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How to Improve the Sound of Your Piano

 

This article is copyright (c) AVGPA 2012.  Distribution in whole or part through any means is a violation of federal copyright law.

 

To fully understand how the sound of your piano can be improved, you must first learn some basic music theory regarding the nature of string vibrations. 

 

Click here to read our article on Piano Tone Production Theory.

 

This article contains material from another on our site:

The Inside Story of the Piano

 

IS YOUR PIANO MAKING STRANGE SOUNDS?

 

Piano sound consists of very rapid expansions and contractions of air molecules that can make other objects vibrate in the piano room, such as a light fixture.  The strange sounds that result can make it seem that your piano needs to be repaired.  As an interesting example of this, we discovered that the "A" string of a guitar in the room with our piano was sounding whenever we played certain "A" keys on the piano.  Thus, we we lifted these keys, the sound of the A notes continued.

 

HAMMER VOICING AND TONE

 

Piano hammers are pieces of wood wrapped in layers of felt, like an onion.  The rounded narrow end or tip of the felt strikes the strings to produce sound.  If the hammers are too hard or compacted from years of playing, the tone will become harsh and thin, and diminish in warmth, color and sustain. 

 

In addition, this compacting occurs unevenly across all the hammers, so that some are louder and/or brighter than others.  Artistically, this is a problem because the pianist can no longer reliably "shape" the volume/tone of melody lines, arpeggios, etc.  Instead, random loud notes cause these musical figurations to sound ragged and uneven.

 

Specifically, excessive brightness is often due to the hammers' elevating the volume of higher harmonics, which are dissonant to the fundamental pitch of the note played (dissonance = harshness).  In contrast, a well-conditioned hammer emphasizes lower harmonics, which are more consonant to the fundamental and sound more pleasing.  (See our article: "Piano Tone Production Theory" for details regarding harmonics.)  

 

Softening of hammers, one aspect of "voicing", can remedy this problem.  Traditionally, this is achieved by inserting thick needles into the narrow edge of the hammer. 

 

Note: The regulation of a piano's action should be checked before any extensive voicing of hammers.  Regulation, among other things, involves adjusting how the hammers contact the strings.  If this contact is incorrect, the hammers, for example, can over-emphasize certain harmonics that produce unwanted brightness.  If this type of action problem is not corrected first, voicing may be only partially successful work cause unintended results.

 

Improper needling of hammers can sometimes cause  permanent damage to the felt.  Therefore, be sure to hire a technician with hammer voicing experience to do this work.  To reinforce this point, keep in mind that replacing the hammers on a piano can cost thousands of dollars.

 

Hammers that produce dull or mushy-sounding notes can be made more rigid by certain processes, such as adding a liquid chemical to the hammer felt or heating it with a hammer "iron".  For these types of adjustments, we recommend that you contact the manufacturer of your piano for advice before proceeding. Alternatively, if you bought your piano from a dealer authorized by its manufacturer, their in-store or affiliated technicians should be able to help you. 

 

After many years of strings high-tension metal strings, the ends of the hammers change from a rounded to a flat shape.  As a result, the tone produced by these hammers loses its sweetness and richness of color, and may become "glassy".  The solution is to restore the original shape of the hammer.  Again, this is a delicate process that if done wrong can ruin the hammers of your piano. Therefore, ask your technician if they have experience in this.

 

STRING LEVELING

 

After extensive use of a piano, unison strings may move to the point where they are uneven:

                                                            

 

If so, the rising hammer will hit the lower string(s) of a note first and the higher ones later.  This has negative effects on tone.

 

Therefore, have your piano technician check string levels as often as he/she sees fit.  Our last string leveling for our grand piano cost about $50, and made the affected notes "sing" richly and clearly.

 

SECURING STRING TERMINATION POINTS

 

In order for a piano string to produce the best possible tone and purest pitch, the ends must be securely fastened to to their "termination points". Among these are the small metal protrusions on the bridge, a curved block of wood about 1 inch high that sits on the soundboard.

 

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