24

Upright pianos are often covered with transparent lacquer, revealing their natural brown wood colour. This is similar to violins, guitars and other classical instruments, where wood structure is clearly visible. Contrary to that, when going to classical concerts, I've never seen grand pianos other than black. Is there any specific reason for it?

  • 1
    Diversity in musical instruments, ever since Lincoln – Shevliaskovic Jun 14 '15 at 16:24
  • 4
    They are available in many colors and finishes, solid and translucent, and with many different kinds of wood veneer (maple, mahogany, walnut, etc.). It is merely that black is the most popular and sells the most. Black goes with everything. Solid gloss black is probably also the least expensive finish to manufacture, adding to its popularity. – user1044 Jun 14 '15 at 17:09
  • 2
    @WheatWilliams And given how expensive grands get, it's a pretty good argument to use black - you'll probably be changing your furniture and decorations a lot more often than the piano. – Luaan Jun 15 '15 at 7:51
  • 1
    Just a thought: common wisdom is that black is slimming, and grand pianos aren't exactly small. – Some Dude On The Interwebs Jun 16 '15 at 15:20
15

Not particularly true! I've just sold a grand in mahogany. However, one of my theories could cover grands as well as guitars. I feel that if a solid guitar is made from a good looking, well grained piece(s) of wood, it's best just to lacquer it, so the good looks come through. If it's not that good - use a solid colour on it, and nobody will know!

Grand pianos, especially concert grands, use large areas of wood - the top particularly, and to match several pieces of wood is not easy. It can be done, but at a cost. So, put a solid colour on. Why black? It fits with most things, as does the other less common colour - white.

  • 2
    "to match several pieces of wood is not easy" No need, though, just put a veneer of wood over the top and around the sides. Large pieces of seamless veneer, or seamed veneer that appears seamless, are not necessarily more expensive than the black lacquer finish. I'd guess it's a universal style choice more than an issue of producing a good looking wood surface. – Adam Davis Jun 15 '15 at 17:12
  • 1
    I sold Steinways for a while back in the day, and this is the reason that black is the least expensive Steinway. – BobRodes Jun 16 '15 at 7:43
  • 2
    A veneer might have undesirable acoustic qualities. – slim Jun 17 '15 at 8:14
  • @slim - I'm not sure whether the sides, or in particular, the top of a grand have a lot of effect on the acoustic qualities of it. Most of the sound quality is in the soundboard, I guess. Properly put on, as most likely 'wood finishes' are, it shouldn't, otherwise it wouldn't be done? I feel a question coming on... – Tim Jun 17 '15 at 9:14
  • 1
    @Tim - Steinway, in their marketing materials, assert that every part of their pianos contribute to their tone. They would say that one of the things that sets them apart from "lesser"pianos is the avoidance of veneers. (They would say a whole lot of other ones, too; I used to sell Steinways back in the day and could go on for an hour about features of the piano that are pretty unique. One fun one is that the soundboard is hand-matched to the rim to a tolerance of less than 1/1000 of an inch, which--they say--enhances the tone by involving the resonance set up in the rim with it.) – BobRodes Nov 16 '15 at 6:21
15

Contrary to that, when going to classical concerts, I've never seen grand pianos other than black.

This is likely to follow the convention of 'concert black' attire. In more formal concerts, musicians will uniform to sharp monochrome colors typically white tuxes, black bowtie, with black pants or black skirts, black shoes. The piano then fits that convention. Similar is seen with woodwind instruments. Metallic instruments (flute, brass, tympani) are the only consistent exception which I know of.

It's not always necessary to conform to this convention, but since stageworthy pianos tend to be in the tens-to-hundreds of thousands of dollars, a venue may play it safe with concert black for their only piano.

Going deeper into technical theatre concepts, black is a favorite stage color as it can be used to defer attention to -and accentuate- more brightly-colored objects on stage. So anything uninteresting is draped in black like shoes, piano body, and stage floor. More interesting parts are white, like the piano keys and musicians.

With the exception of flute, instruments tend to be darker in the front rows (piano, oboe, clarinet, and some piccolo) and brighter toward the back (tuba, trumpet, harp, snare). This probably has some relation to balancing audience attention, if not already some tendency for louder instruments to be metallic.

10

Though some cite aesthetic reasons for a piano's color, it actually has nothing to do with appearance, but rather economy.

Before Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the first piano at the turn of the 18th century, there existed several predecessors; chief among them, the clavichord, which I will discuss in greater detail in a moment.

Up until the development of the clavichord, most keyboard-like instruments after early harpsichords were hand-painted, extremely ornate pieces of visual as well as sound art. Though originally simply adorned and sheltered in simple wooden cases, ornate decoration developed in Northern Europe as a profitable means of work for regional artists.

The invention of the clavichord changed the market. Due the compact, lightweight (comparably) design, and use of cheaper wood, the price went down as they exploded in popularity. People that lived in tiny Viennese apartments were now able to have their own instrument that fit - and be able to afford to have one! Painting a piano a solid color is astronomically cheaper than hiring professional artists to hand-paint each instrument. You don't need to be an artist to paint something black. In addition, black is the the cheapest color to manufacture - it (along with other dark colors) has always been associated as colors of the poor - people who couldn't afford to purchase the more rare / expensively dyed colorful cloths.

So most pianos are black because it was easier / cheaper for companies to manufacture them.


As a corollary to this topic, it is actually also the same reason why many harpsichord manuals have reversed key colors. Ivory was extremely expensive to haul to Europe from Africa, and manufacturers realized that if they made most of the keys made out of wood and only a few out of ivory, the could significantly lower the cost of their instruments, and in turn, significantly lower the cost of their overhead for ivory.

Today, obviously using ivory is illegal, so all piano keys are made out of wood.

  • 2
    Always wood? Not ever any kind of plastic or ceramic? – Random832 Jun 14 '15 at 19:18
  • 1
    This is not quite correct. Early Italian harpsichords were made to be portable instruments. The inner case (corresponding to the single case of later instruments) was undecorated and contained in a "flight case" which was a simple wooden box, usually of undecorated oak held together with iron nails to make repairing damage easy. Elaborate painted decoration developed in Northern Europe as a profitable line of work for the Dutch and Flemish artists of the time. – user19146 Jun 14 '15 at 19:56
  • @alephzero Thank you for the more complete information; have edited the post. – jjmusicnotes Jun 14 '15 at 20:11
  • @Random832 Honestly, I don't know about ceramic. I have never heard of it being used. Regarding plastic, it has only been around for about 70 - 80 years, so its use with respect to keyboards has predominantly been related to synthesizers beginning in the late 60's early 70's. – jjmusicnotes Jun 14 '15 at 20:13
  • 4
    This would explain why the mass-produced piano in somebody's home is black, except that, as the question says, those are usually in a varnished wood finish. But the question asks why concert hall grands are black. – David Richerby Jun 14 '15 at 22:32
6

You're unlikely to see a classical piano concert with a piano that is anything but black. One of the reasons is that 95% of all concert pianists are Steinway Artists. Another reason is that black Steinways are the least expensive.

A Steinway artist has to have a performing career, agrees to feature the words "Steinway Piano" on his programs, and agrees to exclusively use Steinway pianos in public performances. In exchange for this, Steinway guarantees to make a piano available (for a price) at any concert he plays.

To accomplish this, Steinway has its dealers participate in the Concert and Artist program, maintaining a separate inventory of several C&A pianos, and handling maintenance, tuning, pickup and delivery. Now, since black Steinways are the least expensive (see Tim's answer for why), it follows that a dealer will provide only black pianos for concerts. The current list price for "Satin Ebony" is currently $157,379, whereas Mahogany, the cheapest wood finish, is $182,700, so we're not talking about small numbers here.

An exception you might see is this one:

enter image description here

This is Steinway's 500,000th commemorative piano, which sometimes makes the rounds. I got to attend a concert with Ruth Laredo playing it soon after it was made, and it is the only classical piano concert I've ever attended where the piano wasn't black. (In fact, it was a two-piano concert, and the other one was black.)

Classical pianists are much less concerned with appearance than they are with tone, so they don't really care what color the piano is for the most part. If a concert pianist fell in love with the tone of a piano that wasn't black, and had the means to be able to ship it to all of his concerts, then maybe you would see a concert on a differently-colored piano. The only ones I can think of who used their own pianos are Horowitz, whose Steinway was black (still is, actually), and Victor Borge and his Bösendorfer, which was also black.

In the end, I'd say that the reason that big-time rockers have a lot of different-colored pianos is because they have enough money to buy whatever piano they want and ship it wherever they want.

  • Is that 95% percentage in the US only? – RemcoGerlich Jun 16 '15 at 10:35
  • Not according to Steinway. from steinway.com/artists : "98% of piano soloists chose the Steinway piano during the 2013/2014 concert season." – BobRodes Jun 16 '15 at 15:02
  • Are we positive that the marketing director for Steinway is not this guy? how-i-met-your-mother.wikia.com/wiki/83 – Some Dude On The Interwebs Jun 16 '15 at 15:24
  • That's funny. :) You must work for Baldwin. :P – BobRodes Jun 16 '15 at 15:34
  • "In exchange for this, Steinway guarantees to make a piano available (for a price) at any concert he plays. " ... and in any color he wishes, as long as he wishes for black. – Kaz Jun 29 '16 at 19:51
1

Making a grand piano top from a single piece of wood is not feasible or requires a lot of effort and material costs because of size and weight and consequently stability against warping, so an intransparent and robust finish is desirable anyway. Black is the color that shows least signs of aging: it doesn't get yellowish or anything.

  • A wooden piano lid isn't very heavy, maybe 30 pounds for a six-foot piano. Most pianos' lids are made with particle board (and veneer if there's a wood grain), which IS very heavy. If you want to find out if the piano lid has particle board in it, just lift it. (Works for any other kind of furniture, too.) As for single piece of wood, you're quite correct. Wooden piano lids are generally made of several boards glued together. Particle board uses a mold. – BobRodes Dec 15 '16 at 2:38
0

Stienway started or promoted the tradition that became habit and tradition. white and natural wood are no uncommon. Gershwin popularized it. and it hids dirt better.

-1

It is highly practical marketing issue. Same like with t-shirts or what ever. People like crazy stuff (colors etc.), but you see them later leaving the shop with black t-shirt. And it is the same with pianos. If you have piano in this or that color, and you would like to sell it, people will be like.. "hmm I like this piano how it sounds, but the color... it doesn't matches to my taste, sofa what ever.. and they buy something neutral, a next black piano, no matter that it sound worst. Same on stage, If you have highly extravagant piano on stage it will take all focus on it self. Plus you wanna play on the pianos wide variety of music and try to play romantic music on a piano that looks like Porsche and later Jazz... You will rather have a neutrally looking instrument that suits all musical styles and doesn't make you think of the connection between the piano look and the music.

In other words pianos are black because it happens to be the less distracting and widely fitting color that "doesn't" influence the meaning of the music.

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.