How do Pianos Work?

Many people have pianos in their homes and some of them know how to play the piano because they took lessons. But even some of the most accomplished piano players don’t understand the intricate nature of the piano and how the pressure applied by fingers translates into the beautiful sound of this classic instrument.

Pianos are mechanical instruments that work their best when about half a dozen different processes take place. Pianos have also been described as a “percussion” instrument in that it takes pressure on keys and the soft hammering on strings to make the sound. This differs from a horn/wind instrument that operates when we blow air into it and open or close certain holes to alter the sound.

One basic description of a piano outlines the distinct parts: keys that are part of the action; pedals that slightly alter or muffle sound; the soundboard; the strings; the frame; the casing. Over the centuries piano appearance has changed, as the frame and casing was re-designed. Some pianos have an upright appearance. The soundboard is seen as standing on end. Others, such as the grand piano, have a horizontal soundboard.

A person can make the piano sound by pressing a key. This causes the hammer to move away from then strike the string that corresponds with the key pressed. The hammers have soft, felt-covered surfaces that strike the strings with enough force to cause the string to vibrate. Strings are stretched across the soundboard and securely fastened at both ends. Strings are of different diameters and lengths, with large-diameter, long strings providing the lower-pitched notes and thin, wire-like short strings giving us the high-pitched sounds.

But the strings must be connected to the soundboard in a specific manner to allow the string sound to be audible. The construction of the soundboard and casing amplify the string vibration and translate it into something we can hear. A person playing the piano can affect the loudness of the sound somewhat by striking the key with a bit more force or a bit less force. But the sound level is generally limited without further amplification from a microphone and electric amplifier. In smaller rooms, pianos produce sound loud enough for comfortable listening.

Piano players can change the sound of the instrument by using pedals pressed by the foot. One pedal, usually on the left of the player, can shorten the stroke length of the hammer that strikes the string, making the sound a little softer. Strings are not dampened at all when the right-hand pedal is depressed. This allows the player to slightly increase the sound level. Players may be a selective in which strings are dampened by using the middle pedal.

This is a very general discussion of how a piano works. However, it is close enough to typical piano operation to give us an idea of how this amazing instrument produces sound. Some pianos have large, large soundboards that produce a deep, rich sound. Others have short soundboards that are fine for small rooms and for practice. But all are based on similar design.

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