Is a new piano better than a pre-loved instrument?
Updated: Sep 12, 2018
By Stewart Kelly
If the name Stradivarius means anything to you then you will know that very old violins are the most sought-after and the most valuable. Stradivarius instruments from the late 17th and early 18th century have sold in recent times for more than 50 million dollars given their scarcity and the belief that modern instruments aren’t as beautiful as those made centuries ago.
Is the same true for pianos? Absolutely not.
A piano is a much more mechanical machine than a violin or cello. It has more than 8000 parts. Our soundboard is bent into what we call a crown for better resonance but that combined with the more than two tons of effective down weight from the iron plate and string tension above it means that over time even the best quality soundboards will either flatten out or crack.
And while our instrument is tuned similarly to a violin by manipulating string tension via a tuning pin (instead of a peg) the longevity of the ‘tuning block’ is finite. The tuning block is a a piece of wood into which the tuning pins are drilled. When the piano is tuned, the technician will loosen or tighten the pin in the block to lower or raise the pitch.
If a piano is in an environment like a concert hall where it can be touched up daily this has the effect of loosening the holding tension of the pin in the slot over time. A piano that won’t stay in tune isn’t fun for anyone. In a domestic situation this is less common but you will find on older pianos pin blocks that crack under the stress effectively rendering the piano useless.
This doesn't even take into account the wear and tear felts, hammers and other moving action parts will suffer over time - or that in many pianos temperature and humidity can have significant impact on the function and life span of parts.
All of this means a piano has an optimal performance life before its performance begins to decrease. The quality of the instrument will cause a great deal of variation in when this deterioration begins.
Don’t misunderstand - a lightly worked preloved instrument from a reputable maker can be an excellent investment. But like all things, seek an expert who can show you what to look for in a used piano and how to tell if it is performing close to its best.
There is a separate discussion to be had about rebuilt or restored pianos which done well and fully are essentially a brand new piano in an old case. We will expand on restored pianos another time.
To sum up, a new piano like-for-like will usually be better than a preloved instrument. But seek advice and a decent used piano could be just what you’re looking for.