Piano Innovations

This article covers a number of Piano Innovations in their building, from recent times.

Piano construction is by now a rather conservative area; most of the technological advances were made by about 1880, and indeed it is possible that some contemporary piano buyers might actually be suspicious of pianos that are made differently from the older kind. Yet piano manufacturers, especially the smaller ones, are still experimenting with ways to build better pianos.

In the early 21st century, the obvious way to raise the technological level of any mechanical device is to use digital technology to control it (compare the mid 19th century, where the obvious route was to make some of its parts from steel; e.g. piano strings). Of course, digital technology has been incorporated into pianos, and this innovation is discussed below. But in a sense, it is a far greater challenge to improve the piano in its own terms, as a mechanical/acoustic device. This challenge pits the modern piano designer against some of the finest engineering minds of nineteenth century, an era when pianos represented some of the most sophisticated of all technological achievements. Nineteenth century piano innovation was, moreover, financed by a far more robust piano market than exists today.

A final issue is that the modern concert grand, 19th-century technology though it is, already sounds very good indeed in the opinion of many listeners (that is, when it is made by the finest makers and skillfully adjusted and tuned). Any innovative piano must therefore compete in the market of musical taste against formidable existing pianos.

The discussion below is organized according to some innovative contemporary piano manufacturers and the inventions with which they are associated. The Web sites of these manufacturers appear at the end.

For clarification of the various parts of the piano mentioned below, see the Wikipedia article piano.

Acoustic and mechanical innovations

The Stuart and Sons piano company of Australia makes a piano in which there are bridge agraffes. Agraffes are kind of sturdy metal clip that hold the strings in place. They were invented in 1808 by the piano pioneer Sebastian Erard and have long been employed in quality pianos. Previously, agraffes have always been located at the near end of the strings, close to the tuning pins. Stuart is apparently the first maker also to place agraffes on the bridges (of which pianos have two). It is claimed that bridge agraffes permit efficient transmission of sound from the strings to the soundboard, resulting in a very well-sustained tone. Since the strings do not need to bear down heavily on the bridges (a force of 600 to 1200 pounds = 2.7 to 5.4 kN in conventional pianos), bridge agraffes may also help preserve the crucial upward curve, or “crown,” in the soundboard.

The Astin-Weight piano company of Salt Lake City, Utah has introduced two related innovations to the upright piano. Their purpose is to obtain the largest possible soundboard, and indeed, Astin-Weight soundboards cover the entire rear surface of the piano. This is made possible by placing the pinblock forward of the soundboard, and using a peripheral metal frame instead of back posts. The Astin-Weight piano is said to produce a very rich tone, not to every listener’s taste but greatly prized by Astin-Weight owners.

The Fandrich & Sons piano company of Stanwood, Washington was set up to produce pianos with the “Fandrich vertical action”, a new kind of piano action developed by Darryll Fandrich and Chris Trivelas. It is intended to provide the same sensitivity of touch to upright pianos that is available in grands. Currently, Fandrich and Sons installs the Fandrich action in pianos made by the Klima firm, in the Czech Republic.

The Borgato workshop, in Bagnolo di Lonigo, Italy, has produced a very large double piano with pedal board, as on an organ. The bass piano, operated by the pedals, sits under the main piano, and the damper pedals of the two are coupled. This instrument permits the performance of a variety of works written by classical composers for pedal piano. Borgato pianos also feature four strings per note in the treble section. The fourth string is actually struck, and is not an aliquot string as in Blüthner pianos.

The Fazioli piano company of Sacile, Italy has taken the step of selling pianos with two (or more) actions. The idea is that different actions can be regulated and voiced according to the requirements of particular players or musical styles. Since piano actions are built as a single unit, they can be removed or inserted with just a few minutes’ work..

Fazioli has also made bold efforts in increasing the sheer size of the piano: their model F308 is the largest piano currently built, being 10 feet 2 inches (3.08 m) long and half again as heavy as today’s concert standard, the Steinway Model D.

Both Fazioli and Mason and Hamlin (of Haverhill, Massachusetts) employ tunable duplex scaling. The idea behind duplex scaling, invented by Theodore Steinway in 1872, is that those portions of the string that fall beyond the bridge can be interrupted with additional contact points, instead of simply damping them with cloth. This causes them to resonate at frequencies that (with proper design) can enhance the sound of the piano as a whole. The starting point of Fazioli and Mason and Hamlin’s innovation is that the tuning of these short stretches of free string must be done with great accuracy to achieve the full intended effect. In previous duplex scale designs, the contact points were determined in advance, during the casting (from molten metal) of the plate. Thus, small variations in casting were liable to produce imperfections in the length of the duplex string lengths. With tunable duplex scaling, these lengths can be set precisely at the factory, thus compensating for small variations in plate dimension.. In principle, then, tunable duplex scaling should produce a perfected, fully reliable implementation of Theodore Steinway’s original idea.

The Magnetic Balanced Action system, invented by Evert Snel and Hans Velo in the Netherlands, permits variable touch according to the player’s preference. The idea of the system is to use the force of magnets, whose position is adjustable, to regulate the motion of the keys, rather than fixed weights. This system is now a factory option on Fazioli and on Petrof pianos, and can be custom installed on other pianos.

The Schimmel piano company, something of a free spirit among the great pedigreed German piano firms, has made bold experiments with the appearance of the piano. These include a grand piano whose rim, lid, and other case parts are made of transparent plastic. The acoustic properties of the acrylic material used are apparently excellent. However, the somewhat lurid–albeit quite resplendent–appearance of the acrylic piano, as well as its high cost, have kept it a novelty item in the Schimmel lineup. Schimmel has also teamed up with artists Otmar Alt and Luigi Colani to produce other pianos of breathtakingly unconventional appearance.

Digital innovations

Digital technology makes possible a vastly more sensitive and flexible version of the old player piano; for instance, the modern digital player piano can record as well as play. These pianos are often called ‘hybrid pianos’, as they have characteristics of both acoustic pianos (the piano sound is made by hammers on strings) and digital pianos (record/playback capability, as well as synthesizer and audio sound capability). Currently, five major manufacturers compete in this market; see links below.

Further afield, the stringless electronic keyboard and digital piano continue to make progress. From their inception, these instruments have far outperformed the piano in flexibility of function; ultimately, research already in progress may make it possible for them some day to equal or exceed the piano in dynamic range, sensitivity of touch, or perhaps even quality of tone.

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