06 July 2018
Musician Alec Coles-Aldridge explores the process of how pianos are made
When considered, it is a remarkable achievement that the box of wood, metal and plastic (occasionally ivory) that we call the piano is capable of producing such sweet music.
No one would deny that the piano, when played by an exceptional pianist, can display dazzling spectacles, intensely lyrical melodies and much, much more. Indeed, Frédéric Chopin once stated that “sometimes I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano”.
How does a pile of materials transform into a piano?
As with many construction processes, the method for building a piano has changed over time. Early pianos created by Bartolomeo Cristofori, the creator of the piano, owe much to the harpsichord with thin strings giving a similar sound. These pianos produced a soft tone because the inclusion of a metal frame was not yet practiced.
Later in the 18th century, the German keyboard instrument builder, Gottfried Silbermann, introduced the sustaining pedal which allowed the note to continue sounding after the key was depressed. As the nineteenth century dawned, pianos were being produced Europe-wide; Viennese pianos even used different key colours, the natural keys were black and accidentals white! In the 1820s, the first iron bracings were added to pianos, giving a much stronger and louder tone.
Modern piano production
Clearly, piano production is a field with enormous variation. However, modern piano production can still be separated into some clearly defined stages.
One vital stage is the bending of the rim. Here, thin layers of wood approximately 20 feet long are laminated and glued together. The wood is then clamped onto a press, bending it into the shape of the piano’s rim. Added to the rim is a multitude of additional features, including the bridge and soundboard. The cast iron frame is also lowered into the piano rim. With these features in place, the body of the piano is complete.
Following these steps, the strings are added. Each string is a single steel wire with a copper wire wound around it. Many notes, in particular the higher notes, are formed from multiple strings, whilst the lowest notes are formed from only one.
The action assembly
Next, the action assembly, which consists of the 88 keys of the piano, is included. Great care is taken to position the action assembly in exactly the correct position to ensure the felt hammers strike the strings with the ideal sound. With the basic piano now complete, further tests ensure the piano has an evenness of tone across the keyboard and that the notes are in-tune. Weights are rested on the keys to test whether each key falls under the same pressure.
Evidently, the piano is a remarkable creation with a fascinating history and meticulous production process. It is no surprise therefore that the poet George Bernard Shaw described the piano as “the most perfect of all musical instruments; its invention was to music what the invention of printing was to poetry”. And whether or not you agree that the piano is the most perfect instrument, you must admit it is a stunning creation.
By Alec Coles-Aldridge. Alec is a former student at the Royal College of Music who studied for a Bachelor of Music Degree.