Understanding Pianos: European And Asian Tone

Understanding Pianos: European And Asian Tone

One question we often get asked by those looking to find their next piano is what the differences are between the different manufacturers out there. Whilst every piano manufacturer in the world will adopt a slightly different approach to creating their pianos, one key feature that cannot be ignored across almost any piano that you might play is the tonality of the sound.

Today we’re going to investigate the concept of tonality and how different pianos made in different parts of the world adopt a different approach to sound design and how this might influence the music that you play and how it reaches the audience.

To set the stage for discussion, we are going to break these concepts down into two key concepts: European and Asian sound design. Whilst other continents of course exist and do make sensational pianos, these are the main two global influencers when it comes to tonality and by far hold the largest market share.

Likewise, when we raise these points, we are not brushing all manufacturers with the same tonality, of course some European brands may adopt Asian tonality and as you’ll discover, it is also possible for Asian produced pianos to utilise European concepts within their piano design.


A great place to begin this discussion is to discuss firstly what sound actually is. 

Much like taste, sound preference is highly subjective. There are certain objective properties to sound (volume, brightness etc), just like there are certain flavours (strawberry, apple etc), however much like taste, what one individual may like compared to another is highly different.

Wine is a very good analogy to use here, with red and white or dry and sweet.

We can objectively qualify these traits of the taste: For example, “This is a red wine that is dry” is an objective statement that can be fully proven and qualified.

The exact same principle can be applied to pianos when it comes to ‘brightness’, this is an indication of how much the piano’s sound ‘pops’, often defined as having a clear, clean sound, whilst a mellow piano instead uses a less brighter tone to create a more colourful sound that blends holistically, often creating a warmer, more complex voice to the instrument.

Even though this is an objective fact, whether or not you like a brighter sound is entirely subjective.

Going back to our wine analogy, we may objectively say: “This is a red wine made from a sweeter grape” However, whether you like that wine or not is subjective: “I don’t like sweet wines”, or “I prefer white wines” are completely valid statements that do not impact the quality of the wine, just that one may prefer a different style of wine.

In piano terms, we can objectively say: “This is an asian made instrument with a brighter tone.” or “European instruments tend to have a more mellow, warmer tone.”

However we may then subjectively say: “I prefer the warmth of the European sound” or “I don’t think the style of music I play suits the tone of the Asian instruments”

The simple truth is that there is no right and wrong and this is why selecting a piano is so exciting. It is much like exploring foods and flavours, you may find things you didn’t realise you liked or enjoyed and that open your mind to new possibilities.

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We personally consider ourselves a European piano specialist. This is for a few reasons, starting with the fact that Europe has been at the heart of quality piano manufacturing and development for almost three centuries, firstly being invented in Italy by Bartolomeo Cristofori.

Due to the sheer level of time and expertise that these piano manufacturers have had to perfect their craft, learning the finest nuances within sound and piano craft to this day, the world’s most prestigious and well-regarded manufacturers still exist today in Germany, Italy, and Austria. In fact, almost all piano manufacturers from around the world will still source parts from Germany for their higher level instruments because of the superior quality in the industry.

Inside a W.Hoffmann upright piano

In terms of tonality, as expressed earlier, European instruments are often characterised as having a far more mellow tone than that of other instruments. This complex, warming tone often lends itself incredibly well to the likes of classical music and certain types of jazz music. This is for a number of reasons, however the primary one being that most historical classical composers (Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin etc.) were from Europe or at least had incredibly large European ties within their work.

Because of their historical connection with classical piano production and focus on a quest for acoustic perfection, most European brands were a little behind their Asian counterparts in the world of technology in terms of digital pianos or piano silent systems, instead placing more emphasis on handcrafting and intricate detailing. That being said, major investments by the likes of C.Bechstein with their Vario System and others have been made in digital technological advancements in piano and this is now an area that is comparable and in some cases more advanced.

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Asian piano production is comparatively a far more modern development in the history of the piano, dating back just over a century or so, for example Yamaha were founded in 1887 in Japan. When it comes to Asian piano production, we can often split the market into two categories, the rise of high quality Chinese manufacturing and Japanese production.

Broadly speaking and as mentioned earlier, Asian pianos are often characterised by a signature bright, bouncy and clear tone. This is often appropriate for certain styles of music such as pop and certain types of jazz however due to the brightness of the tone, it’s not uncommon for some classical players to shy away from Asian instruments as the brightness doesn’t quite lend itself as well to the classical intended sound.

When it comes to production quality, Japanese pianos are widely considered to be great quality. It was companies such as Yamaha and Kawai who revolutionised Japanese production quality, using state of the art technology to develop at volume. When our teams visited these factories, we were astounded at the level of production here, where you essentially have machines building machines to produce as many pianos as possible whilst on the higher ends of acoustic pianos, they do still hold a great degree of piano craftsmanship.

Likewise, production in China has rapidly evolved from the early 80’s in the shadow of Japan and widely now offer good quality and great value instruments. However what is more crucial here is the factory. As with so many goods being exported from China, quality varies dramatically, this is why we only select our pianos from two Chinese factories that we have personally visited and continuously check their quality control, that of Pearl River (as shown in our Ritmuller range) and Hailun (demonstrated through the Zimmermann range).  Both of these factories are used by major manufacturers such as Yamaha, Steinway, and C.Bechstein these factories have learnt their craft and developed to a staggering level that easily rivals that of the Japanese production now.

Asian European Design

Inside a ritmuller upright piano

These two factories are also particularly unique as we believe they offer something completely new to the piano world and blend Asian production with European concept design as both work with Germanic designers and technicians through every stage of their production. This has allowed both the Zimmermann and Ritmuller range to hold European tonal properties and care in craft but at a far lower price point. We highly recommend coming to visit our showroom to see how these sounds compare with the likes of other Asian produced instruments as you will see that the level of quality, care and tone is simply astounding!

Whilst the world of sound design is incredibly interesting and one can easily get lost in the subtle nuances in the differences between various pianos, ultimately we believe that finding the right piano revolves around the one that feels right to you, both in terms of touch, tone and design. That is why we would highly recommend visiting our showroom to not only see and hear these instruments in person, but also just to understand the piano market better and to understand what options may be out there for you.

If you would like to learn more, why not book your appointment in our showroom today, or contact our experts for more information!

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