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Understanding piano sizes

In the 30 years I have been in the piano industry I’ve seen some very challenging times. This is one of them. In all those times it was clear that music becomes even more important. The same applies now; despite the cancellation of concerts and gigs due to the need to slow down the spread of coronavirus. On social media, the videos of people playing music and singing from balconies in countries where they are in quarantine shows how music reassures and brings people together, even when they need to remain physically apart.

So Ian Burgess-Simpson Pianos has taken the necessary steps to stay open and keep meeting the needs of customers. We have a sanitising station for customers coming to try pianos, and all contact surfaces are cleaned frequently through the day and after every visit. Our staff are well informed and the workshop areas have good sanitising stations as well. We’ve worked out a key cleaning solution which we use on every showroom piano that’s been played or worked on so there’s no risk of any transfer of the virus. I doubt there’s a product that’s been tested on a more renowned range of instruments: Fazioli; Shigeru Kawai; Kawai; Steinway; Bosendorfer; Yamaha and Petrof!

Pianos are measured in two ways: grand pianos are measured in length from the very back end of the cabinet to sighting down to the edge of the keys. Upright pianos are measured in height from the floor to the top edge of the piano cabinet. There are categories of size with small variations between manufacturers. Various terms for these categories have been used over time.

The term “baby grand” is somewhat loosely applied to pianos ranging from as little as 130 cm in total length to 155 or even 160 cm. Mid-sized pianos ranging from around 160 cm to 190 cm were often called “boudoir grands”, from the time

when they might commonly have been found in the “boudoir” of a wealthy lady. “Conservatory grands” is sometimes applied to pianos designed for teaching institutions and approximately 200 cm up to 230 cm. That larger end of the scale, around 230 cm may also be called a “semi-concert grand”. And then “concert grand” refers to the size used in concert halls and with orchestras; with sizes around 274 – 308 cm (or in imperial sizes loosely lumped together as “9 foot” grands.

Variables in groups might include the following:

What’s interesting to see is how small some of the differences are between models and entire categories. In many cases, the physical space needed to accommodate several sizes may be effectively the same. In most spaces a few centimeters won’t make a difference to the footprint of the instrument. However, it may have a significant effect on the tone!

Longer strings and a larger soundboard make the tone of a piano richer and purer. This is particularly important in the bass register. Bass strings are made with a steel core (as found in the middle and treble strings) with one or more layers of copper wire wound onto it. The copper adds weight.

This is needed to produce a given pitch with a particular length of string. As a string gets shorter additional copper must be added to sound the correct pitch. This weighting unfortunately makes the tone less clear, with harmonics that are not as pure as found in a longer, lighter string.

Size is therefore not fundamentally about power and projection, but about quality of tone. Although it is also true that a larger piano will have the capacity to produce more power if needed. The way in which manufacturers design their pianos of various sizes has a lot of impact on the end result. Smaller pianos are actually more difficult to design well because of the factors above. So while sizes between brands may be very similar, such as a baby grand of 153 cm or 155 cm, the quality of sound may be far better in some brands than others. Traditionally, baby grands were viewed by many musicians and technicians as inferior pianos due to their small size. Many baby grands are indeed quite limited, yet others provide a well-balanced tone through the different registers and can meet higher expectations.

The basic rule is: if all other factors are equivalent – a larger piano will provide a better tone. The variables in the other factors are numerous, and therefore one may encounter very good small pianos and very poor-quality large pianos!


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