At a cursory glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that a piano is simply a wooden shiny box that has two or three brass pedals and some black and white keys. It’s nothing very special, sounds nice, but why the price tag? It is only when you take the time to look under the bonnet as it were that you begin to realise the complexities of piano manufacturing and the justification for the cost.
Why Are Pianos Expensive
The majority of pianos cover a range of seven and a quarter octaves that are played with eighty-eight different keys. These keys, in turn, operate a lever system that enables a small hammer to strike the string and create the sound. Not all notes hammer a single string and not all strings are the same. Often the lower sounding strings in a piano are wound with copper, whereas the treble of higher strings is plain carbon steel. The wrapping of the strings in the bass end helps a slower resonance and richer timbre. Interestingly, in the upper range of the piano, the hammer also strikes up to three steel strings to create the sound. Each of these strings is under tremendous tension and needs to be attached to the cast iron plate which in turn is placed on the pin-block that is often made of spruce wood.
This is just one aspect of the construction of a piano and perhaps helps to understand why such an instrument can carry a weighty price. Leaving the upright piano aside for a moment, consider the shape of a grand piano. In order to create that rounded form requires the skill of highly trained technicians. Steinway, one of the leading makers of pianos, layer long-fibre maple wood together and bend the construction in a metal press. This forms the rim of the piano and can contain up to twenty-two layers of wood. Careful control of the humidity and temperature is key to maintaining the shape of the piano.
Of course, in spite of great skill, unless the quality of all the components that go into the piano is of the highest, then the venture will be for nothing. The very nature of the materials used in the construction of a piano, upright or grand, is expensive. When you add this to the cost of labour then it becomes increasingly clear why a piano can be expensive.
It is worth remembering that in order to create a piano from scratch the level of knowledge and skill involved is considerable. That knowledge and skill are often accumulated over many years and steeped in traditions and practices that are passed down from one generation of piano makers to the next. Knowing the best wood for the instrument and being able to choose it from a large selection as well as all the intricate processes involved in actually putting the piano together is crucial. To date, I am not aware of any piano having been entirely made by a machine. Whilst components are indeed manufactured by factories, the construction is always completed by expert tradesmen. There is an interesting video produced by Steinway that brings valuable insight into the manufacturing processes they employ to create their outstandingly good piano. Here is the link
There is a certain element of status that is often associated with the piano. For some individuals and cooperation’s, a grand piano is an object that demonstrates cultural interest and financial prowess, even if it is never played. The grand piano has in some ways become an iconic piece of very expensive furniture that can bring a certain quality to an otherwise sterile space. It provides a focus for the room and suggests a status that is perhaps not apparent if the instrument is not present. An article published in 2013 by Jing Daily (Business Insider: January 3rd; 2013) suggested that the rise of new wealth in China has meant many business professionals are not only collecting antique cars, but also developing a passion for Steinway Pianos. They are seen to represent a level of sophistication and culture that brings heightened credibility and respect to these individuals. It is thought that some 65% of Steinway & Sons pianos are bought by private Chinese businesspeople.
At the other end of the economic scale, not all pianos cost thousands of pounds or dollars. It only takes a short time to scour the local papers or sites here in the UK like ‘Freecycle’ to discover a bargain or even a freebie. It is unlikely that you will find a Steinway & Sons Concert Grand being offered for free to anyone who can collect it, but certainly a piano to begin learning on can be acquired for very little money. Upright pianos are most commonly available from perfectly reputable manufacturers in these advertisements. As long as you do a spot check when you view the instrument that the frame is iron, the soundboard intact and the case in reasonable condition, you will probably have a winner. There are also many excellent piano restorers in most major cities that can either offer you an affordable restored piano or even repair your own.
If however you area more advanced player and really need a more sophisticated piano then you have an enormous choice. To my mind, it is a little like buying a car. You can purchase a Rolls Royce or a Lamborghini for tens of thousands of pounds or look to another more modest model that may not be so prestigious but will transport you from A to B in comfort. The same is true for pianos. You could make an offer for the famous ‘Crystal Heintzman’ piano made by Kawai at a cool $3.22 million, or a Steinway & Sons Concert Grand at around $175,000 if you have the funds and space. Alternatively, you might wish to consider a new Yamaha BS Upright coming in at about £4,500. The amount you spent is very much up to you and always try the instrument before you commit to buying. Even the best instruments do not suit every player.