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Piano History & Care

1. The ideal humidity for a piano is 40-50%.

2. The "average" piano has 88 keys, of these, 36 are black keys commonly known as "sharps".
There are also some pianos made with 85 keys and one with more than 88! (The Bosendorfer 9'6" concert grand has 97, but not much music is written for these extra keys. The extra keys are mainly there because of the additional resonance produced by the extra strings and large soundboard).
You would be safe in saying that a piano has 88 keys!

3. If you measure the instrument from the floor to the top, you can get a better idea of what type you have. Spinet pianos are generally 37" and under, consoles run from 38" to 43", studios from about 44" to 52". Another way to tell is to open the top and look down inside. If the "action" (the moving parts) rests on the back end of the keys, it is a console, if it appears to drop down below the end of the keys and then back up again, it is a spinet.

4. The average spinet or console weighs in at from three hundred to five hundred pounds, full-size uprights at about seven hundred, but sometimes as much as a thousand. Grands vary from about five hundred to a thousand pounds though a concert grand may weigh as much as thirteen hundred.

5. For information about why piano keys are grouped the way they are, please see Keyboard History

6. The following is from the book "Piano Servicing & Rebuilding" by Arthur Reblitz.
Old ivory may be removed by heating it for a minute with an iron set on medium, and then slipping a 1" wide putty knife under it. Some old plastic keys may be removed with methylene chloride, a highly volatile solvent which softens the glue. Never apply heat to plastic or celluloid keytops.
Ivory can be identified by its grain pattern, which with careful examination will be seen to resemble a wood-grain. Plastic and celluloid sometimes have a simulated grain, which will be much more uniform than that of genuine ivory. After removing the keytop, remove the old glue by sanding. To keep from rounding the edges of the key, tape a piece of sandpaper down to a flat surface and rub the key over it until clean and flat.

7. Should a piano be tuned every time you are moving it? That depends on what you mean by "moving". If you are just moving the piano from one room to another (or another area in the same room) the answer is no. If you are moving it some distance from one house (or store) to another, the answer is ... maybe. If the piano is going to be jostled around in a truck and subjected to changes in temperature and humidity it will likely speed up its going out of tune.

8. The Piano Technician's Guild and most manufacturers recommend having a new piano tuned 4 times the first year and twice a year thereafter. Even if the instrument isn't played very often it is still a good idea to keep it tuned up. Pianos (except possibly the very old "square" ones) are designed to be tuned to A440 (the A above middle C vibrating at 440 cycles per second). This is considered to be "concert pitch".

9. We have finally found a product that actually cleans keys! It is called "Key Clean" It keeps the keys clean of perspiration, dirt, dust, and will even remove crayon. "Key Clean" contains no harmful waxes, polishes or abrasives.

10. Usually, with two pedals the left one is the Soft pedal. On a baby grand, the soft pedal actually shifts the entire "action" mechanism (the moving parts that rest on the back end of the keys) slightly to one side causing the hammers (the oval shaped felt pieces that strike the strings) to only strike two of the three strings which makes the sound softer.

On a vertical (upright) piano, the left pedal moves the action closer to the strings. Because they can't travel as far, they don't hit the strings as hard, again making the sound softer.

On both types of pianos, the right pedal, called the "sustain pedal" lifts the "dampers" (felt covered blocks that normally mute the string sound when a key is released) which causes the notes to sustain until either the pedal is released or the sound dies out.

The addition of the middle pedal is a little more complicated. It can perform a number of functions depending on the model of the piano. On many verticals (uprights) and some baby grands it works as a bass sustain. That is, pressing down on the middle pedal only sustains the notes in the bass section. On some verticals, it operated a "rinky tink" or "honky tonk" bar that lowered a series of felt strips with little metal pieces on the ends of them so that they came between the hammers and the strings. This produced a "rinky tink" sound.

Sometimes the center pedal is a "practice" pedal that lowers a long felt strip between the hammers and strings, muffling the sound so that it doesn't disturb others when the pianist is practicing. I have even seen (cheap) upright pianos where the center pedal was actually attached to the left pedal.

On most better baby grand pianos, the center pedal is a ""sostenuto" pedal. A sostenuto pedal only sustains the bass note(s) played immediately before pressing the pedal. This would in effect work like a "third" hand by keeping only the chosen notes sustained while playing other notes.

12. In spite of the fact that the average piano has about 230 strings, it is considered a percussion instrument. Symphony orchestra's consider it part of the percussion section.

13. (From a question posted on our Piano Forums)
From reading other posts I take it that it is not worth the money or time to restore an old upright. My piano is a 1898 Weber. It is in excellent condition. I bought it at the Salvation Army for fifty dollars. Should I spend more and get it restored? Thanks!
It depends on what you want.

As it stands the piano is probably worth between $0 and $500 and all components have considerable wear. Assuming that the basic structure such as pinblock, soundboard, and bridges are sound, you could spend perhaps about $2500 to $2800 for partial rebuilding and have the piano restrung, have new hammers, damper felt, and bridle tapes put on the action, and have the keys rebushed. If the other action parts such as hammer butts, shanks, and whippens are in fairly reasonable condition and not becoming brittle with age that's the minimum to get you a musical instrument that will probably sound very good and play decently.

Because of the wear that's certain to exist in the other action parts it won't be a piano that can be perfectly regulated or will feel and play like a new piano. If you had to sell it with some effort you might be able to get $1500 for it.
If you went the whole distance and had the action fully rebuilt with all new parts you would probably end up spending about twice the previous estimate. Then if you want add in about $1800 to get the case refinished. By the time you are done you would have a really nice vintage upright piano, but that money would also buy you a really nice new upright. After doing all that if you had to sell the piano you would never get anywhere near what you put into it out of it.

That might give you some idea why old uprights such as this almost never get rebuilt. One last comment: you say the piano is in excellent condition - how do you know?
Tuning, Voicing, and Regulating

Every piano is created from many sensitive working parts. The tension of the strings that resonate such a beautiful sound place the infrastructure under enormous pressure. Improper or irregular maintenance can cause problems that will become progressively worse, causing your piano to develop an unpleasant tone and an unresponsive touch even if it sounds in tune.

Like an automobile, your piano requires a routine service and maintenance program to maintain the sound. Three components of musical performance (pitch, tone, and touch) require periodic adjustment. A complete piano service includes tuning to return the piano to pitch, voicing to adjust the tone, and regulating to adjust the action and change the touch of the piano.

Your piano should always be tuned to standard pitch, A-440 CPS, and should be tuned at least three to four times during the first year after purchase. Some tuning instability should be anticipated during the first year because of the elasticity of the piano wire, combined with the piano's normal adjustment to the humidity changes in your home. If a piano is allowed to stand for long periods of time without service, it will go further and further out of tune. More time and expense will be required to achieve an accurate tuning.

Changes in pitch occur in all makes and models of pianos. These changes are caused primarily by expansion and contraction of the soundboard. Dimensional changes occur when the moisture content of the wood increases during periods of high humidity, and decreases when the air is dry. Movement of the soundboard causes the bridges and strings to move, which increases or decreases the tension of the strings. This causes the pitch of each note to change. The amount of the change varies in different parts of the scale. The low notes change only slightly, while notes in the middle section vary the most.

The initial accuracy of a piano tuning is dependent on the skills of your technician. The long term stability of the piano's pitch is affected by humidity more than any other variable. Prior service, scale design of the piano, and intensity of use may also be contributing factors. Manufacturers recommend three to four tunings annually for newer pianos and a minimum of two to three tunings annually for older pianos.

You should never postpone a tuning appointment by more than a few months because you anticipate moving your piano. Even if you are relocating to a different climate, the effect on the piano will rarely be greater than one change of season.

The adjustment of tone, called voicing, gives more brilliance or softness to individual notes or entire sections of the scale. All pianos become more brilliant with use and eventually sound harsh and less pleasant. A qualified technician can make adjustments to the strings and hammers to restore the pleasing tone of your piano.

The touch of the piano, or how each key feels when it is played, determines the amount of control the player has over the instrument. Pianos that are played on a regular basis, whether in the home, studio, or on the concert stage, can become uneven and less responsive. There are over 9,000 parts in a piano action, and most of them must be adjusted to tolerances of a few thousandths of an inch. Your technician can show you the action and demonstrate how each key can be adjusted.

The interior mechanisms of a piano are delicately refined and inspected to specifications. Only an experienced and certified technician should enter this zone. The complete rebuilding of a piano requires many different skills so the amount of experience of a technician should be a huge consideration. Installing a soundboard differs from installing a new set of hammers or regulating the action. Shop the rebuilder as much as the piano.

Reconditioning is the process of cleaning, repairing, and adjusting a piano in order to return a piano to the best possible performing condition. In reconditioning, replacement of parts only occurs when necessary and does not include the major components of the piano (soundboard, bridges, pinblock, and most action parts). As a result, the performance and life-span of an older piano will not be restored by reconditioning a piano.

This process is designed to be a cost effective method to improve a piano's performance. Reconditioning is an option for a piano with moderate wear or one with moderate value which requires only average performance.

Rebuilding or Restoring:
Rebuilding a piano is the process of completely disassembling, inspecting, and making necessary repairs to a piano. All worn, damaged, and deteriorated parts are removed and replaced. The piano then undergoes reassembly, testing, and adjustments to return the piano to similar tolerances as when it was new. There are two possible options when rebuilding a piano. Complete rebuilding involves the entire structure of the piano, including the soundboard, bridges, pinblock, strings, action, keyboard, and case refinishing. Partial rebuiliding involves only a few of these areas.

Unlike reconditioning, rebuilding restores a piano to its original condition or better. Rebuilding is an option for a high-quality instrument which requires maximum performance and longevity.

Reconditioning v. Rebuilding:
Pianos are designed to withstand many years of performance without major repairs. However, as a piano ages, the tone, touch, and appearance will eventually show signs of aging. First, leather and felt compact which effects the adjustment or regulation of the parts. This results in unbalanced, unresponsive action, and a less dynamic tonal range. Routine maintenance such as cleaning, hammer filing, regulation, voicing, and tuning will correct these problems and help to maintain a like-new condition.

After extended lengths of time and use, action parts will become worn and leather and felt becomes thin. The keys become wobbly, hammer felt becomes too thin to produce pleasing tone, and the action becomes noisy. Regulation adjustments reach their limit. In addition, piano strings may begin breaking and the copper windings of the bass strings may lose their resonance. After decades of exposure to seasonal changes, the wood of the soundboard, bridges, and pinblock is weakened which results in loose tuning pins, poor tuning stability, and loss of tone. The piano's finish will often show signs of use such as scratches and faded spots. When regular maintenance is unable to provide satisfactory performance, a piano may require reconditioning or rebuilding.

Determining when a piano requires reconditioning or rebuilding depends upon its original quality, the climate, usage, and performance requirements. Some pianos are not worth the expense of reconditioning or rebuilding. This is a decision that should only be made after consultation with a registered piano technician.

Together, you should consider the following items:
The condition of the piano. Can it be restored to its original condition?
The quality, size, and type of the piano. Will the rebuilt piano meet your needs?
The cost of repairs v. replacement. Rebuilding is often a cost-effective alternative if the piano is a fine, high-quality instrument.
Sentimental value. Personal attachment and historical value may justify making an investment in repairs.

Piano History
The year 2000 marks the 300th birthday of the piano.
Below is a timeline of important events from the history of the piano. For more information on the piano, read Piano: A Photographic History of the World's Most Celebrated Instrument by David Crombie, 1995 from which this information is extracted.

A Timeline of the Piano.

  • 1700 First documented evidence of Bartolomeo Cristofori's piano experiments, in the inventory of musical instrumnets belonging to Prince Ferdinand. The pianoforte uses a hammer mechanism rather than plucked string action of the harpsichord.
  • 1708 Cuisinie exhibits the 'clavecin', based on an earlier design by Hans Haiden, at L'Academie Royale des Sciences in Paris.
  • 1709 Cristofori reveals his pianoforte for the first time publicly.
  • c1714 The keyboard teacher Gottlieb Schroter produces two piano actions (one up-striking, the other down-striking) for adapting a traditional harpsichord to hammers.
  • 1716 Jean Marius develops the clavecin a maillets (harpsichord with hammers) in Paris.
  • 1720 Cristofori's earliest surviving piano is produced.
  • 1722 Cristofori develops 'una corda' mechanism which enables the player to move the action so that the hammer strikes only one string for each note.
  • 1725 The Maffei account of Cristofori's piano is translated and published by Mattheson in German resulting in a boom of interest in piano design and construction.
  • 1726 Cristofori produces his last piano.
  • c1728 Gottfried Silbermann, a clavichord maker, produces two refinements on the 'harpsichord with hammers' theme without commercial success.
  • 1731 Cristofori dies.
  • 1732 Giustini's 12 Sonatas "for soft and loud harpsichord", the first composition written specifically for piano, is published.
  • 1735 First known upright grand piano is made.
  • 1736 Silbermann shows JS Bach his two pianos and receives Bach's criticism.
  • 1736 First spinet made in America by Johann Clemm.
  • 1739 Schroter (Dresden) develops tangent action which uses a sprung jack.
  • c1742 First square piano probably made.
  • 1745 Christian Ernst Friederici builds the first pyramid piano with oblique stringing.
  • 1747 JS Bach plays a Silbermann piano and is more impressed.
  • c1752 First piano imported in England by Samuel Crisp, built in Rome by Father Wood, an English monk, to Cristofori's desings.
  • 1753 CPE Bach publishes "An Essay On The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments" in Berlin, his first work to include reference to piano technique.
  • 1753 Silbermann dies.
  • 1760 German and Dutch piano makers (known as the "Twelve Apostles") including Johannes Zumpe, flee the German Seven Years War and arrive in England.
  • 1762 Oldest surviving Zumpe square piano is produced.
  • 1767 Piano first used for accompaniment in London at Covent Garden Theatre.
  • 1768 First solo piano performances in England when JC Bach uses a Zumpe instrument at the Thatched Cottage in London.
  • 1771 John Broadwood launches his first square pianoforte.
  • 1771 Square pianos begin production in Russia.
  • c1772 Americus Backers joins Broadwood and with Robert Stodart perfects what would develop into the English grand action.
  • 1773 First piano concert in New York.
  • 1775 Johann Behrent of Philadelphia, a German immigrant, builds the first piano in America, a square.
  • 1777 Stodart obtains the patent for the "English Grand Action" which will be used by American and English manufacturers. This is the first use of the word "grand".
  • 1781 Stein (Augsburg) introduces his escapement action.
  • 1781 Broadwood repositions pin block along the back of the case to increase volume and enhance tone.
  • 1781 Broadwood builds his first grand.
  • 1783 Broadwood produces a vastly improved square piano with efficient underdampers and a sustain pedal in place of the standard knee lever.
  • 1786 Geib patents his double action, based on Zumpe's second action, introducing an intermediate lever to facilitate escapement.
  • 1787 John Landreth patents primitive "sticker" action for an upright piano but no piano is recorded as having been built.
  • 1788 Broadwood discovers, with Signor Cavallo and Dr. Gray, that the string should be hit 1/9th of the way along its length to produce the tone he requires.
  • 1789 Charles Albrecht opens piano factory in Philadelphia.
  • 1792 Sebastien Erard flees the French Revolution and creates a piano factory in London.
  • 1794 Broadwood introduces pianos with a compass of six octaves.
  • 1795 William Stodart of London designs a new type of upright grand piano (the "bookcase" piano).
  • 1797 Pianoforte, the first magazine devoted to the piano, begins publication in London
  • 1797 William Rolfe and Samuel Davis file patent for a janissary drum mechanism.
  • 1798 William Southwell develops the upright square piano.
  • 1800 Matthias Muller and John Isaac Hawkins develop the first upright pianos with strings running down to floor level.
  • c1800 Jacquard develops a loom controlled by punched cards.
  • 1802 Thomas Loud files a patent for a diagonally strung upright.
  • 1803 Return of new generation of pyramid and giraffe pianos. AT the forefront are Wachtl, Bleyer, and Seuffert in Vienna.
  • 1807 William Southwell develops the "cabinet" piano.
  • 1808 Sebastien Erard develops the agraffe, which helps clamp piano strings into position, stabilizes tuning, and forms one terminal of the speaking length of the string.
  • 1810 Sebastien Erard designs what was to become the modern pedal mechanism.
  • c1810 Production of harpsichords declines.
  • 1811 Collard, Southwell, and Wornum build "cottage" pianos.
  • c1812 Production of clavichords declines.
  • 1820 Allen & Thom of London patent grand piano having a frame braced with iron tubes, their compensating frame, and sell the rights to Stodart.
  • 1821 Sebastien Erard introduces double escapement (repetition) action, allowing fast note repetition.
  • 1821 Broadwood builds first square piano with iron hitch pin plate.
  • 1823 Erard patents grand piano with six resistance iron bars placed over the soundboard.
  • 1823 Jonas Chickering starts in business with James Stewart.
  • c1825 Loud Brothers of Philadelphia build 7-1/2 octave piano.
  • 1825 Babcock produces the first square piano with an iron frame, designed to support greater string tensions.
  • 1826 Wornum patents his developed upright action, which forms the basis of current upright actions. It was incorrectly known as the French action, likely because France was the major exporters of actions at the time.
  • 1826 Henri Pape uses tempered steel piano strings and felt-covered hammers.
  • 1827 Broadwood patents a combination of a metal hitch-pin plate with resitance iron bars (virtually a full iron frame).
  • 1827 First "pianinos" appear in France, developed by Blanchet and Roller.
  • 1827 James Stewart (partner of Chickering) develops the method, still in use today, of employing one length of wire to serve as two adjacent strings.
  • 1828 Pape introduces over-strung upright pianos, enabling strings to be longer, and thus produced his "piano console".
  • 1828 Ignaz Bosendorfer takes over management of the Brodmann instrument workshop in Vienna.
  • c1831 Herman Lichtenthal of Brussels invents first form of upright tape-check action, which prevents the hammers bouncing back onto the strings. Lichtenthal used a piece of leather. Wornum was actually the first to use tape.
  • 1835 First example of automation in the piano manufacturing process with the introduction in Germany of a device for automatically covering hammers.
  • 1837 Chickering improves frame.
  • 1838 Pierre Erard patents the pressure bar, which is designed to provide a force to prevent the hammers from lifting the strings away from the bridge.
  • c1840 Henri Herz prduces the simplified Erard action, which is still used in today's instruments.
  • 1842 The first workshop to specialize solely in the production of piano actions is opened by JCL Ishermann in Hamburg.
  • 1842 Wornum patents improved tape-check action for upright pianos.
  • 1843 Chickering patents a one-piece iron frame for the grand piano.
  • 1844 Pape becomes the first known company to produce an eight-octave grand piano.
  • 1846 Patent granted for the use of perforated cardboard to produce mechanized music.
  • 1855 Steinway introduces overstrung square piano.
  • 1859 H Steinway Jr. patents overstrung grand piano.
  • 1863 Fourneaux develops the Pianista, the first pneumatic piano player mechanism.
  • 1874 Steinway perfects the sostenuto pedal for square pianos.
  • 1880s Manufacture of square pianos end.
  • 1880 William Tremaine sets up the Mechanical Orguinette Co. (later the Aeolian Co.) to manufacture automated reed organs.
  • 1880 First automatic piano unveiled by Needham and Sons, New York. It was built by R.W. Paine and was an adaptiation of the orguinette mechanism.
  • 1886 Electorphonisches Klavier, Richard Eisenmann (Berlin). Early attempts to use electricity with the acoustic piano consisted of using current to activate the strings. By positioning electromagnets close to the strings of the piano, Eisenmann could produce an infinite sustain when a note was played. The system was perfected by 1913.
  • 1887 Edwin Welte (Germany) introduces the use of the perforated paper roll.
  • 1890s Domestic electricity first becomes available.
  • 1891 Sostenente Piano, Eugene Singer (Paris). Singer introduced an alternating current with a frequency akin to the sting it was to activate, achieving a more controlled effect.
  • 1897 Edwin Votey develops "push up" player for the Aeolian company.
  • 1900 Votey mechanism refined and called the Pianola.
  • 1903 Society of American Piano Manufacturers ceremonially burns a massive pile of square pianos at Atlantic City convention.
  • 1904 Welte Red reproducing system introduced.
  • 1912 Aeolian Duo-Art reproducing system introduced.
  • 1915 Audion Piano, Lee De Forest (New York). De Forest, inventor of the amplifier, developed this instrument and patented it in 1915. It was the first electronic (as opposed to electric) instrument. It was never put into commercial production.
  • 1923 Reproducing mechanisms incorporated in 10 per cent of total piano sales.
  • 1925 US piano production: 137,000 conventional instruments, 169,000 player pianos.
  • 1926 Pianorad, Hugo Gernsback (New York). An early electronic instrument utilizing audio frequency oscillators. It had a two octave keyboard, each note of which controlled its own oscillator.
  • 1928 Piano Electrique, Joseph Bethenod (Paris).
  • 1929 Ampico introduce Model B reproducing system.
  • 1938 Manufacture effectively ends.

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