Different Types of Pianos

Grand Piano

Modern pianos come in two basic configurations (with subcategories): the grand piano and the upright piano.


Grand pianos have the frame and strings placed horizontally, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. This makes the grand piano a large instrument, for which the ideal setting is a spacious room with high ceilings for proper resonance. There are several sizes of grand piano. Manufacturers and models vary, but a rough generalisation distinguishes the "concert grand", (between about 2.2 m to 3 m long) from the "parlor grand" (about 1.7 m to 2.2 m) and the smaller "baby grand" (which may be shorter than it is wide).

All else being equal, longer pianos with longer strings have better sound and lower inharmonicity of the strings. Inharmonicity is the degree to which the frequencies of overtones (known as partials, partial tones, or harmonics) depart from whole multiples of the fundamental frequency. Pianos with shorter, thicker, and stiffer strings (e.g., baby grands) have more inharmonicity. The longer strings on a concert grand can vibrate more freely than the shorter, thicker strings on a baby grand, which means that a concert grand’s strings will have truer overtones. This is partly because the strings will be tuned closer to equal temperament in relation to the standard pitch with less "stretching" in the piano tuning. Full-size grands are usually used for public concerts, whereas smaller grands, introduced by Sohmer & Co. in 1884, are often chosen for domestic use where space and cost are considerations.


Upright pianos, also called vertical pianos, are more compact because the frame and strings are placed vertically, extending in both directions from the keyboard and hammers. It is considered harder to produce a sensitive piano action when the hammers move horizontally, as the vertical hammer return is dependent on springs which are prone to wear and tear. The grand piano hammers return by gravity, hence their return will always remain more consistent than the vertical hammers, thus giving pianists better control of their playing. However, a well-regulated vertical piano will probably play smoother than a grand piano that has not been regulated for years, and the very best upright pianos now approach the level of some grand pianos of the same size in tone quality and responsiveness.

One noticeable advantage that the grand piano action has over the vertical action is that all grand pianos have a special repetition lever in the playing action that is absent in all verticals. This repetition lever, a separate one for every key, catches the hammer close to the strings as long as the keys are played repeatedly and fairly quickly. In this position, with the hammer resting on the lever, a pianist can play repeated notes, staccato, and trills with much more speed and control than is possible on a vertical piano. Because of this, piano manufacturers claim that a piano player trill notes faster on a grand than on an upright.

Other Types of Pianos

Toy pianos began to be manufactured in the 19th century. In 1863, Henri Fourneaux invented the player piano, which "plays itself" from a piano roll without the need for a pianist. The player piano is a piano that records a performance using rolls of paper with perforations, and then replays the performance using pneumatic devices. A modern equivalent for the player piano is the Yamaha Disklavier system, which uses solenoids and midi instead of pneumatics and rolls. Silent pianos, which allow a regular piano to be used converted to a digital instrument, are a recent innovation and are becoming more popular.

Irving Berlin played a special piano called the transposing piano, which was invented in 1801 by Edward Ryley. It had a lever under the keyboard used to alter the music to any key. One of Berlin’s pianos is in the Smithsonian Museum. For much of his career, Berlin only knew how to play the black keys. But with his ‘trick piano’ he was no longer limited to the key of F-sharp.

A relatively recent development is the prepared piano, which is used in contemporary art music. A prepared piano is a standard grand piano which has had objects placed inside it before a performance in order to alter its sound, or which has had its mechanism changed in some way. The scores for music for prepared piano often instruct the pianist to insert pieces of rubber or small pieces of metal (screws or washers) in between the strings. These added items either mute the strings or create unusual vibrating sounds.

Since the 1980s, digital pianos have been available, which use digital sampling technology to reproduce the sound of each piano note. The best digital pianos are sophisticated, with features including working pedals, weighted keys, multiple voices, and MIDI interfaces. However, with current technology, it remains difficult to duplicate a crucial aspect of acoustic pianos, namely that when the damper pedal is depressed, the strings not struck vibrate sympathetically when other strings are struck, as well as the unique instrument-specific mathematical non-linearity of partials on any given unison. Since this sympathetic vibration is considered central to piano tone, digital pianos do not sound the same as the best acoustic pianos. Progress is being made in this area by including physical models of sympathetic vibration in the synthesis software.

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