How does the weather affect your piano?

Posted by Gordon Bolton

According to some of the latest reports, an estimated 28 million pianos are currently owned across the United States. This includes the ones most recently purchased but doesn’t account for the one that have been passed down through families for generations.

Playing and caring for pianos involves a great deal of work, but a number of people fail to consider certain factors outside of everyday use and exercising caution with these instruments during the moving process. In truth, even the weather and indoor air quality can affect a piano in several ways.

How Pianos Work

As you’re probably well aware, pianos are complex instruments. They consist of wooden frames, wires, hammers, dampers and keys all connected via a soundboard. When you press a key or combination of them, they raise corresponding hammers. Those hammers then strikes the strings to which they’re attached.

At the same time, this lifts the dampers, which are designed to prevent sound from occurring when the keys aren’t being played. Lifting the damper gives the strings the freedom to move and resonate. Once the key is released, everything returns to the stationary position.

On top of all this, the keys have different numbers of strings, dampers and other components attached to them. Each key can have 50 components or more for a grand total of more than 7,000 moving parts per piano. Strings are tightly wound to create just the right sounds for their unique positions on the keyboard.

Understanding How the Climate Affects Your Piano

While pianos are designed to withstand routine playing, they’re actually quite delicate in nature. Each tightly wound string and its corresponding parts can be vulnerable to certain conditions, such as heat, cold and humidity.

In many ways, pianos are a bit like human muscles, tendons and joints. If you’ve ever heard someone complain about their joints hurting when cold or rainy weather comes into play or experienced this phenomenon for yourself, you may already understand this to an extent.

Cold weather is known to cause piano strings to contract. This means they grow slightly shorter. Since they’re wound so tightly, this can place an incredible amount of excess pressure on the strings and keys. At the same time, cool temperatures make the wood in pianos and their soundboards warp and contract.

On the other hand, warmer temperatures can have the opposite impact. Heat causes piano strings to grow slightly, much like running hot water over the metal rings on jars loosen them. Warmer weather also prompts the wood in pianos to grow and become somewhat distorted.

Humidity likewise affects pianos. High levels of moisture in the air causes the soundboard to swell. Low humidity levels cause it to shrink. These effects can raise or lower the pitch of the keys and strings respectively. When extremely high humidity levels are present, rust may also become an issue.

People can’t necessarily see these effects because they’re extremely minimal from a visual point of view. Those who are familiar with the distinct sounds of their own pianos can certainly hear the impact, though. Even when temperatures and humidity levels return to normal or moderate levels, the pitch and tune of the piano may not return to its original status.

Combating the Effects of Weather on a Piano

Obviously, no one has the power to control the weather. That being said, you can minimize its effect on your piano. Standard home heating and air conditioning can make a considerable difference in this regard. By keeping your home’s thermostat at a perpetual temperature, such as the recommended average of 72 degrees, it’s possible to lower the effect of outdoor temperatures on your piano.

Humidity is another matter entirely. Heat tends to raise indoor humidity levels whereas heating systems have a way of drying out the air inside the home. For cases where negatively affected humidity levels are an issue, whole-house humidifiers can help.

Whole-house humidifiers go a long way toward regulating the amount of moisture in the home throughout the year. During the warmer months when humidity levels are high, these systems remove some of the moisture from the air being circulated. When colder weather takes hold, they add moisture to the air when needed.

If your piano is in storage rather than in your home, this is a completely different situation. Keeping the piano in a standard storage unit can have a significant negative impact on the instrument. Instead, it should be kept in a sealed, climate-controlled unit where changing temperatures and humidity levels have little chance of affecting it.

Certain other steps can also be taken to protect your piano throughout the year. Experts in the industry point out placing pianos away from direct sunlight can prevent heat and UV rays from impacting their pitch and longevity. Being sure to keep them out of the direct line of fire of heating and air conditioning vents is also a good idea. If you don’t have a whole-house humidifier, standard tabletop models can help during colder seasons as well.

All Things Considered

Few people realize just how deeply weather can affect a piano. Changes in temperature and humidity levels can have a considerable impact on not only the way a piano sounds, but its overall condition as well. If your joints tend to tighten during certain times of the year, chances are your piano is being affected in much the same way.

Conventional heating and air conditioning systems can help protect such a delicate instrument, but they’re not always enough. Additional whole-house humidifiers may also be needed to safeguard the piano against high or low moisture levels. If you’re placing a piano in storage, be sure the unit is climate controlled and protected from humidity.

On top of all this, pianos should be tuned on a regular basis to help keep them in optimum shape. No matter which measures you have in play to protect your piano, it should be tuned at least once a year. This will help ensure it sounds like it should and its strings, hammers, soundboards and other components are in the best possible condition.

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