Shortly after we got married, my wife and I took possession of a 1918 upright piano that had not been tuned in a long time. We didn't know enough about pianos to know better, so we spent considerable time and effort to transport it 40 miles and up a short flight of stairs into our new home... only to dismantle it by hand less than a year later and slowly throw it away. It couldn't be tuned, and it took up too much room to keep if it wasn't going to be played. I think we sold the cast iron soundboard as scrap for a few dollars, and I did save some of the larger pieces of wood, which I used to build a bed for my two-year old son a few years later.
As a side note, if you've never taken apart a piano, I highly recommend it. You get a specific understanding of its inner workings, even if you think you already know how it functions.
Pictures of the piano disassembly:
With the keyboard removed: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2193/2299985304_d0b38313f6_b.j...
The keys that I saved for a long time but never found a use for: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2091/2299984652_a024f4a05e_b.j... (They're like teeth that have been knocked out: much much longer than you'd expect.)
The soundboard exposed, and the huge screwdriver I had to buy (see the top of the photo) to remove the screws attaching it to the wooden back: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3105/2300002756_92e8503676_b.j...
The soundboard removed: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2217/2300002188_68c614d900_b.j...
Just a portion of the screws and other hardware holding it together: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2095/2299206761_ae640697d9_b.j...
Having tuned pianos for about six years, I think this is a misconception. An piano left untuned for many years will certainly lose its ability to be retuned in a single tuning. Owners who try to bring it back into tune with a single tuning will fail, and think it can't be retuned. That's completely normal. What's more, retuning it correctly (evenly distributed tension) may be beyond the casual neighborhood tuner. But the absolute inability to be retuned is rare.
On the other hand, if the strings need replacing (sound dead, tinny, or thin, after as many as 50 years for good strings or as few as 10 for poor ones) or the tuning pins don't hold (long term lack of climate control), the piano probably needs restringing, which is labor and skill intensive and maybe not worth the time and money (from one to several grand) compared to purchasing a new piano (Costco has surprisingly good prices!) unless it has sentimental or collector value. But if you don't mind the expense, even with bad strings and tuning pins, the piano can be fixed and tuned.
Provided the tuning pins hold and the strings aren't ruined, a piano can generally be retuned in a patient series of 3 - 5 tuning sessions to gradually (with ample settling time between sessions) bring the whole (strings, soundboard, plate, bridges) back into well balanced tension.
It sounds to me like cfinke made a poor choice when acquiring a used instrument, then extrapolated that to 'all old instruments are bad/can't properly hold pitch'. (/exaggeration).
cfinke should've just gotten someone who knows about pianos to help him/her choose a good one, the way you might with a used car (although the choice is more subtle and less statistics-based).
As a counter example, I practice every day for hours on a baby grand piano from the 1930's which is very sturdy, with a beautiful tone. It was sitting unused (and untuned!) for decades in an old woman's house.
It was purchased for 1,000 euros at an auction, one of only two bidders.
I had it tuned by someone: it still sounded problematic, but good for practicing. I had a different tuner come and he made it sound incredibly good after a single tuning.
So the technician makes a huge difference too.
Piano restoration is fascinating, but engineers tend to underestimate how important trained hearing is in in order to improve the sound.
(rather than just being able to make a piano function properly on a mechanical level).
This information came to me via my father (a church musician, organist, and pianist for 40 years) and a number of piano tuners in the area that I talked to about getting the piano back in playing condition. I'm familiar with musical instruments and wouldn't claim that all old instruments are bad.
cfinke should've just gotten someone who knows about pianos to help him/her choose a good one
When we did eventually purchase a piano, we talked to the right people and made an informed decision. In the story I shared, the price (free) was more important than the condition.
We made a piano desk. Took about 2-3 days to complete. Typing on it now matter of fact! :) Be happy to answer any questions.
Do you know the sound that the TARDIS makes when it materializes? Part of that sound is someone at the BBC radiophonic workshop scraping a wrench against the strings on a harp from a disassembled piano.
"What do you play?"
The strings are under a lot of tension, and if they're way out of tune simply cranking them a semitone back into tune won't do much. They won't stay put.
From the bit I've dealt with a piano tuner, they told that you're generally not supposed to tune it more than I believe it was about 4 cents each time (a semitone is 100 cents). It gives the strings and everything else a chance to adjust before tuning again. It's a similar idea to a guitar I think... If you just crank the tuning pegs around a few times it generally doesn't stay in tune very well. It needs to be a slow process.
If you've got an old, very out of tune piano it may take several tunings over a couple of years to bring it back into tune, but it should be do-able.
There's also humidity to take into account - you need to keep the humidity pretty constant while you do this or the wood will absorb/release water and change shape and bring the piano back out of tune.
I just rebuilt the engine in my truck. A neglected engine does not spell the end for a vehicle - but it seems to be that that is in fact the case for a neglected piano. Is that true?
Well, you could always disassemble the piano, replace the strings, tuning pegs, and possibly the soundboard, and put it back together, but what you really have is a new piano in an old case, much like if you completely rebuilt the mechanical parts of a car but kept the original body.
It seems like those "negative value" pianos would be a good source for reclaimed wood for woodworking projects. I can see turning an old upright into a solid end table or something.
Most of those eighty-year-old instruments really aren't worth keeping, and if you want your instrument to live to be eighty in good condition you need to budget for ongoing maintenance, and then eventually get the thing torn down and rebuilt. It's like owning a car.
It's hard, though, because I remember playing with my late grandmother's piano when I was around five years old, and now it's probably in a landfill somewhere. On the other hand, I still have my grandfather's slide rule, which he took to meteorology school at MIT during World War II. The secret is to choose highly portable mementoes of a bygone technological era. ;)
Aside from their historical or ornamental value as furniture, old pianos are pretty useless.
The design and construction of string instruments like violins is pretty much a solved problem. Yes there is variation in the way the wood is shaped and carved, which gives you the different grades of quality, but the basic engineering problem of "how do you make a violin" is solved.
Because a piano is much more complex there is a lot of room for continual innovation in both materials and construction. This might be the reason that you don't see people performing on old pianos - the newer ones are just technologically superior. That and it just takes so much effort (and money) to maintain a quality piano.
That being said, there is a legion of both pianists and violinists that will tell you (incorrectly or not) that the sound of an instrument improves with age. Something about the fibers in the wood being affected by vibration.
[Edit: maintenance cost as a factor]
It has lost a lot of volume, some keys are "bited" and some strings get easily out of tune. But, believe me, it still sounds great. The lower range of notes beats most pianos I have heard (and played). It needs maintenance, but it's not useless. I think a piano can last a lot of time if you take care of it.
More entertaining version: http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/01/02/1444828...
I don't understand. Violins are instruments too. Did you just mean pianos, or others too?
A decently constructed instrument in the violin family will, as will (to a lesser extent) brass instruments.
I don't have a particular set of citations, it's just musician lore.
A year ago, we were offered an upright Kimball built in 1970 by my newly acquired in-laws. My father in law is a portly fellow and insisted we move it ourselves, but I instead paid exactly 300 dollars to have it moved the 14 miles from Exeter to Lee.
We let it adjust to the humidity in our house for a half a year, and then we paid exactly 175 dollars to have it tuned. As subjective as this is, the man who tuned it said "it was a D and now it is a B". He said that the Kimballs are a very cheap piano with a cheap sound, and tried to sell me a grand piano for 5000 dollars used. It would have required I vacate my home office to the basement.
He had other pianos for sale, and some were as affordable (but as cheap) as the 300 dollars I paid for a free piano.
It's immensely pleasurable having a piano next to where I program. I don't know what I am doing, but I suspect this is a lot of the allure - I sit there and poke, and figure out my programming challenge of the day while my fingers are occupied. We all know full well how the frontal lobe needs to be engaged for the "coprocessor" to have a chance at resolving our issues for us.
The piano is about 4 feet wide and barely 2 feet from the wall. Since the bench sits underneath, this is frankly not a huge investment in space. I recommend a piano highly to the non-player due to its affordability and its distraction properties, my own version of prayer beads I use while debugging in my head.
While not directly related, this is exactly the same reason I have a beater guitar hanging directly next to my workstation - if I get into a bit of tough code, I just take a break, strum a few chords, and then get back down to business.
By the way, if you take just a handful of lessons, you'll probably get further with your playing than you might think. There's way too much "you have to learn music as a kid" mentality out there — adults can pick up the basics, too.
I estimate that anyone with a better-than-tin ear can play something like http://www.gmajormusictheory.org/Freebies/Classics/WTCPrelu.... in a matter of a few weeks after learning some scales.
Sort of applies to programming as well if you see what I mean.
There are two problems that cause this:
1. Lack of craftsmanship in the original instrument.
2. The expense and lack of skilled labor to restore and regulate pianos.
It's just too expensive and time consuming to have a skilled technician work on a low-quality piano, and because they are not made well in the first place, they just won't stay well-regulated for long.
Because of this, even a relatively new and good looking piano doesn't make a great instrument once it gets past a certain point.
This is a common problem in music schools. Most of the pianos are in poor condition and the technicians can't keep up with keeping them in good shape, and the good pianos are generally locked up and only the piano majors have access to them.
Only high end pianos are worth putting any time and money into, and because of that they actually make a good investment, while the value of low end pianos just drops off a cliff and they end up in a dumpster because they aren't even worth moving and repairing.
The relative lack of (touch) sensitivity and the more limited variation in timbre are immediately noticeable. One of the other qualities of a traditional piano that I instantly miss in even the best digital simulations is sympathetic vibration. Holding the sustain pedal down will not simply allow the notes to play longer. Other strings that freed up begin to vibrate as well. It produces an effect that - the last I checked - is not well emulated in a digital environment.
Reflective of the values of our age I guess. Small, relatively portable, low maintenance wins out in many other arenas. Why not music...
I currently use a Yamaha P155. The keys are weighted and touch-sensitive just like a real piano. Each key has its own recording, with its own timbre, at different volume levels. I can even use a damper pedal which responds to have far down I've pushed it.
It's not exactly the same as a real piano, but as someone who played a real piano for 10 years, it's damned close. It's not like moving from a gas stove to a microwave, it's like moving from a gas stove to an electric stove. Not quite the same, but for nearly all practical purposes, it's good enough -- and wearing headphones in your apartment so your neighbors don't hate you, it just wins.
I will admit, though, when I want thunder, there's no substitute for real strings.
You know how when you depress the pedal on a piano (without playing) the dampers lifting from the strings causes them to quietly ring a little bit? They model that now.
You know how if you quietly depress a key to keep a single damper open, and then loudly strike a staccato note in the bass, how the first note resonates with some harmonics from the bass note? They're modeling that now too.
They used to try to save memory by not sampling the entire decay of a note (after some amount of decay, they would start looping a brief sample, playing it little quieter each iteration). Now they sample the entire decay, because memory is cheap enough.
Here are some videos of the one that caught my eye:
I'm tempted to go try to play some. It would be very nice to not have to pay for periodic tunings.
Most of the weight of a piano comes from the cast iron frame inside that holds the >20 tons of tension from the strings. And this piano was no exception - it was an "upright grand" meaning it was as tall as a baby grand is long. It took six of us to cajole it up my friend's stairs.
So when moving time came for him and his wife we had to decide what to do with the piano. None of us wanted to move the damn thing again, and since I really didn't have an emotional attachment to it whatsoever, we came up with the next best idea - cut it to pieces with a sawzall. And like another commenter said, if you ever have the opportunity to do this, do it. It was pretty fun. There's nothing quite like the sound of taking wire cutters to a fully tense piano string.
... as long as you're careful about it. I know musicians who have been injured by being in the wrong place when a string snapped.
We bought our kids an old used full-sized keyboard (Technics P-30). It is an older model but it sounds nice and most importantly, the kids can practice with headphones on, saving the sanity of others in the house.
We just got rid of my parents' old upright piano, which had been abused by all of us kids for decades, but was still almost perfectly in tune.
It was definitely negative value. It was heavy and taking up valuable space. It cost almost $200 to get piano movers to take it to salvage / the dump. So if someone had taken it for free, we would have been ecstatic.
(Also, our Technics SX-PX552 does the job just fine.)
Sometimes books simply aren't worth the shelf space.
I eventually felt the same about a $50 guitar that I bought out of musiciansfriend catalogue when I was 16. Tuning pegs that wouldn't sit still, poorly aligned frets… the rosette was printed onto a piece of paper. It's hard to believe that something as beautiful as a musical instrument could be built so poorly.
I suppose you should take care to not extend the sentiment to finely crafted foods.
The only market for real pianos these days is with serious professionals, concert venues, and people who use them as furniture.
I also wouldn't say that a real piano is only for a serious pro. Real pianos are a different instrument from keyboards; I wanted one within two weeks of starting piano lessons. But that brings us to the other half of the equation: New pianos are relatively inexpensive, because manufacturing is increasingly efficient. It's more cost-effective to buy new than to take a chance on rehabilitating a piano from 1962.
EDIT: Incidentally, when I say "relatively inexpensive", I mean "for a piano". There's a very real temptation to stick with electronic keyboards. The temptation is measured in kilodollars.
I used to be a sceptic, but playing the latest digitals which acoustically model the soundboard, strings and action of a piano, the experience is very impressive. It genuinely does feel like playing the real thing, even if the sound comes through speakers. If I come to buy my own piano, I'd go digital.
Lots of info at that subreddit FAQ. Also this, about how Yamaha makes lots of models with Graded Hammer Action
That could be because I learned on a real piano, I acquired sloppy habits that a real piano forgives. Perhaps people learning on a digital would learn different sloppy habits that only a digital would forgive.
Has happened to a number of instruments.
There should be an opportunity here for leasing non-digital pianos, given some technical solution that solves the transportation problem. (Perhaps something like a PODS transporter? Composite frame?) The size of the disposal problem is a big pain point.
Carbon fiber composite pianos might represent a significant advance. Such composites are stiff enough to avoid much of the "settling" of a metal and wood structure under such immense compression and cantilever loads. (Carbon fiber composites are so stiff, they caused Boeing some problems with their newest plane. Instead of tolerances resulting in the gradual bending and settling of metal parts into place, the slightly mismatched carbon fiber parts maintained their stresses.) This property would significantly reduce the labor costs of tuning.
The dynamic range of some pianos is already too large, increased sustain beyond current levels makes everything sound muddy, and "brighter" could mean "harsher". For the same reasons, people are reluctant to replace wooden parts of other instruments with newer materials. I'd be willing to buy one, but I'd definitely have to play it first.
This is rather debatable. I would rather have a restored piano from an established manufacturer than a shiny new one from an untested brand at the same price.
Always sad to see old technology go away. (ie anyone read a hard copy of a book lately?)
(Sorry if that sounds harsh, it is intended more to be just a firm statement).
The complexity of the piano sound is very, very difficult to duplicate, although we've been trying for decades.
There is no question that electric pianos are more practical for certain situations (country houses in climates with high humidity, for example).
But those are exceptions where practical concerns outweigh aesthetics (like watching a DVD on your laptop on the train).
A fine, hand-made acoustic piano has no serious contenders at the moment, from the viewpoint of both the musician, and the sophisticated listener.
One could argue that fine, hand-made instruments are becoming more rare because they are more expensive to produce and the market has shrunk, but that is a different argument.
A fine film camera has no serious contenders at the moment, from the viewpoint of both the photographers, and the sophisticated viewer
Some professional photographers said basically the same thing on film vs digital cameras a decade ago. See what do we have now. I can even predict that in ten years Steinway will bankrupt like what Kodak did.
As a programmer, I especially disagree with this point. The challenges digital pianos face right now is the key-touching not the sound itself.
I'll take the other side of that bet.