It’s All About The Scale, Isn’t It?

Brodmann grand piano with artist bench.

Grand pianos are immediately differentiated from uprights in appearance, but other, subtle differences contribute to their unique character and ability. Though there are many sizes—from the smaller petite grand pianos to the larger concert grand pianos—all share similar internal structures that set them apart from their upright counterparts.

To performers, the construction of a grand piano's action is paramount, allowing for technical performances impossible on less capable instruments. Romantic virtuosos like Liszt and Chopin, as well as modern composers like Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, and all others who came after, would have been limited in their compositional innovation without this invention.

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Types And Sizes

Illustration of a piano saleswoman and her confused customer.

While all grand pianos come with similar internal structures, they come in a number of shapes and sizes. While the most popular size for homes is the baby grand piano, did you know there exists a smaller size called the petite grand, measuring only 4 and a half feet long? And for those of us lucky enough to have a large living room, a concert grand can easily reach 9 feet in length.

Petite Grand

The petite grand piano ranges in size from 4 feet, 5 inches, to 4 feet, 10 inches. Though all grand pianos are the same width, the petite grand represents an economy of space at the expense of sound. Petite grands, with their smaller soundboards and limited case size, are not capable of the depths of sound available to larger grands. In fact, a high-end upright piano might even have longer strings and a better sound, lacking only the double escapement action of the petite grand.

Baby Grand

By far the most popular piano for home use, the baby grand piano is an excellent compromise for those seeking the perfect balance of sound quality, size, and cost. Baby grand pianos range in size from 4 feet, 11inches, to 5 feet, 6 inches. The best baby grand pianos can rival larger grand pianos in terms of sound quality and volume production, making them both excellent performance and practice instruments. Add to this an undeniable aesthetic charm, and a baby grand piano becomes an instant classic.

Medium Grand

A medium grand piano is often categorized as a baby grand piano at the small end or a larger parlor grand piano at the large end. Ranging in size from 5 feet, 7 inches, to 5 feet, 9 inches, a medium grand occupies a niche location on the grand piano size spectrum. Often used in place of baby grand pianos at music conservatories, the medium grand piano offers a slightly better sound quality at a slightly larger size, without the distinction of being a concert grand piano.

Parlor Grand

The parlor grand piano is the smallest of what are known as concert grand pianos. These range in size from 5 feet, 9 inches, to 6 feet, 9 inches. This larger size realizes the potential for a deep, ample bass sound, for which concert grand pianos have become known. While nearly 7 feet long, these are still not quite long enough to be considered full concert grand pianos, which is why they are frequently found in recital halls, recording studios, and large living rooms.

Semi-Concert Or Ballroom Grand

From 6 feet, 9 inches, to 8 feet, the semi-concert grand piano—also known as the ballroom grand piano—occupies medium sized performance venues and recital halls. As grand pianos get larger, many of their components become larger as a result of scale. While it is obvious that the case, soundboard, and strings must increase in size, it is often less obvious that the length of the keys must also necessarily increase. The longer keys are not visible from the front of the piano, but rather extend farther into the case. The recessed fulcrum, the point at which the key is balanced, is responsible for the exceptional touch afforded to large pianos, equalizing the pressure required to depress a key, whether depressed at the front or the back.

Concert Grand

The largest pianos, measuring up to 9 feet or longer, are considered true concert grand pianos. Their exceptional sound quality, unmatched touch, and superb volume control place these pianos in concert halls around the world. Able to go head-to-head with major symphony orchestras, these pianos are capable of projecting their sound without the use of microphones. The concert grand piano is considered the pinnacle of grand piano development.

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Distinguishing Features Of Grand Pianos


Soundboard for a Perzina grand piano.

The soundboard of a grand piano is significantly larger than that of a vertical piano. The increased size allows for more sympathetic vibration, and thus improves both the range of volume and sound color. The horizontal orientation of the soundboard, as opposed to vertical, forces sound up and out, directed by the lid, as well as down to the floor. The projection of sound is therefore improved, making grand pianos more suitable to being played on stage.

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Double escapement in modern grand pianos is the aspect most responsible for the technically demanding compositions of the past 200 years. Prior to double escapement—which allows a note to be repeated without returning the key to its neutral position—single escapement was the norm, where a key must return to its original placement. While even this was faster than the action of vertical pianos, double escapement improves upon this difference. Relying on gravity rather than a mechanical apparatus to return a key to its neutral position is the great advantage of the grand piano.

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Piano Keys

Originally coated in ivory (piano keys are now machined from solid spruce wood blocks), and then coated in either synthetics (for white keys) or resin (for black keys). The greater majority of keyboards include 52 white keys and 36 black keys, creating the familiar 88-key keyboard commonly seen today. Few pianos contain more (up to 97 keys), though the extra keys and strings serve more as media for increased sympathetic vibration than as usable keys. Few pieces venture much lower than A0, but some may reach as low as C0.

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The strings on a grand piano are under immense tension, up to 30 tons of tension in a single piano. The durability of strings has greatly increased since the invention of the piano. Originally made of iron, the new tempered high-carbon, coiled-steel strings are able to withstand greater force, and therefore allow the piano to be played more aggressively. Strings on the lower end of the piano are wound with copper to increase their mass, and strings in the middle and higher end are duplicated or triplicated respectively to help balance the volume difference that exists between registers.

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Horizontal Orientation

All grand pianos have soundboards that are oriented horizontally. This allows the sound to exit the case in two directions: up, directed into the audience by the lid; and down, to the floor. The improved projection of a grand piano is of great advantage to stage performers not wishing their sound to be absorbed by an adjacent wall. A grand piano can be placed on stage so that the sound is optimally directed and the keyboard is visible to the audience. This arrangement is not possible with a vertical piano.

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Slow-Close Fallboards

The traditional fallboard protects keys from damage over time, but a slow-close fallboard protects fingers from a sudden, snapping injury.

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Slow Close Fall Boards Montage On Grand Pianos.

More a convenience than a necessity, the slow-close fallboard is still a welcome feature for teachers and parents of young children. It also results in less wear on pads and the frame.

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Short Lid-Prop

While grand pianos are most often seen in solo settings at full stick, the option to put them at half stick is very helpful in the context of chamber performances, or even practice. At half stick, many of the piano's natural overtones are muted, making it the perfect setup for playing with a vocalist, or performing in a small chamber ensemble. The intermediate option between closed and full stick is a feature unique to grand pianos.

True or False?
The song Imagine was written on a Steinway & Sons Grand Piano.
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