What I’ve attempted to do with this guide is to:
- Give some simple background information such as nomenclature and outline a few general principles
- Talk about some of the things that are most important to me in the selection of a good piano
- Point you in the direction of other information and resources that will be helpful in your search
Keep in mind, I’m going to stay pretty general here. Refer to some of the links at the end of this guide for more detail, and remember there is still ultimately no substitute for getting out there and checking out pianos in person.
no·men·cla·ture: the act or process or an instance of naming
Spinets, consoles, studios and full size uprights are called vertical pianos, as distinguished from baby grands and grands.
Spinets are usually 36-39 high. Their playing mechanism is called a drop action. This is an inferior design to the direct blow action of the console, studio and full size upright.
Consoles are generally 40-44 high. They have a direct blow action, meaning the action sits directly on top of the keys. This is a more efficient design than the drop action of the spinet.
Studios are typically 45-48 high. They also have a direct blow action.
Full size uprights are generally 49-58 high. They generally have the best sound of the verticals because of their size. Bigger soundboard and longer strings equal bigger sound.
Baby grands and grands: There is no exact, uniform, agreed-upon size to differentiate between a baby grand and a grand. The correct way to refer to them is by their actual size, i.e. 5’1 grand 6’3 grand etc. Grands range in size from 4’6 to 9’0. The majority of them fall into the 5 to 6 foot range.
Levels of quality that are available
Think of a pyramid. The top third are handmade pianos of limited numbers, built to a standard, not to a price. Steinway is the first one that comes to mind here. Also included in this upper tier are Mason & Hamlin, Bosendorfer, and a handful of other handmade instruments.
The middle third is composed of quality mass-produced pianos. These include Yamaha and Kawai among others.
The bottom third are pianos built to a price, not a standard. Stencil pianos fall into this category. Stencil pianos are instruments mostly from China that the importer applies a stencil to – hence the name. For instance, the Bejing Piano Factory manufactures pianos. Importers order large quantities of these pianos and apply a decal to the front of the piano. The names are usually older American piano makers who have gone out of business and sold the brand name.
What can become even more confusing is that some Yamaha, Kawai and Baldwin models are actually stencil pianos. These companies do this to take advantage of the inexpensive Chinese labor and offer an entry level product to the consumer. An informed piano professional will know the difference and be able to point out specific attributes of each.
You get what you pay for
Something cheap is always cheap. Something good is always good.
Buying a piano is an investment
If possible, choose a piano you grow into, not out of. You will not be sorry if you invest in a piano that is a little better than you think you deserve… you are going to get better and a better piano will help you succeed.
Bigger is better
Bigger is better, sometimes. The bigger the piano, the longer the strings, the bigger the sound. That doesnt mean a smaller piano cant have a sweet sound. In fact, a good quality, small piano can out-perform a low quality big piano. Being able to compare a number of pianos in one place is recommenced. Dealing with a professional who will point out the good and bad attributes of the pianos is also very helpful.
How to Evaluate a Piano
There are attributes of quality that are recognizable. Some of them are obvious, such as the cabinet and finish. Some are not as obvious, but can be easily pointed out by a technician or a sales professional.
Listen to the piano… let your ears tell you. Trust your ears, they will tell you if it sounds good or not. Tone is a subjective attribute. Two pianists will have differing opinions on what they like and some folks like their sound a little more mellow while others like it a little brighter.
Looks matter as the piano is not only a musical instrument but also a fine furnishing in your home.
The math is exponential here, so the size of a larger piano is disproportionate. If you have 20% more length you get 45% more sound. Play a five and a six foot grand that are next to each other to hear the difference. Remember, a higher quality smaller grand can out-perform a lower quality larger grand. The subjectivity issue also comes into play here. You may like the sound of a smaller grand of the same quality as the larger grand simply because its tone appeals to you.
Common Misconceptions & Old Wives Tales
The outside wall fallacy
“Never put a piano on an outside wall.” This was true at the time of non insulated walls, but it is no longer applicable. Still, the more stable the temperature and humidity are the more stable the piano will be. A relative humidity of 44% is ideal.
You have to tune a piano every time you move it
The strings on a piano are not affected by moving the piano. A piano goes out of tune by setting the strings in motion – also called playing, but mostly by humidity changes.
If you are moving a piano across the room you wont need to tune it because the humidity level hasnt changed. If you are moving it across town and the house that it is being moved to has a significantly different humidity level then the first house, then the piano should be re-tuned. The effects of the humidity change takes place gradually so allow about two weeks for the piano to adjust to the new environment before re-tuning.
Never buy a piano with a cracked soundboard
Most used pianos have cracked soundboards. They are actually not cracks, but separations which occur because the wood is expanding and contracting. These separations can sometimes cause a buzzing sound due to losing contact with the ribs that support the soundboard. This problem is easily repaired by an experienced technician. In fact, Steinway pianos have no warranty against cracked soundboards. They do however warranty any problems associated with the crack.
These are 5 important factors you need to know about when buying a piano. Some people dont need to know these things because theyre trusting the judgment or recommendation of a neighbor, friend, teacher or tuner. Some people need to know even more before they are comfortable enough to feel they are choosing the right instrument. We spend a good part of our lives working to acquire material possessions. Though a piano is merely a material item, I can’t imagine life without music and especially life without pianos. Good luck in your search and enjoy your piano!