While looking for a new piano I was wondering how to evaluate the quality of tone and sound of a piano as an instrument?

What makes the difference between a good and an even better instrument? What are objectifiable criteria to judge this?

I'm also interested in categorizing aspects of piano sound regardless of quality: what makes it different without having to say it is better? In a way I 'm looking for an analytical framework as a way to improve my listening skills, I suppose.

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    Sound quality is entirely subjective and something you can really only assess via experience, IMO. – Matthew Read Apr 2 '15 at 12:45
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    The only things I could think that could possibly be objectively better/worse between two instruments might be some aspects that made the piano easier to play - feel of keys, pedals, etc. - nothing to do with sound. The question about different aspects of sound is still interesting. – topo morto Apr 2 '15 at 12:46
  • Of course there's a subjective dimension, but I would think that there is a reason (beyond the mechanical) some pianos are (much) more expensive than others. It isn't arbitrary. And even the subjective opinion can be expressed with reasons. "I like this piano better because it sounds more..." "A professional pianist will choose that piano because its tone is..." – Tim H Apr 2 '15 at 16:21
  • While you're looking for a piano, what sort of criteria do the guys in the shops use? – Tim Apr 2 '15 at 17:30
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    @TimH True, there will be sonic characteristics that cost more money to create with current manufacturing techniques - but that doesn't mean that their presence makes the instrument objectively better. A piano that sounds great for one piece, in one hall, is not always the best for another. Sticking to talking about aspects of sound as you suggest in your last paragraph will be a clearer discussion. – topo morto Apr 2 '15 at 21:41
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Some objective differences to listen for:

  1. Dynamic range. On an "entry level" instrument, if you play with enough force you get more mechanical noises, not louder notes. In a really poor instrument you might even break something. The quality of the action also limits how softly you can play without randomly not playing notes at all. In the 6-figure price range, you can hit the keys as hard as you like (i.e. using your whole upper body weight, not just your fingers or arm) and the piano won't have "maxed out".
  2. Inharmonicity. The harmonics of the strings are never exactly in tune with the fundamental. This is more pronounced in the bass register and if the strings are shorter. In extreme cases this can sound like the "beats" caused by out-of-tune octaves, but coming from a single note.
  3. Non-harmonic tones, for example noises from the strings adjacent to the note being played. Bass strings can produce unwanted high-pitched sounds (an octave above middle C, or higher) by vibrating along their length rather than transversely.
  4. Mechanical noises - rattles, buzzes, etc coming from the structure of the instrument independent of the strings. Unless the cause is obvious (like a loose object that shouldn't be inside the instrument!) they are usually bad news and suggest something is seriously wrong (e.g. a cracked soundboard).
  5. Effectiveness of the dampers, and of releasing the sustain (right) pedal.
  6. Overall tone-color. One way to describe this is by analogy with a singer's vowel sounds. You are probably looking for a tone that sounds like "aaaa" or "oh". "Eeee" suggests the tone is too thin. "Oooo" suggests the instrument is worn out, or the hammers have been voiced to soft (and correcting that defect by making them harder is MUCH more difficult than making them even softer).

Before getting into sound quality, one thing that can set pianos apart is their action. Last time I knew a lot about what was going on with pianos, only pianos with horizontal strings (grand style) could have a full proper double escapement action. That affects how quickly you can play the same note again after you've played it at least once, and/or how far you have to release a key before you can play it again. This isn't super important for all pianists, but some pieces can be demanding in this area (e.g., the middle section of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle from Pictures at an Exhibition).

For sound quality, I can think of three broad categories that almost anyone should be able to discern between pianos.

Brightness: This one is probably the easiest to hear and will mostly be related to the hammers and the felt thereon. One important thing about selecting the brightness you want in a piano is that in general, pianos get brighter as they age because the felt on the hammers is compacted. So consider looking for a piano that is slightly less bright than you like.

Low end depth: This one is mostly going to be about how much money you have because getting a real boom out of the low notes pretty much requires longer strings. This is why people play 9 foot grand pianos when they can.

Finally, harmonic richness: This will also be related to your budget but more in the way in that you can buy into a better level of richness and once you get up there the differences become much more subtle. Already this category starts off as the least obvious to the ear. To me I hear the difference in the "middle" of the sound. What is going on besides just hearing the notes and the brightness and low end. This quality will also often mature because it has a firm basis in the sound board and its design and materials. Wood matures through its whole life so as the sound board ages the sound should become richer. You might try playing some pianos at a store and talk to the staff about tone quality and sound board construction.

I recommend playing a few pianos that are out of your price range completely to get a sense of what the more affordable pianos are trying to compromise on. You'll want to be able to choose the compromises you make.

To me there's a break point around five of six feet in grand pianos where at that size and up you have a real serious instrument for life. For some of the smaller baby grands you might compare them to higher end uprights because for less money and a lot less living room/music room space you can get quality sound while only sacrificing action.

If you're on a super tight budget you should compare digital pianos. I don't know if anyone makes spinets any more but I can't see spending money on one instead of a high quality digital.

One more difference you can find in piano construction is the implementation of the quiet pedal, sometimes called "una corda". That means "one string" and the classic design for the pedal is that the whole keyboard and hammer action slide to the side so the hammers only hit one string instead of two (in the main range, two instead of three on the high end and glancing on the one string for the low notes). This is another area where you often need a grand body to put in the authentic action but I have seen at least one upright with authentic una corda action.

Enjoy your search! Definitely get out and play as many instruments as you can. Be the customer! Play around, ask questions, and learn. If it's not a lifetime investment this time around, hopefully it will be the next time.

  • +1 for all the info. I still feel that there can be compromises, though. One piano may sound better than another to an individual, but they maybe don't get on as well with the action on that piano. Choices! I love the sound of some of the Yamahas I've played, but found the action hard work. But which, out of just two criteria, is more important? – Tim Apr 3 '15 at 7:14
  • I think which criteria are most important has to be a personal decision. You're choosing your piano, not mine or anyone else's. – Todd Wilcox Apr 3 '15 at 11:44
  • +1 for "play some pianos you can't afford". IMHO that's a good strategy, because then you get the idea of what to look for. Everybody has a different sense of what they like, and this enables us to understand your personal preferences. – yo' Apr 3 '15 at 22:08

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