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Pondering, as I have, some of the piano questions posed to me over the years, I've decided to discuss them here (as well as post a few articles on common piano problems... see margin links). If you have any questions not covered here, send an email. The LINKS page will take you to other piano related websites, or click here to hear how I spend those long, lonely evenings at home alone annoying my neighbors.
Q. OK, so why do I have to keep paying to have my piano tuned every six months or so? Why won't the darn thing keep a tune anyway?
A. There are several reasons a piano loses its tune, but the main one is that they're designed that way so we piano tuners can make a fabulous living and vacation in the Bahamas. No, seriously -- moisture changes in the air is the main reason. As you know, the piano is made mostly of wood and wood and moisture don't get along so well. Ever have a door that would start sticking in damp weather and then suddenly work again when the weather dried out? Well, it's doing that because wood is porous and absorbs moisture, causing the wood fibers to swell in humid weather, then shrink again when the air dries out. When the soft wood of your piano soundboard soaks up the moisture from the air, it swells up a bit and puts more tension on the strings, making them sound sharper. Conversely, as the air dries out, so does the soundboard, causing it to shrink slightly, reducing the string tension and making the whole contraption go flat again. This kind of change is mostly seasonal since the humidity tends to rise in the summer months and drop in the winter months.
Of course the soundboard is not the only part of the piano subject to moisture changes. The pinblock is a strip of laminated wood with holes, into which the steel tuning pins are driven. The strings are coiled around the pins and the pins are turned to loosen or tighten them during tuning. Like the soundboard, the wood in the pinblock swells and contracts with moisture changes, causing the pins to slip slightly and change the tension on the strings, which again can change their pitch. Other reasons for tuning changes include hard playing (the vibrations of the strings and frame can subtly shake the tuning pins loose over time), stretching of the strings (steel wire will slowly stretch when put under tension) and plain old shoddy construction in some of the cheaper models. If you're tired of paying tuning fees, you could learn to do you own tuning you know, by ordering "You Can Tune Your Own Piano."Return to questions
Q. I want to move my piano to a different part of the room. Will I need to have it retuned if I do?
A. Naw, not unless one side of the room has a huge climate difference from the other, like those luxury cars that can blow warm air on the driver and cold air on the passenger (how do they do that?). In fact, moving a piano won't cause it to go out of tune unless you are moving it from Florida to Death Valley in the back of a '56 Chevy pickup with no shocks. As pointed out in the previous question, it is moisture changes that affect tuning the most, so as long as the place you're moving the piano to doesn't have a different climate than where it's been, there should be no problem. Of course, if you move it from a damp basement to a drier living room, it will affect the tuning. In that case it will need to acclimate to the new location for a few weeks before being tuned.Return to questions
Q. I keep hearing from my nosey neighbor that I shouldn't have my piano against an outside wall? What's up with this?
A. Actually, that advice used to make sense back in the days of Little House On The Prairie when cold air and moisture could blow in between the logs and play havoc with the wood of a piano. With today's tightly constructed and insulated houses it doesn't make much difference. Naturally you don't want to place a piano in direct sunlight, in front of a drafty window, or near a heating or air conditioning vent. And avoid putting a lot of plants on and around the piano if you can. Frequent watering keeps moisture in the air, which the piano may absorb. Of course the worst place in the universe that you can place your piano is in an unfinished basement where the humidity is always high. Otherwise, place it against any wall you want. It's your house and your piano.Return to questions
Q. How often should I have my piano tuned? Really, the truth now.
A. I wish I had an easy answer to that question, but unfortunately it depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is how good your ear is and what astrological sign you were born under. Some people can play a piano that sounds like a brass band and never know the difference. Others folks can be sensitive to even minute changes in a single note. The truth is, pianos begin losing their tune almost the moment the piano tuner takes his check and heads for the door. That's just the way it is. When a technician tunes your piano she is putting a lot of tension on the strings (not to mention your budget). The combined tension of the 230 or so strings on an average grand piano tuned to Concert Pitch is around 30,000 pounds, incidentally (and you thought you were under stress). This increased tension causes the steel strings to begin stretching and the wooden frame to shift slightly. Add to that mix the rapid changes in humidity in some climates, regular pounding by a piano student and the inherent differences in piano construction, and the requirement for tuning can be pretty unpredictable.
Generally speaking, though, most decent pianos should be tuned at least twice a year (spring and fall or summer and winter, for example, to accommodate moisture changes). This may not be nearly often enough, however, for many situations. Serious students, folks with good ears, and professional performers will usually want their pianos tuned three or four times a year, especially if they frequently play with other instruments where maintaining Concert Pitch is required. The really picky people, of course, like concert artists, will have their pianos tuned between every performance, even if that's twice a day or more. Horowitz pounding out a Beethoven Concerto can cause even the best pianos to begin twanging in pretty short order.Return to questions
Q. Is there anything I can do to help my piano stay in tune between professional tunings?
A. Absolutely. Controlling moisture is the main thing. Installing a humidifier system with a "humistat" can be of great help. These contraptions fit inside the piano and maintain a constant level of around 40% relative humidity by adding or subtracting moisture as required. Though not cheap, they can lengthen the interval between tuning and save you money in the long run. In many humid climates, however, such as the Midwest or Southern states, adding moisture is probably not advantageous. Reducing it is, however, and that can be done by installing a simple, inexpensive dehumidifier from your friendly neighborhood piano technician.
Having your piano tuned regularly will help extend the interval between tunings. If its been much more than a year or so since the last tuning, it's not going to hold as well as it would had you serviced it every six months. Strings that have dropped flat will stretch during tuning when tension is put on them. So, the longer between tunings, the flatter the piano becomes, the more the strings will stretch when they are tuned, and the sooner the whole shabang goes out of tune again, and, of course, the sooner you're calling the tuner back again. Regular maintenance pays! Naturally it's also important to keep your piano somewhere in the house where the temperature is stable...not the basement or garage, please. Avoid placing it near a heat or cooling vent, in direct sunlight or near a drafty window. And though it may break their dear little hearts, try to keep the neighbor's kids from pounding on the keyboard with their Louisville sluggers.Return to questions
Q. What's the solution to sticking keys? My piano has several keys in the center of the keyboard that are sluggish.
A. Sluggish or sticking? There is a difference. If a key sticks all the way down and won't come back up, the cause is usually something caught between the keys, such as a coin or paper clip or other foreign object. (I've often wondered how coins come to get stuck between piano keys. Are the piano owners playing Fur Elise with one hand while counting their change in the other?) Unless you can see the object stuck between the keys and have a pair of forceps or tweezers handy, you'll have to remove some cabinet parts to get to the keyboard (for help with vertical piano cabinets go here; for help with grand cabinet parts go here.
Sometimes it's necessary to remove the key to retrieve objects. Warped keys can also stick against adjacent keys, and may require filing or sanding. These and other keyboard repairs are described and illustrated in "You Can Repair And Regulate Your Own Piano," the book and tool set listed in the book section. Sluggish keys, on the other hand, are another common problem that can be caused by moisture swelling the felt bushings in one of the action parts, or, more often than not, in the bushing that the key "guide pins" move up and down in. If the problem is in the action, you will of course have to gain access to the action to free it. Before calling the tuner, however, there are a couple of simple home remedies that you might try if you have a sticking or sluggish key. Click here for an illustrated discussion of these remedies.
If sticking or sluggish keys are a persistent problem with your piano, your tuner can install an inexpensive dehumidifier, which will usually solve the problem. It also helps stabilize the tuning by keeping moisture out of the pinblock and soundboard.
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Q. What should I use to clean the ivories on my piano keys?
A. Ivories! Tsk tsk! Pity the poor elephants. Actually, real ivory isn't used on piano keys nowadays, having been replaced by cheaper plastic which doesn't require anything to die (except the environment, maybe). To clean plastic, plain old soap and water on a sponge works. It will work on ivory also, if you happen to have an old piano. The point is to use a SLIGHTLY damp sponge, with maybe a little dishwashing liquid. Don't use so much water that you get moisture into the keyboard. With real ivory, wipe off the excessive moisture after you clean them. If ivory remains wet for too long it can cause it to warp. Plastic, of course, is impervious to most anything, except perhaps the burning end of a cigarette. And obviously, avoid your basic harsh chemicals and abrasive cleaners on either type of keytop.Return to questions
Q. How can I tell if my piano's keys are ivory or plastic?
A. Real ivory keytops are in two pieces, a head piece and tail piece. Look for a dividing line at the point the key gets narrower. If the keytop is one piece, it's plastic. If it's in two pieces, it's probably real ivory. Of course real ivory is no longer used on keyboards since elephants became unionized, but that's probably just as well. Over the years piano manufacturers have used various types of plastic for keytops, including some that were fairly flammable such as pyralin (a real problem for lounge pianists who like to keep lit cigarettes lying on the keys, a habit that could give new meaning to "hot" jazz). That particular material is still available in sheets for piano refinishers, incidentally. It's apparently particularly good for imitating ivory. Modern keyboards long ago gave up imitating ivory, though, and now use a tough, attractive (albeit smooth and shiny) plastic for the white keys. Most also use plastic for the black keys, though some of the higher dollar grands still use real ebony.
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Q. I have an old piano with ivory keytops, some of which have yellowed and others are chipped. Can I find ivory replacements for them?
A. Maybe. Some ivory is still imported (taken from elephants that have died a natural death, presumably) but it is very hard to find. Old ivory key heads and tails are frequently salvaged by piano rebuilders, however. Ask your piano tuner, or call a piano rebuilder. Perhaps they will have old pieces to sell you. (When regluing real ivory back onto a key, don't use a wet, slow setting glue like Elmer's; the ivory may warp. Use a quick drying glue like "contact cement" or the "super glues"). Yellowed ivory can be whitened by carefully scraping it with a sharp, flat chisel blade (Ivory yellows in darkness, incidentally. Keeping the fallboard up can help. So can installing flood lamps on the ceiling above your keyboard, if you're gonna get obsessive about a little yellowing ).
Short of these measures, the only other solution is to re-cover the whole keyboard with new plastic keytops. See "keytops" on the parts page to order a set of keytops and do it yourself. You may miss some of the charm of old ivory keys, but these sets can make your Victorian upright's keyboard look like a brand new Yamaha. If the front of your piano's keytops are badly chipped, watch out that little fingers don't get cut scrapping against them. If you don't want to replace them, consider filing the chipped overhang flush with the front of the key, i.e. no "lip" on the keytop. This was a modern style in the 1950s, which some of us thought was cool, along with blonde bedroom furniture, tail fins and I Love Lucy.Return to questions
Q. So just who invented the piano anyway, and when?
A. Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian harpsichord maker, in 1726. Actually, he was trying to invent the pop-up toaster until his friends reminded him that Hamilton Beach beat him to it.Return to questions
Q. What are the things should I look for when buying a piano?
A. When purchasing a new piano you are pretty much at the mercy of your local music store. If you know and trust the dealer your only real concern is getting the model you want at the right price. If you don't know the dealer it can't hurt to take a piano tuner (or a pianist) along to advise you, even if it does hurt the dealer's feelings (those guys can be pretty sensitive, you know). Better that than hurting your wallet. If you know nothing about pianos then do a little research first (Larry Fine has an excellent book on buying pianos, probably available at your library...the book I mean, not the pianos). Good brands are Steinway (obviously), Yamaha, Baldwin, Everett (made by Yamaha), Young Chang and Kawi, among a few others. No matter which brand or model you feel attracted to by sight, take your time and play it a bit to get a sense of the touch (if you play). Looks count too, of course, but remember it's an instrument to be played, not just an expensive, shiney piece of furniture.
Buying a used piano is a bit more complicated, much like buying a used car, except you can't drive it home afterward. Both can be pigs in a poke, as my grandfather used to say. Your local piano store is also probably the best place to buy a used instrument since you can generally count on getting some kind of warranty, as well as free delivery (moving a piano to your home can often cost as much, or more, than the piano itself). A dealer may even provide a free tuning or two to boot. You'll also pay more for the instrument over what you'd expect to pay an individual, however, just because of these advantages.
In any case, the first rule to buying used is to get something as little used as you can afford. The life expectancy of a well maintained piano is about 60 or 70 years, give or take, so you can bet anything older than that is going to have mechanical or structural problems. Those lovely old Victorian uprights with all the elaborate carvings and curly Qs like Grandma owned sure looked great, but they are probably just plain worn out by now (it happens to us all, you know). Don't buy one just because you like the cabinet, unless you're especially wanting a 600 pound piece of useless furniture in your living room. Pianos have very little antique furniture value and virtually no antique musical value. Unlike violins, PIANOS DO NOT GET BETTER WITH AGE. They just get older and more troublesome, kind of like teenagers.
Grand pianos over 50 or 60 years old are particularly dangerous to buy since they frequently have cracked or worn pinblocks, a condition which can cost thousands of dollars to repair. Don't say I didn't warn you. Stick with something made since the 1950s or later if you can...the newer the better. The exception to avoiding old grands (wouldn't you know there'd be an exception) is vintage Steinways. Almost any old Steinway grand is worth investing a few thousand in rebuilding since they typically sell for 18,000 dollars or more nowadays.
If you plan to buy a piano from a newspaper ad or other source, the best advice is simply to play the darn thing before you buy it (if you don't play, take somebody with you who does). Pianos are very individual instruments and, like shoes, one size doesn't necessarily fit all. Playing it for a few minutes will give you an idea of the action and sound and hopefully expose any mechanical problems. Look for the obvious; missing keytops, notes that don't play, broken or malfunctioning pedals, rattles, buzzes, etc. If you can, open the top of the cabinet (on verticals) and look inside. Check for excessive rust around the tuning pins and the strings and the condition of the felt on the hammers (assuming you know what any of those things are. Even if you don't, the general condition of the piano will give you a clue to how it has been cared for).
And though you might expect a piano for sale to be out of tune somewhat, it should at least sound like a piano. Beware of pianos that sound like a high school marching band tuning up, no matter what the owner tells you. Either they have not been tuned in years, in which case you'll end up paying for several tunings just to get it back into shape, or, they won't hold a tune at all, in which case you're probably in for a major repair bill or a call to the junk man.
Frankly, the best chance you have of avoiding a thousand dollar mistake is to call a piano tuner to check out any prospects you may find before you buy. This may cost a small service fee, but it could save you big bucks in the long run.Return to questions
Q. I thought I owned a console piano, but my piano tuner says it's actually a spinet. What's the difference?
A. Oh, probably about 500 bucks. Actually, spinets and consoles are both small vertical pianos that appear very similiar to the naked eye, or even a well clothed eye for that matter. The difference is mostly technical; spinets are around 6 or 7 inches shorter than consoles, as a rule, by virtue of having the action dropped below the level of the keyboard, a design known as the "drop action." This arrangement makes spinets a little shorter and lighter than consoles (which have the action setting directly on the keys and hence is called a "direct blow action." Don't you just love copywriters?) Unfortunately, the drop action can have more mechanical problems, is more difficult to remove and will probably cost you more money if you ever need to have it worked on. Being shorter, spinets also have slightly smaller soundboards and shorter strings which gives them less volume and poorer tone that the larger consoles (all other factors being equal, which of course they rarely are, bigger pianos with larger soundboards and longer strings will have better tone).
Actually, there are four types of vertical pianos (i.e., pianos that stand up, as opposed to Grand Pianos which are ALWAYS horizontal). They are the spinet, the console, the studio (really a slightly larger console) and the upright (which may range in size from about four feet to well over five feet as in old Victorian models). Click here to see a cross section of vertical styles and a further discussion of the various piano types.Return to questions
Q. My kid's piano teacher says grand pianos are superior to verticals for serious students. Is she just wanting to sell me a piano or are grands truly better?
A. Certainly, on all counts (she probably gets a kickback from the piano store). Grands cost more so they must be better, n'est-ce pas? Besides, they look way cooler. Can you see Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, flipping up his coat tails as he sits down to rip through the Emperor Concerto on a spinet? I don't think so.
In fact, the grand piano is much superior to even the best verticals due to its overall superior design. For one thing, the horizontal layout of the grand action allows gravity to do a lot of the work, eliminating a bunch of springs and straps that the vertical action is obliged to use to allow the hammers to reset after the key is released. Also, the grand action contains an additional part called a "repetition lever" which allows much faster repeating of notes with less finger effort. Also, the "wing" shape of the case and the angled lid give better tone and projects the sound better. So there you go.Return to questions
Q. Does it make any difference in the quality of work for my piano tuner to also be a piano player?
A. Not in the least. Piano tuning is a mechanical skill, not a musical one. I myself have grown 16 thumbs on my left hand and couldn't play a decent game of canasta, let alone the piano, but it doesn't make a bit of difference. That's good news for any of you dear owners who are considering learning to tune pianos your own selves. Click here for a list of books which can teach anyone tuning.