37

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?

2
  • 1
    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
  • Here's a good overview: youtube.com/watch?v=ZD1QxoxabMQ Feb 2 '15 at 21:45
33

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.

2
  • 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
  • 1
    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 '14 at 12:41
10

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.

7
  • 2
    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
  • 1
    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
  • 7
    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. 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
  • 1
    tohecz, can you elaborate more on your comment,please: the strings are not attached to the hammers ?
    – Tim
    May 17 '13 at 13:55
8

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.

3
  • 1
    Overstringing also helps prevent the piano from literally collapsing in on itself. : )
    – ecline6
    May 1 '13 at 16:28
  • I doubt any uprights were ever made without overstringing, and certainly no grands have been made without it for probably more than 150 years. The difference lies in the angle.
    – phoog
    Aug 22 at 21:35
  • On further research, it seems that there were some manufacturers producing straight-strung pianos in Europe, but not in the US. In any event, overstringing was an established practice in the production of grands from the middle of the 19th century.
    – phoog
    Aug 22 at 21:56
5

I used to think that a baby grand piano was superior to an upright piano but this is definitely not the case. The reason most people think this is the poor quality of most upright pianos.

A 1930s Blüthner upright piano sounds nearly as good as a Blüthner 7ft grand piano, with a fantasatically sonorant bass. A Blüthner baby grand of the same era definitely sounds somewhat “dead” in the bass, indeed has somewhat of a toy like sound compared to a proper piano with long strings.

2
  • 2
    well said. And of course the fact that most accomplished pianists play mostly grand pianos, thus the sound coming out of even the best upright is negatively impacted by the indferior skill of the player. Add inferior maintenance (an upright in a smoky bar is likely to not get the attention from techs that does the grand in a concert hall) and ditto acoustics of their typical environment, and the picture is complete.
    – jwenting
    Jul 8 '15 at 5:36
  • It's not just the sound - it's the action as well, and a grand will usually be far better, as it uses a completely different one.
    – Tim
    Oct 12 '20 at 10:52
5

Comparing same build quality uprights and grands, the answer is mainly the string length and soundboard area are larger on a decent grand. Uprights are limited to a maximum height (these days) of around 132cm but grands are available up to 280cm and even bigger. The longest bass strings must fit into this size, and longer is better (less inharmonicity caused by thickness being a substantial fraction of length in the small uprights), so the sound is purer. Larger soundboard means better matching to the string, so the decay time is longer on a good grand. The una corda pedal on a grand (when properly adjusted) is usually much more effective than the half-blow pedal on an upright.

Other improvements like the repetition levers in a good grand piano action, and longer key length possible in a big grand (impossible in an upright as it would then not fit through a normal door) also allow more precise playing by a virtuoso, but are lesser issues than string length and soundboard area. Hardly anyone seriously uses the middle sostenuto pedal, so that also is not a big issue.

If we are not comparing same quality, it is perfectly possible for a good upright to be better than a poor grand. The Yamaha U3 (older model) or SU132 (newer model) is a good example of an excellent design that will see off many small and ill-designed grands. If you are just starting out and can't afford at least a Yamaha C3 grand, a Yamaha U3 or SU132 is a good choice.

2

Sound quality of a piano strongly depends on the instrument's size and strings alignment. Longer strings give out better (richer) sound due to lower inharmonicity. One major factor that makes grand pianos sound better is gravity. Because of the horizontal alignment of the strings, most parts of the instrument would have to move up and down. Eventually brought to rest by gravity. However, in the upright piano the string action is verticall and requires springs, and over time they tend to acquire imperfections. For same reasons, the upright has some limit in the speed and control, as the note can be repeated only after key comes back to the top. In the horizontal piano, the same key can be repeated after about 1/3 of the key’s way to the top. This is as simple as it can be put without getting too technical. If you are very interested in seeing all of the machinations of these wonderful inventions, I would suggest observing the transparent piano in action and see all the intricate components working together that go into creating the sound.

2

As with all things....it depends. A high-quality professional upright made by one of the top companies is an excellent piano indeed. I have played on some truly wonderful upright pianos. Schimmel makes uprights that have a touch and sound that will rival many very good grand pianos, and does Sauter. In a home setting, an upright piano can have just the right amount of volume and tone.

0

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/

2
  • 1
    I think "they are better" is a valid point though - a lot mork work and attention to detail goes into a grand piano which is reflected in the cost.
    – Mr. Boy
    Feb 10 '15 at 15:58
  • Of course overstringing increases the length of the strings! How can it not?
    – Tim
    Oct 12 '20 at 10:55
0

Just to chime in with one more advantage of grands over uprights: they hold tune better. The floors of concert halls or living rooms might seem really solid, but they're actually carrying vibrations pretty frequently - vibrations from footsteps, passing trucks, etc.

Picture a vibration propagating across the floor. When it meets an upright piano, that piano's case is resting on four points on the floor. As the vibration reaches the piano, one of those points is going to start moving before the others, which means the case will flex microscopically. And that flex transfers to the sound board, the pin block, the harp - you're basically shaking the strings slightly, and they might slip a bit.

Contrast that with a grand, which rests on the floor on just three points. When the vibration reaches the piano, the piano tilts a bit - but it doesn't flex. Three points of contact allow it to float along with the vibrations. Less shaking of the strings, less slipping of the pins, and better tune overall.

1
  • That's fascinating! Can you ad a reference? Something that establishes that the effect is more than hypothetical?
    – Aaron
    Aug 25 at 0:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.