The Workings of the Piano: For the Up-and-Coming Pianist

workings of the piano

by Jennifer Paterson

If you want to get into playing the piano, it’s a good idea to get a basic understanding of how the instrument works. Before you even sit down at the piano bench, or sign up for lessons, educating yourself about the instrument gives you a base to start from, and may even help you decide if it’s the right choice of instrument for you.

For those who are impressed and intrigued by the beautiful rows of black and white keys, here’s a brief look at the workings of the piano. 

How the Piano Works

The piano is both a string and a percussion instrument. It’s a string instrument because it uses strings to produce sound. It makes those sounds by hitting the strings with a component called the hammer, which places it in the percussion classification, as well.

Each note uses up to three strings to produce a sound, and there can be more than 200 strings inside a piano to support all of these sounds. Lower notes need longer strings to produce their bass sound, while higher notes need shorter strings to give them a high pitch. That’s why you’ll notice some pianos—like a grand piano—are designed with a curved shape. Some of the notes simply don’t need as much room for their strings.

There are four main parts to the piano:

  • Keys: The piano contains both white keys (which produce natural notes), and black keys (which produce sharp and flat notes). The key actually extends inside the piano, where you can’t see, to create a lever. When you press down on the key, that lever jumps into the air. Picture a tiny see-saw; when you press one end down, the other springs upwards.
  • Hammer: When the lever jumps up, it causes a small felt-covered hammer to hit the strings.
  • Strings: Located inside of the piano, when a hammer hits a string, they vibrate and produce a sound. Each set of strings is tuned to a different note, which is why each key you press produces a different sound.
  • Damper: The damper is another part of the lever, near the hammer. When the hammer hits the strings, their vibrations cause the sound you hear; as long as they are vibrating, you’ll hear the note continue. The sound stops when you take your finger off the key because the hammer falls away from the strings and the damper rests on them, to stop them from vibrating. This brings the note to a quick end.

While this is a very simplified explanation, it should give you a basic picture of how the piano produces sounds. As you learn to play, it helps to understand what’s happening “behind the scenes,” when you press the keys.

Other Parts of the Piano

The piano is much more than a collection of strings and keys—it has many other components that give it its versatility. For example, if all you were simply hitting strings with a small hammer, the audience wouldn’t actually be able to hear much. To solve this, there’s a piece inside the piano called a soundboard, which amplifies the vibrations—so the melody you play can be heard throughout the room.

If you’ve ever sat at a piano bench, you may have noticed three pedals near your feet. These help to vary and adjust the sounds you produce, by softening the noise or making the notes last longer. These three pedals are:

  • Soft Pedal: When you sit at the piano, this is the pedal farthest to your left. Normally when you hit the piano keys, the hammer will hit two or three strings at the same time to make a louder sound. But, when you press the soft pedal, it shifts all of the keys’ hammers slightly to one side so that the hammer hits fewer strings, making a quieter sound.
  • Sostenuto Pedal: This is the middle pedal. When pressed, this pedal deactivates the dampers for only the notes you’re currently playing. This makes those notes last longer, as the strings will continue to vibrate for a longer time.
  • Sustaining Pedal: This is the pedal farthest to your right. This pedal raises all the dampers up, so every note you play lasts longer. It makes for an overall softer, more blended melody.

You won’t need to use these pedals for every song you play, and when you take lessons, your teacher will likely start you off learning pieces that don’t require the pedals. Still, try experimenting with them on your own, to see what kinds of changes they produce in your music.

Two Types of Piano Types

Today, there are two main types of pianos. You’ve probably heard of the grand piano, but the upright piano is more commonly seen in homes. Upright pianos take up much less space, and are often less expensive, than grand pianos.

When it comes to making music, these two piano types have slightly different designs. A grand piano works its levers in a vertical motion, using gravity to reset the notes. An upright piano, on the other hand, works in a horizontal direction. Because gravity doesn’t affect the horizontal motion, upright pianos use springs to reset each note.

It’s because of these different setups that a grand piano is often considered the “better” option. It doesn’t necessarily produce a better sound than an upright piano; but the springs in an upright may wear over time, which can create unevenness note to note.

Also, before repeating a note on an upright piano, you must let the key come back to the top of the stroke to play it again. On a grand piano, you can play a note again after the key is about one-third of the way from the top. This means the player can produce sounds faster, allowing for more control.

How is the Keyboard Set Up?

When you learn to play the piano, almost all of your attention is directed to the recognizable row of black and white keys. Most pianos contain 88 keys—52 white and 36 black. Each white key represents a natural note: A, B, C, D, E, F, or G.

The black keys produce notes that are a half-step in between the natural notes; they’re known as sharps and flats. The black key that sits between the white C and D keys, for example, can be referred to as C-sharp, or D-flat (yes, you can have two names for one note). There are no black keys between notes E and F, nor between notes B and C, because those notes are already set a half-step apart from each other.

Together, a set of seven white keys and five black keys create an “octave.” Most pianos have seven octaves. The lowest octave is made up of the keys on the far left; as you move from left to right, the octaves continue to get higher in pitch. Though some pianos do feature more, it’s unlikely that you’ll play anything outside of these seven octaves. In fact, it’s difficult for the human ear to distinguish any additional notes on either end.

Learning to Play the Piano

Now that you have a better understanding of how all the parts of a piano comes together to make music, take a seat on the bench and press some of the keys! Become familiar with the whole notes, the sharps, and the flats. Try playing different notes together, to hear what sounds good and what doesn’t; practice pressing the foot pedals to change the atmosphere of your music. With some knowledgeable of the inner workings of an instrument, you’ll have an easier time learning how to play—whether you’re teaching yourself by ear, or taking piano lessons.

About Jennifer Paterson

Jennifer Paterson, A.R.C.T., Master’s of Music (voice, piano), has degrees from Boston University, The Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto and the University of British Columbia. She was a recipient of The Canada Council Award to study at the well-known Royal Opera House in London, and was the principal soprano for the Boston Lyric Opera Company. Her dedication to the legitimate training of the voice and piano has made her a definite asset to the musical community of Southern California.

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