Piano components

Piano components

Even if we're talking about grand pianos or upright pianos, its many parts are organized into 5 general areas: the case of the wing-shaped grand piano (or the cabinet of the vertical or upright piano); the soundboard and the ribs and bridges that are its components; the cast iron plate; the strings; and, collectively, the keys, hammers, and piano action or mechanism.

The first piece of the piano that we see and most attracts us is the keyboard. As you probably know, almost every modern piano has 88 keys (52 white and 36 black), seven octaves + a minor third, from A0 to C8. In the early years of piano construction, keys were commonly made from sugar pine. Today they are usually made of spruce or basswood. Spruce is typically used in high-quality pianos. Black keys were traditionally made of ebony, and the white keys were covered with strips of ivory. However, since ivory-yielding species are now endangered and protected by treaty, makers use plastics almost exclusively. Also, ivory tends to chip more easily than plastic. Legal ivory can still be obtained in limited quantities. The Yamaha firm invented a plastic called "Ivorite" that they claim mimics the look and feel of ivory. It has since been imitated by other makers.

In order to produce sound, one must press at least one key. All keys are part of a hammer-action mechanism, pressing a key triggers (with the help of the mechanical system which is in place) the afferent hammer to strike a specific string (or strings), the hammer rebounds, and the strings continue to vibrate at their resonant frequency.

The strings which must endure years of extreme tension and hard blows, are made of high carbon steel. The bass strings of a piano are made of a steel core wrapped with copper wire, to increase their mass whilst retaining flexibility. If all strings throughout the piano's compass were individual (only one string), the massive bass strings would overpower the upper ranges. Makers compensate for this with the use of double (2 strings) strings in the tenor and triple (3 strings) strings throughout the treble. The 220 to 240 strings of the piano are attached to hitch pins along the curved edge of the cast iron plate and to tuning pins across the front of the piano, roughly parallel to the keyboard.

A massive plate is advantageous. Since the strings vibrate from the plate at both ends, an insufficiently massive plate would absorb too much of the vibrational energy that should go to through the bridge to the soundboard. While some manufacturers use cast steel in their plates, most prefer cast iron. Cast iron is easy to cast and machine, has flexibility sufficient for piano use, is much more resistant to deformation than steel, and is especially tolerant of compression. The pinblock, which holds the tuning pins in place, is another area where toughness is important. It is made of hardwood (typically hard maple or beech), and is laminated for strength, stability and longevity.

Because the vibrating piano strings themselves are not very loud, in order to produce that rich sound that a piano has, the vibrations are transmitted through a bridge to a soundboard that amplifies the sound. Some soundboards are made from plywood (laminated wood) but they are not as qualitative as the hardwood soundboards.

In order for the soundboard to do its job better (amplify the sound), a piano must have a sturdy rim (case). The purpose of a sturdy rim is so that the energy produced by the vibration of the strings will stay as much as possible in the soundboard instead of dissipating uselessly in the case parts, thus producing a much richer sound. In order to receive that effect the materials used for the rim must be qualitative. While many companies make hardwood rims by laminating thin (hence flexible) strips of hardwood plywood, bending them to the desired shape immediately after the application of glue, high-end manufacturers use a solid piece of wood. Bösendorfer, the Austrian manufacturer of high-quality pianos, constructs their rim from spruce, the same wood that the soundboard is made from. Their idea is to concertedly involve the cabinet in the projection and coloration of sound. The loss of energy into the Bösendorfer case alters the instrument's tone, giving it perhaps less power but a complex and unusually resonant sound.

And last but not least: pedals. Pianos have had pedals, or some close equivalent, since the earliest days. (In the 18th century, some pianos used levers pressed upward by the player's knee instead of pedals.) Most grand pianos in the US have three pedals: the soft pedal (one string), sostenuto, and sustain pedal (from left to right, respectively), while in Europe, the standard is two pedals: the soft pedal and the sustain pedal. Most modern upright pianos also have three pedals: soft pedal, practice pedal and sustain pedal, though older or cheaper models may lack the practice pedal. In Europe the standard for upright pianos is two pedals: the soft and the sustain pedals.

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