Piano FAQ and helpful information
All you need to know about your piano and how to care for it. Please click on the relevant hyperlink to jump to the associated section, or click on the hyperlink just below the little piano icon to jump back to the table of contents.
What is tuning?
Tuning consists of tightening and/or loosening the individual strings of the piano to get the notes musically correct. The end result of an effective tuning is that the piano sounds sweet and clean, and all melody and harmony sounds true.
Interesting fact: There are about 220 individual strings in a piano. There is huge force on the structure of a piano from the combined tension of all the strings, approximately 15 – 20 tons!
How often does a piano need to be tuned?
This depends on the amount of use, the level of playing, the environment and ultimately on budget! You can’t tune a piano too often. Most pianos drift out of tune with time and changes in humidity. Pianos that get a lot of use go out of tune from playing as well.
As a minimum, an annual tuning is definitely advisable. It prevents the tuning drifting too far from true and gives the technician an opportunity to check the overall condition of the instrument and advise accordingly. On average, our regular clients have their piano tuned every 6 months. It’s also quite appropriate to have a tuning every 3 months to coincide with the seasons.
Interesting fact: Concert pianos are usually tuned for every performance, even if the concerts are on consecutive nights, and also tend to be tuned after rehearsals, not before, as rehearsing also affects the tuning. Quite a lot of music venues have a weekly tuning, schools often have tunings every term.
What is pitch?
Pitch is the frequency to which the piano strings are tuned in order for them to be musically correct. It is usually measured on the note “A” immediately above middle “C”.
For home use and for learning to play it’s important that a piano be “on pitch” That is somewhere between A440 - A443 and not lower than the A440 standard. It’s particularly important in learning and teaching piano, that the pianist is listening to a musically correct sound.
Reputable technicians will usually maintain pianos around the standard pitch, and may advise you that they’ve had to change the pitch from time to time as it drifts. This sometimes requires one or more additional tunings before the piano re-stabilises at the correct string tensions.
What is voicing?
Voicing covers a wide range of techniques that are used to control the tone of a piano. Tone is very subjective. It’s mainly perceived as relative degrees of warmth or brightness.
Piano hammers are made of natural wool, and vary greatly in their qualities. Most commonly, voicing a piano involves working the hammer felt.
To do this, the raw hammer has to be manipulated; by inserting needles in different areas to increase elasticity, filing the top surfaces in certain ways, and using different substances to impregnate the hammer and make it firmer.
Voicing is arguably the most skilled element of piano making, rebuilding and servicing. Good voicing can elevate the tone of an instrument to its highest possible capabilities for expression. Bad voicing can destroy the tone utterly, and ruin the hammers!
What is regulation?
This term covers a large area of piano work and relates to any of the adjustments to the mechanism, keyboard and pedal system of a piano. As a highly mechanical instrument, these adjustments are all inter-related and have a direct effect on the way the piano feels, and the extent to which the pianist can control the sound.
Regulation can comprise basic essential adjustments all the way through to minute and complex settings on any or all of the moving parts.
When regulation is poor, the piano will be difficult to control. Excellent regulation gives the pianist the widest range of control over all elements of the musical expression.
Given the changes that are constantly in process in a piano, the regulation will change with time and use, so this is an area that deserves quite regular attention, depending on the level of use that’s expected from the piano.
Interesting fact: regulation may involve 15 minutes along with a tuning, or 5 days on a Steinway concert grand!
If my piano is moved, will it need tuning?
Not necessarily. The physical motion involved in moving the piano is not the main reason they might go out of tune as a result of moving. More importantly, the piano may react to the different humidity level in the new environment and the environment can also change from room to room. This would typically only show after a few weeks or longer.
If the piano doesn’t go noticeably out of tune, there’s no need to tune any more than you would have, but if your piano already needs a tuning at the time of moving, we recommend you wait about 6 weeks before tuning in case it does react from the move.
Does a piano need to be serviced and why?
Service work on pianos is quite distinct from tuning, as tuning strictly focuses on the correctness of the notes in musical terms and the overall pitch.
The materials used in a piano's construction are largely wood, felt and leather. All of these are affected by moisture in the air, regular playing, general aging and fairly often even fishmoth. The result is that the parts all change over a period of time, and this affects the basic functioning of the piano.
If the piano is not serviced at all, in addition to just being tuned, these changes accumulate to the point where more and more work may be needed.
Routine service work is an important part of piano ownership and is essential to keep the instrument in good condition and for it not to lose value over time.
Interesting fact: mechanically, pianos are very complex instruments, with around a 10 000 moving parts!
How often does a piano need to be serviced?
This is determined mainly by the amount of use and the level that you need the piano to function at.
For a home piano receiving moderate use it would be appropriate to do some servicing work about every 5 years. For a piano to function at its best at an advanced level, the wear and tear needs to be addressed more often.
Interesting fact: it is also important when the piano is being used for learning to play. It’s not an easy thing to do – playing the piano, and mechanical obstacles caused by lack of maintenance can make it a lot harder, to the point of totally discouraging the person trying to learn!
What is the average cost of a service?
This varies a great deal based on the same factors regarding the amount of use and your expectations.
Service work can range from medium scale services from around R 5 000 and upwards from that all the way to R 20 000 or more in some instances.
With many servicing procedures, it is essential to follow through into other interconnected procedures. The cost of each process may vary from R 50 to R 800 and when a number of these coincide the total cost can increase significantly, even though each procedure is relatively inexpensive.
How does climate affect pianos?
We tend to be more aware of temperature than humidity, but for pianos, humidity is the primary factor. The soundboard of a piano is a large wooden surface exposed to ambient humidity, and it absorbs and dispels moisture all the time. This cause it to flex, and the tone and tuning are often affected by that movement.
Piano mechanisms also contain a lot of materials that are sensitive to moisture. Parts may become tighter or looser depending on the humidity level, and this changes the way the piano functions. It might be quite subtle, or can literally make the piano unplayable!
Pianos should not be exposed to any extremes if possible, and also not to fluctuating extremes.
Are there any preventative measures one can take?
It’s helpful to try to keep the room with a piano as stable as possible. Direct sunlight, close proximity to heating, high damp levels, poor insulation, all make a difference. Because the main issue is humidity, not temperature, it’s not good to expose pianos to air conditioning without humidity control.
Accurately controlling humidity in most spaces is difficult and costly. Use of home type humidifiers, can be helpful and not too costly. There are also systems designed to protect the piano itself directly from adverse climatic factors. They are installed in the actual piano and function independently of the conditions in the room. Developed in America in the late 1940’s, the Piano Life Saver system is unquestionably the best protection available for a piano, short of complete climate regulation of the space.
What does it mean if a piano is described as ‘structurally sound’?
Structural flaws refer to anything that prevents the piano functioning or means it can’t be adequately tuned, or will not stay reasonably in tune. Such flaws include cracks in the cast iron frame, splits or severe looseness in the pinblock, damage to the rim of a grand piano, or severe damage to the bridges or soundboard.
In some cases, some structural components may just fail due to time and/or flaws in the original design or construction, in other cases climate or accidents contribute to structural flaws.
Some of these flaws can be extremely hard to see, and might not present clear symptoms when the piano is played. A piano that suffers from these kinds of flaws does not warrant investment in maintenance and may have little real value once the flaws become more evident.
We won’t recommend work on a piano that is not structurally sound. There are some exceptions, where the sentimental or interest value of the piano may justify servicing within the limitations imposed by the faults. Some structural defects can be rectified to an extent – they are not all equally severe. They do, however, always have a negative impact on value, and therefore owners, buyers and sellers should take this into account.
What are the differences between upright and grand pianos?
A grand piano lies horizontally, taking up more space than an upright, and stands on 3 legs. An upright piano is more compact in its design so as to take up less space and can be placed against a wall. Grand pianos are often more striking as pieces of furniture. As musical instruments there are many differences between the two designs that affect the way they sound and play, and this is often the main factor in comparing them.
In a grand piano, the mechanism lies horizontally and the hammers strike upwards against the strings. In an upright piano this process happens in the vertical plane, which means that upright piano mechanisms have to compensate for gravity by use of various springs and loops which help return the hammer for the next note.
Grand piano mechanisms are therefore potentially more controllable and the notes can be repeated faster than on an upright.
Another big difference is that grand pianos project their sound downwards towards the floor and upwards and outwards from the opening lid. This gives a cleaner, fuller sound which projects better. They are therefore more suitable to concert performance in larger spaces. Upright pianos are usually placed against a wall, as part of their purpose is to take up less space, and the sound is enclosed by the cabinet.
Grand pianos are far more costly to manufacture and potentially have a better sound and touch to upright pianos. Other factors such as mechanical and tonal design, quality of materials used and skill of building and finishing, also have a major role in the relative merits of all pianos.
What factors affect a piano's value?
Important elements of piano value include:
• Age. Due to unavoidable deterioration over time in certain elements such as the soundboard,
pianos always lose value as they age. This doesn’t happen at a consistent or predictable pace,
and is affected by the inherent quality of the piano and the way it’s cared for, so age has different
effects on value. A younger or new piano will generally be superior to an older instrument and
will therefore have a higher value. If you wish to find out the age of your piano, look for the serial
number and give us a call, we should be able to look that up for you.
• Size. In grand pianos size is measured by the length from the very edge of the keys to the furthest
edge of the top lid when closed. In upright pianos it’s measured from the ground to the very top
of the piano lid. Larger pianos allow for longer strings which may have a better sound, more
dynamic range from the soundboard and better projection. A larger piano will generally be superior to a smaller instrument and will therefore have a higher value.
• Design. As noted previously grand pianos generally have a higher value than uprights, but this depends heavily on the individual instrument. In all cases the quality of design of the mechanical components and the structure that determines critical elements of tone potential is a major factor in value.
• Materials and manufacture. The parts and materials that go into a piano and the original quality of the manufacturing have a long term impact on value. When any of these parts are replaced over a piano’s life the same applies. Poor quality materials and inadequate technical standards lower the value of serviced or rebuilt pianos.
• Brand. This is important as it relates to market value. Customer’s perception of certain piano brands may be more positive than of others. This is influenced by their particular experience of that brand, which may not be an accurate reflection of the make in general. As with other items, brand value is dynamic and can fluctuate depending on the way the product is made and marketed. A strong brand will have better value retention. With pianos, there have been many fine manufacturers who didn’t establish a strong commercial brand, for various reasons. In second hand pianos, some may be of quite obscure origin but still be good instruments. In modern piano manufacturing there are a lot less manufacturers than used to exist, and the strong brands have a more dominant position.
• Set up. As pianos are so complex and changeable, even a top quality instrument can feel and sound bad if it’s not properly regulated, voiced and tuned. We do the Technical Support for Steinway in Africa, and every one of those new instruments requires proper set up in the showroom and in the house.
• Maintenance. In all cases the maintenance of a piano has a direct effect on its value. If the piano is only tuned and has no servicing, regulation and voicing, its performance drops significantly. The work needed by a new owner goes up. The result is a lower value. It’s not only Important that a piano gets maintenance, the maintenance has to be properly done by a skilled and experienced technician. In many cases, pianos actually lose value due to poor quality work, as it’s more costly to undo the work and begin again than work with the original factory quality, despite the deterioration of time and wear and tear.
How do I find out the value of my piano?
Unfortunately, due to all the variables mentioned above, we cannot value a piano without assessing it in person, however this is a service we provide.
How do I find out the age of my piano?
It’s quite simple, give us a call! We will need the make of piano as well as the serial number if you can find it. To find the serial number on an upright piano, open up the top lid and look inside, it’s usually on metal frame somewhere along top edge or sometime on left or right hand side of the soundboard (which can only be seen by taking out the front panel as well). Most commonly on a grand, it’s found on cast iron frame just under where the music desk is, or in the middle on the soundboard, seen through the strings. If you cannot find the serial number, send us a photograph of your piano and we should be able to give you a ballpark figure.
How do I clean my piano cabinet?
If you have an older piano with a fairly glossy cabinet it is probably the original French Polish. This should not be oiled or polished with synthetic polishes such as Mr Min, but can just be cleaned with a very slightly damp soft cloth or just dusted with a soft dry cloth.
The same applies to satin or low sheen finishes on younger or re-polished cabinets.
Very high gloss finishes, commonly found on pianos made after the 1970’s and fairly universally on new pianos, can be cleaned with synthetic polishes that shine the surface. These should be applied on the cloth rather than directly on the surface.
We also supply a soft polishing cream that is very suitable for any of these types of buffed finishes.
Whenever and however cleaning the cabinet, make sure you remove as much surface dust as possible with a dry soft cloth before you do anything else. Otherwise, the dust gets rubbed into the surface while cleaning and can actually scratch the finish quite badly over time.
Tips on caring for your piano
• It is a fallacy that a piano has to be played often or a lot to stay in good condition. Not playing may allow minor tightness to develop in some parts, but this is not a major problem. Playing has one absolute effect – wear and tear! So don’t lend your piano for safe keeping to a Music School. Use it and enjoy it, but remain aware that it’s a mechanical item and use means you need to do maintenance when appropriate.
• Place the piano somewhere that doesn’t have direct sunlight, damp, extreme temperatures, high or low humidity, or extreme fluctuations in either. Humidity is the most important thing to consider.
• Protect the piano from climate factors as best you can. Don’t leave doors open close to the piano, don’t heat the room too quickly in winter, don’t keep the air conditioning on without some basic humidification in the room.
• If you have a grand piano, close the top lid when not in use. Also don’t keep it permanently closed, or the inside may sweat! It’s fine to keep it open for aesthetic reasons, but then allow for more frequent maintenance on things like professional cleaning and tuning.
• If possible, and if the value of the piano warrants it, install a Piano Life Saver climate protection system. These are available for uprights and grands. If you have a grand piano, use an internal string cover (these are custom made for each piano), as well as a Life Saver, or on its own. These protect the strings from corrosion and help to keep the tuning and tone stable. The piano can be played with the cover in place, but it’s also easy to remove and refit.
• Use some kind of fish moth deterrent. They can do extreme damage to the many felts in a piano mechanism and keyboard. There are various products available from pharmacies and hardware stores, or you can use the old fashioned moth ball method, which is quite reliably effective, if you don’t mind the smell! Whatever you use must be in decent quantities; for example, a whole bag of moth balls with puncture holes in it placed in the bottom of an upright piano. If using moth balls or any other product in a grand, don’t place it in direct contact with the cast iron frame as it may corrode the finish. Put a piece of plastic between the product and the metal.
• Keep the cabinet fairly clean so that dirt and dust don’t become deep seated, which is then quite costly to rectify. Wipe off dust with a soft dry cloth before any other cleaning or you may scratch the surface over time. Use the correct cleaning agents: just a slightly damp cloth for satin and original French polished cabinets, a piano cleaning cream or a spray such as Mr Min for high gloss modern finishes. Put the cleaning agent on the cloth and apply, not directly onto the cabinet.
• Don’t use furniture oil, you’ll get an uneven finish that is hard to restore later.
• If you want the pedals kept shiny, clean them lightly with brasso fairly often – don’t let them become totally tarnished, they’ll then need to be removed and buffed. If you have a new or very young piano, the pedals probably have a coating to reduce corrosion. Wait until this deteriorates before you start polishing them.
• Any liquid on or near the piano is potentially dangerous. Vases of flowers, tea cups, wine glasses – if they spill on the cabinet or inside the piano repairs can be very costly.
• If something does spill in the piano, or it gets rain damage, clean up as much of the liquid as you can reach, leave parts open to help with air drying, and call us!
• If going away for an extended period it’s advisable to cover the piano with a soft cloth or drape, so that dust doesn’t build up on the surfaces. Don’t cover a piano too tightly and/or seal with plastic sheeting, as it may sweat.
• Have the piano tuned and checked over at least once a year by a good technician or piano company with provable credentials and authentic references. If anything is developing as a potential problem they can tell you what it is and how to deal with it. They should advise you of work that may become necessary in the future, and you should budget for some maintenance over and above tuning on an on-going basis.