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How To Buy a Piano
Courtesy of the National Piano Manufacturers Association

You can't take a piano on a picnic, but that's almost a complete list of what you can't do with this most versatile of musical instuments.

The Piano traces its ancestors back to the earliest stringed instruments; the keyboard was added in the 12th century. Since the development of the true "pianoforte" in Italy in the 18th century, the piano has made itself right at home anywhere music is played. It blends well with other instruments, and it is the ideal solo instrument. Learning to play the piano puts you in touch with melody, harmony and rhythm--and with the whole range of human emotions, from Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata to rollicking ragtime. Maybe you know all this. Maybe you're ready to buy a piano.

How do you go about deciding which is the best one for you?

First, keep in mind that you will be listening to, and looking at, your piano for a long time. The average lifetime of a piano is about 40 years, and you will probably have it long after you have sold your present furniture, house and car. Pianos depreciate very little. A used piano built 10 years ago and maintained well will cost almost as much as a comparable new piano. So buy the best piano you can afford. Especially, don't try to economize on a piano for a child who's starting lessons. Making good music on a quality instrument is the best way to keep a young pianist interested.

Which type Of Piano Is For You?

Almost since the first piano was built, manufacturers have been trying to make it smaller. This has been no easy task, because good tone in a piano requires certain minimums in length of string and size of soundboard. First, the size of the original grand piano was cut by the use of stronger frames and an innovative system of cross-stringing, Then, in the late 1800's, the upright or vertical piano was developed, sending the space-consuming bulk of the instrument up along the wall, rather than out across the floor. This was so successful that today some larger professional-quality uprights can have equal or better tone quality than many small grands.

Eventually, even the upright was shortened, and in some cases ingenious scale design compensates in tone for the loss of size. Still, this rule of thumb generally applies: the larger the piano, the better the tone.

The grand piano ranges in size from five to nine feet (concert grand). It tends to be more responsive and powerful than a vertical piano; a top-quality grand is the best investment if the pianist is aiming for concert performance, or if space and money are unlimited. But if the choice is between a so-so grand and a good vertical, choose the vertical. These range in size from 36 to 51 inches in height; all of them require the same amount of floor space, about 5 feet by 2 feet. The largest of the verticals is the studio piano -- 44 inches or taller -- a type that is becoming quite popular.Verticals 39 to 42 inches tall are called consoles. The smallest of the verticals is the spinet, a popular choice because of its small size, from 36 to 39 inches high.

Information you need before you buy

Once you've chosen the size piano that's right for your space, aspirations and pocketbook, decide what style piano you want. Verticals have elegant cabinets and are particularly adaptable to styling, but remember that piano styles are slightly more conservative than other kinds of furniture. Look at the music rack and leg design to determine whether the style will be compatible with your furnishings. A piano cabinet whose design contrasts with your other furniture can be as attractive as one that blends with it. While finances surely will figure in deciding what kind of piano you will buy, at least consider a top quality new piano. If you do decide on a rebuilt or used one, exercise all the caution you'd take if you were looking for a used car. Don't buy a piano for anything but its decorative value if it's more than 50 years old.

A 250-year-old violin, well made and well maintained, is often a magnificent and valuable musical instrument. A 100-year-old piano, however, might make a nice conversation piece, but it will probably make precious little music. Shop Wisely: It's An Investment

A piano is an extremely complicated mechanism that depends on the proper distribution of tremendous weight, top-quality materials, impeccable craftsmanship, and unflagging care to produce good music. Unlike some musical instruments, the piano has profited greatly in tone and performance as a result of recent technological improvements, and modern pianos are far superior in many ways to their predecessors. In the past, the lumber used in constructing pianos was dried and cured in manually controlled kilns. Sometimes the temperature was ideal, and the lumber was cured properly; sometimes it was not. Today, electronic controls keep the temperature and relative humidity of the lumber kilns at the optimum level at all times, assuring properly cured wood for your piano.

You should approach buying a new piano with the same care you'd bring to any important investment, especially if you're not familiar with the various manufacturers (there are more than 50 different brand names of new pianos on the market).

Dealing with the Dealer

Go to the showrooms of the dealers you've selected. Keep in mind that a piano will sound brighter in a large bare showroom, mellower in a small carpeted and draped room.

Particularly if you don't play the piano (and even if you do), go armed with a good idea of what goes into making a top-quality piano. Try not to let a salesman's fancy playing distract you from the nuts and bolts you came to inspect. Reputable dealers can be expected to help you select the right piano for your needs, and then stand behind it, but you're best off if you can make an informed choice.

Warranties - Financing - Repairs

Once you've decided on your piano, inspect the warranty. A reasonable warranty comers a five-to-ten-year period under one owner only. It does not cover tuning or action regulation, and may not extend to the finish. Find out if the purchase price includes the bench and delivery. Beware of "special deals;" a real bargain in a new piano is rare. If the dealer offers his own monthly purchase plan, you might want to check with your own bank to see what they can offer. Make sure the dealer offers the same price to either cash or installment buyers. Also make sure the dealer has repair facilities and trained technicians on hand for continuing maintenance.

Make Ready

If you decide you want a piano in the showroom that may not have been tuned, don't hesitate to ask the dealer to do so. Besides tuning, final make-ready before delivery should include thorough cleaning, and regulation of the action, if necessary.


A good way to buy a piano for a beginner is a rental-purchase plan. Under this arrangement, you rent a new piano for a monthly fee plus delivery charges. If you decide to buy the piano, most dealers will let you apply to the purchase price the delivery and rental charge for a specified length of time. This is usually available only on vertical pianos.

Buying a Used Piano--Private Party Sales

If you decide to buy a used piano from a private party, enlist the aid of a tuner-technician. There's often a fine line between a "real find" in a used piano and a piece of junk. And that fine line may take the form of a hairline crack in a vital part of the piano or in some other technical flaw. The tuner-technician is really the only person qualified to tell you whether a used piano is worth buying. Don't pay the technician his or her fee for looking at the first used piano you hear about, though. Shop around. Some dealers, rebuilders and technicians have good buys in used pianos, but for the most part you'll be looking at pianos in private homes.

Inspect the Piano

Inspect a used piano at least as rigorously as you would a new one. Try every key with the right-hand pedal depressed to check the tone, and make sure the keyboard, pedals and hammers don't stick or squeak. Bring a flashlight and open the top. Look to see that all the hammers and strings are there and in good condition. Make sure the hammers aren't moth-eaten or string-cut, and check for rust and dirt.

Ask who has had the piano; if it was a serious pianist, the instrument probably got good care. Write down the brand name and serial number and ask your technician to find out how old it is.

The safest buys tend to be no more than 20 years old. Old pianos can be refinished, but it is tedious work.

Moving the Piano

When you find a likely piano have the technician inspect it. If he approves, arrange to have it delivered by a moving firm that specializes in pianos. (See Piano Movers for a list of professional piano movers in your area). Don't allow the movers to "keyboard" the piano, or remove the front part to make it fit through the door. Measure the piano against the doors it must pass through in advance.