When you’re shopping for a piano, it can be overwhelming to walk into a showroom filled with all shapes and sizes of instruments. How do you know where to start? Pianos are a major investment, so it’s a good idea to take your time, research, and get the one that works best for you and your family.
This post focuses on acoustic pianos; while you certainly can choose a digital piano, it will not have the same touch as an acoustic piano, despite the weighted keys. The pedals will not feel the same. It will not give you the same sort of dynamic control. You cannot color the tone. And yes, while it might be able to replicate the sound of a nine-foot grand, it will still feel like a two-foot keyboard. If you are a beginner, a digital piano will be adequate, and it’s better than nothing at all, but I strongly recommend an acoustic piano if you have the budget and space for one.
The smallest and most economical acoustic piano is called a spinet. It has a low profile (usually less than 40″ tall), which curtails the length of its strings, and thus the sound. It also uses a different action (the mechanism by which the hammers hit the strings) than its larger peers, resulting in inferior touch and response. The spinet works best for the beginning to early intermediate student with a limited budget.
The next size up is the console piano. This is slightly taller, up to about 43″, and boasts longer strings and a bigger sound than the spinet. Its action is compact, but still superior to the spinet. You will most often find these in private homes. They are the workhorses of the piano world, big enough to produce a nice sound, and small enough to fit in the space you have available, as well as being fairly affordable, as pianos go. I recommend this style for most students and for general use.
The studio piano is a taller version of the console. Its height reaches approximately 48″, and the increased string and soundboard length gives it a much fuller sound. Its height also allows for a full-size action. A more advanced pianist will appreciate the difference, making this a good choice for practice studios, schools, and homes.
The tallest of the vertical pianos is the upright. At up to 60″ in height, it is capable of volume comparable to a grand piano, and is sometimes called an “upright grand”, although this term is technically incorrect. These pianos are often quite old and in disrepair. If well-maintained, however, they can still yield a beautiful sound.
Horizontal pianos are most often referred to as “grand pianos.” The soundboard and strings extend horizontally away from the keyboard, and the action lies underneath instead of above the strings. This allows for crisper notes and greater control than you can achieve with an upright. In addition, the lid can be raised to increase the fullness of sound. These attributes, along with the elegant appearance of the instrument, make the grand piano the right choice for serious pianists and performers.
Grand pianos come in many lengths, from under 5′ to over 9′ long. Most pianos in private homes fall in the “baby grand” category, at less than 5’6″. Some homes have mid-size grands, as do many music studios, schools, and small recital halls. The largest instruments are generally referred to as “concert grands”, and as the name implies, are used primarily for professional performances. Their size makes them impractical for home use, and their high price is out of reach for most pianists.
So which kind should I buy?
The best one you can afford. While with some pianos you are paying a premium for the name (such as Steinway), you really do get what you pay for in terms of performance. What is your primary objective? A beautiful addition to your living room, a second-hand spinet for your beginning child, a well-made but reasonably-priced console to play for your own enjoyment? Once you know why you’re buying a piano, then you can concentrate on which piano you need.