When I started researching this question, I initially thought people were asking “what is voicing on a piano?” Pianists often talk about voicing chords in certain ways. But as I researched I realized that no, even though I have years of experience playing a piano, I still am laughably ignorant of the piano mechanism and repair lingo. While voicing on a piano involves playing chords in certain ways, voicing a piano is a part of piano care and maintenance. In this blog post, I will explain this concept in as simply as I can so that other confused piano owners will understand.
In this article we will cover the following questions:
- What is voicing a piano?
- How do you voice a piano?
- When should you do it?
- Which technicians can do it?
- How much does it cost to voice a piano?
What Is Voicing a Piano?
Voicing a piano primarily involves softening or hardening the felt on the hammers to achieve a different tone. In some cases technicians adjust other parts of the piano, such as the position of the strings. Unlike tuning, voicing a piano is a subjective, and therefore more challenging process.
Sometimes a piano is voiced to improve the evenness of tone across all keys. if some notes sound unevenly on a piano, however, it may be a different issue – a poorly regulated instrument.
Here is a simple test to tell whether your piano needs regulated or voiced.
- Bring your head to eye level with the piano’s keys. If the keys are uneven heights, then your piano needs to be regulated.
- View your hammers (open the lid if you have an upright piano). If some of the hammers are particularly tight, or have grooves in them then they have been overcompressed and may need to be voiced.
How Do You Voice a Piano?
Voicing a piano is a challenging process, even for experienced piano technicians, so the process is best left to them.
A technician who wrote for pianolifesavers.com (author unknown) recommended that the piano is regulated and tuned first. Tuning gets the piano in pitch, and regulating evens out the keys; it makes sense to finish by improving something more subtle – tone.
Pianos generally become harsher over time as the hammer felt compresses with usage. The exception is when seasonal variation introduces humidity which can soften the felt.
Technicians use several techniques to voice a piano.
To soften a piano, technicians stab the hammer felt. They are careful to not go too deep as this could make it difficult to play loudly. After stabbing, I saw one technician tap the hammer against a piece of wood to even out the felt at the end. Alternatively, technicians can use steam to soften the felt.
To brighten the piano, technicians may file the hammers with sand paper or apply lacquer. A thinner is added to the lacquer; when the thinner dries, the lacquer makes the felt stiffer.
After voicing a hammer many times, you will need to replace it.
When Should You Voice a Piano?
Here are some questions that will help you decide if you need to voice your piano:
- Does my piano sound “good” to me? If so, don’t voice your piano; if not, move to the next question.
- Does it sound bad, but isn’t out of tune? Read this to tell if a piano is out of tune. If your piano is out of tune, have it tuned first, if not move to the next question.
- Does it sound bad, isn’t out of tune, but produces sound unevenly? You can tell a piano produces sound unevenly by individually applying a similar force to all the notes in an octave. If some of them sound more loudly than others then check two things.
- Are the keys different heights? If they are, your piano probably needs to be regulated.
- Do the hammers of some keys have groves in them? If so then, you could probably voice your piano.
- Does my piano produce a tinny sound on some notes? Again this would be a case where you could voice your piano.
- Is my piano brighter or mellower than my taste? Picky, picky. Yes you could voice your piano. Alternatively you could try moving the piano to a carpetted room to get a melower tone, or a hard floored room for more brilliance.
I recommend consulting a trusted technician if you are unsure what is wrong. You could send them audio clips, or describe the issue over the phone, and they will likely know what to do.
Hiring a Technician for Piano Voicing
When finding a technician you will want someone with lots of experience, maybe the best in the area. Because voicing is subjective, you will want someone you can trust to deliver your desired tastes.
Here are some questions to ask your technician:
- Can you give a cost estimate? According to homeguide.com, voicing a piano can cost around $400.
- Do you need to regulate and tune the instrument before voicing? Regulating a piano costs in the ballpark of $500, tuning costs in the $100 – $200 range, so you are probably looking at $1000+ instead of just $400.
- Can I send you YouTube clips of pianos I like/dislike the sound of? Since it is a subjective process, see if you can give them something to work off of. Your upright piano won’t sound like a grand piano though, so it can be valuable to also send clips of pianos you dislike the sound of. Alternatively, describe your preferences in person (worse option), or show them your preferences on similar pianos at a piano store (better option).
Voicing a piano helps improve tone by manipulating the density of the piano felt. Check your piano’s hammers for grooves to tell if you need to voice it. If you do think you need to voice your piano, check with a trusted technician if voicing is the best option.