Before buying a pianoby Stéphane Villemin
/ March 1, 2000
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
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