvious to the owner or player. For more information, see this article.

Most manufacturers’ new-piano warranties cover any defect in materials or workmanship for a specified length of time, ranging from 5 to 15 years. Besides the length of the warranty, the major difference between them is whether or not the warranty is transferable to future owners within the warranty period. A few are; most are not. Most cover the cost of shipping the piano back to the factory for repair, but this rarely becomes an issue because most warranty repairs are carried out in the home, or the piano is replaced, not repaired.

One of the less discussed, but more important, aspects of a piano warranty is who, exactly, is the entity guaranteeing the piano — the manufacturer, distributor, or dealer — and which is most likely to be around for the next 15 years. You can read more about piano warranties in this article.

Believe it or not, the floor sample is usually the better choice. Pianos need to be prepared for use before delivery. This includes removal of external and internal packing materials, tuning, and making any adjustments needed to be sure the tone and touch are uniform throughout the keyboard. Since they are relied on to promote sales, floor samples need to sound good. They often receive more attention than non-floor samples prepared for delivery. They usually are tuned several times and tweaked to bring out their best performance. In addition, individual instruments, even of the same brand and model, often sound and feel slightly different. To avoid an unpleasant surprise, purchasing the actual piano you evaluated, even though it is a floor sample, is much recommended over having a different instrument delivered in its original box. If the floor sample has incurred a few small scratches or dings to its cabinet, the dealership can easily repair these for you before delivery.

This depends in part on what you mean by “reputable.” It would be very rare, for example, for a dealer to take your money and not deliver the piano, so I wouldn’t worry about that. On the other hand, dealerships and individual salespeople do differ in how helpful they are in selecting an instrument, handling warranty issues, and other aspects of the buying experience. In addition to checking with the local Better Business Bureau, google the dealership and check them out online. You can also check with local music teachers, piano technicians, and school music departments. Read this article about the attributes of a good piano dealer.

For new pianos, this is a complicated and potentially controversial subject because every brand has its enthusiastic promoters and detractors. The best we can do is to refer you to the article “The New-Piano Market Today,” and specifically the section “A Map of the Market For New Pianos,” for a run-down and comparison of pianos from different parts of the world. Be sure to read the text and not just the “map.”

Of course, depending on where you live, not all brands may be available to you. You may need to call local dealers or look at their websites to see what’s available in your area. Once you find out which brands are available, also look up their profiles in “Brand & Company Profiles.” Based on your budget, the available brands, and what you read in the above-mentioned articles, make a list of brands to check out at your local dealer. You may also find our Searchable Database handy for this purpose. It allows you to quickly home in on the specific brands and models that meet your criteria for price, size, furniture style, and more. Leave yourself open, however, to the possibility of being introduced to brands you might not have included on your list for some reason, but which you might like.

For used pianos, recommending brands is even more problematic because thousands of different brand names have been produced over the years. The article “What to Buy: A Historical Overview” in “Buying a Used or Restored Piano” will introduce you to some of the most important and commonly-found brand names. Be prepared, however, to run across many brands not mentioned there.

One very important note: Many famous brand names of the past are now made by companies entirely different from the original, to different design and quality specs, and in different factories and parts of the world. Nothing remains but the name. Therefore, be careful about becoming too attached to a name.

More often than not, piano prices are negotiable. However, determining the extent is a bit more difficult. For new pianos, the best way to determine a typical price range for a specific model is to use the pricing guidelines in Piano Buyer. Before looking up models and prices, be sure to read and understand the introduction to the section so that you know what the prices represent and how to use them. For used pianos, see the FAQ “How do I figure the value of a used piano,” or read the article “How Much Is It Worth?” in “Buying a Used or Restored Piano.”

As with tone quality, this is a matter of personal preference, but only within certain limits. If the touch is too light, your fingers will get weak and lazy; if too heavy, you can injure yourself over time. This is not usually a problem with new pianos; all manufacturers’ instruments, when properly regulated, are within a reasonable range of touch. But with older pianos, the touch can vary widely with the condition of the instrument. You will need some assistance from someone who plays, such as a piano teacher or technician, to determine if the touch is within a normal range. See the article on touch and tone in “Piano-Buying Basics” for more information.

Piano tone is a matter of personal preference, which is influenced by how well and what kind of music you play, and by what you’ve been used to playing or listening to in the past. Your taste in piano tone may also change with time. One way to begin to recognize what is generally considered good tone is to play or listen to some of the most expensive pianos, including ones you can’t afford to buy, and then compare them to less-expensive instruments. A warning, however: As your taste in piano tone becomes more sophisticated, this can be end up being a very expensive exercise. Alternatively, ask a piano teacher, technician, or dealer for assistance in evaluating the tone of pianos in your price range. See the article on touch and tone in “Piano-Buying Basics” for more information.

Before you can “look for” anything, you need to answer a number of basic questions, such as whether you need a vertical (upright) or grand piano, whether you should buy new or used, whether you should rent or buy, what your budget is, etc. Answering these questions will narrow your field considerably; otherwise you’ll be swimming in possibilities and will never be able to make a decision. We’ve written an article just for you: “Piano-Buying Basics.”

The most obvious non-technical difference between upright (also known as vertical) pianos and grand pianos is that verticals have a smaller footprint and usually cost less. Grands are more likely to be purchased for their value as room-enhancing furniture, take up more space, and cost more. In fact, many who don’t play or play very little buy a grand as much to make a statement about themselves as for any other reason.

Technically, however, there are very big differences between verticals and grands. The action (key-and-hammer mechanism) of the grand is specifically designed to increase the speed and reliability of repetition (the ability to repeat notes in rapid succession) and the ability to control the volume of sound. Verticals are usually inferior in this regard. The sound of the grand bounces off floor, wall, and other surfaces, and is diffused by them, before reaching the player’s ears, whereas the sound of the vertical tends, literally, to be in the player’s face. The end result of these differences is that grand pianos usually produce a more pleasing sound and can be played with greater expression. That said, there are some phenomenal high-end verticals out there that can run circles around some lesser-quality grands.

For more information, see Piano-Buying Basics: Vertical or Grand?

The right pedal is called the sustain or damper pedal. Its function is to lift all the dampers off the strings so that any notes played thereafter will sustain (continue to sound), and all other notes will ring sympathetically. The left pedal is called the soft pedal (vertical) or una corda pedal (grand). Its function is to reduce the sound volume somewhat by moving the hammers closer to the strings (vertical), or by shifting the keyboard so that only two out of each group of three strings is struck by the hammers (grand).

The center pedal has one of several different functions. In most grands and a few high-quality verticals, it acts as a sostenuto pedal, selectively sustaining only those notes whose keys are down when the pedal is depressed. This feature is useful only in a few pieces of classical music. In most verticals, the center pedal either lowers a strip of muting cloth between the hammers and strings, drastically reducing the sound volume, or operates as a sustain pedal for the bass notes only.

For more information about how a piano works, see this brief explanation in Piano Buyer, or a more complete one in The Piano Book, by Larry Fine.

Different parts of a piano are made of different materials. For some parts, the type of wood used strongly affects the quality and musical character of the instrument. In today’s global economy, most manufacturers have access to and use materials that are appropriate for the level of quality and musical characteristics they are seeking.

Note that the outer veneer of a piano, such as mahogany or walnut, is decorative only and has no bearing whatsoever on the musical or structural quality of the instrument.

For a mildly technical, but easily readable, explanation of piano parts, quality, design, and materials, we suggest you read The Piano Book, by Larry Fine.

Furniture style is entirely a matter of personal taste and has no effect on the quality or functioning of the instrument. One caveat, however: Free-standing legs on smaller vertical pianos are prone to breakage if the instrument is moved often. Legs attached to the instrument sides with toe blocks, common on medium-size and larger verticals, represents a sturdier construction. For more information on piano furniture styles, including pictures, see this article in “Piano-Buying Basics.”

Spinets are vertical pianos, 35 to 40 inches tall, whose hammer mechanisms are located completely or partially below the level of the keys. This arrangement was invented in the 1930s to satisfy consumer demand for a shorter, more compact piano. Spinet actions (key-and-hammer mechanisms) work less efficiently than other types of action because of the way the keys and hammers are connected, and the difficulty of accessing or removing the recessed spinet actions makes even small repairs and adjustments complicated and expensive. The small size of spinets also means their tone will be compromised. New spinets are no longer being manufactured, but many older ones are still on the used-piano market. Beginners can learn to play on a spinet, but expect to have to upgrade to a better instrument soon. See this article in “Piano-Buying Basics” for more information about piano types and sizes.

In the old days, grand pianos of different sizes had cute, romantic names such as “baby grand” or “parlour grand.” These days, piano professionals usually speak of grand pianos simply by their exact size in feet and inches or in centimeters. The term “baby grand” is rarely used. If any names are used at all, they are likely to be “small grand” for instruments up to about 5½ feet, medium grand for those 5½ to 7½ feet, and concert grand for those over 7½ feet long. (These names and sizes are not set in stone; slight variations on them are common.) See this article in “Piano-Buying Basics” for more information about piano types and sizes.

All other factors being equal, taller uprights and longer grands sound better, particularly in the bass and mid-range, than smaller or shorter ones. This is due to the physics of piano strings, which dictates that longer strings produce a more harmonious sound. In some cases, the larger pianos may also have better keys and actions. Of course, unless you’re comparing different-size models of the same brand and model line, all other factors are rarely equal, so one should not pursue size to the exclusion of other attributes, but as a general rule of thumb, when it comes to selecting a piano, bigger is better.

Verticals (uprights) and grands come in various sizes that are called by different names. Speaking very generally, most vertical pianos purchased are from 43 to 52 inches tall, though ones both shorter and taller are available, especially among used pianos. Most grands fall in the range of 5 to 7 feet long, though ones as short as 4½ feet and as long as 10 feet are available. The shortest pianos are primarily for very casual and furniture-conscious use, the tallest or longest for professional and concert use. See this article in “Piano-Buying Basics” for more information.

No. Some are too far gone to be worth saving.

First determine if it might be appropriate for a piano restorer, or for a beginning technician on which to practice repairs. If not, and it really needs to be discarded, then call piano movers or contractors who clean out basements, attics, and the like, and get estimates of how much it would cost to remove the piano and take it to the dump or landfill. Note that in addition to the cost of hauling the piano away, the landfill may also charge a fee based on weight or volume.

Then you should have the piano inspected by a piano technician before offering it to others. The technician can advise you as to the condition of the piano and for whom it might be appropriate. You can then pass that information along to prospective takers.

That’s a great idea. Just be aware that it’s possible the technician may feel some kind of loyalty to the current owner and may not want to tell you the complete truth. Nevertheless, the technician is not likely to out-and-out lie to you, especially if you suggest that you may be calling them to service the piano in the future.

It depends on your needs and on the relative merits of the new and old pianos you are considering. There aren’t any generalizations that can be made.

If the problem just involves fixing or replacing a few action parts or strings, that’s usually not a big deal. However, if many keys don’t work, there could be wholesale destruction or deterioration of parts, and more could break after you start using the piano. Better to have a technician advise you about this before taking the piano.

No. Pianos can have serious problems that are not obvious just from playing.

I suppose one might give away a piano that is no longer needed if it has minimal monetary value, as a philanthropic act, or if the owner is moving and doesn’t want to pay the cost of moving the piano. If the piano is not worth much because it needs a lot of work, and the owner doesn’t want to spend the money to have the work done, he or she might feel that the only way to get rid of the piano is to give it away — and let the buyer pay for the moving and repair. So buyer beware, and be sure to have the piano inspected by a piano technician before agreeing to take it. Keep in mind that a “free” piano is not really free. You have to pay to have it moved, tuned, and repaired, and, if it turns out to be junk, to dispose of it. Free pianos can be great deals — or they can turn out to be very expensive. You can avoid much trouble and unpleasant surprises by having the piano professionally inspected before agreeing to take it.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each. A dealer with a regular storefront will likely have a great selection of instruments to choose from, both new and used, and will give a warranty. However, dealers often have the high overhead that comes from needing to be in a prime location, keeping the store staffed, keeping many pianos in tune, etc., so prices will usually be higher. The attributes of a good piano dealer are discussed here.

Some piano tuner/technicians also sell used or restored pianos from their home or workshop. Their selection is usually limited to a handful of instruments, but their overhead is usually lower than a regular dealer’s, so their prices may be a little lower. Some also sell new pianos, but if they do, they may also be incurring the same overhead costs as a non-technician dealer, so their prices may be similar, too.

The major advantage to buying directly from a private party is that there is no overhead or profit margin built into the sale price, thus a greater opportunity to get a good deal. However, purchasing from a private party (usually the piano owner) also carries the highest risk. There is no recourse after purchase, so if there is a problem, you are on your own. There is also no selection of multiple instruments to choose from (you have to shop at multiple locations), no selection of new pianos at all, and you have no assistance in moving or servicing the piano after you've made the purchase. We highly recommend that, before buying from a private party, you have any piano you are considering evaluated by a piano technician. Major defects can be concealed by the seller, or may be unknown to him or her, and the piano can be unplayable in a short time, or be expensive to repair.

For more information about this topic, see the article “Buying a Used or Restored Piano.”

It depends on the quality and value of the older piano and how much it would cost to rebuild it. The complete rebuilding of a grand piano can cost from $15,000 to $40,000 (sometimes even more). Obviously, this is only worth doing to a piano of the highest quality, such as a Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, or some of the top European makes. For lesser pianos, however, sometimes partial rebuilding or reconditioning at a much lower cost can make sense. This is something that must be determined on a case-by-case basis through consultation with piano technicians and rebuilders. Note that if your piano is a cheap one that has serious problems, in most cases you would clearly be better off buying a new one. Please read more about piano restoration in “Buying a Used or Rebuilt Piano,” in the article “Should I Have My Piano Rebuilt?,” or in The Piano Book, by Larry Fine.

If you would like your kids to develop a good musical ear and not get frustrated by notes that don’t work or sound right, then you should be concerned with the condition of the piano. It’s possible to be concerned without being overly fussy.

If a piano is less than 10 or 15 years old and has not been in a high-use situation, chances are good that it doesn’t have any fatal defects, and may only need routine maintenance. Other than that advice, there are only a limited number of things you can do yourself to determine the condition of a piano. Most will give results that are only suggestive of possible problems, perhaps enough to rule a piano out, but not enough to be confident about buying it.

Some tell-tale signs of serious problems are: a water line inside the bottom of a vertical piano (the piano was in a flood); sawdust under a piano (termites); numerous rusty or broken strings, or many new, replaced strings amid broken and missing ones (a string-breakage problem); heavy rust in general; many notes that don’t play (action worn out, parts breaking, glue joints coming apart); piano is so far out of tune that individual notes each sound like several notes are playing at once (piano may be untunable).

The above list is, of course, only of fatal problems. There are countless other possible problems, ranging from the serious and expensive, but not fatal, to small nuisance problems and the need for normal maintenance. It’s strongly advisable, therefore, that you hire a piano technician to inspect any used piano you are considering buying. If the seller is a reputable dealer and the piano is covered with a comprehensive warranty, then you may be able to omit this step, as the risk is small. However, it’s not unusual, even with a reputable dealer, for a customer to hire an independent technician to inspect the instrument.

For a more comprehensive and illustrated discussion of things to inspect in a used piano, we recommend The Piano Book, by Larry Fine. An excerpt from The Piano Book that may help you do your own rough inspection of a used piano can be found here.

Each piano is given a serial number at “birth.” It’s usually located somewhere in the tuning pin area of the cast-iron plate, though sometimes it’s elsewhere, or difficult to find. See this illustration for typical locations. (If there appears to be more than one serial number on the piano, usually the longer one is the real serial number, the other being a number used by the factory during production.) If the manufacturer is still in business, it may be able to provide the year of manufacture from the serial number. Sometimes the information is on the manufacturer’s web site. For those not still in business, the Pierce Piano Atlas provides dates of manufacture from serial numbers for thousands of piano brands, both current and past. You can find the book through a piano technician or dealer, in libraries, or from www.piercepianoatlas.com. Where dates are not available in Pierce, or the serial number cannot be found, an experienced technician or rebuilder may be able to estimate the age of the piano from technical features or furniture design.

Many piano buyers make the mistake of thinking that dates found on the plate or soundboard, such as “Established 1837” or “Patented 1875,” represent the year of manufacture. They do not. The actual year of manufacture is almost never found on the piano, except as represented by the serial number.

The best way to find out the value of a used piano is to have it professionally appraised by an experienced piano technician, whose knowledge of local conditions in the piano market, ability to judge the condition of the piano, and memory of recent similar transactions can probably produce a more accurate estimate of the instrument’s fair market value than you can by yourself.

However, if you want to attempt it yourself, you will need to find prices of comparable used pianos that have recently sold. This is difficult to do, both because there is no central registry of used-piano sales, and because to be “comparable,” many factors would have to match, such as age, condition, and location. For the most popular models, it may be possible to estimate the value by looking up prices on Piano Buyer Classifieds, or other places where used pianos are advertised, such as Piano World, eBay, and Craigslist. Keep in mind, though, that these are asking prices, not selling prices, and asking prices are often uninformed and wildly high. However, where many similar pianos are advertised, asking prices tend to settle reasonably close to selling prices.

Alternatively, but less reliably, one can estimate the value of the used piano by depreciating from the price of a comparable new one when the same brand and model are still in production and similar in quality to the used piano in question. First, estimate the street price of the comparable new piano from the Model & Pricing Guide, then multiply by the percentage shown (by age and condition) in the Depreciation Schedule in the article Buying a Used or Restored Piano: How Much Is It Worth? This works best for pianos that are less than 30 years old.

For pianos that don’t fit either of the above scenarios, the generic chart, Prices of Used Pianos, in the article mentioned above, may provide some guidance.

Except as shown in the above-mentioned chart, the value you come up with is an estimate of what a private party would sell the piano for. Prices from dealers are likely to be considerably higher. Pianos that have been rebuilt must be valued differently.

Piano Buyer also offers a fee-based Seller Advisory Service to estimate the value of a used piano, offer advice on how to sell, or how to donate if that is appropriate.

It usually costs around the same as the tuning fee, that is, between $100 and $200. There would probably be an extra charge if a written report is required.

Good used pianos can be purchased from piano dealers, piano technicians and rebuilders, and from friends and family members. Online, you can search at Piano Buyer Classifieds, Piano World, eBay, Craigslist, and several online piano dealers. See also our Local Services Directory for sources. Please read “Buying a Used or Restored Piano” for full details.

Of course, to find out whether the used piano is truly “good,” it’s imperative that you have it inspected by a piano technician before buying it.

Most new consumer-grade vertical pianos sell in the range of $3,000 to $10,000. Some higher-end ones cost two or three times that, and a few cost less. New entry-level grands generally go for $7,000 to $10,000, mid-range grands from $10,000 to $30,000, and high-end grands for $30,000 to $100,000 or more. Unrestored but playable used pianos, purchased from a private party, cost from 20 to 80 percent of the cost of a comparable new instrument, depending on age and condition, with 15-year-old used pianos coming in at about 50 percent. Used pianos may cost much more when purchased from a dealer, but you will also get a warranty, peace of mind, and greater ease of shopping.

Generally speaking, higher-priced pianos have a more sophisticated tone and touch than entry-level ones, with correspondingly greater control of musical expression. They may also come in better-built, more attractive cabinets with better-quality finishes, and receive more thorough, custom musical refinement at the factory. However, these days, much of the difference in the price of new pianos is also related to labor costs in the country of origin, not solely to the quality of the instrument.

For more information about the price and quality of new pianos, see the article “The New-Piano Market Today.”

For instructions on how to look up the price of specific new piano models, see the introduction to the Model & Pricing Guide.

For more information on estimating the value of a used piano, see the section “How Much Is It Worth?” in the article “Buying a Used or Rebuilt Piano.”

Pianos can have a life expectancy of 60 years or more if well maintained, and they generally perform well for their first 30 to 40 years. However, due to depreciation, a used piano only a few years old may be much less expensive than a comparable new one. Therefore, under the right circumstances, a used piano can be a better value than a new one. There are, however, concerns related to buying used, such as risk, lack of warranty, and the difficulties of shopping for one. See a discussion of the relative advantages and disadvantages of buying new and used. Also see the article “Buying a Used or Restored Piano.”

A digital piano is fine for beginners. However, it will only take you so far; after a couple of years of lessons, you will likely need a decent acoustic piano to progress. A digital piano is a reasonable alternative if the risk is high that the player will lose interest, or if you move often. It’s also suitable for apartment and condo dwellers, or for those who want to play late into the evening, since with a digital you can silence the piano and use headphones. Digitals also have a host of features that make them extremely versatile, from the ability to sound like an entire musical ensemble, to recording. Please see the article “Acoustic or Digital: What’s Best For Me?” for more information.

Rental is a reasonable option if the risk is high that the student will abandon lessons after awhile. However, if you believe the risk of abandonment is low, you will usually do better financially by purchasing. See the article on piano rental for more information.

This is a reasonable approach if the risk is high that the student’s interest in playing will disappear after awhile. If the risk is very low, you should buy the best piano you can reasonably afford, as the benefits of better performance will be realized for years to come. Also, even if there is a loss of interest, the better-quality piano will likely retain a greater proportion of its value upon resale than will the lower-quality one. For more information, see the article “Piano-Buying Basics.”

The first step in purchasing a piano is to evaluate whether it’s likely be a long-term or a short-term purchase. For example, if there are several potential players in the family, especially if one is a parent who played piano as a child, chances are that at least one family member will play for many years. With only one potential player, on the other hand, particularly a young child, there is more risk that the instrument will be abandoned after a short while. If the risk of abandonment is high, you may want to start with a less expensive piano or a digital piano, or even to rent one, and then upgrade to a better instrument when you feel confident that the risk of abandonment has passed. If you are already confident that the piano will be played for a long time, it makes more sense to invest in a better instrument right away. For more information, see the article “Piano-Buying Basics.”

Each piano is given a serial number at “birth.” It’s usually located somewhere in the tuning pin area of the cast-iron plate, though sometimes it’s elsewhere, or difficult to find. See this illustration or this video for typical locations. (If there appears to be more than one serial number on the piano, usually the longer one is the real serial number, the other being a number used by the factory during production.) If the manufacturer is still in business, it may be able to provide the year of manufacture from the serial number. Sometimes the information is on the manufacturer’s web site. For those not still in business, the Pierce Piano Atlas provides dates of manufacture from serial numbers for thousands of piano brands, both current and past. You can find the book through a piano technician or dealer, in libraries, or from www.piercepianoatlas.com. Where dates are not available in Pierce, or the serial number cannot be found, an experienced technician or rebuilder may be able to estimate the age of the piano from technical features or furniture design.

It depends on what you want to clean. The wooden furniture portion of the piano, including high-polished finishes, is usually cleaned with a soft, lintless cloth, slightly dampened with water if you wish. If the wood has a grain, wipe in the direction of the grain. Be careful about using commercially available furniture polish; manufacturers sometimes recommend against it. There are special polishes available from piano technicians or online for different kinds of piano finishes. In any case, follow the piano manufacturer’s recommendations if available. A good article about cleaning and polishing a piano’s finish can be found here.

For cleaning the key tops, slightly dampen a cloth with a mild solution of soap and water and rub the key tops, but do not let any water run down the sides of the keys. Then dry the key tops off right away with a dry cloth. Especially if the key tops are made of ivory, do not let water stand on them for any length of time, or else the ivory may buckle and come loose. Rarely, stain from the black keys will rub off, so you may wish to use separate cloths for black and white keys.

To avoid causing damage to delicate parts, we recommend letting a piano technician clean the soundboard under the strings, the inside of the action, and under the keys.

RPT stands for Registered Piano Technician, a membership category of the Piano Technicians Guild. A person with RPT status has passed a series of examinations that test for basic competency in piano tuning and technical work, and in a general understanding of piano technology. Hiring an RPT helps assure that you will receive competent and professional piano service. RPTs in your area can be located through the website of the Piano Technicians Guild, or through PianoBuyer.com’s Local Services Directory.

Please remove music, knickknacks, plants, home entertainment systems, and other stuff from the piano. It will save the technician time and prevent breakage. Please sweep or vacuum a little under a grand piano, just in case the technician has to lie under the piano to make an adjustment. Please make a list of anything that bothers you about the piano that you would like the technician to take a look at. Please make sure there is sufficient lighting and quiet. Note that the whirring of kitchen appliances and ceiling fans, and noisy children, can make it difficult to tune because these noises interfere with the vibrations to which the tuner listens while tuning.

You can locate a piano technician through the website of the Piano Technicians Guild, or through PianoBuyer.com’s Local Services Directory.

Unfortunately, not always. It depends on the nature and cost of the work, and on the value of the piano. The question to ask is whether the work to be done increases the value of the piano, and if so, by how much. Basic maintenance work like tuning and action regulation will not usually increase the value of the piano, whereas major work like restringing or replacing the soundboard will. (Of course, you should have the basic maintenance work done anyway or else the piano may be unpleasant to play and may deteriorate.) You should also consider the cost of a new piano of the same brand, or of a brand similar in quality, stature, or reputation. That’s because the value of a used piano will generally be tied to, and limited by, the cost of a comparable new one. You will usually recoup the cost of any good work you do on a piano like a Steinway or other top-rated brand because of their high value (both new and used), but for most other brands, your ability to recoup your expenses will be limited. That’s one reason why, except for sentimental or historical reasons, most older pianos are not completely restored.

No. Solid spruce soundboards have a tendency to dry out, shrink, and crack as they age, especially in environments that have pronounced seasonal variations in humidity. The shrinkage often results in a loss of crown, or curvature, of the soundboard, which can sometimes be detrimental to the tone. But the cracks themselves are usually harmless unless they are accompanied by buzzing sounds or other problems.

The soundboard is a large, thin sheet of wood (or a laminated wood product), usually of spruce, that amplifies the vibrations of the strings and broadcasts them through the air to the ear.

A broken string is neither major nor trivial. If the string is a bass string (steel wound with copper), the replacement string will have to be special-ordered because each model of piano, and each bass string within that model, has unique specifications for length and thickness. If the broken string is plain steel wire, the technician should be able to replace it on the spot from a reel of wire of the proper diameter. There are about 15 or 20 possible wire diameters for steel piano wire, and technicians usually carry a small supply of each in their car. In either case, it will take several additional visits of the tuner over an extended period of time to stretch the new string before it will hold its tune. In the meantime, it may be necessary to mute the new string to prevent it from sounding sour. So, although the replacement of the string itself is not complicated, the whole process can end up being expensive and a nuisance.

When someone complains of a “broken key,” usually they mean that something is not working right. It could actually be a broken key, or it could be that something else in the action is broken or stuck. In any case, it’s usually not a major job to repair it. But neither is it necessarily trivial. If there are many such “broken keys,” it could be a sign of a major problem, commonly wood parts or glue joints that are hopelessly dried out and brittle.

Sticking keys are usually caused by humidity changes. Interestingly, keys can stick in both humid and dry weather. Humid weather can cause wood and cloth to swell and interfere with the movement of other parts. Dry weather can cause holes to contract and bind on guide pins. In most cases, the remedies are fairly simple, such as sanding or repositioning swollen parts, expanding tight holes, and lubricating.

You can have the piano voiced, which mostly involves softening the hammers to produce a more mellow sound. You can also change the room acoustics by adding rugs, upholstered furniture, draperies, wall hangings, and other sound-absorbent objects. Storing some cardboard boxes under your grand piano, while not very attractive, can do wonders for softening the sound. Finally, there are some accessories on the market in the form of Styrofoam products, blankets, etc. that, when applied to the back or underside of the piano, can reduce the volume by many decibels. One home remedy is to wedge a quilt or blanket between the soundboard and the structural beams. Contact a piano technician for details.

Voicing is regulating the tone of the piano. The primary vehicle for this is the softening or hardening of the hammers. Softening the hammers is usually accomplished by pricking the hammer felt with needles to reduce its density. Hardening is usually done by chemically treating the hammers or ironing the felt. Other more sophisticated aspects of voicing involve the leveling of the strings, aligning the hammers with the strings, adjusting the end points of the vibrating portion of the strings, and adjusting the striking point of the hammers on the strings.

Within certain narrow parameters, the touch can be adjusted by regulating the action. Regulating is the process of restoring the dimensional relationships (positions, angles, distances, etc.) of the action parts to their factory-specified defaults. Over time and with playing, these dimensions gradually change and must periodically be restored in order for the piano to function properly. Each dimension also has a certain narrow window of permissible variation, so by cleverly manipulating these variations, it may be possible to make the touch slightly lighter or heavier, or the repetition faster, than the factory default specifications. Lubricating the many friction points in an action can also work wonders in lightening a heavy-feeling touch.

Regulating is the adjusting of the action and keys to restore them to their factory-default specifications. See also the answer to the next question.

First of all, very few piano movers also tune pianos. Both are skilled professions, but are quite unrelated to one another in the kind of skills they require. Most of all, however, the humidity difference that makes a piano go out of tune at the new location works its effect gradually over a period of from several days to several weeks. The piano may sound just fine right after being moved, but be quite out of tune a week or so later. If the piano is tuned immediately after being moved, it will probably be out of tune within a couple of weeks, so it’s best to wait some time after moving before having the piano tuned.

Subtle differences in humidity between the new and old locations cause the piano to go out of tune. Very inexpensive pianos that are structurally inadequate may go out of tune because of the handling of the piano, but this is not a big factor for most instruments. The tuning of vertical pianos may be affected by unevenness in the level of the floor, or differences in the evenness between the old and new locations (grands are usually not affected by these issues).

Piano climate-control systems can help smooth out seasonal humidity changes, resulting in better piano sound and operation, longer life, and possibly less frequent tunings. Even if you already have whole-house humidification and de-humidification, you may benefit from the extra protection. Ask a piano technician or piano dealer about having a climate-control system installed in your piano.

Some manufacturers like to say that the temperature should be at 72 degrees F. and the humidity about 45 percent. However, given climatic realities, human needs, and energy conservation issues, this may not always be possible or practical. In truth, pianos are not so delicate that they require such precision in their environment. Any temperature and humidity that are not extreme and are relatively constant will do. The more consistent the better.

The best place is where the temperature and humidity will remain relatively moderate and constant, and away from big drafts, open windows, and direct sunlight. Especially, keep the piano several feet away from heating registers and radiators, or block off or redirect the heat from such registers and radiators if the piano must be placed closer.

Aural tuning is tuning the piano by ear (not using an electronic device).

When a piano is tuned, the tuner first tunes one note, usually the A above middle C, to a standard such as a tuning fork or electronic tone. Typically, the standard is A vibrating at a frequency of 440 cycles per second. Then the rest of the piano is tuned relative to that pitch. When, because of neglect or humidity changes, this A on the piano is far from its correct pitch, this pitch must be reestablished and the piano roughly tuned relative to that pitch. This is called pitch correction or, in any particular case, pitch raising or pitch lowering. After the pitch correction, a fine tuning can be done. If a fine tuning is attempted at the same time as a pitch correction, the piano will usually end up out of tune because the strings have a tendency to revert part way to their old tension when a large change in tension is attempted at one time. Due to the extra work involved, tuners will usually charge extra for a pitch correction, which may sometimes even require a second visit to complete. In some climates or with some instruments, a pitch correction may be required with nearly every tuning.

This means that the A above middle C is vibrating at 440 cycles per second. This is the standard pitch to which most pianos and other instruments are tuned, also known as “concert pitch,” although some orchestras prefer to tune to a slightly higher pitch.

Not necessarily. It depends on why the piano is not tunable, how much it would cost to fix it, and how much the piano is worth. Sometimes the tuning pins can be tightened at minimal or moderate expense. In other cases, the piano needs to be restrung with larger tuning pins, or the pinblock needs to be replaced, possibly costing thousands of dollars. This would be worth doing only if justified by the potential value of the instrument.

Actually, all pianos go out of tune continuously. It just may take a while before you notice it. How soon you notice it depends on such factors as the design of the piano (though, interestingly, not necessarily on its quality), the various pressures and tensions being exerted on the soundboard and structural elements, climatic changes, your ear and sensitivity to out-of-tuneness, and on the kind of music you play.

It depends on how much you play and on how conscientious you want to be about piano maintenance. Typically a piano will be tuned twice a year at a cost of $100 to $200 per tuning, depending on geographic region and the experience and reputation of the tuner. Some tuners in high demand charge more. In addition, every so often a piano will need regulating (adjusting the piano action to compensate for wear and bring it back to the manufacturer’s specs), voicing (adjusting the tone for changes that take place as a result of use), internal cleaning, and repairs. For most piano owners, budgeting an average of $300 to $500 per year will suffice, although the actual outlay will be less in some years and more in others. Teachers and performers who use the piano more, or need to maintain optimal performance, should budget accordingly.

You will get the most for your money if you have the piano tuned at times of the year when the tuning will remain stable for some time. When the heat is turned on or off for the season, the indoor humidity, and consequently the tuning, begins to change, and these changes may continue for weeks or months afterward. For this reason, it’s best to wait for at least a few weeks after turning the heat on or off before having the piano tuned. Otherwise, the piano may go out of tune very shortly after being tuned. However, if you are sensitive to tuning, it may be difficult or impossible to time the tunings to the indoor humidity changes in such a way that you will be satisfied most of the time, especially in climates with cold winters. The tuning changes continuously, and the only ways to adapt to it are to have the piano tuned more frequently, to institute some kind of indoor or in-piano humidity control, or to put up with some amount of out-of-tuneness.

How often your piano should be tuned depends on how sensitive you are to out-of-tuneness, how sensitive your piano is to the humidity changes that cause a piano to go out of tune, the climate you live in, how much you play, and your budget. For most people, one to three times per year is about right. Professional musicians and teachers may require more frequent service. Concert pianos are generally tuned (or the tuning touched up) before every performance.

A piano in good condition goes out of tune primarily because its soundboard and other wooden parts expand and contract with changes in humidity, which changes the tension on the strings. This happens whether or not the piano is played. Also, a piano in poor condition, with the tuning pins loose in the pinblock, can go out of tune because it is unable to hold the string tension constant.

Tuning is the process of adjusting the tension at which the strings are stretched, using a wrench called a tuning hammer, so that all the strings vibrate in pleasing harmony with one another in accordance with certain acoustical laws and aesthetic and musical customs. Although the tuner may also perform other adjustments to the piano at the same visit, strictly speaking, only the above process constitutes “tuning.” A good article on the subject can be found here.

There was a time when people were advised not to put a piano against an outside wall. Today, however, most homes are insulated well enough that that advice no longer holds. That said, I would suggest allowing an air space of a few inches between an outside wall and an upright piano. Note: Sometimes heating registers are placed on outside walls. Pianos should definitely not be placed anywhere near heating registers. The warm air will dry out the piano and cause damage. For more information, see the Piano Maintenance FAQs and read this article about caring for your piano.

Electronic tuning devices have become extremely sophisticated in recent years and are used by some of the most skilled tuners. The best tuners can also tune by ear, which is necessary to check the work of the device and to do some aspects of the tuning job that are not easily done electronically. However, use of the electronic device can save the tuner time and fatigue, allowing him or her to do a better job and to do more jobs in a day than would be possible by ear. The devices are also very useful for tuning in difficult environments, such as when there is a lot of background noise, because they can screen out the noise better than the ear can. Some of the devices can also “save” a favorite or unusual tuning so that it can be exactly reproduced the next time it is needed.

As more people have migrated online, the full-color print edition became too expensive and unnecessary to publish twice a year. Instead, we publish, twice a year, a smaller volume, Piano Buyer Model & Price Supplement, containing model-and-price listings for acoustic pianos, and models, prices, and specifications for digital pianos.

If you’re in the market for a piano, in most cases we recommend you read PianoBuyer.com first. It’s an easier read and may satisfy your needs well enough. It’s also more up-to-date than The Piano Book, particularly for new pianos, and is the only publication of the two to cover digital pianos.

The Piano Book covers acoustic pianos in greater depth and a little more technically than PianoBuyer.com; however, it’s still very accessible to the layperson. The Piano Book also has more specialized information than PianoBuyer.com about used and restored pianos, piano moving, and piano servicing. We recommend it as an additional resource. For information on current brands, models, and prices, The Piano Book is completely out of date — see PianoBuyer.com instead.

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