How does a piano work?

The piano: a fascinating, elegant instrument, so versatile and appreciated that it has earned, throughout its history, the nickname of prince of instruments. We all have in mind the almost legendary figure of the great pianist, the one who with inspiration and passion manages to bring out, from the black and white of the keyboard, unforgettable melodies and sound plots. But have you ever wondered how exactly a piano works?

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In today’s article we will go into the discovery of the mechanical secrets of this instrument, as well known in its external aspect as unknown and mysterious in the mechanisms that are hidden under its dazzling black.

We begin to understand what family of instruments the piano belongs to: the piano is a cordophone, an instrument that produces sound through the vibration of strings. The length and size of each string will determine the sound it produces. Guitars and violins, cellos and violas are also cordophones, as is the ancestor of the piano, the harpsichord. In all these instruments the vibration of the strings is obtained by plucking or rubbing.

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In the piano, on the other hand, the strings are vibrated by percussion. We follow this mechanism step by step, starting from the key that is played:

  • Each key is connected to a small wooden mechanism called easel, which comes into action when the key is pushed down with a certain pressure; the easel, in turn, is connected to a lever called upright which, once activated, moves from the bottom upwards.
  • In its movement, the upright pushes up a small hammer, commonly called a hammer, with a slender wooden handle and a rounded head covered with felt.
  • It is this soft but compact head that hits the string, always from the bottom upwards, putting it in vibration: and here the piano finally plays. Is it all over?
  • The answer is no. In fact you have surely asked yourself: how does the string vibrate if the hammer, with its soft felt, remains attached to it dampening the sound? Here comes into play a mechanism called the escapement: the whole system described above is designed to bounce back instantly, as soon as the hammer hits the string. The sound produced thus has all the time to expand and, amplified by the piano’s large resonance box, spreads out into the surrounding space.
  • At this point we can leave the key we played: a further mechanism, called damper, will come into action. The damper is another felt instrument, normally placed on the string to prevent its vibration. When a fret is played, in addition to all the mechanism seen previously that comes into action, it also happens that the damper rises, allowing the vibration of the string. But when the fret is left, the damper returns to the string, suffocating its sound.

If it happens to you, try peeking inside a grand piano: between the sparkle of the strings, you’ll immediately see the white and tidy array of dampers, lying in wait for the keys to be played. Immediately below, notice the felt hammers, arranged in a perfect line. Play a key: you’ll notice the hammer bouncing and the damper rising, and then returning to its place. For you, now, the piano may have a few less secrets to hide.

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