Why Steinway Grand Pianos Are So Expensive
Narrator: It takes about 11 months to craft just one Steinway & Sons grand piano, and these instruments don’t come cheap. A Model D concert piano in ebony, the most affordable finish of any Steinway piano, will cost you about $187,000. But that’s nowhere near how high prices can reach. Steinway has produced two of the most expensive pianos in the world, worth over $2 million each. The next most expensive piano is half the price, at $1.2 million. But with several other premium pianos on the market, is there something about Steinway’s sound that stands out? And is that what makes these pianos so expensive?
Named the “Rolls-Royce of pianos” by the BBC, Steinway has produced some of the most sought-after grand pianos for over 160 years. It’s the piano of choice for Billy Joel, Lang Lang, and many other professional musicians. But compared to other high-end-piano makers, it’s often Steinway’s sound that sets it apart.
Norman Krieger: As a performer, I can wear many different masks, depending on the piece that I’m playing. For some pieces, you want to be very, very diabolical. You know, enlist. And at the same time, lightness.
Narrator: Creating that sound starts here in New York, at one of only two Steinway factories in the world. Each grand piano is 5 to 9 feet long and weighs between 540 and 990 pounds. Often, the bigger the piano, the pricier it will be.
About 85% of a Steinway piano is made of wood, and one of the most crucial woods is used for the soundboard.
Anthony Gilroy: The soundboard is the life of the instrument, the soul of the instrument. This is Alaskan Sitka spruce. This is the most expensive wood that we have in the piano. And we actually get it from the trees, primarily, that are on the shady side, the north-facing side of these islands. So they grow very little each year, and that means that we have growth rings that are very close together, not spaced apart.
Narrator: Sitka spruce is used in other stringed instruments, like guitars, and it grows in a few areas in the Northwest US, but more than 50% of the Alaskan Sitka spruce they source won’t meet Steinway’s standards. The wood must have a very specific grain density and direction, both which can impact the quality of sound. Steinway looks for closely-packed, straight grains, no more than plus or minus 15 degrees off a 90-degree vertical grain.
There’s a reason it’s so strict about this. It’s partly why when you press a key on a Steinway piano, you hear a distinctly long, sustained tone. The soundboard’s edge must attach perfectly to the piano’s rim, the curved wooden frame of the instrument. The full rim is made up of an inner and outer rim. Some piano makers attach each of these pieces separately, but at Steinway, a team of artisans bends both together.
Steinway says this method gives the piano a stronger foundation, lowering the chances it will break. Steinway uses hard rock maple for both the inner and outer rims. The key here is to use wood that will, again, allow sound to flow freely.
Anthony Gilroy: Some companies, as an example, will…will have hard rock maple for the outside rim, but the inside rim, to save money, they’ll use something like lauan. Lauan is not as dense and hard as hard rock maple. And when you have your sound waves in that soundboard, some of them are being absorbed a little bit by that lauan, more than they would be by hard rock maple.
Narrator: The consistent touch of the keys is another valuable element unique to each Steinway piano. There are just two artisans in the entire factory trusted with weighing off all 88 keys of every keyboard. This ensures each key is balanced, so a pianist won’t have to use more force to press one key over another.
Gwendolyn Folk: I used to dream about the pianos chasing me. Now, it’s…its’ not a problem. It’s up to – they – the boss. I listen, you know. I pay attention to what it want[s]. The key to it is pay attention and watch that hammer. That’s the key to it.
Narrator: Each key is connected to a felt hammer. When pressed, the hammer strikes the strings to create sound. A key shouldn’t respond to the finger’s touch too quickly or too slowly.
Gwendolyn Folk: So, when I go to check the return, it stays. You see the hesitation? It’s no good. That means it’ll stay up in the piano. Do you see how fast that one is? That’s too fast, so I take this one away. Then I put this one back, and it wants the small one. You see? So I put the small one, you see how nice it is? And that tells me what it wants. So that shows you the difference. Every one is different.
Narrator: One of the most difficult jobs is the final tone inspection. The goal is to create a balanced tone throughout the piano by slightly adjusting the hammers as needed.
Scott Jones: From note to note, we can soften or harden these mallets, or hammers, as we call [them], and balance the sound that they generate into the string.
Narrator: The quality of a piano’s tone is incredibly nuanced, something only an experienced ear can decipher.
Scott Jones: If I take this note, and then soften it, in this case, I will put a needle in the hammer to soften it, then you’ll hear that tone change. Becomes a little bit smaller. And in increments, small steps, I can go through and find the notes that are too big, too bright, and step them down. Well, I’m 58 and I started when I was 28, so that’s 30 years and counting. It’s still, I’m still learning how to do this. It never stops.
Narrator: Like the ways you can customize a Rolls-Royce car, you can do similarly with a Steinway piano. Depending on special additions, veneers, and wood finishes, prices for a single piece can reach $500,000, like these pianos designed for Steinway by Lenny Kravitz. In the piano vault underneath the factory, Steinway houses one of the most expensive pianos it’s ever produced, worth $2.5 million. On average, the price of a new Steinway piano increases about 4% every year. This is partly because the cost of Alaskan Sitka spruce increases at a higher rate than inflation, according to Steinway.
And while the new pieces get more expensive, old ones become more valuable, too. A Steinway piano can last several decades with the required touch-ups and restorations. A 1965 Steinway Model D piano is worth over $98,000 today. That’s more than 13 times what it likely sold for.
And although there are several elements that greatly impact the price, it’s the musician who ultimately decides what the piano is worth to them.