Piano Basics

How Do Piano Keys, Hammers and Strings Work?

Knowing how something works helps in using it in the right manner, and keeping it in good shape. Music instruments are no exception. An acoustic piano is a a simple and yet intricate system that uses various key components in a precise manner to produce the sounds we desire. Learn how the keys, hammers and strings work inside the piano to understand and appreciate it more the next time you play it.

Since we are talking about the functioning of the piano in this section, the keys, the hammers and the strings deserve an explanation for a good understanding of your piano.

Most acoustic pianos and even the full-length electric once have a total of 88 black and white keys. If your piano has less or more than that it is possible you might have picked up a defective piece.

However, in case of a digital piano, you can very well have lesser than 88 keys, depending on whether you chose to purchase a full sized keyboard which are more expensive of the lot.

Sometimes, in extremely rare cases, the color of the keys may be reversed. This most likely means that you are looking at a very old piano as they were sometimes made like that.

Each of the 88 keys is connected to a small felt covered hammer. When you press a key on the piano, its respective hammer strikes a string or a set of string which is tuned to the appropriate musical note. On being hit, the string vibrates rapidly and produces the musical note. This musical note is amplified by the wooden soundboard.

This entire process happens rapidly in a split second.

You can watch this mechanism for yourself if you have someone play on the keys while you look inside the case or the cabinet of your piano.

There is another mechanism in place along with the hammers which is called a damper. A damper sits over the strings inside the keyboard and each key and its respective set of strings has its own damper as well.

Dampers are made of cloth or felt that mute the string by preventing or stopping any vibration. When you press a key on the piano, in addition to the hammer striking the strings, the damper is also lifted off that particular string.

When you leave the key, provided you are not holding down the sustain pedal, the damper returns to mute the string immediately. We will talk about the function of the piano pedals later on.

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Piano Keys

Let’s start with the piano keys. If you have ever compared an acoustic piano to the digital counterpart one of the things you will notice is the difference in the weight of the keys.

The keys of piano feel much more heavier. People who are used to playing only either kind of instrument will have problem handling the other kind.

A piano player will find it difficult to control the key movement on a digital keyboard so much so that the rhythm will go wrong. Because of the difference in the weight of the keys the responsiveness is quiet different as well. In the earlier pianos the keys used to be made out of real ivory.

The digital piano keys are plastic and similar material.

However, the latest digital pianos have started using a technology to introduce weighted keys in their keyboards as well. In some keyboards you can actually adjust how heavy the piano keys feel to touch and how responsive they are.
Similarly when professional piano players are looking to buy a piano, they prefer a certain brand to another because of the feel for the keyboard and which one meets the responsiveness according to their style of playing.

Piano Hammers

The piano keys are just the beginning of the piano action that finally produces the sound. At the other end of it lie the piano hammers that strike the piano strings. The piano hammers are called that but are in fact delicate mechanisms and levers ending in felt covered tips.

The piano hammers are made from wood, plastic, leather or a combination of all of the above. The felt covered tips are important in making the kind of sound that comes out of the piano. If these were bare ended hammers the sound of the piano would be very different, metallic and not very nice.

The hammers are coupled with an escape mechanism that allows them to bounce right back from the strings after striking them. They are connected to the piano keys with a complex system of levers and are responsive to the touch of the piano player, striking the piano strings as hard and as soft as required.

The system that connects the keys to the hammers has become more complex and sophisticated over the years.

The area of the felt that strikes the piano strings gradually becomes pressed as it comes in contact with the strings repeatedly and often with some force. As a groove starts to develop, this part of the felt hammers can toughen changing the over all sound of the note. With time, if the sound of the piano changes substantially, the felt hammers might need to be replaced.

Piano Strings

The piano strings are the last part that come in to play in the piano sound making mechanism, if you do not count the soundbaord that amplifies the sound that you hear. The strings of the piano are pulled tightly across a metal frame inside the piano that is called a Harp.

This is interesting because as we have told you in a previous post, the piano was actually developed from a harp. The strings are tied to the frame with pins that can be tightened or loosed. This is how the tuning of the piano is performed by using a special tuning hammer to turn these pins till the right amount of tautness is achieved to produce the right note.

The principle behind the tuning the strings on any musical instrument is the same. You can think of tuning the strings of the piano akin to tuning the guitar, only a lot more complex and difficult.

You may imagine that there is one string to each note. But there can actually be up to 3 strings per note. This makes the job of the piano tuner more difficult. Not only does he have to ensure that the different notes are tuned correctly but also that all the strings of the same note are on the same pitch. If not, the note can sound really bad.

The thickness of the piano strings varies. This is what creates a different pitch for different note. The strings for the lower notes are thicker than the ones higher up. For this reason, there may only be 2 or even 1 string for the very low notes. Since they are thicker, there is no room to put 3 strings.

The strings of the piano require tuning once a year. But at least twice a year is recommended to make sure that your piano does not reach the stage where is begins to sound out of tune. Sometimes a piano can become permanently out of tune if neglected for too long. This problem can be fixed but with some bother.

So now that you know about 3 more components of the piano, hopefully you will appreciate it more and be able to care for it better.