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How The Piano Works and How You Can Play Better

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

If you're wanting to start learning the wonderful instrument that is the piano, it is a good idea to have some basic understanding of its workings. This will help you achieve the desirable effects when playing and developing your technique.

Pianos work entirely by lever mechanism - specifically, it's a type of lever mechanism that was much more sophisticated than the piano's predecessor: the harpsichord.

A Brief History

The harpsichord has a distinctly different sound to the piano, although its interior is rather similar (though smaller scale). However, its lever mechanism results in strings being plucked rather than struck. Its design also meant that there was no dynamic - something that led to the brand new musical instrument of the piano having what we might now refer to as a USP : Dynamics!

The full name for the piano is 'pianoforte', which is quite literally two Italian words spliced together.

'Piano' - Soft

'Forte' - Loud

So, this instrument was quite literally called a 'Soft Loud' because of its revolutionary new technique that resulted in being able to bring out serious dynamic changes, thus creating far more emotive performances than previously possible on any keyboard instrument.

The original pianos were, of course, grand, but when the more home friendly uprights were developed they were done so with virtually the same mechanism - just that the interior was upright rather than flat!

So let's explore how it works.

Inside a Piano

The Keys

When you look at a piano, you see a keyboard and to all appearances these keys just stop when they reach the frame of the piano. Except they don't.

They continue underneath and each individual key is joined to an intricate lever system designed to hit a small group of strings tuned to its respective note.

There are a few components at play here:

The Soundboard

The soundboard is quite literally where the strings are. If you took it out of the piano, it wouldn't look too dis-similar to a harp. This is because of the shape of it.

The lower notes naturally need longer strings, whereas higher notes require less.

Obviously it looks different to a harp really!

The bass strings are considerably thicker, and the treble strings are groups of strings as opposed to individuals. Furthermore - especially in upright pianos - because the bass strings are so tall, they are often angled inwards to the soundboard so that their whole height doesn't have to be recognised.

In a grand piano, the soundboard lies flat and towards the top of the frame.

In an upright piano, the soundboard is - you guessed it - upright and towards the back of the frame.

In order to get the best sounds from your piano the soundboards should be given ample opportunity to resonate. In a grand piano, you have a lid. This is opened and allows for complete resonance. In upright pianos, you still do have a lid but - better still - the fronts of upright pianos come off and this allows for absolute resonance (this is how piano tuners access the soundboard to tune an upright!)

The Dampers

A damper is a padded piece of wood that sits very snugly over a string / group of strings There is an individual damper for each individual note (key). In order for the piano to sound as clean as possible when playing, these dampers are there to avoid any unnecessary reverberation, sustain or resonance from any of the strings.

Therefore, when you press a key, it immediately lifts the damper off the string(s). When you let go, the damper immediately resumes to cut off the note.

In a grand piano, the dampers are above the strings. In an upright piano, they are in front of the strings.

The Hammers

The hammers have quite an intricate lever mechanism. This is what strikes the note to produce the sound, and again there is an individual hammer per key / note.

The intricacy of the hammer mechanism is in its need to immediately pull back from the strings once it has struck, as if it were anything but an immediate, snappy hit it would not allow the struck strings to resonate.

In a grand piano, gravity is very much on the side of this mechanism as they are horizontal and underneath the soundboard. In an upright piano, they are also upright!

The Pedals

There are a minimum of two pedals in a piano;

Soft Pedal (Left)

It should be noted that the soft pedal should be used sparingly. It doesn't automatically make your playing soft - it relies heavily on your playing a very gentle dynamic anyway as the difference it makes is incredibly subtle. It is very rare to see it notated in printed music, but if you see Una Corda and Tre Corda respectively, this is instruction to depress and release the pedal (respectively). (NOTE the pedal's formal name is the Una Corda pedal!)

There are two ways in which you may note the soft pedal works;

  1. All hammers are moved closer to the strings, therefore reducing the distance needed to strike, further reducing the space in which to get as strong a dynamic. This is especially true in modern upright pianos.

  2. All of the keys will shift very slightly to one side. This is truer in grand pianos - particularly older ones - and can be mistaken for a fault or a sign of wear! In moving slightly to the left, the keys bring the hammers with them, meaning that the hammers strike less of a string for bass notes, or fewer strings in a group for treble notes, thus reducing the dynamic.

Sustain Pedal (Right)

The popular pedal! The right pedal will literally allow resonance of all strings for as long as it is depressed. Therefore, it's quite easy to guess how it might work;

All the dampers are lifted off the strings whilst the pedal is pressed.

Sostenuto Pedal (Middle)

If you have an older piano and it has three pedals, you may find that it is not, in fact, a sostenuto pedal. It may be one whereby you depress keys prior to depressing the pedal, whilst you do whilst still holding down your key selection, and then those keys and only those keys will sustain. A nice idea, but only practical for showing people its purpose and not for playing!

Therefore, more modern middle pedals are the sostenuto pedals, a.k.a practice pedals.

The pedal is connected to a material - a soft felt - which falls between the hammers and the soundboard, creating a much more muted sound. Perfect for practicing late at night!

Improve Your Playing Accordingly

When you understand the interior of a piano a little better, you can play better!

On an electric piano, you are very much dictated by programmed responses. For example, electric pedalboards act like an on/off switch - you either get sustain or you don't, for instance.

Similarly, although you can usually adjust the dynamic range on modern MIDI keyboard and electric pianos, the range between the lowest and the highest dynamic is more a 'staggered' scale than a sliding one (for example, they may have 10 different loudnesses programmed in, as opposed to being able to achieve every single one).

When it comes time to exploring dynamic, consider how you touch the keys. Different dynamic can be achieved from striking higher up the key (nearer the body of the piano) compared to more 'on the edge', and even the movement from your hands onto the keys are influential. Keys, hammers and subsequently - the strings - all respond to vibration, so consider how you lean into them if you want to play softer, or fall onto them if you want to play harder.

Regarding the pedalboard, the a sustain pedal fully depressed releases all the dampers. Fully off means all the dampers are firmly against the strings. But there is movement between. Pressing the pedal a little allows for a tiny bit of resonance. Or, on the flip side - if you feel your sustain is too much but you don't want it to stop dead whilst you adjust it, just gradually lift the pedal up to cap the notes a little rather than stop them completely.


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