How does a piano work?

The piano without a doubt is one of the most versatile instruments.

It creates beautiful sounds that are able to convey any musical message imaginable. But how does it actually work?

Read on to learn more about:

  • How pianos work
  • The piano action
  • The non-moving parts of a piano
How Does a Piano Work

Behind the complicated history of the world’s most revered instrument is an equally complicated device that contains more than 10,000 moving parts. The number of parts in a piano can seem staggering, but, if you are wondering how does a piano work, this article will simplify piano mechanics into simple terms.

Few instruments conjure the mystique and appeal of the piano. Since the instrument’s invention around 1700, the piano has become synonymous with some of the greatest composers like Frederick Chopin and Franz Liszt and modern pop icons like Elton John and Billy Joel.

The piano (or “pianoforte” as it is formally known) has evolved considerably over the past three centuries. Technological advances and increasing performance demands by performers and composers have driven much of that growth.

Today, there are many types of piano that vary in everything from shape, size, sound quality, materials used, brand, all of which are factors that determine, how much piano costs.

A brief overview of the piano

The piano is a percussion instrument that has 88 keys. The keys lie horizontally at one end of the instrument. The standard pianoforte has three pedals that can vary the timbre and duration of tones created by the instrument.

Pianos can be uprights or grands. Both versions feature 88-key keyboards and three pedals, but uprights have a vertical soundboard orientation. This allows uprights to be easily placed near walls. Digital pianos (also known as e-pianos) have become increasingly popular in recent decades. 

Piano parts include supporting structures and the piano’s action. While pianos used to be constructed by hand, large factories now assemble most pianos. Upscale specialty brands like Steinway and Sons still handcraft most parts of their piano.

The piano action

The piano action transfers energy from the tips of a pianist’s fingers through the action and toward long strings that produce sound. The mechanics of a piano are a complex network of levers, hammers, and structures that allow the pianist to precisely control the velocity that the hammer strikes the strings.

The key surface is the visible part of the key lever. Piano manufacturers coat the surface in a white or black plastic surface. As the pianist depresses the key surface, the lever lifts on the opposite side of a central fulcrum.

A metal device called a capstan transfers the movement to an assembly attached to a hammer with a felt tip. Hammer tips have to have the right blend of hard and soft to activate the strings with the right tone. A leather-bound “knuckle” guides the hammer toward the string.

After striking the string, the hammer will return to its resting position. A small felt-lined device called a back check helps catch the hammer as it returns.

Depressing the damper pedal at the piano base can raise a row of dampers above the strings. Pressing the foot pedal raises a thin metal rod that lifts a damper pedal. Once the pianist lifts the foot pedal, the damper once again mutes the strings.

The middle pedal of a grand piano is called the sostenuto pedal. This specialized pedal holds specific notes of the piano’s choosing. The pedal on the left is known as the soft pedal because it lowers how loud the strings are by slightly shifting the action toward one side of the piano.

The complexity of the action adds to the overall cost of a piano, but advances in mass production mean that anyone who wants to learn how to play the piano can find an affordable upright starting at a few thousand dollars.

Non-moving parts of the piano

A typical grand piano is supported by three wood legs: two near the performer and one near the end. The legs support the piano rim, which is the curved wooden structure that holds the strings and action. Piano rims are often made of sturdy maple.

Within the rim is an iron plate. This plate is one of the heaviest (and most important) parts of a piano.

The plate’s main job is to hold the strings tight. With more than 200 strings each adding upwards of 100 pounds of pressure, the average piano rim must support up to 20 tons of pressure!

The strings are comprised of a combination of steel and copper. Every string is made from high-tensile steel wire, but the lower strings are further wound in copper. This increases the power of the strings so that the right low frequencies are emitted.

Below the strings is a large wooden soundboard, typically made from spruce or another resonate wood. The soundboard amplifies the vibrations of the strings. Without this important device, a piano would be barely audible.

On the bottom of the strings (near the performer), metal tuning rods allow the strings to be tightened or loosened. Over the top of a grand piano is a lid that can be closed or opened at various heights. The lid protects the piano and also serves as a reflective surface when it is fully raised.

The piano part that protects the key surface is called the keyboard lid. The lids are typically left closed when the piano is not in use.


How does a piano work? Now you know.

Also consider that learning to play the piano can have personal and health-related benefits.

Piano offers a vehicle for self-expression. Social events are more fun when someone can play popular tunes. Learning piano is also a fun way to sharpen your memory and cognitive skills.

Music is one of life’s great joys, and you can start that journey at any point in life. If you are ready to start on this journey, you search for piano lessons nearby.

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