Scale of a Piano

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The scale of a piano is the technical term for the design of stringing in a piano. This includes the layout of the strings and other elements relative to one another and to the size of the instrument. Steinway & Sons made various technical improvements to scale, including the overstrung scale introduced in 1855. In 1872 the company introduced the duplex scale.

The scale of a piano is the basic layout of the strings, bridge, and hammers relative to one another and to the overall size of the instrument.(2, p.142) In more detail, the scale of a piano “refers to the exact placement of all the interruptions along its strings’ length, along with the exact point where the hammer strikes.”(2, p. 53) In this regard, an 1885 encyclopedia noted that “In designing a piano, the first step is the construction of the scale, by which is meant the preparation of a drawing on which are shown the length and position of every string.”(1, p.504)

Innovations and improvements of the scale of pianos were introduced by the Steinways starting in the beginning years of their company, as shown by their winning a gold medal at an 1855 exhibition, two years after the firm commenced operation. This experience is described as follows in Spillane’s 1890 history of pianos:

“The first notable piano exhibited by this eminent house was a square, entered in the American Institute Exhibition of 1855. This instrument was awarded the gold medal by the committee on the occasion, for superior tone in regard to timbre and volume, combined with several features of novelty in construction described further on.”

“In this piano the American full metal plate covering the wrest-plank, having a solid front bar, was used. The connecting brace in the treble section was joined to the hitch-pin plate section and the wrest-plank plate in one casting, but elevated above the strings and placed in such a manner as to admit of improved “scaling" conditions and better tone results, while the capacity of the treble section of the plate to resist the “pull" of the strings was considerably enhanced. Bass overstringing—passing over three bridges—was also introduced. The latter were moved in toward the centre of the sounding-board, so as to bring the hitherto dormant section of that medium into sympathetic vibration with the strings as a part of the whole design, which included a new “scale" of great moment and ingeniousness. The outcome was decisive. The musical and technical results achieved are of historical magnitude, because many of these features of construction have since that date become generally adopted throughout this country and Europe.”(6, p. 217)

William refers to scales, in particular duplex scales, and innovations to scales made by Steinway & Sons in various diary entries.(Diary, 1872-4-2; 1876-4-9; 1883-5-26; 1895-10-7)

Dolge, in his 1911 book, has the following interesting discussion about the overstrung scale introduced by Steinway in 1855: “At the World's Fair, in the Crystal Palace, New York, in 1855, Steinway & Sons created a sensation by exhibiting a square piano having the overstrung scale, and a full iron frame, designed on novel lines to conform with the varied and much increased strain of the new scale. In this instrument the Steinways had not only succeeded in producing a much greater, sonorous tone, than known heretofore, but had entirely overcome the harsh, metallic quality of tone, so objectionable in other pianos having the full iron frame. Although at first seriously objected to by many, the overstrung scale and full iron frame were soon adopted by all American makers.”(3, pp. 51 and 52)

In 1872, Steinway & Sons introduced the use of a duplex scale. It is described as follows in a 1877-1878 brochure: “Grand Duplex Scale, applied to all Grands, Cabinet Grands and Square Grand Pianos. In addition to the principal scale of strings, a second scale of reduced proportional length is added between the agraffes and tuning pins, representing a higher octave, etc., for each note, rendering the tone richer, more musical and pliable, and greatly increasing its carrying capacity to a distance. … Secured by Letters Patent No. 126,848, dated May 14th, 1872.”(4, p.1171) Spillane, in his 1890 book notes that the introduction by Steinway & Sons of the duplex scale in 1872 was another significant improvement and was based on detailed scientific analysis by Helmholtz and Theodor Steinway.(6, p.219) Likewise, in her 1892 book, Fanny Morris Smith notes that the duplex scale introduced by Steinway was based on the acoustic science of Helmholtz.(5, p.154)

In summary, the introduction by Steinway of the overstrung scale in 1855, coupled with use of a full iron frame, revolutionized piano design in America and eventually around the world. It was fundamental to the subsequent rapid progress of Steinway & Sons to preeminence in the piano industry. The later introduction of the duplex scale in 1872 was another important development. Steinway & Sons continued to make improvements to the scale of their pianos in subsequent years such as in regard to use of agraffes and capo d’astro bars.

Steinway Patents that Deal with Scales

Literature Related to Scales in Steinway Pianos

1. Benjamin, Park, ed. Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics, Volume II, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895.
2. Chapin, Miles and Rodica Prato, 88Keys, The Making of a Steinway Piano, New York: Clarkson Potter, 1997.
3. Dolge, Alfred, Pianos and their Makers, A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano, New York: Dover Publications, 1911
4. Hutchinson, Thomas, Compiler, The Lakeside Annual Directory of the City of Chicago Embracing a Complete and General Directory, Chicago: Donnelly, Loyd and Company, 1877-1878.
5. Smith, Fanny Morris, A Noble Art, Three Lectures on the Evolution and Construction of the Piano, New York: De Vinne Press, 1892.
6. Spillane, D., History of the American Pianoforte; Its Technical Development and the Trade, New York: D. Spillane Publisher, 1890.