THE GLUE-IN

LEARN ABOUT ACOUSTICS
 
The Making Of A Piano
Pre-War Keyboard Workers
Pre-War Keyboard Workers. Credit: Ann Rosener [ 1 ]

A piano is not so much constructed as it is created—each being a superb work of art in its own right.

That the piano is used as a medium for another artistic discipline only amplifies the significance of quality craftsmanship. Though the piano is truly greater than just the sum of its parts, the manufacture and assembly of these parts is an interesting subject in and of itself.

Below are brief descriptions of piano components and their purposes, with distinctions of those qualities specific to both uprights and grands.

The Rim (Case)
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Estonia Piano. Credit: Epp [ 2 ]

Creating the rim of a grand piano is a test of patience. Its shape is not attained through cutting but rather through the bending of woods with varying density and hardness. Different manufacturers use different materials, like maple or spruce; generally, the denser and harder the wood, the better.

Some piano manufacturers split the rim into inner and outer portions, but this is seen as having a detrimental effect. The best pianos make use of a solid rim. After being gradually bent into shape, the rim is sanded and lacquered, creating the most visually striking and recognizable component of a piano.

Vertical vs. Grand?

The above applies primarily to grand pianos. A vertical piano's case is less complex, being machined and sanded to the correct specifications but not shaped and bent in the same way. A vertical piano's rim must still retain the same density, hardness, and durability, but it is significantly easier to create, requiring little to no reshaping of the wood.

Frame (Plate)
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The frame is a cast-iron structure that supports string tension. In larger pianos, up to 30,000 pounds of tension can be applied.

Vertical vs. Grand?

The frame of a vertical piano is oriented vertically, limiting the maximum length of the strings to that of the maximum diagonal measurement of the piano. A vertical piano will have a significantly smaller frame than a grand piano, and thus will be unable to accommodate the longer strings characteristic of a grand piano.

Pinblock
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The pinblock is situated lengthwise across the piano. It is attached to both the rim and the frame, and is where strings are attached to tuning pins. The pinblock is usually made from exceptionally hard wood, because the tuning pins must keep their grip despite being under a very heavy load. This grip is maintained with friction alone, as any kind of adhesive or mechanical grip would disallow tuning.

Vertical vs. Grand?

The purpose and construction of the pinblock component for both vertical and grand pianos is very similar. The only real difference is orientation. A grand piano's pinblock is not visible, as it is situated beneath the frame. A vertical piano's pinblock is also hidden by the frame, but is situated vertically toward the back and top of the piano.

Soundboard
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The soundboard primarily contributes to the difference in sound between different piano brands. It is thin, but hard; and resonant, but durable. Typically less than half an inch thick, the soundboard is most often made of spruce. It is slightly bent toward the strings, creating what is known as the crown. This added tension prevents the soundboard from cracking due to string tension. A cracked soundboard is a death sentence for a piano, as it frequently costs more to replace than the piano is worth.

Vertical vs. Grand?

As the name implies, most components of a vertical piano are situated vertically. This is the case here as well, with the soundboard being located behind the frame and strings, facing away from the performer. A grand piano soundboard is generally larger than that of a vertical piano, and it is oriented horizontally, projecting sound up and down, rather than back and away.

Bridge
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The bridge transfers string vibrations to the soundboard, allowing the soundboard to resonate and augment volume. The bridge is under extreme downward pressure from the combined tension of over 200 strings. Bridge pins help keep the strings in place, thereby preserving string length and pitch.

Vertical vs. Grand?

Though the strings of vertical and grand pianos are identical in material and construction, the strings of a grand piano are allowed to be much longer, owing to the size of the frame. The longer strings require higher tension to maintain pitch, but the increased length allows for greater resonance and tuning flexibility.

Strings
Grand Piano Strings

Piano strings are made of steel wire and vary in diameter across the range of the piano. The larger diameter strings—with an added external copper coil—allow for lower notes to be played without extending the length of the piano to unrealistic lengths. Their size means the lower notes can be heard with only one string, whereas higher pitches need 3 strings.

Some brands, like Mason & Hamlin, are known specifically for the lower registers of their finer pianos. On a high quality grand piano, the strings might change diameter every six notes.

Vertical vs. Grand?

Though the strings of vertical and grand pianos are identical in material and construction, the strings of a grand piano are allowed to be much longer, owing to the size of the frame. The longer strings require higher tension to maintain pitch, but the increased length allows for greater resonance and tuning flexibility.

Keyboard
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Easily the most recognizable part of the piano, the keyboard is a convenient representation of western musical theory. No other family of instruments can claim to have every possible note displayed in an organized manner and available at the touch of a button.

Keys are currently made of lacquered wood, but in centuries past they were made of ivory.

Vertical vs. Grand?

In this, vertical and grand pianos have very little discernible difference. The visible part of the keys is uniform in length between most vertical and grand pianos. The distance the key travels into the piano before activating the action does change, however, frequently leading to contrasting key-depressing sensations between vertical and grand pianos.

Action
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The action is the mechanical assembly that transfers the energy of a depressed key to a quickly striking, felt-covered hammer. Using a complex system of levers, the short distance a key is depressed becomes a longer upward strike. By powering the hammer with momentum rather than sustained force, the hammer is then free to fall away from the string, allowing it to vibrate freely as long as the key is held down. At its release, the key will allow a damper to descend onto the vibrating string, thus stopping the sound.

Because grand piano hammers strike vertically, the speed at which notes can be repeated is limited only be gravity.

Vertical vs. Grand?

Since vertical pianos do not benefit from gravity—their hammers striking horizontally—an additional apparatus must be added to retrieve the hammer and reset it so it can strike again. This added complexity is noticeable at high repetition speeds, which is why the highest-level pianists prefer grand pianos to vertical pianos.

Pedals
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Steinway Grand Piano Pedals. Credit: Fanoftheworld [ 7 ]

Grand pianos are most frequently seen with three pedals: soft pedal (una corda), sostenuto pedal, and sustaining pedal (damper).

The soft pedal shifts the action so the hammers only strike one string, rather than two or three. The sostenuto pedal affects notes currently held by the pianist, allowing later notes to be played on top of the sustained notes without being sustained themselves. The damper pedal raises all dampers from the strings, allowing each to vibrate freely as long as the pedal is depressed.

Vertical vs. Grand?

Though all three pedals can be found on vertical pianos, many vertical pianos are missing the middle sostenuto pedal. This pedal is used infrequently, and even then is mostly used by composers like Debussy and Ravel. However, the mechanics of the different pedals remain the same across vertical and grand pianos.

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  • Related Articles
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    Rosener, Ann.  Conversion. Pianos to Airplanes Motors.  1942.  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C., Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Digital ID fsa 8b09738.   LOC.Gov.  Web.  30 Jan. 2016.  No Known Copyright Restrictions.
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    Epp and uploaded by Magnus Manske.  "Estonia Piano."  Photograph.  Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 22 Feb. 2010.  Web. 30 Jan. 2016.  GFDL
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    Maiolo, David.  "Steinway & Sons Grand Piano Iron Plates and Strings."  Photograph.  Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 21 Dec. 2011.  Web. 30 Jan. 2016.  CC BY-SA 3.0
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    Bary, Jeffrey.  "Piano Restoration."  Photograph.  Flickr.  Flickr, a Yahoo Company, 28 Sept. 2008.  Web.  30 Jan. 2016.  CC BY 2.0.
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    Sergio Vassio Photography.  "My Home Piano."  Photograph.  Flickr.  Flickr, a Yahoo Company, 28 July 2009.  Web.  30 Jan. 2016.  CC BY 2.0.
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    Arca, Rhona-Mae.  "Steinway Pianos of Calgary - lots of levers - ."  Photograph.  Flickr.  Flickr, a Yahoo Company, 16 July 2013.  Web.  30 Jan. 2016.  CC BY 2.0.
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    Fanoftheworld.  "Piano Pedals of Steinway & Sons Grand Piano, Hamburg, Germany."  Photograph.  Commons Wikimedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 30 Dec. 2011.  Web. 30 Jan. 2016.  CC0 1.0

    Additional References:
    • Mastehad Image: Highsmith, Carol M.  Steinway Piano Factory in Queens, New York.  1980.  Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C., Digital ID highsm 13056 LOC.Gov.  Web.  30 Jan. 2016.  No Known Copyright Restrictions.

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