Grand pianos are played by means of keyboard but technically, they belong to string instruments. They are one of the most popular musical instruments in the world although they are often expensive and not portable enough. They are used in different performances from solo to ensemble and also in symphony orchestra concerts. They commonly played classical music but they can also be seen in jazz and rock concert.
Mostly, grand pianos have 88 keys, 36 black keys and 52 white keys. Black keys are commonly called sharps and the white keys are called ‘naturals’. Piano keyboard has seven octaves and a minor third beginning with A note and ending with C note. These seven octaves begins with lower A note and proceed to another A note but this time higher note than the first that makes a pattern and is repeated for 7 times.
However, some older pianos have 85 keys. Mozart just enjoyed 5 octaves in 1790 while Beethoven enjoyed 6 octaves (only had 70 keys piano) in 1810. There are modern pianos that have more than 88 keys. The Bosendorfer grand piano has 97 and the Stuart and Sons has 102 keys. These Stuart pianos have a range from C to F note. It has been said that these extra keys are designed to increase resonance from the associated strings and makes the strings vibrate differently that each note can be be heard clearly and separately.
During the time when the piano was constructed, piano keys were commonly made from sugar pine. Today, piano keys were made of spruce or basswood. Black keys were usually covered with ebony and white keys were covered with ivory.
However, in 1973, an act of Congress prohibited the use of ivory because ivory-yielding species like elephant were becoming endangered and in order to protect them, ivory should be preserved as well. Steinway & Sons discontinued using ivory for piano keys and replaced it with high quality plastic which is also superior to ivory. Yamaha Piano Company also replaced their piano keys with plastic called “Ivorite”. According to them, it mimic the looks and feel of ivory.
Hitting piano keys engages in complex mechanism called “action”. the Action has 7500 parts that plays different roles in sending the hammer to strike the strings to make the sound. Striking motion is the defining feature of the piano and makes it different from harpsichord and clavichord.
Hammers are connected to the keys and are in set for two or three strings. The first 10 low pitches have one string, the next 18 pitches have two and the last 60 pitches have three strings each. It means that there are 230 strings in all in an average grand piano.
The volume of the sound the piano makes depends on how the hard the keys are pressed. However, the few strings that do not vibrate are not loud enough to give a quality sound. That is why, all grand pianos have soundboard. Soundboard plays like the body of violin and acoustic guitar. It spread the vibrations created by strings throughout its mass. As a result, it amplifies the volume and gives a piano a unique sound.
Grand pianos are extremely complex musical instruments. There are several parts that are working together. Each part depends on the other to make a refreshing and restorative sound. Though one can play the piano without knowing its mechanism, but if you are a piano lover and want to appreciate the instrument more and to learn more techniques, understanding it would be a great help.