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!
How Long Does a Piano Last?
A note about how long a piano will last — a question I hear every day. The answer varies for pianos almost as much as it does for people. A piano played 16 hours a day in a school practice room 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. If past experience is any guide, it would not be unreasonable to predict that the best-made pianos will last about twice as long as entry-level ones, given similar conditions of use and climate.
However — and this is the important point — most pianos are discarded not because they no longer function — in fact, they may go on to long lives as used pianos for other people — but because they no longer meet the needs or expectations of their owners or players. A player may have musically advanced beyond what the instrument will deliver, or the owner may now be wealthier and have higher expectations for everything he or she buys — or perhaps no one in the house is playing anymore and the piano is just taking up space. Thus, the important consideration for most buyers, especially buyers of new or relatively young pianos, is how long the piano in question will meet their needs and expectations, rather than how long that piano will last.
New or Used?
The next choice you’ll have to make is whether to buy new or used. The market for used pianos is several times the size of the market for new ones. Let’s look at the merits of each choice:
New Piano Advantages
Little chance of hidden defects
Lower maintenance costs
Easier to shop for
Usually more local choices
Longer piano life expectancy
Greater peace of mind after purchasing
New Piano Disadvantages
Higher upfront cost
Significant depreciation loss if resold within first few years
Limited choice of attractive older styles and finishes
Used Piano Advantages
Lower upfront cost
Greater choice of attractive older styles and finishes Can be more fun and interesting to shop for (if you like shopping for old things)
Restorer may detail instrument to an extent that rivals new piano
Piano likely to be already significantly depreciated, resulting in little or no loss if resold
Used Piano Disadvantages
No manufacturer’s warranty (though there may be a dealer’s or restorer’s warranty)
Greater chance of hidden defects (unless completely restored)
Higher maintenance costs (unless completely restored)
Shorter piano life expectancy (unless completely restored)
Can be maddeningly difficult and confusing to shop for
Need to pay technician to examine and appraise it
Possible need to size up restorer’s ability to do a good job
Despite the longer list of disadvantages, most people buy used because of the lower upfront cost and because they feel they can manage the risks involved. The most important rule by far in managing risk is to have the piano professionally examined and appraised by a piano technician prior to purchase. This is especially important when buying from a private-party seller because there is no warranty, but it can also be done for peace of mind when buying from a professional seller, particularly if the piano is over ten years old. This will cost between $100 and $200 and is well worth the money. If you don’t already have a piano technician you trust, hire a Registered Piano Technician (RPT) member of the Piano Technicians Guild (PTG). You can locate one near you on the PTG website, www.ptg.org. (To be designated an RPT, a technician must pass a series of tests. This provides the customer with some assurance of competence.)
It helps to remember that a new piano becomes “used” the moment it is first sold. Although junk certainly exists, used pianos actually come in a bewildering variety of conditions and situations, many of which can be quite attractive, musically and financially. However, pianos offered for a few hundred dollars or for free on websites such as Craigslist are usually a very poor option. They almost invariably need a great deal of work to bring them into playable condition, and are not worth the considerable cost of moving them. See also our article “Advice About Used Pianos For Parents of Young Beginning Piano Students” for a list of brands of used piano probably best avoided.
The subject of used pianos is vast. The Piano Book has a chapter devoted to it, including how to do your own preliminary technical examination of a piano. A summary of the most important information, including a description of the most common types of used pianos, where to find them, and how much to pay, can be found in the article “Buying a Used or Restored Piano” elsewhere in this issue. See also our archive of past feature articles for additional articles about buying a used or restored piano.
The Piano Dealer
The piano dealer is a very important part of the piano-buying experience, for several reasons:
A knowledgeable and helpful salesperson can help you sort through the myriad possibilities and quickly home in on the piano that’s right for you.
A dealership with a good selection of instruments can provide you with enough options to choose from that you don’t end up settling for less than what you really want (although you can make up for this to some extent by shopping among a number of dealers).
All pianos arrive from the factory needing some kind of pre-sale adjustment to compensate for changes that occur during shipment, or for musical finishing work left uncompleted at the factory. Dealers vary a great deal in their willingness to perform this work. There’s nothing worse than trying to shop for a piano, and finding them out of tune or with obvious defects. It’s understandable that the dealer will put the most work into the more expensive pianos, but a good dealer will make sure that even the lower-cost instruments are reasonably playable.
A good dealer will provide prompt, courteous, skilled service to correct any small problems that occur after the sale, and act as your intermediary with the factory in the rare event that warranty service is needed.
Knowledge, experience, helpfulness, selection, and service — that’s what you’re looking for in a dealer.
The question often arises as to whether one should shop for a piano long-distance via the Internet. It turns out that this is really two different questions. The first is whether one should locate a dealer via the Internet, possibly far away, then visit that dealer to buy a piano. The second is whether one should buy a piano sight unseen over the Internet.
If you’re shopping for a new piano, you’ll probably have to visit a dealer. This is because dealers are generally prohibited by their agreements with manufacturers from quoting prices over the phone or via the Internet, or from soliciting business from customers outside their “market territory,” the definition of which differs from brand to brand. But once you set foot in the dealer’s place of business, regardless of where you came from, you’re considered a legitimate customer and all restrictions are off, even after you return home. There are no such restrictions for advertising or selling used pianos. (Exception: If a brand of new piano is one that the dealer owns or controls — known as a house brand — you may be able to purchase it without ever visiting the dealer.)
Customers, of course, don’t care about “market territories.” They just want to get the best deal. Given the ease of comparison shopping via the Internet, and the frequency with which people travel for business or pleasure, dealers are increasingly testing the limits of their territorial restrictions, and more and more sales are taking place at dealerships outside the customer’s area. This is a delicate subject in the industry, and the practice is officially discouraged by dealers and manufacturers alike. In private, however, dealers are often happy when the extra business walks in the door (though they hate like heck to lose a sale to a dealer outside their area), and some manufacturers are choosing to look the other way.
There are obvious advantages to shopping locally, and it would be foolish not to at least begin there. Shopping, delivery, and after-sale service are all much easier, and there can be pleasure in forging a relationship with a local merchant. That said, every person’s lifestyle and priorities are different. A New Yorker who frequently does business in San Francisco may find it more “local” to visit a piano dealer in downtown San Francisco, near his or her business meeting, than to drive all over the New York metropolitan area with spouse and children on a Saturday morning. In the marketplace, the customer is king. As people become more and more at ease with doing business of all kinds long-distance with the aid of the Internet, it’s likely that piano shopping will migrate in that direction as well.
Buying a piano sight unseen (which, in view of the above discussion, is likely to involve used pianos, not new) is something entirely different. Obviously, if you’re at all musically sensitive, buying a piano without trying it out first is just plain nuts. But, as much as I hate to admit it, it may make sense for some people, particularly beginners or non-players. In the piano business, we like to say — and I say it a lot — that a piano is not a commodity; that is, a product of which one example is more or less interchangeable with another. Each piano is unique, etc., etc., and must be individually chosen. But for someone who is buying a piano for a beginner, who has no preference in touch and tone, and who just wants a piano that’s reasonably priced, reliable, and looks nice, a piano may, in fact, actually be a “commodity.” I might wish it were otherwise, just as an audiophile might wish that I wouldn’t buy a stereo system off the shelf of a discount department store, but we’re all aficionados of some things and indifferent about others, and that’s our choice. Furthermore, just as people who buy electronic keyboards frequently graduate to acoustic pianos, the person who today buys a piano over the Internet may tomorrow be shopping at a local dealer for a better piano with a particular touch and tone. Although it isn’t something I’d advise as a general rule, the fact is that many people have bought pianos via the Internet without first trying them out and are pleased with their purchase (and some people, probably, are not so pleased).
If you’re thinking of making a long-distance purchase, however, please take some precautions (not all of these precautions will apply to every purchase). First, consider whether it’s really worth it once you’ve taken into account the cost of long distance shipping. Find out as much as you can about the dealer. Get references. Get pictures of the piano. Hire a piano technician in the dealer’s area to inspect the piano (to find a technician, use Piano Buyer's Find a Technician feature) and ask the technician about the dealer’s reputation. Make sure the dealer is experienced with arranging long-distance piano moves, and uses a mover that specializes in pianos. Find out who is responsible for tuning and adjusting the piano in your home, and for repairing any defects or dings in the finish. Get the details of the warranty, especially who is responsible for paying the return freight if the piano is defective. Find out how payment is to be made in a way that protects both parties. And if, after all this, you still want to buy long-distance, my best wishes for a successful purchase.
It bears emphasizing that the above discussion was about buying a piano over the Internet from a commercial dealer, against whom you have at least some possibility of recourse if something goes wrong in the transaction. If buying long-distance from a private individual, in addition to the above advice, consider use of an escrow service, such as that provided by Piano Buyer Marketplace and Pianomart.com. The escrow service will hold your funds and not release them to the seller until you’ve had an opportunity to make sure that the piano you received is in the condition you expected.
Negotiating Price and Trade-Ins
The prices of new pianos are nearly always negotiable. Only a handful of dealers have non-negotiable prices. If in doubt, just ask—you’ll be able to tell. Some dealers carry this bargaining to extremes, whereas others start pretty close to the final price. Many dealers don’t like to display a piano’s price because not doing so gives them more latitude in deciding on a starting price for negotiation. This makes shopping more difficult. Use the price information in the “Model & Pricing Guide” of the current issue of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer to determine the likely range within which a given model will sell. Don’t give in too quickly. It’s quite common for the salesperson to call a day or two later and offer a lower price. If there’s an alternative piano at another dealership that will suit your needs just as well, it will help your negotiating position to let the salesperson know that.
Due to the high cost of advertising and conducting piano megasales (such as college sales, truckload sales, etc.), prices at these events are often actually higher than the price you could negotiate any day of the week, and the pressure to buy can be substantial. Shop at these sales only after you’ve shopped elsewhere, and look for the real bargains that can occasionally be found there.
If you’re buying a new piano to replace one that’s no longer satisfactory, you’ll probably want to trade in the old one. Dealers will usually take a trade-in, no matter how bad it is, just to be able to facilitate the sale. In fact, in many cases the dealer will offer you what seems like a king’s ransom for the old one. The downside is that when a generous trade-in allowance is given on the old piano, the dealer is then likely to offer you a less-generous price on the new one. To see if you’re being offered a good deal, you’ll have to carefully analyze the fair-market value of the old piano and what would be a likely price for the new one without a trade-in. Sometimes it will be to your advantage to sell the old piano privately, though in that case you’ll need to take into account the hassle factor as well.
For more information about new-piano prices and negotiating, see the introduction to the “Model & Pricing Guide,” elsewhere in this issue, as well as in The Piano Book.
Used-piano prices may or may not be negotiable. If the used piano is being sold by a dealer who primarily sells new pianos at negotiable prices, then the used-piano prices are probably also negotiable. Prices of restored pianos sold by the restorer are less likely to be negotiable, as technical people are usually less comfortable with bargaining. Prices of pianos for sale by private-party sellers are usually negotiable, in part because the seller often has little idea of what the piano should sell for and has made up a price based only on wishful thinking. But even knowledgeable sellers will usually leave a little wiggle room in their price.
Electronic Player Piano Systems
Prior to the Great Depression, most pianos were outfitted with playerpiano mechanisms — the kind that ran on pneumatic pressure and paper rolls. Today’s player pianos are all electronic; they run on smartphones, iPads and other tablets, notebooks and laptops, MP3s, CDs, or electronic downloads from the Internet, and are far more versatile and sophisticated than their pneumatic ancestors. Now you don’t have to wait until Junior grows up to hear something interesting from the piano! A substantial percentage of new pianos, especially grands, are being outfitted with these systems. In fact, many pianos are being purchased as home-entertainment centers by buyers who have no intention of ever playing the piano themselves.
Several companies make these systems. Yamaha’s Disklavier and Steinway’s Spirio are built into select Yamaha, Steinway, and Bösendorfer models at these companies’ factories. PianoDisc and QRS PNOmation, the two major aftermarket systems, can be installed in almost any piano, new or used, typically by the dealer or at an intermediate distribution point. Properly installed by a trained and authorized installer, none of these systems will harm the piano or void its warranty. However, such installations are complicated and messy and must be done in a shop, not in your home.
The most basic system will play your piano and accompany it with synthesized orchestration or actual recorded accompaniment played through speakers hidden underneath the piano. The aftermarket systems generally add $7,000 to $8,000 to the price of the piano. Add another $3,000 to enable the piano to record your own playing for future playback. For a little bit more, you can mute the piano (stop the hammers from hitting the strings), turn on a digital piano sound, and listen through headphones — a great alternative for late-night practicing. The range of prices reflects the variety of configurations and options available, including what music source you use (smartphone, iPad, CD, MP3 player, etc.). Higher-level systems that reproduce music in audiophile quality cost $15,000 or more. For more information, see the article ““Buying an Electric Player-Piano System”,” elsewhere in this issue.
Furniture Style and Finish
Although for most buyers the qualities of performance and construction are of greatest importance in selecting a piano, a piano is also a large piece of furniture that tends to become the focal point of whatever room it is placed in. This is especially true of grands. Add to that the fact that you’ll be looking at it for many years to come, and it becomes obvious that appearance can be an important consideration. For some buyers, it may be the most important consideration.
Vertical pianos without front legs are known as Continental style (also called contemporary, European contemporary, or Euro style). They are usually the smallest (42” to 43” high) and least expensive pianos in a manufacturer’s product line.
Pianos with legs supported by toe blocks (struts that connect the body of the piano to the front legs) are sometimes known as institutional or professional style, particularly when the cabinet also has little in the way of decoration or embellishment.
School pianos are a subset of the institutional-style category. Generally 45” to 47” in height, these are institutional-style pianos made specifically for use in school practice rooms and classrooms. They usually come equipped with long music racks for holding multiple sheets of music, locks for both the lid and the fallboard, and heavy-duty casters for easier moving. They are generally available in ebony or satin wood finishes. Sturdy and sometimes plainlooking, they are also often purchased for home use for less furnitureconscious locations. (If you’re buying a piano for an institution, please read “Buying Pianos for an Institution”elsewhere in this issue.)
Vertical pianos with free-standing legs not reinforced by toe blocks are generally known as decorator style. Common decorator styles are Queen Anne and French Provincial, generally in cherry (or Country French in oak), all with curved legs; Italian Provincial, typically in walnut with square legs; Mediterranean, usually in oak with hexagonal legs; and Traditional, most often in mahogany or walnut, with round or hexagonal legs. Matching music racks and cabinet decoration are common furniture embellishments. Furniture-style preference is an entirely personal matter. A practical consideration, however, is that front legs not supported by toe blocks have a tendency to break if the piano is moved frequently or carelessly.
Hybrid styles, containing features of both institutional and decorator styles, are common, especially in Asian pianos.
Grand pianos come in far fewer styles than verticals. As you shop, it’s likely you’ll see only a few different styles, in a number of woods and finishes.
The traditional grand piano case is likely familiar to everyone. It has rather straight or slightly tapered legs, often flaring slightly just above the floor (called a spade leg), and usually a rather plain, solid music rack.
Victorian style (sometimes called classic style) is an imitation of a style in fashion in the late 1800s, with large, round, fluted legs and a fancy, carved music desk. Variations of the Victorian style have “ice-cream cone” or other types of round-ish legs.
As with verticals, grands also come in Queen Anne and French Provincial styles, with curved legs, and in other period styles. In addition to the leg style, these usually differ in the treatment of the music rack and cabinet embellishment as well.
Pianos come in a variety of woods, most commonly ebony (sometimes called ebonized), which is not actual ebony wood, but an inexpensive, sturdy veneer that has been finished in black; as well as mahogany, cherry, walnut, and oak. Exotic woods include bubinga, rosewood, and many others, available on higherpriced uprights and grands. In pianos of lesser quality, sometimes a less expensive wood will be stained to look like a more expensive one. Pianos are also available in ivory or white, and it’s often possible to special-order a piano in red, blue, or other colors.
In addition to the wood itself, the way the wood is finished also varies. Piano finishes come in either high polish (high gloss) or satin finishes. Satin reflects light but not images, whereas high polish is nearly mirrorlike. Variations on satin include matte, which is completely flat (i.e., reflects no light), and open-pore finishes, common on European pianos, in which the grain is not filled in before finishing, leaving a slightly grainier texture. A few finishes are semigloss, which is partway between satin and high polish. As with furniture style, the finish is an entirely personal matter, though it should be noted that satin finishes tend to show fingerprints more than do high-polish finishes.
Most piano finishes are either lacquer or polyester. Lacquer was the finish on most pianos made in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, but it is gradually being supplanted by polyester. In my opinion, lacquer finishes — especially high-gloss lacquer — are more beautiful than polyester, but they scratch quite easily, whereas polyester is very durable. (Lacquer finishes can be repaired more easily.) Hand-rubbed satin lacquer is particularly elegant.
Touch and Tone
Touch, in its simplest form, refers to the effort required to press the piano keys. Unfortunately, the specifications provided by the manufacturers, expressed in grams, don’t do justice to this complicated subject. The apparent touch can be very different when the piano is played quickly and loudly than when it is played softly and slowly, and this difference is not captured in the numbers—if you’re a player, be sure to try it out both ways.
Advanced pianists tend to prefer a touch that is moderately firm because it provides better control than a very light touch, and strengthens the muscles. Too light a touch, even for a beginner, can cause laziness, but too firm a touch can be physically harmful over time. The touch of most new pianos today is within a reasonable range for their intended audience, but the touch of older pianos can vary a lot, depending on condition. A piano teacher may be able to assist in evaluating the touch of a piano for a beginner, particularly if considering an entry-level or used piano.
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 adjust the brightness or mellowness of the tone to a limited degree 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 a sensitivity commensurate with your musical needs.
Miscellaneous Practical Considerations
In all likelihood, your purchase of a new piano will include a matching bench. Benches for consumer-grade pianos are usually made by or for the piano manufacturer and come with the piano. Benches for performance-grade pianos are more often provided separately by the dealer.
Benches come in two basic types: fixed-height and adjustable, and in single and “duet” widths. Consumergrade pianos usually come with fixedheight duet benches that have either a solid top that matches the piano’s finish, or a padded top with sides and legs finished to match the piano. The legs of most benches will be miniatures of the piano’s legs, particularly for decorative models. Most piano benches have music-storage compartments. School and institutional-type vertical pianos often come with so-called “stretcher” benches — the legs are connected with wooden reinforcing struts to better endure heavy use.
Adjustable benches are preferred by serious players, and by children and adults who are shorter or taller than average. The deeply tufted tops come in a heavy-duty vinyl and look like leather; tops of actual leather are available at additional cost. Adjustable benches vary considerably in quality. The best ones are expensive ($500 to $750) but are built to last a lifetime.
Finally, if the piano you want doesn’t come with the bench you desire, talk to your dealer. It’s common for dealers to swap benches or bench tops to accommodate your preference, or to offer an upgrade to a better bench in lieu of a discount on the piano.
For more information, see “Benches, Lamps, Accessories and Problem Solvers,” elsewhere in this issue.
As I mentioned near the beginning of this article, the function of the middle pedal varies. In some circumstances, you may need to consider whether the function of the middle pedal on a particular instrument will meet your musical needs.
On most new vertical pianos, the middle pedal operates a mute that reduces the sound volume by about 50%, a feature often appreciated by family members of beginning students. If your piano lacks this feature, aftermarket mute mechanisms are available for grands and verticals through piano technicians or dealers. On older verticals and a few new ones, the middle pedal, if not a mute, usually operates a bass sustain, although occasionally it’s a “dummy” pedal that does nothing at all. I’ve never known anyone to actually use a bass-sustain pedal, so it might as well be a dummy.
On most grands and a few expensive uprights, the middle pedal operates a sostenuto mechanism that selectively sustains only those notes whose keys are down at the moment the pedal is pressed. This mechanism is called into action for only a relatively few pieces of classical music, yet it is generally considered obligatory for any “serious” instrument. Only inexpensive new and used grands omit the sostenuto, usually in favor of a bass sustain. (The obligatory nature of the sostenuto pedal — or any middle pedal — on a grand piano is a largely American phenomenon. Until fairly recently, many “serious” European pianos made for the European market had only two pedals.)
Fallboard (Keyboard Cover)
Vertical pianos use one of three basic fallboard designs: the Boston fallboard, a sliding fallboard (both of which disappear when open), or a one-piece “drop” fallboard with integrated music shelf.
The Boston fallboard is found on most furniture-style pianos and characteristically is a two-piece, double-hinged assembly. It is easily removed for service, and the rigidity provided by the hinges keeps the fallboard and the piano’s side arms from being scratched when the fallboard is opened or closed.
The sliding fallboard, a one-piece cover that slides out from under the music desk to cover the keys, is considerably less expensive. However, if it is pulled unevenly and/or upwardly, it can scratch the fallboard or the inside of the piano’s side arms.
The one-piece “drop” fallboard is commonly found on larger uprights. It is simply hinged at the back and lifts up to just past vertical, where it lies against the upper front panel of the piano. Attached to its underside is a small music shelf that is exposed when the fallboard is opened, then manually unfolded.
Grand pianos have a smaller, onepiece “drop” fallboard that opens under the music desk. Fallboards on most newer grands (and some newer verticals) are hydraulically damped to close slowly over the keys, eliminating the possibility of harming the player’s or a young child’s fingers. Aftermarket kits are available for pianos that lack this feature.
Slow-Close Grand Piano Lid
A relatively new device adds hydraulic damping to a grand piano lid, substantially reducing the effort needed to raise and lower this extremely heavy part of the piano, and reducing the chance of injury when doing so. This is a standard feature of a few piano brands, but can also be retrofitted to most grand pianos. For more information, see our review.