Modern acoustic pianos come in two configurations: grand and upright. The first occurrence of piano-like instruments occurred in treatises from the 15th to 18th century. These instruments, pantaleons, were the descendants of the clavichord. Cristofori’s first “pianofortre” was based upon the design of a harpsichord, and German manufactures such as Stein and Silberman initially produced “square” pianos based on the design of the clavichord. Ultimately, it was this clavichord-based design that won in popularity with middle-class people, while the English and French manufacturers, such as Broadwood and Pleyel, started producing grand pianos in the traditional, harpsichord shape. Grand pianos and square pianos existed from the beginning, but upright pianos did not emerge in popularity until the end of the 19th century. Today, square pianos are largely alien to most people. Few have ever seen, heard, or performed a piece on a square piano. Upright pianos, however, are ubiquitous in the aging households of baby boomers and millennial alike, because of their affordability, small footprint, and musical charm. Grand pianos are not quite as common, but many living rooms thoughout the world have a grand piano, despite its largest real estate. For the professional pianist, an upright would never be an option. Artists who reside in small European flats with very limited floorspace will often have a Steinway B (7’) or even a D (9’) in their “living” space. Why? Tone, touch, and control.
What is the obvious difference between a grand and upright piano? Fundamentally, it is the placement of the strings in relation to the keyboard. Grand pianos can be referred to more accurately as horizontal pianos, wheres as upright pianos are—well—vertical. But the main difference is the action. Grand pianos have an action with hammers resting beneath the keys. Gravity assists the hammer back down, and the action contains a special repetition spring. Upright pianos fight against gravity, use bridles and springs to assist hammer return, and have no repetition spring, minus a few boutique models costing the same as a new Steinway baby grand. Even with the special spring, the action does not behave like a grand piano. Why? A grand piano’s action enables the pianist to control hammer acceleration using the weight of the arm and proper technique. It is possible to maintain hammer acceleration up until the hammer strikes the string at even low speeds (velocity) which is not possible on an upright piano. Grand pianos are known for having “color” because of this phenomena. Upright pianos by their very nature are handicapped, and have a reduced range of timbre (color) and dynamic range (how soft to loud you can play.)
Grand pianos can have their action parts regulated outside of what is “theoretically ideal” from a technician’s perspective to meet the demands of individual pianists. Geometry such as key dip (how far the key travels into the key bed) after touch (how far the key travels after the hammer has escaped, and even blow distance (the amount of space the hammer can travel) is easily adjusted by a good technician. These are just some of the basic things that can be done to radically change the touch of a grand piano.
Upright pianos cannot be changed outside of what is theoretically ideal for each particular instrument; otherwise, double-striking (bouncing hammers) and issues of hammer return out way any advantage of changing how the instrument feels.
Notice below, I have to fully release the key before playing again. This makes repeated passages and soft playing nearly impossible.
Grand pianos certainly take up more space, but not as much as you would expect. Baby grands are traditional 5 by 5 feet and take up less space than a loveseat or a large fully-extended recliner. Limitations in volume compared to even the tallest uprights are justified by greater tone, touch, and control through a superior action mechanism and a better case design. Grand pianos feature a signature "curve" in the case. This is designed intentionally so the longer bass strings can vibrate near the middle to back of the soundboard and the highest notes of the piano can vibrate in the smallest section of the soundboard. A grand piano’s soundboard and case function as an ideal, acoustic speaker. This promotes clarity, sustain, and harmonic richness. Upright pianos are rectangular boxes that have a rectangular soundboard. Some manufacturers have made cut outs to mimic the shape of a grand piano, but it is physically impossible to make even the tallest upright sound like good baby grand. Also, grand piano soundboards have a concave parabolic curve facing the strings. This is called the crown, and increases the power and tonal range of the instrument.
Notice below how I can repeat almost instantly after barely easing my weight from the key. This enables lighting fast repletion and the ultimate control.
A hybrid grand piano is in many ways superior to an upright piano. These hybrid instruments are often smaller than acoustic upright pianos, but feature hi-fidelity speakers with incredible technology that models the acoustic behavior of concert grand pianos. These incredible instruments are maintenance free, and feature actions that are nearly identical to that of a grand piano. Casio produces an incredible range of grand hybrids that start at lower prices than new upright pianos.
Today, upright pianos are mostly valuable for their appeal to nostalgia, because they offer no advantage over more affordable hybrid pianos. There is a mystique and charm to owning a “real” piano, and some people have a desire for an instrument that is acoustic. Grand pianos remain the best option for serious musicians because of the superior tone, touch, and control these instruments offer. Manufacturers such as Hailun continue to innovate and expand the capabilities of these small instruments. While longer grand pianos will always be superior, a new quality baby grand is always better than an upright. We have almost reached the 20’s of the new millennium. Let’s put uprights aside and let them become museum relics. Hybrids and grand pianos are here to stay.