Since their invention in the mid-1700s, pianos have held a prominent place in many homes. Both decorative and functional, pianos are one of the most natural ways people keep music in their lives.
However, like any instrument, pianos — especially older pianos — require maintenance for age-related problems. From sticky keys to muffled voicings, pianos can exhibit a variety of evidence you should contact a qualified technician to make required repairs. For the novice, it can be overwhelming to realize that several different factors can cause one symptom. Recognizing these issues, along with understanding essential piano components, is a vital part of instrument ownership.
With a solid understanding of common problems and symptoms, proper repairs and maintenance can prevent minor issues from becoming more pronounced. However, owners should also keep in mind that pianos are delicate instruments — making adjustments without the aid of a professional could exacerbate a problem or even ruin the instrument.
Eight Common Piano Problems to Look Out For
Luckily, with an awareness of the most common symptoms, you’ll be able to accurately describe any issues to a technician, giving them a great idea of where to start and what might be involved in a repair.
1. Stuck or Sticky Keys
One of the most obvious problems to identify is sticky or stuck keys — it doesn’t take an expert to realize when the keys aren’t returning to form. However, just because it’s easy to identify doesn’t mean it’s easy to fix.
Sometimes, the key could require only a slight wiggle to make everything slide back to its original state. Even so, it’s imperative that you consult a professional to examine the root of the problem. Even if it returns to form, a stuck key could be a symptom of a more significant problem.
Some possible culprits of sticky keys are:
- Physical Blockages: One of the reasons to keep food other crumbly substances away from your keyboard is that it only takes a small obstruction for the keys to become jammed.
- Humidity Issues: Unsurprisingly for an instrument made of wood, moisture can wreak havoc on a piano. It’s important not only to ensure you keep beverages far away from your instrument, but also that you maintain the climate to avoid temperature or humidity fluctuations. Once you’ve exposed the keyboard to moisture, the keys or the front rail can become bloated, causing alignment and spacing issues.
- Tight Key Bushings: Piano keys rely on two different pins — a balance pin and a guiding pin— to ensure the key rocks on its fulcrum and stays appropriately aligned. The pins rest inside a felt-cushioned part of the pin. If these felt bushings are too tight, either because they are new or because moisture has made them swell, the pins will not move freely and the key will stick or move slowly.
- A Warped Key Slip: It’s also possible that the key slip has become warped. This causes friction between the key and the slip, preventing it from returning to its natural position.
2. Damaged or Dirty Keys
A well-maintained piano can bring as much aesthetic beauty as musical joy. Unfortunately, with time and improper maintenance, keys can become more of an eyesore than a point of pride.
After years of playing, the oils from human hands can trap dirt that discolors the keys. Moreover, a lack of light can cause some ivory keys to yellow. Some basic maintenance can slow discoloring — keep the keys covered when not in use, but make sure that ivory keys get at least a little light to keep them at their whitest. After playing, use a soft, dry rag to wipe away any dirt or oils from your hands.
This process highlights the importance of discussing your general piano maintenance with your piano technician. While it may seem intuitive to use alcohol wipes or soapy water, these can quickly lead to problems. Improperly cleaning your keys can be just as bad as — or worse than — not cleaning them at all.
When owners hear “cleaning,” one of the most common solutions is to reach for soapy water. Unfortunately, moisture can wreak havoc on your instrument. Too much humidity can swell or warp the keys, turning a minor cosmetic issue into a problem with overall functionality.
Another popular idea is to use household cleaners or rubbing alcohol to scrub away discoloration. This is perhaps the worst option, as alcohol and many solvents will dry out the keys. In these cases, the ivory or plastic casing that covers the wooden key can become chipped or cracked.
If your keys are discolored and beyond a simple wipe down, be sure to consult an expert for recommendations on the best way to treat your piano.
3. Rattling or Buzzing Sounds
When you hear rattling or buzzing sound coming from your piano, it could be the easiest possible fix — or it may mean some major piano work. First, move any object that could be catching the vibrations. Check behind the piano, as well, to make sure nothing has fallen behind the piano. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the noise was only something leaning against the soundboard or otherwise picking up vibrations from the instrument.
Unfortunately, if you don’t have a solution after checking those possibilities, you could be dealing with a structure problem. It’s vital that you contact a technician immediately to diagnose the problem so it does not worsen. Some likely problems will include cracked glue joints, loose bridge pins or loose screws, all of which a capable technician can repair.
Aged pianos can also wear along places near the strings, or even on the strings themselves. Once again, there is little to be done at this point aside from having the piano serviced.
4. Out of Tune
As with all instruments, intonation is vital to a piano’s operation. Unlike most instruments, though, piano tuning requires more than a few twists of a tuning peg or a minor valve adjustment. The good news is that if you’ve maintained and serviced your piano regularly, it should not fall out of tune nearly as often as a guitar or a trumpet.
While age and use inevitably lead to an eventual tuning, your efforts to keep consistent humidity and temperature can go a long way toward keeping your piano in tune longer. One of the most common reasons for premature detuning is the pin block swelling or shrinking due to environmental changes. Not only can this slightly shift the tuning pins, but it can also leave the pins loose in general, meaning they’ll fail to hold intonation even after adjustments.
The dangers of loose pins causing ongoing tuning issues highlights once again the importance of having a technician regularly inspect and service your piano. Neglect or trying to repair the piano yourself can lead to costly and intricate future repairs.
To begin with, many players do not realize that touching the strings or tuning pins with your bare hands will quickly oxidize the metal. Once this has started, rust can set in quickly, and the strength of the string is compromised. The chance of breaking a string or requiring new tuning pins at that point increases drastically.
The oils from your hands are only the beginning of these dangers. Without the proper tools or knowledge of the proper torque, you run the risk of damaging the pins themselves, which would could then require new pins or even repair to the pin block.
5. A Note or Group of Notes That Doesn’t Sound Right
Another easy-to-recognize but difficult-to-diagnose problem is when keys fail to sound a note. This is almost always a string or hammer issue, but diagnosing this problem can be difficult because other issues could also cause it, which is why a professional piano technician is so vital. Moreover, the repairs involve working with the metal mechanisms inside, which can bring with it additional problems.
If your notes fail to make a sound, your technician will likely check for:
- Broken or Misaligned Hammer Mechanisms: It seems obvious, but if the mechanism that strikes the string is either broken or missing the string, there will be no sound. The technician will replace or realign the hammer, depending on the condition of the mechanism.
- Broken or Torn Strings: If the string is on the verge of breaking or has already broken, the hammer may not make solid contact and the string may not vibrate correctly, which will result in a lack of sound.
- Tuning Issues: One other possibility is that the string has fallen way out of tune. In this case, the hammer makes contact, but the string does not have enough tension to make a sound. If this is the case, especially with only one note, it could mean the tuning pin has come loose and will require repairs.
6. Notes Sustain for Too Long
While having strong resonance and sustain is very important when you push the sustain pedal, it can become a problem if specific notes always carry past the key release. This can be one of the most challenging issues to identify since the causes are more ambiguous than broken strings or hammers.
Only a reputable technician can adequately diagnose the exact cause, but some possible situations are:
- Rusty or Broken Damper Springs: Upright pianos have springs that return the damper to the string once the key is released. If these springs are damaged, the dampers will be delayed or fail to return at all, causing unwanted sustain.
- Worn Axis Felt: Another solution might be to adjust the axis felt. If this portion of the action has become depressed or packed, the sustain will continue.
- Obstructions: It’s possible, especially if another part has broken inside your piano before, that there is an obstruction that interferes with the damper returning to the string. Once the obstruction is removed, the sustain should return to normal.
7. Sustain Pedal Isn’t Working
On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you’ll notice your notes don’t retain resonance once you lift your fingers from the keys, even when you have the sustain pedal pressed firmly to the floor.
Thankfully, the issue is generally easy to find since it almost always entails the sustain pedal itself or the attached lever, meaning it may require an adjustment to the pedal action or a realignment of the lever that controls the dampers. In rare cases, the lever itself will cause the assembly to be misaligned. In any case, your technician should be able to give you a better sense of what adjustment they need to make when they look at your sustain pedal.
8. Piano Sounds Muffled
Another unfortunate piano problem is poor voicing by the instrument. It isn’t that the notes don’t play or that they’re out of tune — they just don’t have the clarity and harmonic tones that give a piano its unmistakable sound. If you are planning to have your piano voiced, it will also need a high-level tuning before the voicing adjustments.
If the voicing is muffled this case, you probably have one of two problems:
- Hammer Displacement: The density and resiliency of the hammer’s head will make a significant impact on how your instrument sounds. In the case of a muffled sound, you will need more dense replacements to deliver sharper sound. In other situations, the heads can be too dense and cause a harshness in the tone, in which case they can be softened rather than replaced.
- Action Alignment: The action is the overall striking mechanism. If the striking mechanism is out of alignment, the hammers will not make direct contact, and your piano will have a weak or muffled tone.
As always, it’s critical to have a skilled technician examine the piano and make the proper adjustments. A trained ear can return the vibrancy and color to your old piano, but a novice can easily further disrupt the action.
Let Bradfield Piano Be Your Piano Repair and Maintenance Technicians
It’s hard to believe that so many components come together to make one unified sound. Due to their complex and temperamental nature, pianos require a good deal of knowledge for both ownership and proper care.
With adequate maintenance and repair, your piano can bring a lifetime of joy and beauty. Avoiding situations that will lead to issues in the first place is integral to safeguarding against future problems. While age and wear will ultimately affect your instrument, neglect, improper conditions and avoidable accidents will cause your piano to require service earlier than expected.
The two pillars of piano repair are to address any issues before they become more significant and to have qualified technicians make any adjustments. It is easy to put off smaller, less noticeable problems, but mechanical or wear-related issues become worse over time — often causing larger issues down the road. Meanwhile, trying to correct the problems on your own can damage the instrument as much as it can improve it.
Building a relationship with our skilled technicians can be a valuable decision in maintaining your investment in your piano. You will be able to find the advice and skill you need as soon as it becomes clear that your instrument needs servicing. Contact us today to learn more about our services or schedule a maintenance visit.