01(13): Why grands are generally better than uprights

On the evening of the first day of the Lunar New Year, my family paid my maternal grandparents a visit. In the living room of their residence sat an upright, and it was the piano with which I had grown up. In fact, my earliest videos on my Youtube channel feature that Christofori upright. That upright was the first piano that I used and it was the piano that my home would ever know until late 2017, when my family moved to a larger apartment. The upright was then moved to my maternal grandparents’ place while we procured a grand for our new residence. Since then, I have been playing on the grand while the upright has been lying dormant within the confines of my grandparents’ house.

After dinner at my grandparents’, I approached the upright and opened the lid that I was supposed to be familiar with. Yet, it felt foreign. What a peculiar feeling indeed. I had played on this upright for more than a decade. Yet, merely after a year of not playing on it, even the mere act of opening its lid was strange.

I started playing it and I was shocked. Compared to the grand which I had become accustomed to, this was so…bright. The notes lacked depth, and the sound wasn’t as rich and full as the grand back home. What exactly makes a grand piano better than an upright piano?

The development of the piano goes all the way back to Europe. Originally, all pianos had the shape of the modern grand piano. There were no uprights. Uprights were devised because people either had issues with space and/or cost.

Despite the title, grands don’t necessarily always sound better than uprights. In a holistic assessment, one would consider the material quality, craftsmanship, string length, soundboard size, etc. However, uprights are usually better than grands in somewhat ‘extreme’ cases. For example, the tallest uprights will have longer strings and larger soundboards than the smallest grand pianos (around 5 feet or even shorter). Nevertheless, generally speaking, people who get uprights don’t get the tallest ones, and people who get grands don’t get the smallest grands. Larger soundboards and longer strings will lead to greater tonal quality and volume, ceteris paribus. It goes without saying that a Steinway D-274 would absolutely destroy a 45″ upright any day.

With that being said, why would people not just get the tallest uprights to save on space? After all, they do sound as good as the smallest grand pianos and moreover, space would be less of an issue. The answer lies in the action of grand pianos. Kudos to reference [2], for allowing me to learn the information that I am about to present.

The mechanical components that start with the keys that your fingers depress and end with the hammer that strikes the strings creating the sound constitute the action. In a grand piano, most of the components move up and down, and take advantage of gravity to reset them to the resting position, ready to be played again. From one end of the keyboard to the other, gravity acts uniformly. In an upright piano, many of the parts move in a horizontal direction, and since gravity does not work in that direction, springs are used to move these components back into the rest position. The key takeaway is that while these springs can be regulated to be uniform, they can never bring the same degree of uniformity as gravity!

Springs succumb to wear and tear over time, thus leading to unevenness from one note to the next throughout the keyboard. Moreover, in order to repeat a note on an upright, the key must be allowed to come all the way back to the top of the stroke before it can be played again. In a grand, a note can be repeated after the key has come up about a third of the way to the top. This means that a grand’s action gives the player more control. There is also thus a greater limit to the number of times the same note can be played per unit time when a grand is used.

For most beginning pianists, who deal with incorrect rhythm and notes when playing elementary pieces such as ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, what I have discussed is far beyond what they need to consider. In most cases where the sound comes out uneven from an upright, the pianist’s inability to depress the notes evenly is the main culprit, rather than the variation in spring tuning. In such cases, the pianist ought to work on finger independence in order to cultivate a tone which is even. However, for seasoned pianists who have mostly overcome these elementary hurdles, the differences between the average grand and upright are magnified when playing pieces which test the limits of the piano.

Yours faithfully,
Nicholas Loh
7 February 2019

References & Further Reading
1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steinway_D-274
2. https://www.pianolifesaver.com/english/blog/grand_vs_upright

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