What makes a piano ‘sound’ like a piano?

Pianos are incredibly complex and delicate instruments and thousands of different components work in perfect unison to create that iconic rich piano sound. What makes this instrument so unique and special however is that it stands apart from other instruments and is hard to categorise… It has strings but isn’t a string instrument, it has hammers but isn’t a percussion instrument.

Today we’ll be exploring just what makes a piano sound the way it does and give you some fantastic insight into the way your piano creates it’s sensational sound null.

How does a piano make sound?

Pianos make sound in a unique way, at its core however, the hammers which strike the string, the strings that vibrate, and the soundboard that vibrates.

There are actually countless studies on the ways the piano sound is defined, but the most common is known as an ADSR envelope, and it’s harmonic content. ADSR simply means: Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release.

If we think about this, as we press the key, the hammer is ‘attacking’ the string, as the sound hits the string it rings (decay) and sustains until the vibrations stop (release).

All sounds have a defined curve, and a pianos curve can be changed by how hard the keys are pressed, and by how long the note is held or sustain pedal kept down. Below is a typical piano ADSR envelope, with a fast attack as the hammer hits the string, a slow decay as the note fades, and a quick release as the string is dampened


For more information on how an acoustic piano makes it’s sound, as well as some of the anatomy found within the piano, read our guide here!

Harmonics

We’ve mentioned harmonics before, however harmonics also make up a crucial part of the sound of a piano. These harmonies are delicate and intricate in themselves and have been designed in such a specific way that they work in complete harmony with one another. The harmonic content of a piano note is determined by many factors but in its simplest terms, it comes down to the materials used, how precisely they fit together, and the dimensions of the instrument.

Ultimately, the bigger the piano, the louder the fundamental and lower harmonics of the bass notes, creating a deeper, richer sound. This is why a grand piano is able to produce so much power when played at its full capacity.

Meanwhile a smaller piano such as an upright will have shorter strings, meaning they can’t produce the lowest notes, resulting in a brighter, more tinny sound. Neither of these harmonics are wrong and ultimately are all designed to suit each individual playing style perfectly and adapt to the player.

Another way of thinking about it could be comparing the sound to a set of speakers. The tiny speakers on say a mobile phone are significantly smaller than those of a subwoofer. Therefore the speaker does not have enough room to produce a lot of a lot of bass, giving it that unique sound.

Overall, because of the unique action and various components to help amplify or soften the sound, in addition to the countless other factors such as wood types, various pedals and strings, the piano is an incredibly unique instrument with an awful lot to explore!

If you’d like to learn more about your piano, or feel like it is perhaps time for a tuning, get in touch with our tunings team today! Or check out our guide to discovering your piano’s voice here… 

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