🎹 Upright v.s. Grand Pianos: Which Is Better For You? | Common Misconceptions & Myths 🎹

As one of North America’s largest piano retailers, we’re blessed to get to interact with piano shoppers looking for upright, grand and digital pianos face-to-face, every single day.

As a result, we’ve been able to observe many of the common misconceptions a lot of people have with regard to upright vs grand pianos – specifically, as to how these two types of piano relate to one another. There are misconceptions surrounding every musical instrument, and pianos are certainly not immune.

In today’s article and companion video, we’re going to cover the 6 most commonly held misconceptions and myths we encounter related to comparing upright and grand pianos. Our goal is to clear up these misconceptions and hopefully shed some light on the conversation, especially if you’re trying to decide between these two types of acoustic pianos. Let’s get into it.

Upright vs Grand Pianos – Background

Upright vs Grand Pianos Background
Upright vs Grand Pianos Background

Anyone who watches our YouTube channel or reads our blogs with any regularity will know that our company President and in-house piano reviewer Stu Harrison has a soft spot for great upright pianos.

This sentiment has definitely trickled down to the rest of us here at Merriam Pianos, and as a result, we often find customers shopping for a used or new piano surprised when we articulate some of the many virtues of the upright piano since some people have the idea that grand pianos are automatically superior to uprights.

This simply isn’t the case, and the topic requires much more nuance – you’re not necessarily compromising even if you have less space and have chosen to go with an upright. That’s really the impetus for this article – to clear up some of those biases lingering around out there that are simply not rooted in fact.

Here’s myth #1.

Myth #1: Grand Pianos are Always More Expensive than Upright Pianos

This myth simply isn’t true, but we need to add some additional context. Upright pianos vary in price with regular production models starting at around $3,000 and $4,000 and going all the way up to eclipsing the $70,000 mark. Of course, there are grand pianos that can be much higher priced than $70,000, but generally speaking, the vast majority of grand pianos that get sold cost somewhere in the $10,000 to $30,000 range. In other words, there’s tons of overlap.

Now, why are the most expensive grand pianos more costly than the most expensive uprights? The single biggest reason for this price difference is the grand piano’s rim. There are several different manufacturing techniques and material options that various manufacturers use ranging in price, but no matter what, constructing a rim greatly increases production time.

Generally, a good rule of thumb that we’ve used for guiding customers in this is if you want an equal quality upright to grand, then you generally have to double the price of a grand piano to get the same as what you’re getting on a comparable upright. A Yamaha U1 for example will outplay just about any new equally priced grand piano.

Myth #2: Grand pianos are Louder than Upright Pianos

Upright Pianos - Soundboard
Upright Pianos – Soundboard

Just like our first myth, on its face, this myth is false. An upright piano with a similar-sized soundboard and similar-length strings will produce exactly the same volume as a grand piano with the same dimensions. For example, if you were looking at a 52” upright with approximately a 51-inch bass string length, a 5’8” to 5’10” grand piano will give you approximately the same size of the soundboard as well as string length.

We actually did this experiment for ourselves and measured the decibel output of a 50” C. Bechstein upright piano against a 6’2” Shigeru Kawai SK-3 and found that the volume output was exactly the same, and arguably even the overall sound quality.

As a result of inherent design differences and the reality that most people keep their upright piano lids closed, grand pianos will generally have better projection and sound louder, but this disparity lessens if the upright piano lid is opened. The other factor is that larger grand pianos from about the mid 6’ range up to 9’ simply don’t have comparable upright piano alternatives, thereby creating the impression that grands are simply louder than upright pianos.

Myth #3: Grand Pianos are for Advanced Players, Uprights are for Beginners

Out of the three myths so far, this one is closest to the truth, although, just like the other two, there are plenty of instances where this is simply not the case. Sure, at a certain level of advancement as a pianist, a grand piano is probably what you’ll want to have if you’re preparing for performance, or doing some recording, but that only applies to certain people.

Grand pianos and upright pianos have several physical differences, but one of the most important differences is the action, and that’s very relevant here. On a grand piano’s action, the hammer returns to its rest position almost entirely due to gravity at a low dynamic level and a combination of gravity plus rebound from the hammer striking the string when we’re in an upper velocity or higher dynamic range (often referred to as escapement).

On an upright piano, gravity plays a role, but the hammer is not directly returned to its resting position because of gravity and its own weight. Instead, a piece in the action called a bridle strap helps reset the key. And it’s a bit of a clumsy motion. In higher dynamic ranges control is just fine, but in lower dynamic ranges that control gets a little bit compromised.

Those differences between upright and grand actions mean that for advanced players (especially classical advanced players), a grand piano is going to give you a level of control and consistency that most uprights simply are not capable of.

Now, 99% of all piano buyers and players simply are not at that level which means that for beginners, hobbyists and even for people playing up to conservatory level 9 or 10, a really good upright piano is going to deliver a great musical experience without much or any compromise.

One other factor is if you’re practicing advanced repertoire and specifically need a sostenuto pedal you might think that an upright piano is out since the middle pedal is typically a mute pedal (the other two pedals are still the traditional soft pedal and damper pedal), but there are many fine uprights that are available with sostenuto pedals instead.

Myth #4: Upright Pianos Have a Lighter Touch than Grand Pianos

Upright Pianos - Action
Upright Pianos – Action

We hear this one a lot – sometimes from piano lesson teachers, other times from people who have owned a grand piano at some point in the past or know someone who has. A common phrase is, “An upright piano is okay to start with but to really build your finger strength, you need to get on a grand piano.”

It is true that larger grand pianos usually have a slightly heavier touch. The reason for this is that larger grand pianos will tend to have larger hammers because they are striking longer strings.

But for a smaller grand piano where there isn’t the need to have a hammer that’s any larger than what you get on an upright piano, there’s actually no technical reason why a manufacturer would choose to have a grand piano with a heavier feel than an upright piano of a similar size in terms of string length or soundboard size.

If there is a difference, there’s a very good chance that it’s because the grand piano has been under-regulated or under-lubricated, and the less expensive the piano, usually the less time is spent lubricating and regulating the action at the factory level.

If you’ve got a $10,000 upright piano, and a $10,000 grand piano, that upright piano is probably going to feel lighter because it’s received more lubrication and regulation. Pay a technician to regulate the action of that $10,000 grand and suddenly the weighting difference disappears.

Myth #5: Upright Pianos Have No Bass

This myth is false on its face and largely relates to the first myth about grand pianos being louder versus upright pianos being softer.

There’s a huge overlap in bass string length and soundboard size between upright pianos and grands, and since the bass tone is largely (though not exclusively) a function of the length of the string and soundboard shaping, there’s no reason why you can’t have a 52” upright piano producing about the same bass response and lush overtones as a grand piano up to about 6’ in length.

Anything beyond that size, and of course a larger grand piano is going to have longer bass strings and a larger soundboard, equaling a more powerful bass presence.

A 9’ foot Steinway D certainly has a better presence than any upright piano, and just about any grand piano will have a better bass than a spinet upright, but there are many vertical pianos that will outgun many baby grand pianos and other smaller grands in terms of bass response.

Myth #6: Grand Pianos Offer More Control than Uprights

Grand Pianos - Action
Grand Pianos – Action

This is probably the myth that’s the closest to being true out of the six on our list. Relating back to the technical differences we covered regarding the action mechanisms, grand pianos do offer a higher degree of control than uprights, assuming we’re talking about two instruments of the same quality.

As we mentioned, this is due in large part to gravity assisting in getting the hammer back into the rest position on grand pianos. The other reason grand pianos tend to offer more control is due to having longer key sticks, which means you’re working with a longer lever which in turn delivers the player greater control.

But again, there are going to be plenty of instances where a high-quality upright is going to offer superior control to a lower-quality small grand, so some nuance is required here.

To sum up, if we’re comparing apples to apples, then yes, a grand piano will offer superior control to a similar quality upright piano, especially in the hands of a professional pianist, and there’s no upright piano that matches the control of a good quality 9’ concert grand piano.

Closing Thoughts

We hope you’ve enjoyed this article covering the 6 most common myths we run into regarding the differences between upright and grand pianos.

We find some combination of these myths comes up constantly among folks shopping for a new upright, new grand or even a used piano of either persuasion, both among folks looking for a piano for their living room, and even committees shopping for a space somewhere short of the concert hall.

Thanks for reading!