How An Acoustic Piano Uses Science

There’s quite a bit of science that goes into the design and manufacture of and acoustic piano. It can all get pretty complicated, but we’ll just cover the very basic ideas here and let you research the rest on your own.

As you may know, a string or wire, when plucked or struck with a hammer, produces a sound of a certain pitch. That pitch depends on the length, thickness, tension, and material characteristics of the string or wire. A piano, as you may also know, is made up of hundreds of wire “strings,” each of which is tuned to a certain pitch. This gives you an entire acoustic piano keyboard, and a number of different notes to play.

Low sounds are produced by long strings with low tension. However, if the same type of string were used for all notes on the piano, the low-note strings would be extremely long, and would most likely rattle against each other, because they would vibrate over a fairly large distance. For this reason, the low piano notes make use of thicker strings, which produce lower pitches at a shorter length, with less movement.

High sounds are produced by very thin strings with high tension, so piano designers use short pieces of very strong steel for these notes.

The low and high strings on a piano can produce “inharmonicities” in the sounds (unpleasant sounding overtones of the fundamental frequencies of the notes), which can be adjusted through tuning and improved design, especially the use of longer strings. Winding additional steel around a string effectively decreases its thickness, allowing for a higher pitch, and also has an effect on these inharmonicities. A good piano tuner will actually bend the low notes and high notes to reduce these inharmonicities, meaning that the strings in the piano are not evenly spaced by frequency – they are not “equal-tempered.”

Enough With The Physics – Back To Basics!

Well, that’s enough of the science lesson. Let’s get back to basics.

When a piano key is pressed, a damper is lifted from the corresponding string(s), a felt hammer strikes the string(s), and the damper returns to the string only when the key – and the sustain pedal – is released.

You may have noticed that we said “string(s)” above, indicating that most notes on a piano make use of multiple strings, which are tuned slightly different from each other. This combination of strings helps produce a strong “attack” part of the piano note, followed by a longer, softer “sustain” portion.

I don’t know about you, but that’s about all I need to know – maybe more than I need to know – to play and enjoy the piano. You don’t need to be an electrician to turn on the light switch!

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