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Pianos - better with age?
#266600 10/13/08 02:50 PM
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If a piano remained in excellent mechanical condition, could it sound better with age?

Fine guitars do. Pre-war Martin guitars can be worth ten times as much as new ones. Opinions seem mixed on violins, but most violinists would, I think, say yes.

Why would a piano, if kept in excellent condition, not improve?

Bob


Bob Runyan, RPT
Chico, CA
www.runyanpiano.com
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266601 10/13/08 03:15 PM
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Hi Bob, great question.

Here is my amateurish response… you can put a new set of strings on a guitar or violin in 30 minutes or less; plus there are virtually no moving parts, other than maybe the tuning keys/pins on the guitar/violin. As the wood ages, the guitar/violin sounds richer and mellower.

Not so with the piano. The piano has many moving parts; the hammers get compressed and grooved from hitting the strings. The strings can get fatigued and dead sounding in time. The tuning pins can get loose/looser in time. The flanged shanks, whippins, damper works and other moving parts can get worn and negatively affect the tone. Other felt and leather parts get warn.

Of course, regular tuning and regulation will drastically extend the life of an acoustic piano.

So, my answer is… in the short term, pianos may sound better with age due to better tuning stability; but in the long term, the touch and tone of a piano will only deteriorate. Of course, a good quality piano (or even a mediocre quality piano) usually has a long life span before it needs rebuilding. I’m sure some of the piano rebuilders/experts here will chime in with their .02.

Best regards,

Rickster


Piano enthusiast and amateur musician: "Treat others the way you would like to be treated". Yamaha C7. YouTube Channel
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266602 10/13/08 03:16 PM
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Pianos are not like violins or guitars. They do not improve with age excepting a brief break-in period. Much of this is due to the enormous pressure things are under (40,000 pounds), and the 10,000 complicated parts.


Co-Author of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Buying A Piano. A "must read" before you shop.
Work for west coast dealer for Yamaha, Schimmel, Bosendorfer, Wm. Knabe.
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266603 10/13/08 03:18 PM
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Pianos do not get better with age. The action has a zillion moving parts that wear out, the hammers wear out, the dampers wear out and don't work right. The pin blocks get loose and/or crack, the sound boards crack, lose their crown and compress. The strings get old, corroded and dead sounding.

Good old pianos can be rebuilt to be good again but then, of course, they are no longer old.

In my opinion, people who say they have hundred year old pianos that they say sound and play good have a high tolerance for poor sound and loose clattery actions.

If I had my choice I'd take a new one every time.

violin's etc. have virtually no moving parts and constantly get new strings and bows.


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Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266604 10/13/08 03:26 PM
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Dear bobrunyan,

Although pianos can blossom and sound better for some time, they have 20 tons of pressure from the over 200 strings. Guitars have 6 strings, violins only 4. The extreme pressure in a piano is trying every minute of everyday to flatten the crown of the soundboard, far greater stress than any other stringed instrument (pianos are actually usually categorized as precussion). Therefore, pianos tend to eventually lose their crown and therefore tone.

Sincerely,
Jennifer


Co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying a Piano. I work for a West Coast dealer that carries Bosendorfer, Schimmel, Vogel, Wm. Knabe, and Yamaha.
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266605 10/13/08 03:49 PM
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Can the crown be restored in a soundboard that has lost it? If it could, all things being equal, would it sound better than it did when new as a result of its aging?

Bob


Bob Runyan, RPT
Chico, CA
www.runyanpiano.com
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266606 10/13/08 04:05 PM
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Originally posted by bobrunyan:
Can the crown be restored in a soundboard that has lost it? If it could, all things being equal, would it sound better than it did when new as a result of its aging?

Bob
This is a question better answered by a rebuilder. In my very limited experience I would say no. The very fiber of the wood deteriorates over time. The sound board can be shimmed to give it some crown and force cracks back together, but the effect is very temporary. That's why most sound boards are eventually replaced or the pianos dumped. The primary culprit that causes sound boards to lose crown is shifts in humidity while the wood is under pressure. In the summer when humidity is relatively high the wood will swell from the additional moisture. In the winter it will dry out shrinking the wood. In those parts of teh country where it is always dry this effect is considerably lessened though not eliminated. In tropical climes the same holds true. It is the change of seasons with its attendant change in relative humidity hat kills sound boards.


Steve Chandler
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Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266607 10/13/08 05:03 PM
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If you pour wine in a piano and leave it there for a few years, it will taste better.

Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266608 10/14/08 06:11 PM
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I am impressed with Steve's answer. Let me add a little to it. Before a soundboard is shimmed, it is dried out, as dry as it was when first installed, which would be down to 5 to 6% wood moisture content. This would enlarge any cracks, (and may cause other cracks) so when the cracks are filled with shims or something else, while still at 5%, you will probably get a little rise of crown when the board again takes on the room's humidity. But this will not help at all if you started with no crown or little crown, because it is the ribs that impart crown to the board rather than the other way around. So that "crown" will quickly disappear, since it isn't supported by the ribs. Further, as Steve alluded to, the wood fibers (cells) deteriorate while under the string pressure (bearing). This pressure can be as high as 1000 pounds total, and will vary depending upon the moisture content of the board.

So, no, crown cannot be restored to an old board, unless you remove it from the piano and put new ribs on (in which case, you might as well use a new board (soundboard blank)).


Vince Mrykalo RPT MPT
KU Piano Technician

Science has become the belief in the ignorance of experts - Richard Feynman
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266609 10/14/08 06:25 PM
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Horowitz's CD314503 is the poster child for a perfectly maintained piano lasting in top playing condition for 60+ years. Maybe LJC could chime in about CD314 & his '68 Hamburg D.

The catch here, though, is that Horowitz took extreme good care of CD314. Most 1940's era pianos are just that, old pianos that have seen better days.


Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nuclear weapons.
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266610 10/14/08 06:29 PM
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If you pour wine in a piano and leave it there for a few years, it will taste better.
The wine or the piano?

Well spoken words on the soundboard issue...are you guys stockholders in Damp Chaser systems?

Living in AZ, I wouldn't be without mine! cool


Play skillfully!.....Psalm 33:3
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266611 10/14/08 07:11 PM
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there seems to be some disagreement on exactly how much pressure the strings exert on the soundboard via the bridge(s). people have said from 1000 lbs to 40,000 (20 tons). i understand that different scale designs and different sized pianos will cause some variation, but what is the general range of this tension?


Bösendorfer 214(CS)-495 48311
Yamaha CLP-240
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266612 10/14/08 07:36 PM
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It is true that as pianos get older the wood deteriorates, the parts wear, the strings (especially the copper wound bass) go dead, the soundboard because of the pressure of the strings loses its' shape, etc. But no one on this post (as of yet) has discussed the rim or body itself. I once had a customer tell me "A dealer told me that vibrations don't travel through the rim". That could be on some pianos whose bodies are constructed with less than top of the line materials. But for those of you out there that have a really fine instrument - have someone play it while you put your hand and your ear to the body - you'll feel it! (maybe even on the not so fine ones - I don't deal with them so I don't know for sure.) With quality stock wood for the body of the instrument I cannot see how a piano cannot improve with age. Replacing the soundboard, hammers, strings, etc. - then only enhances and helps the projection of that sound.


Stephen Drasche - Drasche Pianos/AC Pianocraft, Inc. 4th generation piano rebuilder - Steinway specialist
www.acpianocraft.com
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266613 10/14/08 08:18 PM
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I have read that in a modern grand the total string tension can exceed 20 tons. Most of this tension is taken by the plate. The pressure on the soundboard is caused by the downwards force of the strings, which are slightly angled over the bridges. The bulk of the 20 tons will essentially be a horizontal force, whereas it is the vertical component which gives rise to the pressure on the soundboard. This will be a lot less. A quick calculation shows that a downbearing of 1000 lbs, with an overall tension of 40000 lbs, corresponds to the strings being angled by 3 degrees as they pass over the bridges.

Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266614 10/15/08 01:48 AM
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That is correct. The tension on a guitar or violin compared to the structural strength is probably proportionally much greater than that on a piano.


Semipro Tech
Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266615 10/15/08 08:29 AM
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A brand new piano that is cared for by an expert technician certainly does improve with age. It will be a much better instrument after three or four years. After that few years entropy has its way and things gradually deteriorate.

Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266616 10/15/08 08:55 AM
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I agree with most that has been said here and while reading the thread was thinking of posting something like what David G said but he did better than I could have. Pianos do deteriorate with age, but if they are properly maintained they will last much longer. I do believe humidity and to a lesser extent temperature control play a critical part. There is no doubt that excessive humidity will kill the soundboard faster even than an excessive dry environment. Excessive humidity expands the wood to a degree that crushes the fibers of the wood. I once looked at a Steinway B from the early 60s that had very little use and was touted as having been stored for years. Evidently it was stored poorly for the sound was as dead as could be. As for the 65 year old CD 314503, to me it is a marvel. That piano has been moved innumerable times in and out of concert halls, moved by truck, plane and subjected to all kinds of temperature changes yet has an original soundboard that is still performing as it should. I can only assume that Mr H. kept the humidity levels correct whenever possible. I do the same to the best of my ability and so I believe that my piano will continue to perform at its high level for the rest of my life. #403780 will get all the maintenance it needs to stay fit, BUT it will not improve with age, it may improve with new strings and hammers someday.

Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266617 10/15/08 08:57 AM
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Typo #403870.

Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266618 10/15/08 10:59 AM
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This is one of those great threads with so many intangibles that it is almost impossible to answer it effectively. Of course the question is how good was the instrument to start with? If one starts with mediocre or less, then what you will have 25 years later will be worse. If you start with a known quality then your odds are bettered. I know that the debate rages about soundboards. My experience has generally been very positive with old soundboards with two exceptions to date. A tech can generally tell whether the soundboard has flattened or lost crown, by the amount of bearing evidenced across the bridge. My opinion would be that if the piano evidences a lack of bearing, there are real problems and a new board is required. If the bearing is plenty adequate then it is not required. The soundboard is the heart of sound reproduction in the piano and hence if the board doesn't resonate, it's game over time. If it has adequate crown and bearing, then all other parts are maintenance items, and I tend to treat the instrument more like a car. Maintenance is required to keep it in top form, both cosmetically and functionally. Cars do not get better with age, nor do pianos. All of them are in a perpetual state of decay that that can be slowed and remediated as required. I played one of the Horowitz pianos and checked the bearing at the same time. It had what most techs would consider excessive bearing, to the point that one would assume the sustain to be shorter than desired based on the measurement in the upper treble, yet this was not the case. You have to evaluate each instrument on its own merits and develop a game plan for keeping it in top condition over time. Just because you paid $75,000 for it doesn't mean that a lot of maintenance will not be required to keep it in top condition. Ferrari owners don't think that $15,000 is too much for timing belt and water pump replacement on a $70K used Testarossa. Yet, I hear a lot of folks that assume that if you buy a high-end instrument that because of this, maintenance is not required, as if the latest greatest Yamasteinwin should somehow have been ordained by God or something. I own some old pianos and even though the soundboards still sing, I can assure you that everything else needed replacement/renovation, and they needed it long before I bought these instruments.

Re: Pianos - better with age?
#266619 10/15/08 11:09 AM
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Let's face it: pianos are musical instruments, but they are also machines. How many machines get better with age? Parts wear out and fail, new inventions come along that render old parts obsolete, environmental concerns cause deterioration. As tempting as it may be to compare a glorious piano with a glorious violin, for example, the comparison simply does not work. They are not comparable, in terms of the physics of their operation. This is also why old pianos are old pianos, not antiques, with rare exceptions. The same applies to cars: there are old cars that are classics, but the vast majority of old cars are simply old cars.

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