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The Piano Revolution
R. Dain
Article published on 21 November, 2008

The Piano Revolution.

 The last time piano design concept made dynamic progress was in the second half of the nineteenth century.  This was driven by the physical demands placed on the instrument by artists like Liszt and the aesthetic demands of the evolving romantic repertoire.   Performers and composers had the ear of the leading piano builder designers such as Steinway, Bosendorfer, Graz, Broadwood, Bluthner and Pleyel who competed fiercely amongst each other to meet the demands of the performing artists.

By the end of the first world war the industry was producing huge numbers of instruments, owning a piano had become like owning a TV today. Inevitably manufacture came under the dead hand of financial ownership and control.  Several major builders fell victim to this inept way to manage a cultured or technical company.  Broadwood who once held a dominant position once amongst the quality builders was perhaps the best known to succumb.  By the 1930’s they had introduced too many profit enhancing and quality cutting features and their reputation had vanished.  The Company went into liquidation.  Since those days a trickle of manufacture of Broadwood pianos has continued. The present owners of the residue of Broadwood are now better focussed on quality of design and production.  They have at last got the message after a disastrous period of producing instruments in the Far East. We wish them every success in reviving this historic name.

Steinway, the great survivor  entered the new century with a  huge technical lead.

Design little changed  little after their 1876 Centennial which was for its day a magnificent achievement .

Innovation perished and was buried alongside remaining members of the Steinway family. 

Steinway now claim with pride, their piano is so perfect it cannot be improved.  Therefore, they say,  further innovation is not needed. …… Such stupidity has resulted in designs fast becoming outdated. Steinway has recently been sold to a private equity organisation.  Its future is anyone’s guess.

Steinway has been the great survivor in this environment.  Initially Steinway, arguably the most innovative company in the history of piano building until the end of the nineteenth century, had the huge commercial advantage of an outstandingly competitive high performance concept based on their Centennial piano developed in 1876 to celebrate the centenary of the American War of Independence.  The modern Steinway is remarkably similar to this piano of the end of the nineteenth century many of which still are in use and sound magnificent and cultured though perhaps  lacking in power. With the death of Wilhelm  Steinweg innovation also suddenly perished in that Company. Strange vestigial signs of features of those early instruments logical and desirable and beneficial when the design was first introduced persist in the modern Steinway although their utility is long gone.  Steinway now take perhaps understandable pride in not having changed the concept for over a century stating that it represents the zenith of piano design that “cannot be improved”. That was probably true in the 1930s when quality timber and superb craftsmanship were in plentiful supply.   Some might say this is a rash policy in an age of scarce craft resources and a commercial incentive to build with recently felled timber in order to cut inventory costs. This stance remains part of their vigorous commercial presentation to maintain their dominance of the concert stage. The present status of Steinway pianos as the standard by which other pianos are judged testifies to the genius of the Steinway family in those days of fostering innovation, as does the fact that their concepts for pianos are still included amongst the top tier instruments  by Larry Fine in his authoritative  “Piano Book”, albeit with certain qualifications about the quality of their manufacturing standards. 

Steinway is not alone amongst Tier one piano builders in retaining old and perhaps outdated design concepts for commercial presentation reasons.  The magnificent Bosendorfer Imperial which many regard as “the king of all pianos “ dates from the very early twentieth century and is little changed since those days when F Busoni encouraged the building of this huge piano. Certain features such as the detachable capodastra bar and the case construction with multiple hollow chambers originally introduced for production reasons  have been  retained apparently for commercial presentation rather than any useful acoustic or manufacturing purpose.  likewise Bluthner persist with a fourth slave string in the upper registers that has its origins in a late nineteenth century patent of arguable efficacy by Julius Bluthner for what he called “Aliquot” scaling claimed to improve the sustain and power of the upper registers.  Now there are more effective ways of achieving this laudable objective. 

Stagnation in design risks the future of classical music .  Audiences are getting bored with the uniformity of sound in recordings and recitals.

Composers, starved of innovation resort to shock by discord and rhythm disruption etc

Artists dare not demand to play another make of piano than Steinway  for fear of cost and retribution.

Venues designed to make it nearly impossible for larger instruments to get access.

This stagnation  in innovation in piano design for over a century risks  the future for classical music. Many...probably most.... professional artists and concert goers resent the commercial / financial pressures that inhibit scientific development of the piano and impose a uniformity of sound in recordings and recitals. The enthusiasm with which the composers of the late nineteenth century  and early twentieth century  wrote new kinds of music to exploit the extended acoustic repertoire of the pianos available has long gone.  Such development is now denied to modern composers. The modern composers, starved of innovation based on the acoustic improvements of their instrument have resorted to attracting attention by writing formless music that shocks with harmonic discord, disjointed rhythm or other gimmick sounds such as string plucking or pedal impact.  The vast majority of these compositions frequently referred to as  "tone poems" get a single hearing followed by applause from those who feel they gain status by falsely pretending to understand a presumed genius in the work.  The compositions are rapidly consigned to the “bin” where most musicians of mature judgement would say they rightly belong.   Likewise the variety of piano sound that our grand-parents enjoyed on the concert stage is denied modern concert goers who rarely hear other than Steinway played because that is the piano the venue management has been “persuaded” to purchase.  The costs and hurdles to be overcome by any dissenting artist who wishes to play another make of piano are usually too daunting.  Moving a Bosendorfer Imperial weighing nearly a ton onto a stage is not something  to be  undertaken lightly.  Especially when the venue has been designed with access space and  lift undersized for any piano even marginally bigger than the 8 foot 11 inch  half ton Steinway D. Yet whenever blind tests are conducted to find audience preference for  a particular make of piano for many years Bosendorfer has led the preference statistics  with a margin typically in the range 70 to 30.  Now other makes are beginning to win such competitive evaluations.  In the 1930's the BBC, the arbiter of classical  music culture in those days, owned  and used Bosendorfer almost exclusively in its studios. Now they seem to use the make that costs and troubles them  least to obtain, irrespective of its musical merit. 

In the 1990's tests by a panel of professional artists  in the Wigmore Hall resulted in the purchase of a Bosendorfer 275 house piano (not of the calibre of the Imperial but never the less a fine piano  The stage lift design had been specified to be too small for an Imperial so that was not an option).  Sadly this piano was only a few years later exchanged for a Steinway D and sold off  by Steinway.  However Bosendorfer no longer dominates such trials.   In recent years Steingraeber has headed the number of awards won in the prestigious Paris Diapaison d'Or awards which likewise rely on the judgement of a panel of professionals who are unaware of the make of instrument being played when they record their assessment. 

Until such time as the Music Colleges teach their students about piano design,  the potential for improvement in piano design will not be understood by the next generation of top artists.  Classical music and the concert patrons will be the losers.   

Opportunity for innovation is now great.

Those builders who do not innovate are  at risk .


The opportunity and need for piano design innovation is now clear.  The new age of computer science offers the tools for a giant step forward to be taken.  As is always the case with innovation, those who attempt it and succeed will dominate the market and those who rely on commercial or financial gimmickry to survive will perish as soon as stressed financial  circumstances play on the market.  The present situation in pianos is akin to that in the 1950’s for the old British companies locked into building steam engines.  They either had to embrace the new technologies or let the diesel electric locomotive builders take over.  The first signs of stress  amongst piano builders are very evident.  Bechstein had to be rescued by German government intervention and have lost their independence of manufacture. Steinway is now in the hands of a private equity company Pleyel no longer has its own factory.  Bosendorfer is now owned and managed by Yamaha.  Feurich is produced in China

Many other famous name builders are struggling with declining production and falling profitability.  Yet the innovator Companies  Steingraeber , Stuart and perhaps Fazioli report full order books and  waiting lists for their instruments. 


The Chinese threat….Wendl u Lung  Diapaison d’Or

The market is already being flooded with cheap Chinese built pianos at around 20% of the price of European pianos.  At first these were of horrific quality and could barely be described as musical instruments.  However  recently a Chinese built piano, Wendl u Lung, won a divisional award in the prestigious Diapaison d’Or in Paris, .  This is “the writing on the wall” for the European piano industry. The Chinese are dynamic and experienced in copying. The only future for European piano building lies in leading with innovative improvement  and ultimate build  quality; attributes  which the Chinese are less well equipped to mimmick.


The key question is what features of pianos can be improved.

Every artist will have his own opinion but a suggested list is :-


1.Sustain of the note, how long the sound lasts and at what energy level.

2.Dynamic range . How loudly and how softly can the piano be played with total control.

3. Harmonic content.  This affects interpretation,  projection of the sound and its compatibility with other instruments in concerto playing as well as the preferences of the listeners and artists.   

4. Better and more efficient conversion of finger energy into sound energy. Often interpreted as a good artist/instrument interface.  Artists playing a piano in which this feature is strong will usually (incorrectly) assume that the action is of a special high standard .   

5.Smaller and lighter pianos built without sacrifice in performance.

6. Pianos of durability and stability in adverse climatic conditions.

7. Instruments more easily maintained in optimum condition by tuners and technicians of modest ability.

8. Pianos that can reliably be built to the highest performance standard without critical dependence on craftsmanship or un-obtainable material reproducibility and quality. 

Wayne Stuart, from the unlikely base of Australia, was an early contender to take up this challenge.  His instruments, which perhaps represent the finest craftsmanship in the history of piano building have long sustain and huge dynamic range for their size.  In the Author’s experience they need tuning only once for every four or even five times one would tune a traditional piano to  maintain it in a condition that a professional artist would normally demand.  Stuart  produces only about 12 pianos per year.  Each one is a cultural masterpiece.


Innovations already available:-

Bridge agraffes.  No down bearing, high efficiency energy transmission

Grand simulation actions in uprights .

Carbon fibre soundboards

Steingraeber in Europe, a builder with a proven history of successful innovation who were first to introduce the grand simulation actions in uprights based on tiny very strong magnets, have now introduced the British concept Steingraeber-Phoenix range of pianos which have had high acclaim from the recording industry for “rich, refined, weighty and convincing sound”.  These pianos are already produced with carbon fibre climate resistant sound board option. The 168 cm long baby grand Steingraeber-Phoenix challenges pianos of  concert grand size for sound quality and  power.  The old adage that a baby grand is inferior to a large upright has been consigned to the history books by this advance.

For the future it is common knowledge in the trade that a wholly carbon fibre ultra light weight, climate resistant high acoustic performance piano is being designed in the UK using the same space age stressing and acoustic computer aided design equipment initially developed for  and applied in military hardware and in Formula one cars.  It is gratifying that the UK has taken the lead in doing this and that perhaps once again a British piano may head the World in the quality stakes.

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