How Pianos Age | Family Piano Co.

How Pianos Age

June 15, 2021

The modern piano is an absolute engineering marvel; easily the most complex non-electronic machine that makes regular appearances in people’s day-to-day life. With over 12,000 individual parts—many of which are made of organic materials that must be kept in exact alignment in order to provide a consistent playing experience that sounds and feels good—it’s endlessly fascinating just how long the useful lives of pianos can be. In an age where your smartphone and most everything else is made to be replaced every few years, pianos are true relics of the “built to last” mindset modernity gave up on some time ago. 

That being said, just how long do pianos last? Of course, the most accurate answer to that is “it depends”, but a useful general answer would be slightly longer than an average human lifespan. One common explanation we use is that 10 years on a piano is like 1 to 2 years on a used car. Under this analogy, purchasing a 40-year-old used piano is akin to purchasing a four- to eight-year-old car. Just like with cars, the age, initial build quality of the piano, its “mileage” (amount of actual play received during its life), and level of maintenance received are the most important variables impacting the aging process on a piano.

Understanding “Mileage” on a Piano

Similar to cars,  a piano’s “mileage” is often the most important variable in the wearing down of a piano though understanding, quantifying, and qualifying the mileage on a piano is much trickier than considering a car’s mileage. Fortunately, cars have accurate odometers, and city vs. highway miles is just about the only other important distinction to make. While it would be fantastic if pianos had some sort of odometer-like device to measure playing time, even a rough estimate of average hours played per week on a piano wouldn’t tell the full story of a piano’s mileage, nor would an exact number of notes played during its lifetime.

Playing piano is a complex art form. The amount of wear resulting from an hour of playing is drastically impacted by factors like the intensity of the music played, the style of music played, and even the individual technique of the pianist. A concert pianist ripping through a virtuosic piano concerto will incur much more wear on a piano in an hour than a beginner student would in the same time. One hour of advanced playing in a smooth, lyrical style will put less wear on a piano than one hour of an equally advanced but punchy, percussive, and highly dynamic playing style. A high-level concert pianist will wear their piano down many times faster than would a piano seeing typical home use (which I’ll loosely define as 30 minutes to 2 hours a day of low to medium intensity playing, though many pianos receive much less). They are also much more likely have their pianos maintained to much higher standards than a typical household. Practice-room pianos in high-level conservatories can easily receive more than 12 hours of advanced playing a day, enough to significantly wear them down within ten to twenty years!

Though I’ve established the difficulty of estimating the numeric “mileage” on a piano, the effects of wear on a piano can be both felt and seen if you know how to look for it. Of course, the best way to know for sure just how worn a piano is would be to have the piano evaluated by an experienced piano technician. This is highly recommended for major purchases of used pianos, especially from private sellers. But a moderately experienced pianist can get a good general idea of the state of wear on a piano just through playing and basic inspection of the instrument.

A worn piano will feel “looser” with reduced expressive and dynamic capability. The major noticeable difference between natural age-induced decomposition and wear from playing will be the consistency in feel across the keyboard. Piano keys are weighted on a gradient with the low bass notes being the heaviest and gets lighter as you run up the keyboard to the high treble notes on the far right side of the keyboard. A piano worn from heavy usage will have the vast majority of wear concentrated in the middle octaves of the keyboard while the outer octave-and-a-half on each side of the keyboard or so will feel noticeably less worn due to their much less frequent use of these notes across all styles of music. The greater disparity in feeling between the midsection of the piano and the outer sections, the more “mileage” you can bet this piano has seen.

There are visual ways to infer wear on a piano as well. A worn piano is likely to have more inconsistent-looking gaps between keys, especially in the middlemost worn section. Every piano key should have a small amount of “wiggle” when you move it side-to-side, but overtime, felts in the keys wear out, so there is increasing side-to-side motion and decreasing precision when you play. Pianos with ivory keys (and to a lesser extent, pianos with plastic keys) with major “yellowing” in an inconsistent pattern (again, focused on the midsection) also suggest a high level of use as oil from fingers contributes to this yellowing process. Chips in both ivory keys and plastic keyed pianos can also be an indicator of high-intensity use. Hammer felts are also highly revealing. Hammer felts harden over time as well as develop “teeth” indents as a result of being repeatedly and forcefully smashed against the piano’s strings. Inspecting hammer felts is most indicative of recent usage, as hammer felts should be—but often aren’t—softened and reshaped several times throughout a piano’s life to maintain a full-bodied tone. Worn-out hammers can give a piano a harsh, brassy, or muddled, murky tone.

Inconsistent key spacing and wear patterns on the keys are good visual indicators that this piano has seen its fair share of usage over the years. This key-wear is centralized to the most commonly used octaves of the keyboard.

These hammers have definitely seen a lot of use as indicated by the “teeth” indents from hitting the strings along with the flattened shape of the hammer heads. The inconsistent gaps between the hammers suggested it hasn’t been regulated or adjusted in a while.

Okay, So How Long Do Pianos Last?

Pianos tend to live very long musically useful lifespans, typically offering 75 to 125 years of quality musical life when bought brand new. Of course, there are many variables involved in how long a piano can last such as quality of construction, quality of materials, brand and model, amount of playing it receives, level of maintenance received throughout its life, physical placement, how many times it has been moved, etc.

This guide is meant to describe the typical aging process of a piano that has been properly stored and maintained throughout its life with typical home usage. That is, a new piano that has not been rebuilt (which entails significant parts replacement, greatly extending a piano’s lifespan).

As a note, “useful musical life” refers to the time a piano can be considered adequate for quality practice and general playing purposes. High-level performance quality is a much stricter standard that can be maintained for about 40-60 years on a high-quality instrument.

0 – 10 Years Old

New pianos will change very little in their first ten years and will feel and sound brand new.

10 – 20 Years Old

Depending on instrument quality and amount of usage received, these pianos may still feel and play like brand new or very slightly “broken in”.

20 – 40 Years Old

Higher quality instruments seeing moderate use (less than 2 hours a day) will feel lightly “broken in” around this age. Not worn by any means, but less concisely ‘tight’ as new pianos but still highly expressive. Many pianists prefer the feel of pianos around this age as the crisp resistance of the brand new piano begins to feel nicely broken in and quite comfortable to play. 

40 – 60 Years Old

Higher quality instruments will feel properly “broken in” at this age. Amount of usage piano has experienced begins to make a major difference around this time with heavily used or lower quality instruments feeling comfortably worn with somewhat decreased expressive ability. Lightly used higher quality instruments will feel more like 20-40 years old around this age. String oxidation will begin to take effect around this age, slowly brightening and thinning the sound quality, though not yet to a significant degree. Replacement of strings or hammers is recommended around this age to keep the piano sounding almost like new.

60 – 80 Years Old

Lower quality unrefurbished pianos will feel the effects of wear as the keys “loosen up” and finer musical details and expressions become more difficult to achieve. If strings have not been replaced, the cumulative string oxidation around this age will be definitely noticeable, typically resulting in thinner, brighter sound qualities. Higher quality instruments this age receiving proper maintenance and moderate usage may feel and sound more like 40-60-year-old pianos.

100 – 125 Years Old

Higher quality instruments that have been well maintained with only essential parts replaced as needed will be approaching the end of their quality musical life around this age, though may still be appropriate for beginners to intermediate players for a while longer. Well-restored or rebuilt pianos may have many more decades of quality playing left ahead of them at this point!

The End?

Generally speaking, your piano has reached the end of its life when necessary repair costs exceed the value of the instrument itself, akin to a totaled car.

A used piano will be considered no longer “useful” to high-level players much sooner than to beginner- and intermediate-level players. This is due to the intense musical demands upper-level players require from their instruments. A piano that is no longer “useful” to an advanced student may still have decades of acceptable-quality life in the home of a beginner student. 

When is a piano ready to be disposed of? The “end” of a piano’s life typically comes once it has incurred enough natural decomposition along with wear and tear that it is no longer practical to use as an instrument without prohibitively expensive repairs. Similar to a car, at a certain point, it just makes much more sense to purchase a new or newer piano than to continue on with pricey and often time-consuming major repairs. Common indicators that your piano is ready to be disposed of include no longer being able to hold its tune, major damage to the soundboard, iron plate, and mechanical action. Though nearly all piano problems are ultimately repairable if you’re willing to spend the money on a full rebuilding of your piano, this typically isn’t a practical option unless it’s a unique piano or has strong sentimental value. Please note that due to the hundreds of dollars it typically costs to dispose of a piano, many owners of functionally “dead” pianos will post them for “free” on the internet, only for the new owner to discover all of the problems after they’ve paid for the piano to be moved. Sometimes, they’ll then repost it as a free piano themselves! This is one of the reasons we wrote an article detailing the problems of getting a free piano.

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