Which are Better, Grand Pianos or Upright Pianos?

grand and upright

There are a few things that are inherently different between upright and grand pianos. But the answer to this question really depends on your level as a pianist, or maybe more appropriately, the level you expect to attain. (If you are already a high level pianist, you already know the answer to this question. 🙂 )

The main difference is obviously price, all other things considered. And size, in the horizontal plane, anyway. These two elements may immediately rule out the grand for you.

But what are the other differences, and how do they affect how the piano sounds and plays?

String Length
Because of something called “inharmonicity”, longer strings tend to have a more “pure” sound. It’s a fact that some large uprights have longer strings than some baby grand pianos. If bass tone is important to you, you may prefer a full size upright to a baby grand piano.

repeition lever

In order to repeat a note on the upright, the key must be fully released so that the jack will reset under the hammer. On the grand, there is an extra lever called the repetition lever. The repetition lever raises the hammer a bit when the pressure is released from the key as it just begins to rise off the bottom of the keybed. At this time, the hammer rises, and the jack is able to reset under the hammer. This allows single notes to be repeated quite fast on the grand, compared to the upright. Some advanced pieces cannot be played on an upright because of the limitation on the repeatable speed of single notes.

Grand Dampers

When the key is released, dampers rest on the string and silence the ringing. The sound originates where the hammer hits the string, so the optimum place to damp the string, is where the hammer hit it. This is another big difference between the upright and grand piano; on an upright, the hammers and the dampers are on the same side of the strings while on a grand, the hammers are under the strings and the dampers are on top of the strings.

This means that on a grand, it is possible to damp the string at exactly the same spot where the hammer hit the string, which is exactly what they do on a grand.

On an upright, this is not possible because the hammers and dampers can’t hit the same spot; the dampers damp a little below where the hammers hit.

Also, on a grand, the dampers do not share their space with the hammers, so they can be as long as they need to be, and they will start at the top a little shorter, but increase in length quite a bit all the way down to the first bass note.

Hammer Rest Rail

On the upright, the dampers start at the top a little shorter, and increase in size as they go down, but something happens at the break where the bass strings change to tenor strings. You see, the bass strings are “over strung” which means they cross over the tenor strings. This means that right at the break, where the dampers need to be longer, they cannot be longer and have to be cut short on the bottom, to clear the bass strings.

Also, the hammers are above the dampers, so they cannot be made longer by making them higher, although on some pianos you will see the hammer line rising gently near the break. This alleviates this problem a tiny bit, but doesn’t make a huge difference.

In fact, the first damper in the tenor section is sometimes one of the shortest because of these space limitations.

The result is that, on the upright, when you play a staccato chord and let go, there is almost always a little ringing that is heard. But on a grand, even with some low quality grands, there is absolutely no sound at all after the keys are released. It is actually kind of eerie when you notice it for the first time.


Una Corda Pedal (or Soft Pedal)

This is the left pedal. On a grand, it moves the whole keyboard, hammers, and action to one side. Despite the name, it does not have to move the hammers so much that they miss one string. The goal is just to shift the hammers enough so that the string is hit by fresh felt. This produces the soft tone.

On the upright, the keys and hammer action are separate pieces, so this system does not work. To achieve a softness, the left pedal moves the hammer rest rail forward. This produces “lost motion” which is usually bad for the feel. In addition, the introduction of lost motion almost always does not change the volume very much, if at all.

Sostenuto Pedal
This is the middle pedal on a grand. Most uprights do not have this function. Most grands do. Only the lowest quality grands are missing this function. The sostenuto pedal serves to sustain only the notes that are pressed down when the pedal is pressed down. Until the pedal is released, those notes will continue to sustain while all the others are staccato (if the sustain/damper pedal is not pressed).

It is not used much, but is a pleasing effect when used properly. It is called for on some advanced modern pieces.

So, as you can see, there are many features of the grand piano that make it a superior instrument for making high level music. If you have the space and budget, and anticipate playing at a high level, the grand piano may be preferred over the upright.

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5 Responses to “Which are Better, Grand Pianos or Upright Pianos?”

  1. Rusty says:

    But there are other considerations in choosing between upright and grand pianos. Personally, I find most grands require a much heavier touch on the keys, while uprights are easier to play. And maybe it’s because I owned an old Story & Clark full size upright I inherited that I usually like the tone of an upright more than most grands.

    I get to play a baby grand in the lobby of a movie theatre sometimes, and since it is near the concession stand they like us to play softly. But I find when I try to play softly on that piano that sometimes notes don’t sound. They do need a certain amount of velocity on the keys in order to play. On my old upright I could play just about every note quietly.


    • Hi Rusty,

      Keys that can’t play soft indicate that the piano requires regulation.

      Regulation is the adjustment of the linkages within the action that can result in dramatic improvement of touch and tone.

      Next time you’re at that grand, gently press a key down slowly while watching the hammer. The hammer will rise. As the key goes all the way down, the hammer will continue to rise but only to a certain point ( called Let Off).

      That point should be 1/16″ from the string. My guess is that that piano’s let off is about 1/4″ or more.

      There are other considerations that may produce an unresponsive action as well.

      Thank you for the comment.

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    Which are Better, Grand Pianos or Upright Pianos? |

  3. Cobrun Sells says:

    One of my fellow technicians here in the Four Corners region U.S.A actually disengages the soft pedal rod on verticals (if it is alright with the customer of course). What this does is it continues to allow the pianist/customer to press his or her foot down and up on the soft pedal so as to practice their pedaling. Once they are able to practice on a grand piano their left foot “soft-pedaling” technique is all in their muscle memory. What this also does though is gets rid of the lost motion that is introduced every time the soft pedal is pressed. Again, with a vertical piano’s soft pedal rod disengaged a pianist can still practice pedaling without the added lost motion. Besides, the soft pedal on a vertical piano really doesn’t soften the sound that much anyway.

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