If you’re new to the wonderful world of piano playing or simply want to gain a deeper appreciation for how your instrument works, then you may be curious about what happens inside the piano.
What happens behind the scenes?
How do the different parts of the piano work together to create the beautiful sounds that you know and love? Let’s find out!
The parts of a piano you should know
Outer Rim/Case and Lid
One of the first things you’re sure to notice when you first lay eyes on a piano is its outer body, also known as its housing. The case is the largest part of the piano and supports all other components while adding extra resonance and depth to each note you play. This part of the piano is generally made from hardwood such as beech or maple. The outer surface of the rim and lid may be layered with any number of different tonewoods, from maple to mahogany to spruce.
The lid of a grand piano is often propped up to increase the resonance, overall volume, and projection of the sound throughout the room. Grand pianos are wider and take up a lot more space than upright pianos do, and they have a much larger lid as a result. For smaller upright pianos, the lid has less of an effect on the sound since its projection is more centered around its open back.
Inner Frame / Pinblock
The inner frame is a component that adds a lot of weight to the instrument since it’s made of cast iron! This part of the piano does the important job of maintaining the soundboard’s high tension and supporting the pinblock, which all work together to keep the sound of each string as clean as possible.
The other most prominent component of the piano’s inner frame that you’ll notice when you look inside is the aforementioned soundboard. This part is also sometimes referred to as the wrest plank and is typically made from layered maple, reinforced crosswise with wooden ribs that improve its durability and the resonance that you can expect to get from it. As the name would suggest, this is the wooden board that the piano’s strings stretch over.
In higher-quality pianos, you’ll get a soundboard crafted from Sitka spruce or a tonewood of comparable quality. Cheaper pianos use plywood which doesn’t create quite as rich of a sound but still gets the job done. Affixed to the end of the soundboard is a series of metal bridges, each of which mount three strings–but more on that later.
The pinblock is what keeps the piano’s strings in place. The metal pins are responsible for the piano’s tuning stability and serve to keep each string isolated from its neighbors with fine metal threads.
Now, we’re finally on to the part that you’ve probably been itching for: The keyboard! The 88 keys, which rest within the keyframe once installed in the piano, are ideally cut from the same piece of wood in order to unify any warping or other changes that might occur thanks to humidity or age. Then, the wooden keys are seasoned to minimize the risk of such changes, ensuring that the piano will feel smooth and enjoyable to play for many years to come.
Once the wooden keys are ready, they’re fitted with the white and black keytops that create that distinctive, familiar look. The white keys are called “naturals,” and the black keys are called sharps or “enharmonic” keys. Older pianos typically used ivory for the white keytops but manufacturing standards have since graduated to synthetic ivory for the most part. The black keytops may be crafted from ebony or from a dark, synthetic resin.
One detail that many people don’t think about when they look at the piano is how large the mechanical components beneath the keys really are. “Out of sight, out of mind,” as they say. However, the keys that you press when you lose yourself in the music are just a small part of how the piano’s sound is made!
Here’s a video with more details about the keys:
The piano action is what truly makes the sound when you play your favorite compositions. As you might have learned from reading about guitars or other stringed instruments, “action” in music refers to the pressure exerted against an instrument’s string in order to create an audible note. In pianos, the action also affects the “touch” of the piano while you play and determines the weight of the keys.
In a piano, the action looks rather complicated at first sight. The action mechanisms are usually made from maple, which can withstand extended wear and tear. There is also a notable level of variance between the action of upright pianos and the action of grand pianos thanks to the difference in their shapes.
When you press down on a piano key, it lifts up a hammer that comes down to strike the corresponding string. That vibration then travels down the piano string over the metal bridge and across the soundboard, picking up resonance and tone along the way. It sounds like a long series of steps when you spell it all out, but these things all happen very quickly when you’re playing. A handy mechanism known as the “backcheck” also keeps the hammer waiting at the ready in case you want to play the same note in quick succession so that the entire sequence doesn’t need to repeat itself each time.
Now, in terms of the differences between grand and upright piano action, the key detail that you need to remember is whether gravity assists the process or drags it back. In grand or “horizontal” pianos, gravity assists the process by pulling the hammers back down naturally. The horizontal orientation of the piano action also allows for the hammer to maintain acceleration up until the instant it hits the string, giving grand pianos their “color”. However, in upright pianos, the hammers and strings are oriented vertically, so gravity prevents that extra acceleration and does nothing to help put the hammers back in place after you play a note. As a result, upright pianos must utilize springs and bridles for hammer return to make sure everything gets back in place.
As you likely understand by now, the strings of the piano are where the instrument’s sound really begins once you press the keys and strike those hammers. Piano strings are made from steel and vary in thickness along the length of the keyboard, with bass strings being the thickest and the higher treble notes getting increasingly thinner as you ascend.
The tension of the strings is the focal point when tuning a piano, and each string is adjusted in order to keep the piano sounding its best. The way you press the keys will also affect how the piano’s action hits the strings, further affecting how each note sounds.
If you’re familiar with how stringed instruments work then you’re probably wondering how piano music can sound so clean and precise when each string could continue to vibrate long after it’s struck. What’s inside the piano that keeps the notes from muddying into one another and sounding like a big mess? The answer: Dampers!
The dampers of the piano are usually made from wood and capped with durable felt pads. The damper’s felt pad rests against the piano string when it isn’t being played, keeping it still and silent. The damper is raised, lifting the felt pad away and freeing the string to vibrate in all its glory once you play a note. Then, the damper comes back down when you lift up your fingers. This allows you to affect the “length” of the note you play, setting you up for all kinds of expressive musical techniques such as staccato or legato.
Interestingly, the highest treble notes in the piano actually do not have dampers. The reason for this is that those fine strings already vibrate for such a short amount of time after being struck that they don’t need them. In fact, if they did have dampers, you’d run the risk of losing those treble notes entirely!
The last part of the piano that you need to know about is its set of pedals. In pianos with three pedals, the one farthest to the left is the “soft pedal,” or una corda. The middle pedal, or sostenuto, is used to lift the dampers off of each note that you play, giving those particular notes greater sustain. The pedal farthest to the right is called the sustain pedal, the damper pedal, or the “loud pedal”. When you press this one down, it lifts the dampers off of every string in the piano, allowing energy to transfer for a far more complex and rich sound.
If your piano is missing the third pedal, it’s bound to be that middle sostenuto pedal– the soft and loud pedals are considered to be essentials! In grand pianos, you’ll almost always see all three pedals, and some uprights have all three as well. However, upright pianos commonly have only two pedals.
It’s just that simple!
Learning about the important parts that make up the structure of a piano can help you understand your instrument better and play more expressively as a result. Anyone who understands the complexity mechanisms that happen beneath their piano’s lid is bound to have a much greater appreciation for their instrument!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.