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A Grand piano is considered better than an upright piano. Aesthetically I could understand why, but why does the orientation of the strings matter so much sound-wise?

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I just came back from a Hiromi Uehara, Anthony Jackson, Simon Philips gig :) You should catch them somewhere for the difference heheh. –  user1306 May 1 '13 at 22:15

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up vote 17 down vote accepted

It's all about the size, and therefore the length of the strings and the size of the vibrating surface of the wooden soundboard.

Even a baby grand at ~5 feet is longer than a typical upright is tall. A concert grand at 7-10 feet is much, much longer.

I can't do any better than what Wikipedia says, so I'm going to quote wholesale:

All else being equal, longer pianos with longer strings have larger, richer sound and lower inharmonicity of the strings. Inharmonicity is the degree to which the frequencies of overtones (known as partials or harmonics) sound sharp relative to whole multiples of the fundamental frequency. This results from the piano's considerable string stiffness; as a struck string decays its harmonics vibrate, not from their termination, but from a point very slightly toward the center (or more flexible part) of the string. The higher the partial, the further sharp it runs. Pianos with shorter and thicker string (i.e. small pianos with short string scales) have more inharmonicity. The greater the inharmonicity, the more the ear perceives it as harshness of tone.

Inharmonicity requires that octaves be stretched, or tuned to a lower octave's corresponding sharp overtone rather than to a theoretically correct octave. If octaves are not stretched, single octaves sound in tune, but double—and notably triple—octaves are unacceptably narrow. Stretching a small piano's octaves to match its inherent inharmonicity level creates an imbalance among all the instrument's intervallic relationships, not just its octaves. In a concert grand, however, the octave "stretch" retains harmonic balance, even when aligning treble notes to a harmonic produced from three octaves below. This lets close and widespread octaves sound pure, and produces virtually beatless perfect fifths. This gives the concert grand a brilliant, singing and sustaining tone quality—one of the principal reasons that full-size grands are used in the concert hall. Smaller grands satisfy the space and cost needs of domestic use.

Really tall uprights do exist, but they're not very common. They are sometimes referred to as upright grands.

Of course, whether inharmonicity is good or bad is purely subjective. That classic "pub piano" sound, fits perfectly with some kinds of music. It's the sound of an upright, and probably couldn't be replicated on a concert grand.

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A condensed way to explain the harmonicity of a grand is that it can actually be "more" in tune than an upright due to string length and this is the primary reason the sound is better, craftsmanship, materials, etc. notwithstanding. –  ecline6 May 1 '13 at 17:29
    
I don't have figures to hand but I'm sure that the shorter baby grands have shorter strings than a standard upright. A decent upright such as a Yamaha U3 will definitely sound better, by most definitions, than a grand piano of similar price and condition. I inherited a Challen baby grand and it looks lovely, but the sound really isn't anything special. –  nekomatic Sep 17 at 12:41

Adding to the above, this is the reason why upright pianos went from having strings vertical to being overstrung. This means the strings ,particularly the lower ones, are diagonal across the soundboard.It makes them longer, with the above advantages, but still not as long as those in a grand. 36" on the bottom string of one of my uprights, compared with 42" on my baby grand.

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Overstringing also helps prevent the piano from literally collapsing in on itself. : ) –  ecline6 May 1 '13 at 16:28

The action makes a grand better.

In a grand, gravity helps the key return so you can play faster stuff. In an upright, the action goes sideways and has to be helped out by, umm, don't quote me on this, springs I think?

And the sound, too.

The sound is more of a subjective thing. But in almost all cases, a long enough grand will sound better due to the wonderful bass sound. Also they open more directly to the room so the string/soundboard sound gets to you more directly (plus the room reflections).

Uprights have to bounce the string/soundboard sound out the back against the dang painted drywall (your wall).

Also the pedals.

Grand pianos have a middle pedal called a Sostenuto pedal, which captures keys which are depressed and lets them ring while keys played after the pedal can play without being held on. Uprights on the other hand have a middle pedal that serves as a "practice pedal" which essentially mutes the whole instrument. Usually this middle pedal is missing or non-functional on an upright.

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Soft pedal is called the una corda pedal. There are 1-3 strings per pitch on the piano. 1 for the lowest bass strings, 2 for mids, and 3 for trebles. The una corda pedal works by shifting the entire action to the right, making the hammers hit fewer strings or in the case of the bass strings, make glancing blows. –  ecline6 May 1 '13 at 17:26
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You beat me to it by 6 secs ! ecline6 . It doesn't mute, per se, it just softens the blow. –  Tim May 1 '13 at 17:27
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Actually gravity is too slow to come into play. The hammers are very quickly kicked back by the string when the strike impulse (wave) is returning in inverted form after having "bounced" at the closest solid end node. This has been proven with high speed cameras. However grand pianos have more sophisticated keyboard mechanics than uprights, with a special feature that enables quick repeated hits without returning the key all the way up before accepting the next hit and thus can be played "faster" in passages with repeated notes. –  Ulf Åkerstedt May 1 '13 at 22:57
    
There're no strings attached to the hammers in a reasonable-quality upright, because strings would get worn. There's a much more complicated mechanism that uses the energy you give to the key to move the hammer away. Therefore the upright is less sensitive to the hit energy. –  yo' May 15 '13 at 12:29
    
tohecz, can you elaborate more on your comment,please: the strings are not attached to the hammers ? –  Tim May 17 '13 at 13:55

Grand pianos sound much better because they are better. :-)

Just kidding. Grand pianos are constructed a bit differently as has been noted, but the biggest thing is the sound is project up and out from the instrument and not towards the user with a lot of wood in one's face. An upright piano also has its action in front of the strings unlike a grand with the action underneath and striking the strings from behind. This also affects the sound, making an upright sound much different.

On an upright piano, the pedals work differently. The upright's una chorda pedal works by placing the hammers closer to the strings to make the piano play softer. This is a totally different mechanism where the hammers are moved over and strike two strings, rarely one string, on a grand piano. The tres chorda pedal on both works in a similar fashion with the string dampers are lifted off the strings to allow the strings to vibrate. The sostenuto pedal is a rare beast on an upright. They do exist but only on the really expensive ones. Many uprights that do have a middle pedal, are fitted with a practice pedal which puts a thin sheet of felt between the hammers and the strings. This creates a muted sound so the piano isn't as loud and intrusive, and allows for much later evening practice.

Overstringing does not increase the length of the strings. What does is create harmonics in the open part of the strings. Up until the early 20th century, even grand pianos were straight strung, with a mix of both straight strung and overstrung instruments around. Erard was still making straight strung concert grand pianos right up until the 1920s.

Here's a place that's worth visiting should you be able to. This is a collection of antique pianos that can be played on and heard. I have play on all these pianos listed on this website.

http://www.frederickcollection.org/collection.html

The main site is http://frederickcollection.org/

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