The Modern Piano

The Modern Piano article is a natural continuation of our Piano History paper. It briefly explains its evolution and reasons behind it. Good, relaxing reading.

Types of piano

Modern pianos come in two basic configurations and several sizes: the grand piano and the upright piano.

Grand pianos have the frame and strings placed horizontally, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. This avoids the problems inherent in an upright piano, but takes up a large amount of space and needs a spacious room with high ceilings for proper resonance. Several sizes of grand piano exist. Manufacturers and models vary, but as a rough guide we can distinguish the "concert grand", approx. 3 m; the "grand", approx. 1.8 m; and the smaller "baby grand", which may be a bit shorter than it is wide. All else being equal, longer pianos have better sound, so that full-size grands are almost always used for public concerts, whereas baby grands are only for domestic use where space and cost are crucial considerations.

Upright pianos, also called vertical pianos, are more compact because the frame and strings are placed vertically, extending in both directions from the keyboard and hammers. It is considered harder to produce a sensitive piano action when the hammers move sideways, rather than upward against gravity; however, the very best upright pianos now approach the level of grand pianos of the same size in tone quality and responsiveness. For recent advances, see Innovations in the piano.

In 1863, Henri Fourneaux invented the player piano, a kind of piano which "plays itself" from a piano roll without the need for a pianist. Also in the 19th century, toy pianos began to be manufactured.

A relatively recent development is the prepared piano, which is a piano adapted in some way by placing objects inside the instrument, or changing its mechanism in some way.

Since the 1990s, digital pianos have been available, which digitize the sound of each piano note. Digital pianos have become quite sophisticated, with standard pedals, weighted keys, multiple voices, MIDI interfaces, and so on in the better models. However, with current technology, it remains difficult to duplicate a crucial aspect of acoustic pianos, namely that when the damper pedal (see below) is depressed, the strings not struck vibrate sympathetically with the struck strings. Since this sympathetic vibration is considered central to a beautiful piano tone, digital pianos are still not considered by most experts as competing with the best acoustic pianos in tone quality. Progress is now being made in this area by including physical models of sympathetic vibration in the synthesis software.

Keyboard and pedals

Almost every modern piano has 88 keys (seven octaves and a bit, from A0 to C7). Many older pianos only have 85 (from A0 to A6), while some manufacturers extend the range further in one or both directions. The most notable example of an extended range can be found on Bösendorfer pianos, some of which extend the normal range downwards to F, with others going as far as a bottom C, making a full eight octave range. On some models these extra keys are hidden under a small hinged lid, which can be flipped down to cover the keys and avoid visual disorientation in a pianist unfamiliar with the extended keyboard; on others, the colours of the extra keys are reversed (black instead of white and vice versa) for the same reason. The extra keys are added primarily for increased resonance; that is, they vibrate sympathetically with other strings whenever the damper pedal is depressed and thus give a fuller tone. Only a very small number of works composed for piano actually use these notes. More recently, the Stuart and Sons company has also manufactured extended-range pianos. On their instruments, the range is extended up the treble for a full eight octaves. The extra keys are the same as the other keys in appearance.

For the arrangement of the keys on a piano keyboard, see Musical keyboard. This arrangement was inherited from the harpsichord without change, with the trivial exception of the color scheme (white for naturals and black for sharps) which became standard for pianos in the late 18th century.

Pianos have had pedals, or some close equivalent, since the earliest days. (In the 18th century, some pianos used levers pressed upward by the player's knee instead of pedals.) The three pedals that have become more or less standard on the modern piano are the following.

The damper pedal is often simply called "the pedal," since it is the most frequently used. It is placed as the rightmost pedal in the group. Every note on the piano except for (approximately ) the top two octaves is equipped with a damper, which is a padded device that prevents the strings from vibrating. The damper is raised off the strings of its note whenever the key for that note is pressed. When the damper pedal is pressed, all the dampers on the piano are lifted at once, so that every string can vibrate. This serves two purposes. First, it permits notes to be connected (i.e., played legato) when there is no fingering that would make this possible. More important, raising the damper pedal causes all the strings to vibrate sympathetically with whatever notes are being played, which greatly enriches the tone.

Piano music starting with Chopin tends to be heavily pedaled, as a means of achieving a singing tone. In contrast, the damper pedal was used only sparingly by the composers of the 18th century, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; in that era, pedaling was considered primarily as a special coloristic effect.

The soft pedal or "una corda" pedal is placed leftmost in the row of pedals. On a grand piano, this pedal shifts the action to one side slightly, so that hammers that normally strike all three of the strings for a note strike only two of them. This softens the note and also modifies its tone quality. For notation of the soft pedal in printed music, see Italian musical terms.

The soft pedal was invented by Cristofori and thus appeared on the very earliest pianos. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the soft pedal was more effective than today, since it was possible at that time to use it to strike three, two or even just one string per note—this is the origin of the name "una corda", Italian for "one string". In modern pianos, the strings are spaced too closely to permit a true "una corda" effect—if shifted far enough to strike just one string on one note, the hammers would also strike the string of the next note over.

On upright pianos, the soft pedal is replaced by a mechanism for moving the hammers' resting position closer to the strings. This reduces volume, but does not change tone quality as a true "una corda" pedal does.

The sostenuto pedal or "middle pedal" maintains in the raised position any damper that was raised at the moment the pedal was depressed. It makes it possible to sustain some notes (depress the sostenuto pedal before releasing the notes to be sustained) while the player's hands have moved on to play other notes, which can be useful for musical passages with pedal points and other tricky situations. The sostenuto pedal was the last of the three pedals to be added to the standard piano, and to this day many cheap pianos—and even a few good ones—do not have a sostenuto pedal. (Almost all modern grand pianos have a sostenuto; most upright pianos do not.) A number of twentieth-century works call for the use of this pedal.

Some upright pianos have a practice pedal in place of the sostenuto. This pedal, which can usually be locked in place by depressing it and pushing it to one side, drops a strip of felt between the hammers and the keys so that all the notes are greatly muted—a handy feature for those who wish to practice at odd hours without disturbing others in the house. The practice pedal is never used in performance.

The materials of the piano

Many parts of a piano are made of materials selected for extreme sturdiness. In quality pianos, the outer rim of the piano is made of a hardwood, normally maple or beech. According to Harold A. Conklin (, the purpose of a sturdy rim is so that "the vibrational energy will stay as much as possible in the soundboard instead of dissipating uselessly in the case parts, which are inefficient radiators of sound." The rim is normally made by laminating flexible strips of hardwood to the desired shape, a system that was developed by Theodore Steinway in 1880.

The thick wooden braces at the bottom (grands) or back (uprights) of the piano are not as acoustically important as the rim, and are often made of a softwood, even in top-quality pianos, in order to save weight.

The pinblock, which holds the tuning pins in place, is another area of the piano where toughness is important. It is made of hardwood, and generally is laminated (built of multiple layers) for additional strength and gripping power.

Piano strings (also called piano wire), which must endure years of extreme tension and hard blows, are made of high quality steel. They are manufactured to vary as little as possible in diameter, since all deviations from uniformity introduce tonal distortion. The bass strings of a piano are made of a steel core wrapped with copper wire, to increase their flexibility. For the acoustic reasons behind this, see Piano acoustics.

The plate, or metal frame, of a piano is usually made of cast iron. It is advantageous for the plate to be quite massive. Since the strings are attached to the plate at one end, any vibrations transmitted to the plate will result in loss of energy to the desired (efficient) channel of sound transmission, namely the bridge and the soundboard. Some manufacturers now use cast steel in their plates, for greater strength. The casting of the plate is a delicate art, since the dimensions are crucial and the iron shrinks by about one percent during cooling. The inclusion in a piano of an extremely large piece of metal is potentially an esthetic handicap. Piano makers overcome this handicap by polishing, painting, and decorating the plate; often plates include the manufacturer's ornamental medallion and can be strikingly attractive.

The numerous parts of a piano action are generally hardwood or plastic. The choice between these two materials is controversial. Some varieties of plastic, incorporated into pianos in the 1950's and 1960's, were clearly disastrous, crystallizing and losing their strength after one or two decades of use. The Steinway firm once used Teflon, a plastic, for some action parts, but ultimately abandoned the experiment. More recently, the Kawai firm has built pianos with action parts made of more modern and effective plastics; these parts have held up better and have generally received the respect of piano technicians.

The part of the piano where materials probably matter more than anywhere else is the soundboard. In quality pianos this is made of solid spruce (that is, spruce boards glued together at their edges). Spruce is chosen for its high ratio of strength to weight. The best piano makers use close-grained, quarter-sawn, defect-free spruce, and make sure that it has been carefully dried over a long period of time before making it into soundboards. In cheap pianos, the soundboard is often laminated; i.e. made of plywood.

Piano keys are generally made of spruce or basswood, for lightness. Spruce is normally used in high-quality pianos. Traditionally, the white keys were covered with strips of ivory, but since ivory-yielding species are now endangered and protected by treaty, plastic is now universally used. The Yamaha firm innovated a plastic, since imitated by other makers, that mimics the feel of ivory on the player's fingers.

The requirement of structural strength, fulfilled with stout hardwood and thick metal, makes pianos heavy. Even a small upright can weigh 300 pounds (136 kg.), and the Steinway concert grand (Model D) weighs 990 pounds (480 kg). The largest piano built, the Fazioli F308, weighs 1520 pounds (691 kg).

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