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In a thread in the Pianist corner about the ubiquitous hand size question, someone posted a link to the idea of pianos with narrower key width. Among other things, the narrator said that Chopin's piano was narrower in key width, and suggested that the modern piano's greater span was due to a modeling for famous pianists who had large hands. I am wondering whether the latter is true, or whether there is also a technical reason for this width. Is there something about the construction of the modern piano, the material of the strings and how they are arranged, or anything, that would also determine these dimensions?


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Greetings,
The accidentals set some limits, since they have to be a certain width for comfort, and not so wide there is no room between them for a finger. The width of the naturals can shrink, but the black keys have to, also, and there is only so far one can go. David Steinbuhler has produced numerous keyboards with reduced widths, it is not a new concept anymore. They are expensive, but bring certain repertoire into reach for smaller handed pianists.
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Thank you, Ed - that makes sense. That would mean that Chopin's smaller keyboard is as valid today as it was then. The video does mention Steinbuhler, I think (I remember a Stein-something).

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It seems it would be very difficult to adapt to playing other pianos. Most of us have to play a number of different pianos regularly, at lessons, clubs, etc. Can't imagine having to adjust to a standard size after playing a smaller scale .


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In the OP's referenced thread, some noted that switching among different kinds of keyboards - harpsichords, organs, etc. as well as differently scaled guitars is very common.

Last edited by tend to rush; 03/22/22 04:00 PM.
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The human side got discussed in the other thread from which I borrowed the link. What I was checking here is whether there were any technical considerations, per the construction of the modern piano, that would have caused this wider span - or if indeed it happened to be modeled on some famous pianists who had large hands. I guess, as a former violin student, I was thinking of how that instrument's shape had to change in order to accommodate a new kind of string which put a lot more tension on the instrument and so for example the neck was angled differently. I understand that the piano kept evolving from the time that Chopin played. (?)

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Could this fact also explain why some contend that Chopin wrote some music that neither he nor anyone else could actually play? If his composing instrument was literally compressed, and he had large hands, he could likely do some things considered impossible on today's keyboards. I had watched that video a few days ago and thought it was quite good. Interesting too that Steinbuhler's operation is a money loser.

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I thought Chopin played lots of pianos - Pleyels (his favourite), Erards, Broadwoods even? They can't all have had narrow keyboards surely?

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Originally Posted by tend to rush
In the OP's referenced thread, some noted that switching among different kinds of keyboards - harpsichords, organs, etc. as well as differently scaled guitars is very common.

Yes, switching between instrument sizes would not be difficult. What would be difficult is this scenario: you learn a piece that has large intervals on your adapted piano. Now, you play it on a standard sized piano (either at lessons or performance). Oops! You can no longer play the music as written and you haven’t pre-worked out and practiced how you would adapt the music I.e. broken chords, omitted notes, shifting notes to the other hand.


"Music, rich, full of feeling, not soulless, is like a crystal on which the sun falls and brings forth from it a whole rainbow" - F. Chopin
"I never dreamt with my own two hands I could touch the sky" - Sappho

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People who have played accordion realize the difference, as the right hand keyboard notes are thinner than a piano so you can easily play large open chords.
Does it make it hard to go to play a normal piano size keyboard say right after?
No. We are human, and adopt and get better adjusting with practice.
Personally, I would love to own a smaller keyed piano, just to be able to do harmonic 10ths easily.

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Alfred H Howe in his 1940s book "Scientific Piano Tuning and Servicing" has a chapter advocating narrower keys, and one page has an actual size plan of a reduced-width octave.

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Originally Posted by joggerjazz
Personally, I would love to own a smaller keyed piano, just to be able to do harmonic 10ths easily.

Just grow bigger hands like my son who takes great delight in sitting at my piano playing outrageously large intervals and asking all full of innocence...what interval is this dad?

I go right off him sometimes smile


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Originally Posted by N W
Originally Posted by joggerjazz
Personally, I would love to own a smaller keyed piano, just to be able to do harmonic 10ths easily.

Just grow bigger hands like my son who takes great delight in sitting at my piano playing outrageously large intervals and asking all full of innocence...what interval is this dad?

I go right off him sometimes smile

Well that would be nice if one could.
I had a student that could do large intervals, but with fingers so thick couldn't get between the blacks.
Careful what you ask for I guess.

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I have a smaller female hand, am almost 70, but started yoga in my early teens and my hands are kind of "stretchy". I checked with a ruler after watching the video, and get a nice 9 1/2 inches. So this shouldn't be a concern - though there was a piece recently with a bunch of LH tenths - fine for all white keys; at the end I could also do the one G Bb 10th, but not securely, only if preparing ahead of time. The idea of a narrower keyboard is not unattractive. My conclusion now after writing here is that there is no technical reason against modern pianos being narrower. The issue appears to be supply / demand / cost - and according to the person in the video, some psychology. People already have to be able to adjust to different pianos since unless you're Horowitz, you don't take your piano with you.

The video guy played the narrower piano before his concert, which involved a lot of big intervals. He internalized the file of not straining for the intervals, and then kept that relaxed feeling in his hands when he performed the standard size piano. That sounds like technique / technical muscle memory.

Turning this around: is there any argument FOR the present wider piano? Other than that if you have a standard worldwide, it will create a lot of complexity and confusion in a well ordered world?

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String instruments come in different sizes, but when it comes time to sell one (a growing child), it's more difficult to get rid of it.
Likewise, you can order a custom full-size instrument, but when you start to stray from a standard size, it will be difficult to sell.

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As possibly impractical as it may be, or even practically and/or economically infeasible as it may be ----- that idea of having say three standards - small, medium, large ----- would be quite nice. The impractical/economically infeasible aspects covers anything you can think of ----- such as a performance site needing to have on-site a few of each sort, such as two mediums and two large (in case one fails, and the backup can come in). And piano teachers at their studio could have an issue - as they might use a piano of one of those three sizes, and not having the other two kinds ...... and various students come along that have been practising on a piano of a different size. And other considerations.

It would certainly be hypothetically nice for some people to have the option to buy a piano having one of three sizes though ----- for their own purposes that is. It's only about those other aspects ---- such as the feasibility (economics -- including manufacturer design costs and production costs, and music stores needing to have bigger show-rooms and spend more money to stock the items etc).

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I found this at the "Pianists for Alternatively Sized Keyboards" blog (see PASK Blog):

Quote
Today’s keyboard size dates back to about 1880, when male virtuosi were still actively involved with, and being promoted by, piano manufacturers. To produce a bigger sound in large concert halls, piano design started to incorporate cross-stringing and bigger soundboards, incorporating wider keys in order to minimise the angle of key flare.

Key flare -- the dogleg shape of keys on an overstrung instrument -- so does this mean that the narrower the keys, the greater the key flare? This article suggests that there is a limit to the amount of key flare that is workable, which in turn limits how narrow the keys can be.

Also note that this author believes that the current size of keys is tied to producing bigger sound in concert halls, along with cross-stringing and bigger soundboards...and maybe changes to wippens and the repetition levers that I don't know about.

Further we know that key dip on the modern keyboard is quite a bit greater than on fortepianos. I assume the increase in dip permits a concomitant increase in loudness. So I guess what I'm wondering is if the increase in key width which became standard about 1880 was part of an overall redesign (or evolution) of the piano to produce a greater volume of sound.

I also assume that the keys on straight-strung instruments don't have any flare (or very little, e.g. Chris Maene's straight-strung instruments). If so, then reducing the key width on such an instrument wouldn't run into problems with key flare, though there are still other issues (like the space between sharps.)


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David Steinbuhler has devoted his life and fortune to this project. You'll find that the "worldwide" small keyboard organizations all go back to him.

The Steinbuhler keyboard uses a special and very expensive technology, relatively practical for those who can pay $10,000 to retrofit a keyboard for their piano.

Steinbuhler has done something quite wonderful, but it is not something that is affordable to the broad range of piano players in the world.

Traditional materials and technology can make a very slightly smaller keyboard. The more widely the key backs are splayed to reach the action, the more likely they will break without special reinforcements.

The spread of the action is defined by the width of the action parts and by the spread of the strike points of the strings. These could be tightened up a little, but not much, and would increase the chances of parts slipping and rubbing.
(Harpsichords, with a different action and straight-strung strings, can have narrower keys.)

Many, many factors interact to produce the keyboard size of the modern acoustic piano. There was not a conspiracy to make it harder for smaller people to play the piano.

A few years ago Hailun offered a vertical piano with Steinbuhler keyboard. I haven't seen one, and don't know the retail price.
Has anyone seen one?


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Hi Ed
A few weeks ago, Cunningham Pianos had a size-adapted Hailun, but I haven’t played it.


"Music, rich, full of feeling, not soulless, is like a crystal on which the sun falls and brings forth from it a whole rainbow" - F. Chopin
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It would seem to me that an ideal candidate for a shortened keyboard would be all of those old Chickering Quarter grands that are as narrow as physically possible with the standard keyboard. The case size could easily accommodate such, and the splay would be minimal. They wanted to make as small a footprint as possible...now we can restore them and retrofit a shortened keyboard and create a whole new market. Kind of TIC.

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