Piano Styles

Vertical Pianos

There are two types of modern acoustic pianos, VERTICALS and GRANDS. Of vertical pianos, there are four basic styles; Upright, Console, Studio and Spinet.

Piano makers may vary the size of the cabinets in different models so it's often difficult to distinguish between a console and a spinet, or a studio and an upright, by looking at the case.

Technically, the classification of these styles is determined by the placement of the action (the parts that strike the strings) in relation to the keyboard, as shown in the following drawing:

vertical piano styles

On full Uprights the action is ABOVE the keyboard and connected to the keys by a rod called a sticker.

On Consoles the action is compressed slightly to save room and rides directly ON the keys (or rather, on a small brass screw connected to the keys, called a "capstan") and is referred to as a "direct blow" action.

On Spinets the action is dropped BELOW the keyboard to save space and is connected to the keys by a wire or wooden rod called a lifter. The spinet action is usually referred to as a "drop action."

Studio pianos use the direct blow action, like a console, except the case is a bit taller and the action usually full sized, as in the upright.

The spinet design is just a bad idea all the way around. It adds a troublesome and noisy "lifter," which makes it difficult (and more expensive) to remove the action for servicing. Placing the action below the keyboard shortens the keys, affecting key balance and making the keyboard loose and sloppy. Also the shorter strings and small soundboard make it less resonant.

Still, spinets remain popular and their resale value is high, though at the moment they are no longer being built. Perhaps the best spinet was the Acrosonic, produced by the Baldwin Piano Company.

Grand Pianos

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grand pianos are always horizontal in constructionGrand pianos are wing shaped and are ALWAYS horizontal, as in this drawing, hence there is no such thing as an "Upright Grand," though some makers labelled their uprights with that misnomer to cash in on the grand piano's prestige.

Grands come in several sizes including the baby grand, which is usually around 5'6" from the keyboard to the back of the case. Parlor grand was a name given to instruments 6 or 7 feet in length, and of course a concert grand, the top of the line, is 9 feet in length.

The extra string length and soundboard size of these big grands, along with their handmade construction, gives them a tonal quality and volume (and price) unmatched by any of the smaller models.


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An old style piano once very popular is the square grand. They look like a large coffin with legs, and you will often see them in old movies and some museums, but only rarely in the real world.

They were last produced by Steinway in 1896, though they were obsolete 40 years earlier. The antique Square GrandThey were eccentric, to say the least, with very long bass keys and very short treble keys (or maybe it was the other way around, I forget), making playing them an adventure. Tuning them was more like a nightmare.

If you happen to stumble onto one of these beasts in your local antique store, resist the urge to buy it unless you're needing something to bury your uncle in. They were a mess even when new, due to the poor design, and are all virtually unplayable nowadays, and parts are no longer made.

Another odd-ball piano style that can sometimes be found in antique stores is the old European cottage piano. These were small uprights with fancy carvings on the case and often with elaborate candle holders on the front. They can be easily recognized if you remove the front of the case and view the action.

Due to an obsolete arrangement of the dampers in front of the hammers rather than behind them, the mass of damper wires gives the action the appearance of a "birdcage," hence they were known by that nickname.

As with the square grand you should resist the urge to buy one unless you simply want it as furniture. They are very difficult to tune and impossible to repair as parts are no longer made.

An oddity of some European pianos is a keyboard with 85 keys rather than 88. This does not necessarily date the piano as some makers have continued to produce them. The highest three keys were added in the late 19th century at the request of some flashy concert pianists. Most players can get by without them, except in some advanced 20th century concert pieces.

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