It used to be that every middle class home (and a lot of working class homes, too) had a piano. The grander the home the grander the piano. But the black beast has lost ground to the popular, folky, easier-to-play, easier-to-buy and easier-to-transport guitar. Guitars outsell pianos. And for that matter, digital pianos outsell acoustics, seducing parents and kids with their flashy “teaching ” features, not to mention hundreds of sounds and settings.
Even so, there is something iconic about having a piano in the living room of your home. A real piano, by which we mean an acoustic instrument — the kind you don’t plug in!
In choosing a piano, size and budget are two of the biggest concerns. And they tend to be related: In pianos, bigger is better, and it’s also more expensive.
The shiny, usually black, monster instrument standing alone in full glory on a concert stage is the gold standard for pianists. Grand pianos have their strings strung horizontally across a soundboard. All other things being equal, the bigger the soundboard, the richer the sound — and the richer the price tag.
A grand piano is certainly the most musically attractive choice — if, that is, someone can actually play, or is very serious about learning. According to the 2011 Blue Book of Pianos the cheapest class of new grand pianos starts at around $6000. Depending on make and size, mid-range grand pianos run between $10,0000 and $20,0000. New premium brand-name pianos such as Steinway start at around $45,000 and top out at well above $100,000.
Grand pianos are very loosely described by size, and each manufacturer has slight differences in the precise measurements. But there is no fundamental difference in piano action among grand pianos: The main difference is in the size of the soundboard, which affects the sound. Of course, there are massive differences in workmanship and materials among the various brands.
For example, Steinway’s grand pianos fall into the following categories:
- The Model A. This 5’1″ long piano (measured from from edge of the keyboard to the end of the piano) is what is usually called a small baby grand. While some A-sized baby grands have a lovely tone, the sound is often thinner. Indeed, large large vertical upright pianos actually have a larger soundboard. If you are in the market for an A-sized model, check out full-sized uprights by premium makers, as well.
- Model M: The 5’7″ Model M is usually referred to as a baby grand. This is a common piano size for smaller private homes.
- Model L (also Model O, which is almost the same, and which is no longer made): These 5″11″ models are usually called parlor grands. This is a common size for homes, high school recital halls, and practice rooms at conservatories.
- Model A: At 6’2″, this is the premium size for a home piano and for conservatory pianos.
- Model B: The 7′ small concert grand is appropriate for smaller concert halls, and may be found in very large homes.
- Model D: The 9-foot concert grand is the piano that you find in symphony halls
Upright (or Vertical) Pianos
Upright pianos are more convenient if for no other reason than they don’t take up nearly as much space as their grand and portentous cousins. And they are considerably cheaper. But convenience comes at another cost: The sound and feel of an upright piano is very different than that of a grand. (However, the best uprights can compete favorably against smaller, cheaper grands).
One of the differences is the action. The hammers hit the strings vertically, not horizontally, so the feel of the action is very different. Piano actions on uprights tend to be much lighter, and, unless it’s a full-sized upright, the sound can be both small and tinny.
- Spinets: Spinets are the smallest of the upright pianos. They are usually under 40 inches tall, and as a result, the action is located below the keyboard, making it harder for a technician to make repairs. Spinets have gone out of fashion and are no longer made or sold new, but you can find them on the used market. Expect to pay between $500 and $800 for a piano in good condition.
- Consoles. At 40 – 43 inches tall, a console may be only a few inches taller than its little sibling, but those few inches make a difference. These are the most popular upright pianos, mostly because of their price. (Plus they don’t visually overwhelm small rooms.) New entry-level consoles start at around $3000, but better models can go as high as $10,000.
- Studio pianos: At 44 – 48 inches, these would be the pianos most likely to be found in small practice rooms and school music studios. Starting prices on mid-range models are $8,0000 – $15,0000
- Upright Pianos: Think about the old honky-tonk piano in a silent movie: That’s what we’re talking about here. At 48 inches and above, these pianos take up a lot of wall space. They can sometimes compete with smaller grands, especially if they are by premium manufacturers. Expect to pay $10,000 – $20,000, depending on the make.
At these prices, who can afford to learn to play the piano? That’s a good question, and it’s one reason why continual piano maintenance is so important. Beyond that, parents of prospective students have a few other options: renting, buying a used piano, or considering an electronic keyboard, at least for the first couple of years.
The important thing is that the piano be a pleasure to play: A good instrument helps a pianist develop sensitivity and touch, and helps a student become a better musician.
Edited to add: As per Annie’s comments below a used piano is a viable alternative. Check out these tips on buying or selling a used piano.