Piano tuning, repairs, moving, sales & service in southern NJ
Ben Patterson is a full service piano technician and has served the southern New Jersey piano market for more than a decade. His client list includes professional touring musicians, recording studios, concert venues, schools, churches, and music festivals. He is a Registered Piano Technician (RPT) with the Piano Technicians Guild, and South Jersey Piano is a licensed and insured New Jersey LLC.
Ben has played piano since the age of 5, and has had a fascination with mechanics for almost as long. His first formal job working on pianos began in university practice rooms during his undergraduate degree, working at minimum wage but learning valuable skills for the trade. Ben lives with his wife and three daughters near Woodstown, NJ. South Jersey Piano grew out of the need he saw for quality piano work in rural South Jersey, and has been blessed with regular referrals from satisfied customers.
When not working on pianos, Ben also teaches privately, performs professionally, and serves as Director of Music at his church. He has also produced multiple music albums, taught middle school and high school music for 6 years, and completed a Master of Music degree in Choral Conducting at Rowan University.
If you have a piano that needs to be moved, and you need it done carefully and professionally, we’re happy to help! We have moved hundreds of pianos, have an arsenal of tools and equipment to get the job done properly, and don’t move anything except pianos.
The form below is detailed and allows us to give you a very accurate cost estimate. If you are just looking to get a general idea about the cost of moving a piano, please read this article, which may help answer your questions: “How much does it cost to move a piano?”
Virtually all piano manufacturers and technicians are in agreement that pianos should be tuned no less than once per year. This is a good benchmark. Many manufacturers recommend two or more tunings per year, but for home pianos that are not being moved or subjected to temperature and humidity swings, once a year is generally sufficient. More frequent tunings are often necessary for churches, schools, or private studios where pianos get heavier use and/or less climate control.
This depends largely on the instrument and the environment. Some pianos may be able to survive for several years at a time between tunings with minimal effect other than sounding “out-of-tune.” Often, however, pianos that have not been maintained in several years begin to succumb to their environment:
The most basic and important part of a piano tuning is adjusting the pitch of individual strings in the piano. Many piano players do not realize that although a typical piano has 88 keys, they have well over 200 strings. The upper two-thirds of the piano has three strings per note, while the lower range consists of monochords (one string) and bichords (two strings) that are copper-wound, heavier strings.
When tuning, the piano technician is striving to get the piano “in tune with itself” – this is the simplest way to explain the relationship of each note to every other note. Far from being a simple formula, this is determined by temperament and stretch and in reality varies slightly for every single piano based on many acoustic factors.
It is also my philosophy that a piano tuning appointment should address any other problems, immediate or potential, that the piano may have. Much like a good mechanic performing routine maintenance on your vehicle, I consider an annual piano servicing appointment an opportunity to make sure every aspect of the piano is functioning optimally. I frequently fix or adjust small problems as I go, and for larger or systemic issues I will be sure to bring them to your attention and have a discussion about the possible courses of treatment.
Both. While it is certainly possible to tune a piano well exclusively by ear (and this has been the practice for the last 200 years), there is also no reason to reject out of hand the benefits of modern technology. I use an ETD for certain parts of the piano tuning, but am constantly checking its results by ear. There are also parts of the tuning that I do entirely by ear – most significantly, the unisons (two or three strings that correspond to the same note).
This is a common question, and of course the answer varies. If you notice any sluggishness in the movement of the keys when you play, notes that do not sound all the time, keys that “stick,” pedals that do not work, etc., then there is probably regulation work that is needed. The extent of regulation work is up the customer, and my ultimate goal is for the customer to enjoy playing the piano and not have any mechanical problems getting in the way of that.
Besides mechanical issues, there are many factors that can negatively effect a piano’s tone quality. “Voicing” addresses the hammers themselves, reshaping, needling, or hardening them to adjust the timbre of the struck note. In older or heavily used pianos, restringing may also be a necessary step in reviving the full potential of sound quality in a piano. This is particularly true in bass strings, where dust and grime collect over time and gradually yield a “thuddy” or “tubby” sound.
The most important advice I can give for pianos in homes is to keep them away from direct heat and direct sunlight. Modern homes, with good exterior wall insulation, are not as hostile to instruments as older homes. It is still generally advisable to put pianos on an inside wall to avoid temperature changes as much as possible. For homes with forced air heat, the piano should be kept away from any vents. Direct sunlight through windows can also very quickly fade or damage the finish of pianos, in addition to causing other problems as it warms and dries out the cabinet.
Often this is a simple problem that can be fixed in the course of a routine piano tuning, but in some cases it may involve more extensive time or the replacement of parts.
Again, often a simple fix, but best taken care of by a professional technician at a routine appointment. During a piano tuning appointment, I do not charge extra for minor repairs or adjustments.
To determine a piano’s age in the absence of official documentation, the make (brand) of the piano is needed, along with a serial numbers. Serial numbers are found in a number of different places. For grand pianos, the most common place is directly underneath the music desk, etched into the brass-painted plate next to the tuning pins, or in the pinblock itself. For uprights, it can sometimes be found on the back of the piano, or inside the top of the piano, in the pinblock area.
The make and serial number of a piano can be used at websites such as Bluebook of Pianos to look up the age, although the number of brands represented is limited. For other piano makes (particularly older pianos), the information can be found in atlases. Most piano technicians carry piano atlases and can find this information easily.
Piano value is determined largely by the current market in your geographical area. In general, old uprights and spinets have very little resale value, although they can still be perfectly viable instruments for home use and practice. Grand pianos usually have at least some resale value, with newer instruments, larger instruments, and well-known brand names increasing the value significantly.
In reality, piano servicing appointments are no more expensive than other in-home services such as plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc. As with those services, however, there is a significant overhead expense of equipment, parts, liability, business fees and taxes, and travel involved. Remember whenever you have anyone working in your home, the fee you pay them is not their hourly wage! It has to cover all aspects of running the entire business.
Yes. Customers with multiple pianos being serviced in the same location and in the same appointment may be eligible for a discount. Also, referral discounts can be given in some situations. Feel free to ask about discounts when scheduling your appointment. It is always my goal to give you the best value I can.
Cash, personal/business check, or credit card (Visa/MC/AMEX/Discover). Payment is due upon delivery of services. Exceptions can be made for churches, schools, and other institutions – Net 14 days – in most cases.
I am fully vaccinated and make a habit of disinfecting the piano keyboard when I am done working as well. I am happy to wear a mask upon request, and can also offer contact-less payment and can accommodate most any other health or safety precautions requested.
Feel free to ask anything you’d like by clicking the Contact menu option and using the form on that page.
Pianos are made primarily out of wood and metal parts. Both materials are significantly affected by temperature and humidity. Combined with the fact that pianos are extremely complex instruments with thousands of small parts under immense amounts of tension, the smallest changes in relative humidity can have a significant impact on the tuning and stability of the piano.
Wood expands as it takes on moisture, and contracts as it loses moisture. This is the most basic and important reason that humidity control is so important for pianos. In southern New Jersey, I have found that indoor relative humidity is often extremely low during the winter months, with heat running regularly, and dry air circulating around the piano. Unfortunately, relative humidity often gets very high during the summer months, particularly in churches and schools, or homes with no air-conditioning. I have seen these conditions take a severe toll on a number of otherwise fine pianos.
The Piano Life Saver system by Dampp-Chaser is a self-contained humidity control system that is installed inside (verticals) or underneath (grands) your piano, and can cycle between humidifying and dehumidifying modes. It keeps the crucial components of your piano, such as the pinblock and soundboard, at nearly constant moisture levels year-round. The cycling between humidifier and dehumidifier is controlled by a sophisticated humidistat, and the system uses very minimal electricity due to its small size and focused application.
I can whole-heartedly recommend this system, and due to the positive results I have seen and the dire need of such a system in our climate, I have acquired an installer certification with Dampp-Chaser. I particularly recommend the Piano Life Safer system for churches and schools, as they typically have extreme temperature and humidity swings during the course of each week. It is also of great benefit in homes with forced air heat, or with no central air-conditioning systems.
Interested in a Piano Life Saver system? Call, email or use the contact form to ask for a brochure or an estimate.
For more information, visit pianolifesaver.com.
A player system is a mechanism that is installed in a piano which allows the piano to play itself. Modern player systems can also offer other features such as recording and musical accompaniment.
Edwin Scott Votey created the first musical piano playing device in his workshop in Detroit in 1895. Though other piano playing devices existed at the time, Votey was the first to combine several different technologies into a practical device which produced musical results. He soon joined the Aeolian Company, which started selling his device, called the Pianola, in 1898.
Unlike the player systems of today, the Pianola sat in front of the piano and played the keys with felt-covered mechanical fingers operated by a pedal! Since it operated outside of the piano, the technical term for the Pianola was actually “piano player”. However, the Pianola was so successful that Pianola became a generic term for any player system, and the Aeolian Company even took competitors to court for trademark infringement for using it. Soon after the Pianola hit the market the technology was adapted to operate inside the piano, and this instrument became known as a “player piano”.
The player piano version of the Pianola functions using a system of pneumatic tubes attached to the piano’s action. To play it you press foot pedals, which suck air out of the system and cause the hammers to hit the strings. A roll of paper with holes punched in it, or a piano roll, determines which notes play. While the Pianola lacks the expressiveness of a human piano player, it produces music at a satisfactory level, and is a fascinating piece of machinery. In addition, the Pianola doesn’t interfere with the normal functioning of the piano, so the piano in which it is installed can still be used as a conventional instrument. Here is a brief overview of how it works:
The next important innovation in player system technology came from Edwin Welte, who developed the world’s first reproducing piano, called the Welte-Mignon. The Welte-Mignon also used suction to operate, but it could automatically reproduce the performance of elite piano players, including the pedalling, tempo, phrasing, and dynamics. This was done by a sophisticated method of transferring the performance to a piano roll. The device was powered by suction, like the Pianola, but unlike the Pianola, it was not attached to a conventional piano. It was more like a cabinet you would find in someone’s living room.
This is a piano roll created by Carl Reinecke, the earliest born piano player to record. He was born in 1824, three years before the death of Beethoven!
Modern player systems combine the concept of the Pianola with the concept of the Welte-Mignon. They are installed inside a fully functional conventional piano and can play prerecorded performances with an expressiveness that rivals that of the original. There is no need to use suction or piano rolls anymore, and the equipment required to make it work takes up much less space. Modern systems operate using electricity and digitized music libraries which can be accessed via the internet. Some brands connect to speakers which can provide musical accompaniment to the piano.
These are the major brands in the player piano market today:
Instead of suction and a pneumatic tube that causes the hammer to move, modern systems use electricity and a device called a solenoid, which is embedded in the key bed. There is a solenoid for each key, and it pushes up on the underside of the key, moving the hammer toward the string. This is what a modern grand player piano looks like without the action:
Since modern systems operate digitally, no piano roll is needed to provide the information for what to play. All one needs is access to a music library that is formatted to work with the instrument. Today’s manufacturers have their own libraries, and the systems often come with an iPad or some other device that is used to control them.
With the exception of a few, modern player systems can be installed in most pianos after market. Systems can also be updated to use online music libraries instead of CDs, which was where the information was stored before the advent of the internet. Player system manufacturers offer technicians courses in installing and upgrading their systems, so you can probably find a certified technician who will do that kind of work near you.
Player piano systems have been giving people the ability to listen to live piano in their own homes on command for over a century. The technology evolved rapidly from pneumatic tubes and foot pedals to electricity and solenoids. Modern systems can not only play the piano for you, they can record your playing and play it back to you! They also have access to vast quantities of music and can be installed in your piano after market.
As the weather cools and heaters rumble to life, it’s worth taking some time to discuss how changes in temperature and humidity affect your piano. Pianos are sensitive to any changes in climate, including seasonal changes. Not taking this into account in the placement and care of your instrument could take years off its life.
Humidity is perhaps the most important environmental factor to consider in regard to the care and maintenance of your piano. Pianos are mostly constructed of wood, and wood swells and contracts in response to the amount of water vapor in the air, otherwise known as humidity.
There are three categories of humidity, but the one that is most relevant to piano care and maintenance is called relative humidity, or RH. RH is the ratio of the amount of water vapor present in the air to the amount of water vapor the air can hold at a given temperature before it is saturated. It is expressed as a percentage. For example, a RH level at or near 100% is a heavy fog. Whenever a weather forecast presents humidity as a percentage they are actually referring to relative humidity; humidity is an umbrella term that includes different subcategories.
Your piano will be grateful to you for knowing the range in which to keep the RH in your home. Pianos like a RH level of between 40-50%. If the RH is too low the wood in the piano could shrink and crack, and if it is too high the parts will become sluggish. You can use a device known as a hygrometer to measure the RH level.
The amount of water vapor it takes to saturate the air depends on its temperature. Hot air holds more water vapor, while cold air holds less. This is why a glass of cold water will develop condensation on a hot day. The air close to the glass is cold, which means it becomes saturated more easily than the hot air surrounding it. The excess water vapor near the glass converts to liquid water and clings to the side of it.
This becomes vital to understand in regard to the health of your piano when heating and cooling systems are thrown into the mix. For example, when you flip on the heater on a cold day, you dramatically decrease the RH in the area closest to the vents. This happens because the hot air coming out of the vent requires more water to become saturated, so water vapor that is present in that area drops in terms of a percentage of what is required to saturate the air.
Since the RH of the areas near vents is so volatile, it is always a good idea to keep your piano away from vents.
Now that you have some understanding of the relationship between temperature and humidity and how they affect your piano, here are a few tips to help you create the proper environment for your instrument:
The largest shifts in humidity are usually associated with seasonal changes. In addition to affecting the parts of your piano and how they function, these changes will also affect the tuning. As the wood loses moisture in the dry months of winter it will contract and cause the tuning to go flat. The opposite is true in humid summer months.
This is why technicians will recommend that you have your piano serviced at least twice a year. The best time to have your piano tuned and/or regulated is a few weeks after you turn on either your air conditioner or heater. Wait for the environment to stabilize, taking into account the changes in humidity you see on your hygrometer.
The most important concept to take away from all this information is that the RH level of your home will have a dramatic effect on both the tuning of your piano and the function of its parts. If you do your best to create the optimal environment for your instrument and have it serviced at least twice a year by a professional technician, you can keep it singing all year long and add years to its life.
Voicing a piano means making adjustments which change its tone. It is a different process than tuning, and this difference is important to understanding what people mean when they refer to tone. Tuning changes the pitch of the string, while voicing changes the quality of the sound it produces, or the tone.
Piano tone refers to how the piano sounds overall. It is a complex topic, but one commonly discussed aspect of tone is brightness vs. mellowness. The following audio clips are of the same song, Satin Doll by Duke Ellington, played the same way, but with different tonal qualities. One has a brighter tonal quality, while the other has a mellower tonal quality. Listen to them back to back to get a sense of the difference.
A bright piano produces more harmonics on the higher end of the spectrum, while a mellow piano produces more harmonics on the low end. For a breakdown of harmonics we have a separate post on the blog, here.
Making adjustments to the piano to achieve the tone the player wants is done through voicing. Pianos can be voiced by manipulating the strings or by manipulating the hammers. Voicing the strings involves making sure the strings are in the proper position to make the most efficient use of the energy from the hammer. Voicing the hammers involves shaping, softening, or hardening the hammers so that they produce a more desirable tone. It is more common to voice the hammers, so we’ll look at that aspect of the process.
One reason that voicing hammers is more common is that hammers become noticeably compacted over time, and eventually produce a very harsh, dissonant sound. The strings pound grooves into the hammers the more the piano is played, and the harder the grooves become, the brighter the piano begins to sound. The top of the hammer also becomes flattened, which will negatively affect the tone and make it harder to voice.
Piano technicians can compensate for this by voicing the hammers down, or making them sound more mellow. This is done by poking the hammer in specific places with a needle to soften it up, by filing the hammer, or by soaking the hammer in a liquid that is basically the equivalent of a fabric softener.
Sometimes, however, hammers have to be voiced up, to make them brighter. This is common with certain manufacturers, such as Steinway, who typically make mellower sounding pianos. In this case the technician will try to harden the hammer, most often by soaking it with a hammer-hardening solution (usually either plastic dissolved in acetone or lacquer mixed with lacquer thinner).
Older or more used pianos frequently have certain hammers that are either brighter or mellower than others. A technician can make the tone of your piano sound more even by selecting the hammers that stand out and making them brighter or mellower as needed. This is a quick and cheap way to improve the tone of your piano. Voicing an entire piano takes much longer and costs more, but it is worth it if you want to make the whole instrument brighter or mellower.
Manipulating the hammers and strings to change the tone of an instrument can’t compensate for design. For instance, smaller instruments produce more dissonant harmonics, so no matter what you do to the strings and hammers on a smaller piano, especially 5′ or shorter, it may always sound a little unpleasant.
What a piano player wants to get out of voicing is highly subjective. It is entirely up to your personal taste, what music you like, and even the room that the piano is in, as a piano that is too bright in one room may have the perfect tonal quality for another.
Elton John definitely likes his piano on the brighter side:
While Bill Charlap seems to prefer a mellower piano:
It is worth noting that some manufacturers make brighter pianos than others. The two most obvious examples are Steinway and Yamaha. Yamaha tends to make a piano on the brighter side, and these pianos are not usually voiced up, as it would create a tone that is too harsh.
Steinway, on the other hand, tends to make a mellower sounding piano, which may need to be voiced up, especially in the treble section.
Voicing a piano is all about tone and, as such, is highly subjective to the taste of the piano player. This is most often done by shaping the hammer or making it harder or softer, but manipulating the strings so that they are in the right place can be helpful as well.
Brightness as opposed to mellowness is the easiest way to start thinking about piano tone and deciding when you want to get your piano voiced. It’s important, however, to remember that no amount of voicing can overcome the design of the instrument.
Free pianos abound on the internet, at yard sales, or as hand-me-downs. It is tempting to pick one up, since it will potentially save you time, energy, and lots of money. Or will it?
In my experience as a piano technician, free pianos that are actually worth tuning and maintaining are few and far between, though they do exist. “Free” is also a deceptive term in the context of the piano market, since there will still be costs associated with moving the instrument and preparing it for use.
Yes, you found a piano that someone is giving away. But you still have to move it and make it usable.
Even the smallest acoustic pianos are heavy and large compared to other objects people normally move around. In addition to the size and weight, it’s best not to handle it too roughly while you’re moving it, or you could render your new find useless. This means you’ll want to use professional piano movers, which will likely cost you at least $200, if not more. For a reference on piano moving costs, here is a previous post on the South Jersey Piano Service Blog.
Just because the seller isn’t charging anything for the piano doesn’t mean it won’t cost you anything to be able to use it. I’ve already mentioned that it’s going to cost you some money just to move the piano. Now you have to make it playable.
This will likely cost you a minimum of $150 just for the tuning. Many pianos that people give away have been sitting in a corner, unused, for years. If pianos are not tuned somewhat frequently, the strings can get so far out of tune that it becomes either impossible or impractical to get it up to pitch. Keep in mind that the more something is out of tune, the more a piano technician will charge to tune it, since it is more difficult and time consuming to achieve an acceptable result.
There’s also a good chance that the piano hasn’t been properly maintained, which means you’ll have to shell out a few hundred more just to get it working (if that’s possible). The neglect in routine maintenance is likely compounded by the conditions in which the piano was stored, since environments without proper temperatures and humidity levels will cause the quality of a piano to deteriorate.
It’s always a good idea to hire a technician to do an evaluation. You are going to have to spend money on a piano even if it is given to you. It’s best to spend a little on a professional evaluation up front, since it can save you a lot of time and money further down the road. In this regard, the same principles apply to picking up a free piano as to purchasing a used one. For more information on that, check out this post.
The majority of free pianos you see will probably be spinets. One easy way to spot a spinet is that the height of the entire instrument rises just above above the keyboard.
Spinets became popular during the depths of the Great Depression. Manufacturers severely sacrificed tone and feel to make these pianos smaller and cheaper, because at the time many people did not have enough money or space for anything else. Spinets were produced from the 1930s to the 1990s. Many of these pianos made their way into Depression-era or middle class households, were passed on to children, and are still circulating today.
The drop-action design, which allowed them to be so small, is hard to access, regulate, and repair. So, in addition to having poor tone and feel, they are difficult and costly to maintain.
These pianos are not worth much at this point. They weren’t made well to begin with, and the newest spinets are now about 30 years old. Most of the spinets you come across will likely be 50-60 years old, which is pushing the limits of durability even for something that is well-made.
If you are looking for a piano for a beginning piano student, you should consider that the quality of the piano can have a significant influence on the student’s experience. No matter how talented you are, you can’t overcome a piano that doesn’t work right. This can get frustrating for students, especially beginners, and can lead students to quit. While it may cost a little more for a decent used piano, or to evaluate a free piano, it’s worth the money if you want to give someone a real shot at learning to play.
Free pianos are ubiquitous, especially online, and it is tempting to pick one up. However, you have to be wary of what you’re getting yourself into. It may be free at the point of sale, but it will still cost you hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars to be able to use it.
In addition, most often these pianos are old, severely neglected, and poorly made. There are some gems out there, but in order to know that you’ve found one it’s best to hire a technician to do an evaluation. As I mentioned above, you’re going to have to spend money on a piano anyway, so it’s a good idea to spend a little money up front to know that you’re getting something that is worth the trouble.
Regulation is equally as important as tuning, but piano owners are generally less aware of its necessity. In broad terms, regulation involves a technician going over the moving parts of the piano to make sure they are functioning properly. Pianos should be regulated periodically in order to:
Regulation does not need to be done as often as tuning, but neglecting it results in poor performance and tone. If a piano is never regulated, parts may stop working altogether. I recommend that clients get their pianos regulated at least once every 5 years, or any time things start feeling noticeably worse.
During the course of a regulation, a technician will go over two main systems: the action and the trapwork (pedals).
The bulk of a regulation takes place in the action. A piano’s action is all of the parts that connect the key to the hammer and transfer energy from the key to the hammer.
The tiny parts that comprise the action, and how they function in relation to each other, influence how the instrument feels. If the parts are not regulated within certain tolerances the piano will feel clunky and unresponsive. If they are way off they won’t work at all. The tolerances for a well-regulated piano are small enough that these issues crop up fairly often.
This is a link to a virtual grand piano action on Renner’s website. Once you are on the page, you can click on the keyboard to see what happens in the action of a piano when you play a key.
Technicians align all of the moving parts so that they make the proper amount of contact with each other and work efficiently. They also ensure that the springs have the right amount of tension and that the overall system has the right amount of friction.
The other area piano technicians focus on while regulating is the trapwork. The term trapwork refers to the pedals and the systems that they operate.
Every piano has a damper (also called sustain) pedal, located furthest to the right. When depressed, this pedal lifts all of the dampers off the strings simultaneously. Players use this pedal frequently to blend notes together or allow notes to ring out.
In addition, most grand pianos have a sostenuto pedal in the middle and a shift pedal on the left. The shift pedal (also called the una corda or soft pedal) shifts the entire keyboard to the right. This causes the hammers to miss one of the strings they would normally hit, making the tone softer.
The sostenuto pedal keeps the dampers up on specific notes that the player chooses without raising the rest of the dampers. Players tend to use this pedal far less than the other two, and some pianos don’t even have it.
Upright pianos often have a mute pedal instead of a sostenuto pedal in the middle. The mute pedal lowers a strip of felt in between the hammers and the strings. This greatly diminishes the sound and is intended for practice. Uprights also have their own version of a shift pedal, which pushes all of the hammers forward, making the piano quieter.
Technicians regulate all of these parts so that they function in the way that is most efficient and comfortable for the player.
If you want your piano to perform at its best, you need to keep the intricate dance of moving parts inside of it in step with one other.
Don’t forget that in addition to regular tunings, you need to have your piano regulated every few years. Many people overlook this aspect of piano maintenance because the issues that are being addressed aren’t visual or auditory. A huge part of the love piano players have for their instruments, however, is due to the way their instruments feel. So stay in love with your piano and have it regulated!
The first piano was created by an Italian named Bartolomeo Cristofori around 1700. His intention was to make an instrument with a more dynamic tone than the harpsichord, which does not allow musicians to have much control over the volume of the notes they are playing. It was originally called a pianoforte, because in Italian the terms “piano” and “forte” mean “soft” and “loud”, respectively.
Cristofori did this by changing the mechanism that causes the strings to vibrate. Whereas a harpsichord uses a plectrum to pluck its strings, Cristofori designed a system that uses a hammer that is pushed toward the string at first and then allowed to travel the rest of the way on its own momentum. This made the piano more responsive to the touch of the musician, since playing a note harder would result in a louder sound, and vice versa.
Modern pianos, though they have evolved over the years, still use the same concept. Allowing the musician to play both loudly and softly is still a core goal in the design of the instrument. At some point the strings were placed in a vertical position to save space, which led to the modern upright piano.
Side view of a grand piano action. (graphic from: https://www.pianoemporium.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/grand_piano_action.gif)
The design of a modern grand piano offers musicians the highest degree of responsiveness. This is due in large part to the grand piano using gravity to help the hammer return, which allows the musician to play faster and with more control. As you can see from the image above, the felt part of the hammer, which is the heaviest, is set horizontally in relation to the string. This means that once the hammer bounces off the string, gravity helps it quickly return to a position in which it can be played again.
The speed with which a note can be repeated is referred to as its repetition. This is important when gauging the quality of a piano, since better quality pianos have a higher degree of repetition.
The horizontal position of the hammer on a grand piano also makes grand piano actions feel smoother.
The biggest drawback of a grand piano is that it takes up a lot of space. In general, the longer a grand piano is the better it sounds and functions. The reason concert grand pianos are so large (they tend to be about 9 feet long) is that bigger pianos are much louder, and the longer keys allow energy to be transferred from the finger of the musician to the string more efficiently. The smaller a piano action is, the harder it is to switch between playing loudly or softly, and being able to switch between playing loudly and softly is part of the reason the piano was invented in the first place.
Here is a virtual representation of a grand piano action in action.
Side view of an upright piano action. (graphic from: https://rennerusa.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/main.jpg)
Upright pianos were created by taking the soundboard, plate and strings and making them vertical in order to save space. The hammer is also set vertically in relation to the string.
This means that uprights are not able to use gravity as effectively to help the hammer return to a position in which it can be played again.
Upright actions incorporate springs to help compensate for this lack of gravitational force. Even so, upright pianos generally have a slower rate of repetition than grand pianos, and are less responsive. They also tend to be on the smaller side, which negatively impacts their tone and feel.
Although uprights are, by design, not able to have the same advantages as grands, they are more practical for many players who simply want to enjoy a piano in their home. They are also common in music school practice rooms.
The average upright is cheaper than the average grand and takes up less space. In addition, the aforementioned disadvantages of uprights are not so severe as to interfere with a musician’s ability to play complicated pieces with expression. Uprights are even used for performances in certain situations.
Side view of spinet action. (graphic from: https://pianoguidelessons.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/dropAct.gif)
The spinet is a type of upright that was designed to save even more space. Spinets have what is called a drop-action, which means that the action was taken below the level of the keys and connected to the keys with with a rod. They take up little space horizontally as well as vertically.
Spinets offer the least in terms of responsiveness, repetition, and tone. They are very small and the design of the action means more energy is lost in the transfer between the finger of the musician and the string. The awkward design also makes them difficult to maintain or repair.
As digital keyboard technology has gotten better, spinets have been pushed toward obsolescence. A modern digital keyboard does not take up much space and has a sound that is comparable to if not better than a spinet.
Bartolomeo Cristofori created the design for the piano to give keyboardists a greater range of expression. This led to the modern grand and upright piano.
There are three main types of pianos in circulation today. They are the grand, the upright, and the spinet. The design of the grand piano offers the best tone, feel, and repetition, but is expensive and takes up a lot of space. A standard upright is less expensive and takes up a lot less space, but sacrifices these attributes to some degree. A spinet costs the least and takes up the least amount space, but sacrifices the most in terms of tone, feel and repetition to achieve this.
Pianos use a complex system comprised of thousands of parts to make music. They are a marvel of engineering, but all that complexity can present a problem to any layperson looking to purchase a quality used instrument. If a piano is reasonably well maintained, however, it can be passed on to multiple generations, and provide decades of enjoyment to music lovers.
In order to find such an instrument at a reasonable price it is important to keep a few things in mind:
Many technicians charge somewhere in the range of $100 to evaluate a piano. Since a decent used piano might cost thousands of dollars, having an experienced, trustworthy, and impartial technician go over it before you buy it could keep you from spending all that money on a lemon. I fully encourage you to research your purchase on your own, but a technician will still be better at spotting potential problems. For instance, when I evaluate a piano, I tune a couple of strings to see how well they hold. A layperson is not likely to be able to do this. Even with the proper equipment, one would need to have a feel for how a tuning pin should move in the block of wood in which it sits. If a piano can’t hold a tune this is obviously a serious problem, but it’s not one you would notice just by looking at it.
Also, whichever piano you end up with will likely need at least some work, even if it is just routine maintenance or tuning. A technician will be able to estimate what work is necessary and how much it will cost.
Don’t take it for granted that a store owner has taken the time to properly care for the used instruments in the store’s inventory. A piano on a showroom floor can have just as many problems as a piano in someone’s home. Store owners are just humans, and, like the rest of humanity, they run the gamut in terms of honesty and trustworthiness. If the store or the company that owns the store employs some well-trained technicians that is a good sign. If your purchase comes with a warranty for a year or more that is another good sign. However, you should still be on the lookout for potentially costly defects. Again, hiring a trustworthy and impartial technician to do an evaluation is always a good idea.
The environment in which a piano resides has an enormous impact on its useful life. A piano is made from materials that are sensitive to climate conditions, such as wood, felt, and metal. If it sat for years in a place that was too humid, for instance, it could cause a wide range of problems from sluggish parts to mold. If its environment was too dry, it could cause issues like cracking in the wood or loose and wobbly parts. In some instances, like on the east coast of the U.S., it can be exposed to both extremes, which will wreak havoc on it. Pianos fare best in stable climates with a humidity level of about 50%. The humidity level being too low, or around 30% or below, presents the biggest problem, because that could seriously damage the structure of the instrument.
In addition, pianos make nice homes for pests like mice or insects. You can clear them out and possibly repair some of the damage they’ve done, but not always, and it’s definitely best to start out with an instrument that hasn’t been infested with vermin.
Try to get some information about the history of the piano you’re looking to buy. I’ve come across an unsettling number of people who think that a barn with no insulation or climate control is an acceptable place to store a piano (Hint: it’s not). Take a look inside the piano as well, because you can probably spot things like mold or evidence of infestation yourself, and you may be able to rule out a couple of options before getting a professional evaluation.
You may hear terms like “reconditioned”, “rebuilt”, or “restored” on your quest for a used piano. These terms are sometimes used in confusing ways or even interchangeably, but they have specific meanings that are not interchangeable, and aspects such as pricing and quality are dependant on what was actually done to the intrument. The best way to think about these terms are as follows:
This is the most common form of work done to prepare a used piano for sale and the least costly to the seller in terms of parts and labor. Reconditioning involves standard maintenance procedures, such as tuning and regulation, and minor repairs. This type of work should be done on pianos that are already in fair condition and have not suffered any structural damage or extensive damage to parts.
Rebuilding is far more costly and labor intensive than reconditioning. During the course of a rebuilding, the rebuilders will do serious repairs to the instrument and will in many cases replace existing parts with new ones. They may even change certain characteristics of the original piano, such as the weight of the keys. This type of work done by someone with skill and experience can yield beautiful results. It can extend the life of a piano for decades, and can signifcantly reduce the price of a high end piano, like a Steinway B, compared to what it would cost new.
If the work is not done well, however, it could exacerbate existing problems, or even not function properly at all. Fixing a poorly rebuilt piano is a major headache because problems pop up everywhere, and the best you can usually hope for is something that barely works in the best circumstances.
Restoration is costly in terms of parts and labor as well. Unlike rebuilding, however, a restorer will stay close to the original design of the piano and try to use as many existing parts as possible. This is often done on old pianos that have unique features or historical or sentimental value.
One of the best ways to get a feel for the quality of an instrument is simply to play it. Play every key on the piano and make sure the pedals are doing their jobs. If you already play the piano, play something you know well, and play the same thing on every piano, so the differences really stand out. While you play it, think critically about how it feels and sounds. Do the keys feel heavy or light? How quickly are you able to repeat notes? Is the tone harsh or mellow or somewhere in between? Many of these things are highly subjective, and only you can truly know what you’re looking for.
Playing it is a quick and easy way to get a basic feel for how it is functioning overall. If the keys and pedals are working smoothly and you are able to repeat notes quickly it may be in pretty good shape. Listen for unwanted sounds as well. When parts of the structure of the piano come loose they will often make buzzing or rattling noises while someone is playing. These issues can be costly and difficult to fix, so it’s good to be aware of them as soon as possible.
Buying a used piano can be a little overwhelming if you are taking it seriously. There is a lot to watch out for. Doing your own research on the instrument before you buy it is always a good idea, but you need some training to properly evaluate a potential purchase. If you keep the above points in mind, especially hiring a technician, you will greatly increase your chances of finding a quality instrument. Choosing a piano is a fun and exciting process, and totally worth it if you enjoy music. Happy hunting!
Many people wonder if they can simply tune their pianos with a guitar tuner. It’s a question I’ve asked myself, before I became a piano technician. The first tuning I ever did was on a little Schumann grand piano with a guitar tuning app.
The short answer is yes; but it’s highly inadvisable. It will sound awful to anyone with a decent ear, and downright unacceptable to piano players. There are subjective elements to tuning instruments, and an “accurate” tuning is a slightly shifting scale. A good tuning on any given instrument, including pianos, will take into account the design of the instrument and the mechanism it uses to produce sound. For example, a pipe organ is tuned differently than a piano because a pipe organ uses air forced through pipes, and a piano uses a felt hammer which is hurled at a tense wire.
The key difference between instruments from the perspective of tuning is something called inharmonicity. An instrument is inharmonic if the tones it produces don’t line up with the harmonic series, which is an important factor in deciding the best tuning. There are varying degrees of inharmonicity in instruments, and a piano has more inharmonicity than a guitar. This means that pianos are tuned differently than guitars, so something that is meant for tuning guitars won’t work well on pianos.
If you want to go down the rabbit hole of the harmonic series, inharmonicity, and how they affect tuning, the following will get you on your way.
When a note is played on an instrument, your ear is actually hearing a stack of different frequencies at the same time. The range of frequencies contained in that note is known as the harmonic series. It is also referred to as the overtone series or the partial series, because, apparently, having one name for it isn’t complicated enough. For the purposes of this article I will refer to it as the harmonic series, and the specific frequencies within it as harmonics.
When the note C is played, for instance, what that note consists of is a stack of frequencies with C at the bottom. Ascending from that first C, the stack goes like this:
(graphic from: https://www.beyondmusictheory.org/the-harmonic-series/)
As you may have noticed, all the notes in a C major chord, and then some, are present. This natural phenomenon is deeply intertwined with the formation of music. The frequencies in the series are also mathematically related to each other. The 2nd harmonic is roughly twice the frequency in hertz of the 1st harmonic, and in musical terms is one octave up. So, if our sample note is C4, the 1st harmonic would be about 262hz and the 2nd harmonic would be about 524hz. The 3rd harmonic is the first G after the 2nd harmonic and the 4th harmonic is two octaves above the 1st harmonic, or about 1048hz.
Here it is represented on a keyboard:
(graphic from: https://scienceofmusicperformance.blogspot.com/2015/10/harmonic-overtone-series-lesson-plan.html)
The first 6 harmonics in the series are vital in determining the best tuning for a piano. When tuning a C5 on a piano, for instance, the tuner has to make sure that the 1st harmonic is tuned to the 2nd harmonic in the C4 below it in a way that is pleasing to the ear, and so on and so forth. This, as you will see, is not always straightforward. That’s where inharmonicity comes into play.
Inharmonicity refers to the fact that, depending on the mechanism with which the note is sounded, the harmonic series shifts slightly. To return to the example from before, the harmonic series from a C4 played on a pipe organ doesn’t exactly match the harmonic series from a C4 played on a piano. The values in hertz of the harmonic series on the pipe organ are identical to the values of a pure harmonic series, where every octave up is twice the value of the octave below it. The harmonic series on a piano, however, is stretched, meaning that in many cases the 2nd harmonic is more than twice the frequency of the 1st harmonic, and all the other harmonics usually have higher values as well. This is because hurling a felt hammer at a tense wire produces a more chaotic result than continuously forcing air through a pipe, or picking a string with a guitar pick.
Different instruments have different levels of inharmonicity inherent in their design. Bowed string instruments, brass instruments, and reed instruments are perfectly harmonic, meaning they match the purely mathematical harmonic series perfectly. Plucked instruments, such as guitars and harpsichords, are nearly harmonic. Pitched percussion instruments, which is the category that the piano falls into, are approximately harmonic. This means that pianos have more inharmonicity than guitars, which is why a guitar tuner won’t give you a good piano tuning. The harmonic series from a note played on a guitar is different than the harmonic series from a note played on a piano, and a good tuning needs to take that into account.
When piano technicians tune a piano aurally, meaning by ear, they listen to how the harmonics in the notes they are tuning interact with each other. For the sake of simplicity, which is desperately needed when trying to wade into the seething waters of tuning theory, we will stick with the 1st harmonic and the 2nd harmonic. Just keep in mind that piano technicians and sophisticated piano tuning apps use multiple harmonics to determine the best way forward when tuning.
When tuning a C5 to a C4 on a piano, for example, the tuner has to take into account how the 1st harmonic of the C5 interacts with the 2nd harmonic of the C4. Since C5 is one octave above C4 and the 2nd harmonic of the C4 is one octave above its 1st harmonic, the frequencies of the 1st harmonic of C5 and the 2nd harmonic of C4 need to be in tune with one another. If they aren’t in tune they will produce a rapid wah-wah-wah sound that is unpleasant to the ear, which piano technicians call “beating.”
Since a piano has a high degree of inharmonicity, the frequency of the 2nd harmonic of the C4 will usually be more than twice frequency of the 1st harmonic. In musical terms it will be sharp compared to what it should be in a perfect harmonic series. This means that the C5 that is being tuned must also be sharp, or it will cause beating. If there is too much beating in the tuning of a piano it will sound muddy and inarticulate. Furthermore, that means that the C5 on a piano will most likely be tuned sharper than the C5 on a guitar, because that will help the piano sound more in tune with itself.
So, all things considered, a guitar tuner is a poor substitute for the tuning you would get from an experienced technician. A well-crafted piano tuning app will give you the measurements for a good tuning, which is a good start, but tuning a piano well also requires a certain skill set that can take years to cultivate.
Tens of thousands of new acoustic pianos are sold every year in the US. While this may sound like a lot, changing domestic norms and the development of electronic pianos have brought acoustic piano sales down from many times that amount a few decades ago. Peaks of over 300,000 piano sales per year in the US were hit in the early 1900’s and again in the post-WW2 boom.
One thing that has not changed: pianos do not live forever. And eventually, usually decades after they are bought, they have to be disposed of somehow. The chances are, you have stumbled across this page because you are trying to figure out what to do with an old piano from the boom years many decades ago that is now past any musical life.
Don’t be discouraged by this – no manufactured object lasts forever, and most fall to pieces or stop working much more quickly than an acoustic piano. I still regularly service pianos that are over 100 years old. Do you have any working appliances in your home that are over 100 years old? Likely not. Pianos are incredible instruments that will last more than a lifetime if well-made and well-maintained.
Still, nearly every piano will eventually reach its end of usefulness. And what makes pianos difficult to get rid of is their size and weight. Further complicating the situation is that it may not be immediately obvious whether a piano is actually at the end of its life or whether it just needs to be serviced. So let’s tackle that question first. (If you already know your piano has no future, skip to the next section.)
There are a few things you can try, depending on the piano, where you live, and what manpower you have available:
Moving a piano is unlike any other type of moving. It can’t be compared with any other type of furniture, nor can it be compared with any other type of musical instrument. Many people successfully move their upright pianos by themselves, but there are also many pitfalls and many reasons to hire a professional – particularly if you have a grand piano. Prices vary widely across the country, and depending on logistical details at each location, but upright piano moving prices may range from $150-400 for typical local or regional moves, while similar grand piano moves may range at least $100 more due to the break-down and setup that is required.
The smallest upright pianos still weigh in at around 400 pounds, while baby grands may easily weigh 600-700 pounds, and larger grands even more. Full length concert grands can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds.
The weight of a piano is mostly in its plate – a cast iron frame inside the piano (usually painted gold/bronze) that essentially holds the entire piano together and allows the thousands of pounds of tension in the strings to remain stable. For this reason, there is really no effective way to make a piano lighter for moving. Removing cabinet parts, hardware, even keys and action, makes almost no discernible weight difference. The weight has to be dealt with . . . and carefully.
Many people are surprised by the cost of piano moving. It doesn’t seem complicated – maybe you’ve even moved your piano yourself before with reasonable success. There are a lot of factors, but here’s a quick break-down:
In conclusion, the more you care about your piano, the more you should consider having it professionally moved. Some general movers have significant experience with pianos and carry all the needed equipment – but in most cases, if you are going to pay to have your piano moved, you would be best to hire piano moving specialists. You might be surprised to find one nearer than you think. Start by asking your piano technician. Or do a Google search in your area. And of course, if your move is in southern New Jersey, well, you can start right here.