The Piano Buyer Essentials Series brings together in one place the very best and most important articles from our 30 years of publishing on the subject of buying and owning a piano. Each e-book is a compilation of articles from current and past issues of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer, a semiannual consumer publication devoted to the purchase of new, used, and restored acoustic pianos and digital pianos. The e-books may also contain excerpts from The Piano Book, by Larry Fine, and from pieces published only on PianoBuyer.com. For reader convenience, articles and excerpts have been grouped by subject. However, because some pieces apply to more than one subject, there is some duplication of articles among the e-books in the series.
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How to Buy a New Acoustic (Traditional) Piano
By Larry Fine
Brookside PressCopyright © 2016 Brookside Press LLC
All rights reserved.
ACOUSTIC OR DIGITAL: WHAT'S BEST FOR ME?
ALDEN SKINNER AND LARRY FINE
SHOULD YOU BUY an acoustic (traditional) piano or a digital (electronic) piano? For many, there will be no easy answer to this question. Many factors play into this seemingly simple decision, some practical, some not. Ideally, perhaps, the answer should be "Both" — take advantage of the "organic" qualities and connection with tradition of the acoustic piano, as well as the extreme flexibility of the digital. But assuming that, for a variety of reasons, "Both" isn't an option, careful consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of each will probably quickly reveal which will be best for you.
The advantages of the acoustic piano start with the fact that it's the "real thing," inherently capable of nuances that are difficult for the digital piano to emulate. The experience of playing an acoustic piano — the harmonics, the vibrations, the touch, the visual appeal, the interaction with the room, the connection with tradition — is so complex that digitals cannot reproduce it all. And, provided that it's a decent instrument and properly maintained, the acoustic will continue to serve you or a subsequent owner for several generations, after which it might be rebuilt and continue to make music.
If you're a beginner, the tone and touch of a good-quality digital piano should not interfere with the elementary learning process for a while, but is likely to become less satisfactory as you advance. If your aspiration is to play classical piano literature, the choice is clear: A digital may serve as a temporary or quiet-time practice instrument (some well-known classical pianists request that a digital piano be placed in their hotel rooms for practice and warmup), but the first time you play an acoustic piano that stirs your soul, there will be no turning back. Although digitals continue to draw closer to the ideal, there is, as yet, nothing like the total experience of playing a fine acoustic instrument.
The downside of an acoustic piano? Initial cost is generally higher, they're harder to move, the best ones take up a lot of space, and tuning and maintaining them adds several hundred dollars a year to their cost. And — most important — all they will ever be or sound like is a piano.
So why do sales of digital pianos outnumber sales of acoustics by more than two to one? Because, in addition to making a piano sound, digitals can also sound like any other instrument imaginable. State-of-the-art digital pianos can allow a player with even the most basic keyboard skills to sound like an entire orchestra. Many models have features that will produce an entire band or orchestra accompanying you as the soloist. Digital pianos can also be used as player pianos. They can enhance learning with educational software. They can be attached to a computer, and you can have an entire recording studio at your fingertips, with the computer printing the sheet music for anything you play. Many fine players whose main piano is a quality acoustic also have a digital, providing the technology for band and/or orchestral compositions, transcriptions, and fun!
Add to all that the advantages of lower cost, convenience, lack of maintenance expense, the ability to play silently with headphones, meeting the needs of multiple family members, the obvious advantages for piano classes, and computer connectivity, and you have a powerful argument for the digital.
While digital pianos have a lot of advantages, it's important to also consider the disadvantages. In addition to those related to learning and playing classical music, mentioned above, the life expectancy of a good digital piano is limited, primarily by obsolescence (digitals haven't been around long enough to know how long they will physically last), while the life expectancy of a good acoustic piano is upward of 50 years. Acoustic pianos hold their value rather well, while digitals, like other electronics, quickly drop in value. Obviously, then, if you're buying a starter instrument and plan to upgrade later, from a financial perspective you would do better to start with an acoustic piano.
Both variations have places in our musical lives. Now, which is right for you?
(If you're still unsure, you might want to consider a hybrid piano — see our story on the subject elsewhere in this issue.)CHAPTER 2
PIANO BUYING BASICS
An acoustic piano can be one of the most expensive — and difficult — purchases most households will ever make. The "difficult" aspect arises from several factors that are peculiar to pianos and the piano business. First, a "modern" piano is essentially a 19th-century creation about which few people — even those who have played piano all their lives — know very much, and about which much of what they think they know may not be accurate or current. Thus, a person who sets out to buy a piano is unlikely to have a social support network of family and friends to serve as advisors, as they might if buying a car, house, or kitchen appliance. Even music teachers and experienced players often know little about piano construction or the rapidly changing state of piano manufacturing. They often rely on their past experience with certain brands, most of which have changed significantly.
Second, acoustic pianos are marketed nationally in the United States under some 70 different brand names (plus dozens of additional names marketed locally) from a dozen countries, in thousands of furniture styles and finishes — and that's just new pianos! Many once-popular brands have long gone out of business, yet pianos still bearing their name are made overseas, often to much lower standards, and marketed here. Add in more than a century's worth of used pianos under thousands of brand names in an almost infinite variety of conditions of disrepair and restoration. Just thinking about it makes me dizzy.
Third, new pianos can vary in price from $2,000 to $200,000. But unlike most consumer items, whose differences can be measured by the number of functions performed, or buttons, bells, whistles, and conveniences contained, most pianos, regardless of price, look very similar and do pretty much the same thing: they're shiny and black (or a wood color), play 88 notes, and have three pedals. The features advertised are often abstract, misleading, or difficult to see or understand. For this reason, it's often not clear just what you're getting for your money. This can lead to decision-making paralysis.
Last, while many piano salespeople do an honest and admirable job of guiding their customers through this maze, a significant minority — using lies, tricky pricing games, and false accusations against competing dealers and brands — make the proverbial used-car salesman look like a saint. And once you get through haggling over price — the norm in the piano business — you may be ready for a trip to a Middle East bazaar.
As you shop for a piano, you'll likely be bombarded with a great deal of technical jargon — after all, the piano is a complicated instrument. But don't allow yourself to be confused or intimidated. Although some technical information can be useful and interesting, extensive familiarity with technical issues usually isn't essential to a successful piano-shopping experience, especially when buying a new piano. (A little greater familiarity may be advisable when buying a used or restored instrument.) Most technical information you'll come across relates to how the manufacturer designed the instrument. You should focus on how the instrument sounds, feels, and looks, not how it got that way. In addition, technical features are often taken out of context and manipulated by advertising and salespeople — the real differences in quality are often in subtleties of design and construction that don't make good ad copy.
For 20 years, The Piano Book has acted as a textbook on how to buy a piano, but over the years many people have asked for something a little simpler. Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer is the answer, and this article is the beginning. For those readers who love reading about the finer technical details, The Piano Book is a must read. But in the interests of brevity and simplicity, we decided in this publication to keep technical details to a minimum.
The purpose of this article is modest: to provide an overview of the piano-buying process, with an emphasis on the decisions you'll have to make along the way, and on the factors that will affect any acoustic piano purchase. To do this succinctly, it will be necessary to make a number of generalizations, which you can discard in favor of more complete or nuanced explanations as you advance toward your goal. References are given to other articles in this publication, or to The Piano Book, for further information on selected topics. In addition, for answers to specific questions that arise while you shop, I recommend visiting the Piano Forum at Piano World (www.pianoworld.com), the premiere website for everything related to pianos and pianists.
A LITTLE BIT OF THE TECHNICAL
A little bit (but not too much) of technical information about the piano is useful to have while shopping for one. Important words are in boldface.
A piano can be thought of as comprising four elements: mechanical, acoustical, structural, and cabinetry.
Mechanical: When you press a piano key (usually 88 in number), the motion of your finger is transmitted through a series of levers and springs to a felt-covered wooden hammer that strikes the strings to set them vibrating. This complex system of keys, hammers, levers, and springs is known as the action. Also, when you press a key, a felt damper resting against each string lifts off, allowing the string to vibrate. When you let the key up, the damper returns to its resting place, stopping the string's vibration. Pedals, usually three in number, are connected to the action and dampers via trapwork levers, and serve specialized functions such as sustaining and softening the sound. The right-foot pedal is called the damper or sustain pedal; it lifts all the dampers off all the strings, allowing the strings to ring sympathetically. The left-foot, soft pedal (on a grand piano, the una corda pedal) softens the sound. The function of the middle pedal varies depending on the type and price level of the piano (more on that later). As a sostenuto pedal, it selectively sustains notes or groups of notes, a function required only rarely in a small percentage of classical compositions. Other possible functions for the middle pedal include a damper pedal for the bass notes only, and a mute pedal that reduces the sound volume by about half.
Acoustical: Piano strings are made of steel wire for the higher-sounding notes (treble), and steel wire wrapped with copper for the lower-sounding notes (bass). They are graduated in thickness, length, and tension, and strung tightly across the structural framework of the piano. Each note has one, two, or three strings associated with it. Each such set of strings is known as a unison because all the strings in a set vibrate at the same pitch. The strings lie across narrow hardwood bridges that transmit their vibrations to a wooden soundboard, usually made of spruce. The relatively large area of the soundboard amplifies what would otherwise be a rather weak sound and broadcasts the sound to the ears. The dimensions, arrangement, and positioning of all the acoustical elements in a piano is known as the piano's scale design. The scale design varies with the model and is a major determinant of the piano's tone.
Structural: The strings are strung across a gold- or bronze-colored plate (sometimes called a frame or harp) of cast iron, which is bolted to a substantial wooden framework. This heavy-duty structure is necessary to support the many tons of tension exerted by all the taut strings. A vertical, or upright, piano is one in which the structural element stands vertically, and is most commonly placed against a wall. A grand piano is one in which the structural element lies horizontally. In a vertical piano, the wooden framework consists of vertical back posts and connecting cross beams. In a grand, wooden beams and the familiar curved rim comprise the framework. One end of each string is anchored to the plate toward the rear of a grand or the bottom of a vertical piano. The other end is coiled around a tuning pin embedded in a laminated hardwood pinblock hidden under the plate at the front (grand) or top (vertical). A piano is tuned by turning each tuning pin with a special tool to make very slight adjustments in the tension of its string, and thus to the string's frequency of vibration, or pitch.
Cabinetry: The piano's cabinet (vertical) or case (grand) provides aesthetic beauty and some additional structural support. A grand piano's rim is part of both the wooden structural framework and the case. Accessory parts, such as the music desk and lid, are both functional and aesthetic in purpose.
Although the acoustical and structural elements have been described separately, in fact the plate, wooden framework, soundboard, bridges, and strings form a single integrated unit called the strung back. A piano, then, consists of a strung back, an action, and a cabinet or case.
Vertical or Grand?
Probably the most basic decision to make when buying a piano — and one you may have made already — is whether to buy a vertical or a grand. The following describes some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
* Takes up less space, can fit into corners
* Lower cost
* Easier to move
* Sound tends to bounce back into player's face, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
* Action is not as advanced as grand; repetition of notes is slower and less reliable in most cases, and damping is sometimes less efficient.
* Keys are shorter than on grands, making subtle control of musical expression more difficult.
* Cabinetwork is usually less elegant and less impressive.
Vertical pianos are suitable for those with simpler musical needs, or where budget and space constraints preclude buying a grand. Despite the disadvantages noted above, some of the larger, more expensive verticals do musically rival smaller, less expensive grands. They may be a good choice where space is at a premium but a more subtle control of musical expression is desired.
* Sound develops in a more aesthetically pleasing manner by bouncing off nearby surfaces and blending before reaching player's ears, making it easier to control musical expression.
* More sophisticated action than in a vertical. Grand action has a repetition lever to aid in the speed and reliability of repetition of notes, and is gravity-assisted, rather than dependent on artificial contrivances (springs, straps) to return hammers to rest.
* Longer keys provide better leverage, allowing for significantly greater control of musical expression. * Casework is usually more elegant and aesthetically pleasing.
* Takes up more space
* Higher cost
* Harder to move
Both verticals and grands come in a wide variety of sizes. The important thing to know here is that size is directly related to musical quality. Although many other factors also contribute to tonal quality, all else being equal, the longer strings of larger pianos, especially in the bass and mid-range sections, give off a deeper, truer, more consonant tonal quality than the strings of smaller pianos. The treble and bass blend better and the result is more pleasing to the ear. Also, longer grands usually have longer keys that generally allow superior control of musical expression than shorter grands. Therefore, it's best to buy the largest piano you can afford and have space for. Small differences in size between models are more significant in smaller pianos than in larger ones. However, a difference in size of only an inch or two is generally irrelevant, as it could be merely due to a larger cabinet or case.
Vertical pianos are measured from the floor to the top of the piano. Verticals less than 40? tall are known as spinets. They were very popular in the post–World War II period, but in recent years have nearly died out. Verticals from 40? to about 43? or 44? are called consoles. Spinet and console actions must be compromised somewhat in size or placement within the piano to fit them into pianos of this size. The tone is also compromised by the shorter strings and smaller soundboard. For this reason, manufacturers concentrate on the furniture component of spinets and consoles and make them in a variety of decorator styles. They are suitable for buyers whose piano needs are casual, or for beginning students, and for those who simply want a nice-looking piece of furniture in the home. Once students progress to an intermediate or advanced stage, they are likely to need a larger instrument.
Excerpted from How to Buy a New Acoustic (Traditional) Piano by Larry Fine. Copyright © 2016 Brookside Press LLC. Excerpted by permission of Brookside Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsAcoustic or Digital: What's Best for Me? by Alden Skinner and Larry Fine,
Piano Buying Basics by Larry Fine,
The New-Piano Market Today by Larry Fine,
Sales Talk by Larry Fine,
Piano Buying & Selling FAQs by Larry Fine,
Hybrid Pianos by Alden Skinner and Larry Fine,
Buying an Electronic Player-Piano System by Alden Skinner and Larry Fine,