Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 6

Before buying a piano

by Stéphane Villemin / March 1, 2000

Version française...

Buying a piano, whether an upright or a grand, is always a risky business. Pianos, like people, have their own personalities. Even instruments made by the same manufacturer will often have differences in sound colour, purity of tone, and the relationship between different registers. Still, there are objective criteria that make it possible for anyone to judge a piano's quality before signing a cheque.

You can test the keyboard balance by playing notes an octave apart, from low to high, then by playing chords in the various registers to see whether the touch is the same throughout. A secondhand piano that has been played a lot tends to have an easy action in the middle registers and a stiffer action in the high and low registers. One should also check the alignment of the dampers, first without pedal, then with the left pedal depressed. Each note should become silent automatically as soon as there is no pressure on the key. Look carefully to see whether the hammers on a second hand piano have become worn. If the hammerhead has deep furrows, the felt should be changed and the piano tuned.
Testing the pedals is important. The left pedal (una corda on grand pianos) should produce a discernably softer sound without reducing the overtones. The middle pedal is often a "soft" pedal that allows you to play without driving your neighbours to distraction. The right pedal allows greater resonance by lifting all the dampers.

If the piano seems old, you should check the soundboard. To do this, lift the lid (for grand pianos) or remove the wooden panel below the keyboard (for uprights), and at the very least make sure the frame is metal. Some early twentieth-century pianos still had wood frames. Remember, it's impossible to tune a wood-framed piano. The condition of the outside surface is important, too. Generally, you can tell just by looking whether an instrument has been well cared for.

If you're satisfied with these initial tests, consider the most essential aspect: the quality and richness of tone. Although everyone has their own criteria in this regard, there are are two things that can help you here. First, the brand name is often a guarantee of quality. Second, the preparation of the instrument by a piano technician is important. Technicians cannot turn an old honky-tonk into a concert grand, but they can greatly improve its sound quality, making the notes sing and restoring life and colour.
As with used cars, there are price guides published for used pianos. A good place to start is your local library or the web. For example, the Piano Bluebook (an American publication) has a homepage (http://sites.netscape.net/bluebookofPianos/homepage) with links to appraising and buying a piano, and a number of other features.

Translation: Jane Brierley

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale