By Larry Fine
The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the process of buying an acoustic (traditional) piano, with an emphasis on the decisions you’ll have to make along the way, and on the factors that will affect any purchase of an acoustic piano. References are given to other articles in this publication, or to The Piano Book, for further information on selected topics. For an overview of the process of buying a digital (electronic) piano, please read our article on that subject.
Why Is Buying a Piano So Hard?
An acoustic (traditional) piano can be one of the most expensive — and difficult — purchases most households will ever make. Why so difficult?
Lack of qualified advice. A person who sets out to buy a piano is unlikely to have a social support network of family and friends who are knowledgeable about pianos to serve as advisors, as they might if buying a car, house, or kitchen appliance. A “modern” piano is essentially a 19th-century creation about which few people know very much, and about which much of what they think they know may not be accurate or current. Even music teachers and experienced players often know little about piano construction or the rapidly changing state of piano manufacturing, often relying on their past experience with certain brands, most of which have changed significantly over the years.
Confusing array of choices. Acoustic pianos are marketed nationally in the United States under some 70 different brand names from a dozen countries (plus dozens of additional names marketed locally), with thousands of models available in dozens of furniture styles and finishes — and that’s just new pianos! Add in more than a century’s worth of used pianos under thousands of brand names in an almost infinite variety of conditions of disrepair and restoration. Just thinking about it can make one dizzy.
Value for the money unclear. New pianos vary in price from $2,000 to $200,000. But unlike many other consumer items, whose differences can be measured or are readily apparent, most pianos, regardless of price, look very similar and do pretty much the same thing: they’re shiny and black (or a wood color), play 88 notes, and have three pedals. The features advertised are often abstract, misleading, or difficult to see or understand. For this reason, it’s often not clear just what you’re getting for your money. This can lead to decision-making paralysis.
Confusing sales practices. While many piano salespeople do an honest and admirable job of guiding their customers through this maze, a significant minority — using lies, tricky pricing games, and false accusations against competing dealers and brands — make the proverbial used-car salesman look like a saint.
Shopping Advice: Dealing With Technical Issues
As you shop for a piano, you’ll likely be bombarded with a great deal of technical jargon—after all, the piano is a complicated instrument. But don’t allow yourself to be confused or intimidated. Although some technical information can be useful and interesting, extensive familiarity with technical issues usually isn’t essential to a successful piano-shopping experience, especially when buying a new piano. (A little greater familiarity may be advisable when buying a used or restored instrument.)
Most technical information you’ll come across relates to how the manufacturer designed the instrument. You should focus on how the instrument sounds, feels, and looks, not how it got that way. In addition, technical features are often taken out of context and manipulated by advertising and salespeople—the real differences in quality are often in subtleties of design and construction that don’t make good ad copy. For those readers who love reading about the finer technical details, we recommend the author’s earlier work, The Piano Book.
Other Basics to Consider:
Vertical or Grand?
Probably the most basic decision to make when buying a piano — and one you may have made already — is whether to buy a vertical or a grand. The following describes some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Takes up less space, can fit into corners
Easier to move
Sound tends to bounce back into player’s face, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
Action is not as advanced as grand; repetition of notes is slower and less reliable in most cases, and damping is sometimes less efficient.
Keys are shorter than on grands, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
Cabinetwork is usually less elegant and less impressive.
Vertical pianos are suitable for those with simpler musical needs, or where budget and space constraints preclude buying a grand. Despite the disadvantages noted above, some of the larger, more expensive verticals do musically rival smaller, less expensive grands. They may be a good choice where space is at a premium but a more subtle control of musical expression is desired.
Sound develops in a more aesthetically pleasing manner by bouncing off nearby surfaces and blending before reaching player’s ears, making it easier to control musical expression.
More sophisticated action than in a vertical. Grand action has a repetition lever to aid in the speed and reliability of repetition of notes, and is gravity-assisted, rather than dependent on arti-ficial contrivances (springs, straps) to return hammers to rest.
Longer keys provide better leverage, allowing for significantly greater control of musical expression.
Casework is usually more elegant and aesthetically pleasing.
Takes up more space
Harder to move
Both verticals and grands come in a wide variety of sizes. The important thing to know here is that size is directly related to musical quality. Although many other factors also contribute to tonal quality, all else being equal, the longer strings of larger pianos, especially in the bass and midrange sections, give off a deeper, truer, more consonant tonal quality than the strings of smaller pianos. The treble and bass blend better and the result is more pleasing to the ear. Also, longer grands usually have longer keys that generally allow superior control of musical expression than shorter grands. Therefore, it’s best to buy the largest piano you can afford and have space for. Small differences in size between models are more significant in smaller pianos than in larger ones. However, a difference in size of only an inch or so is not generally significant, as it could be merely due to a larger cabinet or case.
Vertical pianos are measured from the floor to the top of the piano. Verticals less than 40″ tall are known as spinets. They were very popular in the post–World War II period, but in recent years have nearly died out. Verticals from 40″ to about 43″ or 44″ are called consoles. Spinet and console actions must be compromised somewhat in size or placement within the piano to fit them into pianos of this size. The tone is also compromised by the shorter strings and smaller soundboard. For this reason, manufacturers concentrate on the furniture component of spinets and consoles and make them in a variety of decorator styles. They are suitable for buyers whose piano needs are casual, or for beginning students, and for those who simply want a nice-looking piece of furniture in the home. Once students progress to an intermediate or advanced stage, they are likely to need a larger instrument.
Studio pianos, from about 44″ to 47″, are more serious instruments. They are called studios because they are commonly found in the practice rooms of music schools. Manufacturers make them in both attractive furniture styles for the home and in functional, durable, but aesthetically bland styles for school and other institutional use. If you don’t require attractive furniture, you may save money by buying the school style. In fact, many buyers prefer the simple lines of the institutional models.
Verticals about 48″ and taller, called uprights, are the best musically. New ones top out at about 52″, but in the early part of the 20th century they were made even taller. The tallest verticals take up no more floor space than the shortest ones, but some buyers may find the taller models too massive for their taste. Most uprights are made in an attractive, black, traditional or institutional style, but are also available with exotic veneers, inlays, and other touches of elegance.
The width of a vertical piano is usually a little under five feet and the depth around two feet; however, these dimensions are not significantly related to musical quality.
Grand pianos are measured with the lid closed from the very front of the piano (keyboard end) to the very back (the tail). Lengths start at 4′ 6″ and go to over 10′ (even longer in some experimental models). Widths are usually around 5′ and heights around 3′, but only the length has a bearing on musical quality.
Grands less than 5′ long are the musical equivalent of spinets and consoles; that is, they are musically compromised and are mainly sold as pieces of furniture. Grands between about 5′ and 5½’ are very popular. Although slightly compromised, they can reasonably serve both musical and furniture functions and are available in many furniture styles. (By the way, piano professionals prefer the term small grand to baby grand. Although there is no exact definition, a small grand is generally one less than about 5½’ long.) Above 5½’, pianos rapidly improve, becoming professional quality at about 6′. Pianos intended for the home or serious professional top out at about 7′ or 7½’. These sizes may also satisfy the needs of smaller concert venues. Larger venues require concert grands, usually about 9′ long.
When considering what size of piano is right for your home, don’t forget to add two to three feet to the length of a grand or the depth of a vertical for the piano bench and pianist. Shoppers tend to underestimate what will fit and buy smaller pianos than necessary. Sometimes, the next-size-larger instrument can give you a great deal of tonal improvement at little additional cost. Dealers can usually lend you templates corresponding to different piano sizes to lay down on your floor so you can measure what will fit.
Your budget is probably the most important factor in your choice of piano, but it’s hard to make a budget when you don’t know how much pianos cost. Here is some rule-of- thumb information to get you started:
Most new vertical pianos sell in the range of $4,000 to $10,000, though some higher-end ones cost two or three times that, and a few cost less.
New small, inexpensive grand pianos generally go for $7,000 to $12,000; mid-size, mid-priced grands from $12,000 to $30,000; and high-end grands for $40,000 to $100,000 or more.
Unrestored but playable used pianos cost from perhaps 10% to 80% of the cost of a comparable new instrument, depending on age and condition, with 15-yearold used pianos coming in at about 50%. The cost of restored instruments is discussed below.
Rent or Buy?
If the piano is being purchased for a beginner, there is a significant possibility that he or she will not stick with playing the piano. To handle this and other “high-risk” situations, most dealers offer a rental/purchase program. In the typical program, the dealer would rent you the piano you are considering purchasing for up to six months. You would pay round-trip moving expenses upfront, usually $400 to $600, plus a monthly rental fee, typically $70 to $120 for a vertical piano. (Rental/purchase programs do not usually apply to grand pianos.) Should you decide to buy the piano at any time before the end of the six-month term, all money paid up to that point would be applied to the purchase. Otherwise, you would return the piano and be under no further obligation.
Two pieces of advice here: First, make sure you rent the piano you ultimately wish to buy, or at least rent from the dealer who has that piano, and not simply the piano or dealer with the lowest rental rate — if you eventually decide to buy from a different dealer, you’ll forfeit the rental payments already made to the first dealer. However, if you decide to buy a different piano from the same dealer from whom you rented, it’s possible that dealer would agree to apply some or all of the rental payments to the new piano — but check on this in advance.
Second, clarify issues of price before you decide whether to rent or buy. Specifically, find out whether you’ll be allowed to apply the rental payments toward, for example, today’s sale price, rather than toward the regular price six months from now — or conversely, if you’ll be held to today’s price should there be a sale six months from now. Keep in mind, however, that a “sale” is generally a reduction in price designed to entice you to buy now.
Like just about everything else you can buy, pianos come in a range of quality levels. When we speak of quality in a piano, we are referring to how it sounds, plays, and looks, and how well it will hold up with time and use.
As you can imagine, any discussion of quality in pianos is likely to involve a lot of subjectivity and be somewhat controversial. However, a useful generalization for the purpose of discussing quality can be had by dividing pianos into two types: performance grade and consumer grade. Performance-grade pianos are made to a single, high quality standard, usually in relatively small quantities, by companies that strongly favor quality considerations over cost. Consumer-gradepianos, on the other hand, are built to be sold at a particular price, and the design, materials, level of workmanship, and manufacturing location are chosen to fit that price. Most consumer-grade pianos are mass-produced at a variety of price levels, with materials and designs chosen accordingly. Throughout much of the 20th century, the United States produced both types of piano in abundance. Presently, however, most performance-grade pianos are made in Europe, Japan, and the United States, while virtually all consumer-grade pianos are made in Asia. Due to globalization and other factors, the distinction between the two types of piano is beginning to blur. This is discussed at greater length in the article “The New-Piano Market Today” ” elsewhere in this issue.
The above explanation of quality in pianos is very general, and some aspects of quality may be more applicable to your situation than others. Therefore, it pays to take some time to consider exactly what you expect from your piano, both practically and in terms of lifestyle. Practical needs include, among others, the level of expressiveness you require in the piano’s tone and touch, how long you expect the instrument to satisfy your evolving needs, and what furniture it must match — as well as certain functional considerations, such as whether you use the middle pedal, desire a fallboard (key cover) that closes slowly, or need to be able to lock the piano. Lifestyle needs are those that involve the prestige or artistic value of the instrument, and how ownership of it makes you feel or makes you appear to others. Just as a casual driver may own a Mercedes, or one devoid of artistic abilities may own great works of art, many who don’t play a note purchase expensive pianos for their artistic and prestige value.
A couple of the practical considerations require further discussion. Concerning expressiveness: What kind of music do you play or aspire to play? One can play any kind of music on any piano. However, some pianos seem better suited in tone and touch than other pianos to some kinds of music. Quality in piano tone is often defined in terms of the instrument’s ability to excel at pleasing players of so-called “classical” music because this kind of music tends to make the greatest expressive demands on an instrument. So if you aspire to play classical music seriously, you may wish to one day own a fine instrument capable of the nuanced tone and touch the music demands. On the other hand, if classical music isn’t your thing, you can probably get away with a less expensive instrument.
A key factor concerns how long you want to keep the instrument: Is it for a beginner, especially a youngster, and you’re not sure piano lessons will “stick”? Is it a stepping stone to a better piano later on? Then an inexpensive piano may do. Do you want this to be the last piano you’ll ever buy? Then, even if your playing doesn’t yet justify it, buy a piano you can grow into but likely never grow out of.
You’ll get a better sense of what quality means in a piano if you play a wide variety of them, including ones that cost less than what you plan to spend, as well as ones you can’t afford. Warning: The latter can prove dangerous to your bank account. It’s not unusual for a buyer to begin shopping with the intention of buying a $3,000 vertical, only to emerge some time later with a $30,000 grand!