Old pianos and historical instruments

I have come across many old pianos that are a semitone or more flat. The piano loses a lot of volume and tone; piano strings tend to sound best when they are at much higher tension. Many old pianos will survive being raised to A 440 Hz but alas some will not. Raising the tension on old frames is always a risk but is usually successful.

I have an old piano and it is very flat, should I get it raised to pitch?
Many older instruments can indeed be raised to A 440 Hz but there are some things to be aware of:

  • Strings can break - this can be very time consuming and become expensive if a lot of strings start breaking.
  • The piano tuning may be unstable for several tunes - moving the pitch of a piano a lot makes it harder to keep the piano in tune for a while; until the piano gets "accustomed" to the new pitch.
  • Very occasionally the iron frame can crack. In this case the piano is probably "had it". Repairs are possible however they may not last. This is a major operation!
  • Many old pianos were not designed to hold a pitch of A 440Hz. This should not be done if the soundboard has little or no downbearing, i.e. the soundboard is collapsing. Raising the pitch may be successful but may also accelerate the demise of the soundboard.
  • In some cases the piano simply will not stay in tune at the new higher pitch.
  • The piano will still sound like an old piano! Just louder.

    In general if the piano has historical value or sentimental value and it is played it might be best NOT to try to raise it to pitch.

    Old pianos can be very difficult to tune!
    Some old pianos just fight the piano tuner. However persistence can usually produce a reasonable result. For various reasons though very old pianos tend to sound like 1890s bar room pianos; because they are! Many old pianos have loose tuning pins so will not stay in tune for very long. Sometimes loose pins can be repaired but if the piano's pin block is cracked a major repair is necessary. Most old upright pianos have little if any monetary value and these sorts of repairs are expensive. Most major repairs are carried out on higher quality instruments only.

    Action parts get worn out
    Hammers and other moving parts, felts and bushings all wear out with use. After decades things don't line up any more and resist all attempts to make them do so making the piano sound jangly and unpleasant. Minor repairs can usually get the instrument playable again but to get it working all nicely is a major undertaking. Restorations of this scale are usually only carried out on higher quality instruments.

    Unfortunately for many old pianos nothing short of a restring and replacement of the hammers will improve the tone of the instrument. This is common practice on higher quality instruments but is rarely carried out on cheaper pianos, it is simply cheaper to buy another piano!

    Restoration
    Many higher quality old pianos can be restored to something of their former glory. Cabinet work, replacement of strings, hammers, felts, tuning pins and various other action components can restore a piano to being a beautiful instrument again. Older pianos are rapidly disappearing and obviously if nobody restores them there will not be any left.

    If you would like some more information about restoration of your piano, or would simply like to arrange and inspection and quote, please contact Cliff.