Posts tagged scale

The History of Piano String Tension

Blah! The title of this sounds to most as exciting as watching paint dry.  Operative words being “to most”… to me however this is one of the more interesting charts i’ve seen in a long time.  Back in 2005, published by Europiano, Juan Más Cabré wrote this article showing the differing string tensions over the last few hundred years. Everything i know about string tension i learned as a child with a bread pan and rubberbands. Hahaaa… i used to make musical instruments when i was a kid. What fascinated me though was the thickness of the rubber band and the sound that would happen at a certain pitch. This is exactly what’s going on in pianos. The graph shows the earliest of pianos from Cristofori (in 1726). That string tension is little more than that of a harpsichord. It became evident that a stronger frame would be neccessary to implement higher tension. With higher tension comes more singing tone. Next on the list is Silbermann who asked Bach for some input. Silbermann contributed the damper device (similar to a damper pedal) to the piano. Shortly thereafter in the Classical era (Beethoven’s time) more and more iron was added to the wooden frame so as to boost the string tension – again with more singing, sustaining sound and also more resonance and power. Enter the famed Steinway and Bosendorfer. Interesting to note is that “more is not always better”. There have been pianos that have had higher string tensions (as in Ibach) but manufacturers decide what sound is pleasing. This is part of the backbone of ‘scale’ – the trade secrets of piano makers. Length of string, thickness of wire and tension of string all add to the sound. To get a mini idea of this, play around with a bread pan. It really is a fascinating exercise in string tension. And after that… just make some fresh bread. Nothing beats music and food together :)

Piano Scale Design

There are SO many differences in piano design.  “Well aren’t all pianos kinda the same?” you ask.  Not at ALL!!!! (I can’t emphatically add more stress to this point).  Yes pianos operate the same – they all have soundboards, strings, keys and actions.  Think about cars… BMW, Toyota, Honda, GM… they all drive but do they feel identical? Of course not.  Even within the same company there are huge differences between models.  Toyota makes (my beloved) Landcruiser but they also have made the Tercel (and trust me… i’ve owned both and there are few similarities).  Pianos, within the same company have different designs.  These designs are called “scales”.  When you play hundreds of pianos you will appreciate a good scale.  So what’s the difference between a good scale and a bad one?  Oooohhhh (rubbing hands together) where do we start? Hmmmm let’s start at strings: There are 2 types of strings on any piano – plain wire steel treble strings and copper wound bass strings.  In the steel wire treble strings, there are about 2 dozen sizes of wire (plus half sizes!) ranging from 0.029″ to about 0.059″ in thickness.  To look at them, they all kinda look the same but they are INCREDIBLY different.  So each note is matched in length and tightness to the pitch of the note.  Someone then decides “OK let’s use size 14.5 wire for that note on the piano”.  Now that’s part of the design – part of a decision to make a piano sound a certain way.  Now getting into the bass section… OMG! There are hundreds if not thousands of permutations on what could be used for the centre ‘core’ of the string but also the copper winding… how much mass, how long is the copper blah blah blah… there are HUGE choices to be made on JUST the strings alone.  Which reminds me… i should write a blog about great sounding bass strings… cuz trust me, not all strings are equal (far from it).  And believe it or not, there are different grades of steel wire as well – all factors that play into the overall sound of the instrument.  So that’s just one tiny tiny element of piano design… then you think about hammers – the quality, the weight, the placement… the action – the various types…. the frame, the soundboard, the quality of the wood… even the expertise of installation… the list goes on and on and on!!! Someone once told me “The piano requires the attention to a thousand details”.  I believed him… THAT’s scale design.

All this to say… i have found that there are 2 pianos that i tune that i REALLY REALLY enjoy.  One being the Yamaha C7 – it’s the 7 foot Yamaha grand.  The other is a Boston 6′ grand (designed by Steinway, manufactured by Kawai).  Both have SUCH smooth scales… meaning that the sound from one note to the next is like a string of pearls – matched in tone and timbre – fundamental and overtones.  Nothing beats a good scale.  Shout out to Steve in Metchosin who has me regularly tune his C7 and to Hillary and Lawrence on their choice of such a wonderful Boston.  Thanks… those pianos remind me of why i love to play.

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