By Hannah Beckett
My great-aunt had a Ludwig piano in her island cottage in Maine. Its ornate panels and legs blended in seamlessly with the other furniture in the house, so much so that it almost went unnoticed. By the turn of the 21st century, the few keys that still worked produced a pitch far from standard. Family legend says it accompanied a famous opera singer on her tour through the west in the early 1900s. By the time I saw it for the first time, it had already been designated a furniture piece, with the sole purpose of displaying art and hand-woven baskets.
Like many piano manufacturers, Ludwig didn't make it through World War II. The brand is one of the thousands representing a time in American piano manufacturing, now a century removed from the modern-day musical world. These relics of the past highlight a fascinating shift in values from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.
A Brief Overview of American Piano-Manufacturing Trends
By the end of the industrial revolution, piano factories produced thousands of pianos to satisfy a demanding public. Universally regarded as a necessary entertainment piece, the piano could be found in most middle- and upper-class homes. By the 1930s, wars and economic hardships forced manufacturers to make pianos that were more suitable for the changing lifestyle of the American public.
The console piano was developed as an alternative to the large, imposing upright pianos of the earlier periods. The console was small, easier to transport, more affordable, and adaptable to the new suburban lifestyle of the post-war era. Over the next several decades, efforts to compete with emerging Asian markets led to compromises in quality that cut down on production costs. As globalization increased during the 60s-80s, most American manufacturers closed or sold their assets to Asian companies. Of the thousands of early American piano manufacturers, only a handful remain today.
In addition to these changes in the manufacturing world, the piano itself also plays a different role in society today than it did a century ago. Before the digital age, music was a casual in-home entertainment standard. Over a few transitional decades, the piano went from being valued as a standard entertainment piece to an object of study. While some pianists study to advance a career in music, the vast majority of modern-day piano buyers value the piano for its more basic educational opportunities: either for the development of young minds or as an outlet of artistic expression.
This shift in values has created conflict in the used-piano marketplace as we enter a transitional era. Forty years after globalization, the piano industry continues to move towards improved quality and reliability, but the used-piano marketplaces reflect a problematic misconception about the true value of the piano in the modern-day world. I call this problem, “The Grandma's Piano” problem.
What is “Grandma's Piano”?
“Grandma's Piano” always has a beautiful history. It was bought new for your young grandmother between 1900-1940, bequeathed to your mother on her 20th birthday, and you played it as a child when you took lessons until middle school when you decided sports were a better fit. Now, your mother is downsizing and needs to get rid of the piano. You regret giving up piano lessons and want your children to start learning in a few years. Your mother offers you the piano, and, reluctant to say goodbye to the cherished memories of your mother and grandmother playing duets at Christmas, you say yes, and hope to continue the legacy your family has given you.
After paying to have it moved into your home, you hire a technician to tune it and assure them it's in good condition—after all, your grandmother loved it very much. Not long after the piano technician arrives, you are informed that the piano cannot be tuned and isn't functioning on a level that will support basic playing. Unfortunately, the piano is beyond saving due to its age and condition. Saddened by the news and knowing that your grandmother would be appalled if you took the piano to the dump, you decide to post it online for free, hoping that someone can fix it up and love it as you did.
You need a reliable piano, but surely someone else would enjoy an antique piano in their home, right?
The “Grandma’s Piano” to “Free” Piano Pipeline
The "free" piano has increasingly plagued the piano industry since the birth of online, private-sale marketplaces. If you check Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or any other familiar internet shopping sites right now, you'll find dozens of pianos from the mid-20th century listed. The “Grandma's Piano” problem is the story behind most of these old pianos. These pianos often end up in the homes of uneducated buyers excited to find an "antique" piano for such an affordable price, only to hear the same news from the technician they hire to tune the piano: It can't be fixed. And so the cycle continues.
While the intentions of sellers hoping to offload an unusable piano are not necessarily nefarious, there is a critical piece of overlooked or ignored information in the selling and buying process: Pianos have limited lifespans.
It's a reality that comes as a surprise to most people. Like all material things, a piano cannot last forever. While some smaller stringed instruments can continue for centuries, the piano holds an unsustainable tension load from ~250 strings and houses thousands of organic parts, including wood, glue, felt, and leather. As a result, when a piano exceeds its intended lifespan, it stops responding to routine maintenance. A piano that cannot be tuned or maintained is a sign that it has reached its expiration date. Unfortunately, pianos don't come with printed expiration dates, and a lack of understanding about piano maintenance leads people to believe that ancient pianos still have a monetary value.
Most of the instruments circling the used marketplace are pre-1980s pianos. On average, these instruments are a minimum of 50 years old and made by manufacturers that do not exist anymore. Pianos manufactured in the mid-20th century were not built to last more than a few decades at most, and replacement parts are long out of production. While the owners of these instruments post them for sale in hopes that "someone can fix it," the reality is that their piano will unfortunately, and unfairly, become someone else's problem.
While piano technicians and rebuilders are highly skilled, they are not miracle workers, and most of the time, the cost and labor required to rebuild an instrument far exceeds its market value.
The Truth About Spinets
Spinets are the smallest type of upright piano manufactured from about 1940-1980. These pianos are barely waist high and were the cheapest entry-level piano available at the time of their production. Because of the quality and scaling compromises necessary to produce a tiny, cheap piano, spinets have always featured extremely limited playability and compromised tone quality. Furthermore, they were always destined to have very short life spans due to interior accessibility issues making basic maintenance costly. In the 1980s, the keyboard replaced the spinet as the cheaper, more portable version of an entry-level "piano." Manufacturers universally discontinued spinets by the 1990s.
In today's world, there is no place for a spinet. If you are shopping in the used market, beware of these pianos that cannot support proper maintenance.
Sentimentality versus Quality and Functionality
Beyond the misunderstandings about lifespan, sentimentality creates a disconnect between sellers and buyers and plays a huge role in the continued circulation of expired pianos. Private sale marketplaces are bursting with relics of the past titled "family heirloom," "antique," "rare," "collector's piece," and "handmade," to name a few. These titles are all symptoms of a general misunderstanding about the actual value of pianos.
Remember, the modern-day piano buyer seeks an instrument capable of supporting growth and education. At a minimum, the piano must function reliably and be tuned to the correct pitch to successfully facilitate the achievement of either goal. However, pianos that have outlived their lifespan cannot support these demands. A piano that no longer functions like a piano has zero market or practical value, regardless of how much sentimental value the seller attaches to the piano.
Buyers and sellers have different expectations for pianos and assume pianos still have value for different reasons. Failure to consult professional opinion creates a never-ending cycle of pianos that have no business being on the market in the first place. In fact, this issue is so prevalent that it is common for a technician to walk away from an expired piano in one household, only to discover it in another household a few weeks later.
Myth: Old pianos are better than new ones because they are handmade and have more wooden parts.
Fact: There have always been some parts of the manufacturing process that require machinery, and some parts that require skilled hand labor. As technology advances, the machined parts become more consistent and precise, ultimately making for a better instrument.
Further Reading: Non-Traditional Materials and the Piano
Time To Say Goodbye
While the disposal of old pianos is often painted as a sign of the decline of the industry, the reality is far from a tragic one. In fact, the opposite is true. Clearing the market of pianos that have outlived their use allows for healthy growth in the industry. Fewer unusable pianos in the marketplace means less money wasted on paying moving fees and more money being put towards making a wiser purchase that supports a new generation of piano lovers.
When students have pianos that sound beautiful and are easy and rewarding to play, they are more likely to find their passion and blossom as musicians than if they are stuck studying on a piano that cannot support their education.
Myth: If it's just for the kids, it doesn't have to be anything "fancy."
Fact: Don't mistake a "fancy" piano for a "functional" piano. Playing on a badly out-of-tune piano can negatively affect a child’s ability to learn the music. Furthermore, a child is far less likely to show any dedication to learning on an instrument that does not sound good, is frustrating to play, and doesn’t reward the amount of time and effort that they put into their study.
Further Reading: Advice About Used Pianos for Young Students,
If you are considering providing a home for your grandmother's piano, take some time to evaluate your expectations of the instrument before saying "yes.” If piano lessons are in the family's future, it is imperative to call a technician to evaluate the ability of the piano to support your goals before you move the piano. While a free piano is enticing, inviting an expired piano into your home will not foster a love of music or dedication toward piano lessons. Additionally, the cost of moving expenses, tuning, and potential repairs will quickly compromise its promise of being “free.”
The most important question to ask is will this piano enable success? If your technician tells you the piano cannot support maintenance, it's time to say goodbye. If you are unfamiliar with the current piano market, take some time to visit your local dealerships and experience firsthand a plethora of brands and conditions to help you evaluate your options. You may be surprised by the education you'll receive when you widen your horizons to include pianos you would not otherwise have considered.
If you aren't sure if your piano qualifies as "old," use the "Brands to Avoid" list in this article as a reference.
How to Say Goodbye
There are several ways to dispose of expired pianos, but the method you choose will likely be dictated by your level of sentimental attachment. Sentimental value is a completely valid form of value, however, proper framing of this value acknowledges that there is no monetary or functional value for someone who does not share your history with the piano. If you cannot dispose of a piano because of its sentimental value, it is important to maintain ownership of it and find other uses for it. Do not try to sell it or pass it off to someone else who does not share your experience with the instrument.
If you decide to preserve the past for sentimental reasons, consider repurposing or upcycling your piano. Many older pianos have beautiful, ornate case parts that lend themselves well to decorative furniture. The DIY world is full of repurposed pianos serving as something besides an instrument. Bookshelves, desks, coffee tables, and bars are among some of the popular upcycled options. Many skilled craftsmen can provide this service if you aren't the crafty type. The Piano Gal Shop has a wonderful selection of upcycled pianos that owner, Marta Hansen, crafts. Her shop also features functional acoustic pianos.
If sentimentality does not factor into your disposal method, I highly recommend checking to see if you have a LoadUp disposal service in your area. LoadUp is a responsible disposal company that recycles whenever possible and has lots of valuable information regarding piano disposal on its website.
If LoadUp is not in your area, call a local piano moving company to find out what your best local options are. Using a general junk hauling company may be less expensive, but there are some instances where piano removal requires more knowledge or skills.
Myth: You should donate old pianos to institutions that cannot afford to buy new pianos.
Fact: If it is too costly or impossible to fix your old piano, a church or school is certainly not going to be able to put it to use. An expired piano is not a gift, it is a liability. Many institutions have been unfairly burdened with the cost of disposing of donated pianos that they cannot use and no longer accept these "donations." Do the ethical thing and responsibly dispose of your piano without passing the cost on to someone else.
Further Reading: Piano Purgatory: The Donated Piano
Ways to Avoid Being a Victim of the Free Piano
If you find a free piano financially tempting, start your musical journey on a keyboard while you save up for an acoustic piano. Many inexpensive pianos on the market are suitable for beginners, but a piano that has outlived its lifespan will do you more musical harm than good. A keyboard will train your ears to recognize accurate pitch and will at least allow you to play with very basic functionality—both things that an expired piano cannot do. Call a local technician and ask about your options for an inexpensive starter piano. Most technicians are weary of giving bad news to unsuspecting clients, so they'll most likely be happy to help you make a safe purchase.
My great-aunt's piano was a Model T in a Tesla world. It eventually went to the dump, making room for a new piano. Saying goodbye to old pianos is hard, but the music industry is always looking to the future to find ways of supporting the next generation of musicians. The piano is here to stay, and pairing future musicians with pianos that can carry them into the world of their art is the best way to preserve our musical history and honor our music-loving predecessors by inheriting their passion, not their piano.
Hannah Beckett is Piano Buyer's current Publisher and Editor. She was formerly a member of the editorial staff of the Piano Technicians Journal. Beckett now operates ProPTN, an online educational resource for piano technicians in the field, and services pianos in the northern Virginia and D.C. areas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.