Acoustic Piano - Upright

The ‘regular’ piano.

Although it’s sound, ranging from flanging, drunken and out of tune, cowboy-saloon honkey-tonks to bombastic, heavily-compressed rock-slammers, is far from ‘regular’, but closer to both spectacularly beautiful and extremely recognizable, this instrument is what most people think of when hearing the word ‘piano’.

It is one of the most popular instruments in the world. Understanding how the instrument functions, how it is used in pop-music and listening to examples of some of the world’s greatest players will help you a lot in understanding how to use it’s sound, and in becoming a better player yourself.

Function, how it works.

Inside of the body of the piano are felt covered hammers, a sound board, a damper and strings, that together produce the upright’s sound. Vibrating strings of different lengths, thickness and tension, produce different kinds of frequencies. These frequencies are referred to as ‘tones’ or ‘notes’. 
The tighter and thinner the string, the higher the frequency and the higher the note produced will sound.

Think of plucking or striking the different strings on a guitar: the thinnest, tightest string produces the highest note (‘high ‘e’ by default on a guitar) while the lowest note (‘low ‘e’’ on the guitar) is produced by the thickest, string with the lowest tension.
Inside the piano, there are pairs of three of the same strings (producing the same frequency i.e. note) behind each hammer that are ‘muted’ by the damper by default. Again, think of a guitar and trying to play while resting something, for example your hand, on the strings. The strings cannot vibrate and no tone is produced (or only a very soft ‘muted’ tone, depending on the strength with which the strings are damped).

Pressing a key of a piano simultaneously lifts the damper off the strings, as it makes the corresponding hammer hit the three strings behind it, making the strings vibrate and thus produce the desired tone. The tone is amplified by the metal sound board.
Each key makes a different hammer strike a different pair of three strings and corresponds with it’s own note.
While the key is held down, the damper is held lifted off the strings, and thus let’s the strings vibrate freely, letting the note sound as long as the strings can vibrate. As soon as the key is released, the damper falls back on the string and the note is stopped.
This is why short notes can be played by striking a key very swiftly (i.e. releasing it immediately after playing it) and long notes by holding down the keys.
The damper can also be lifted by pressing down the sustain pedal, hence it’s function of ‘sustaining’ the notes. Pressing the sustain pedal lifts the damper. When a key is pressed the hammer strikes the corresponding strings while the damper was already lifted. Keeping the sustain pedal down allows you to release the key, while the damper is still held off of the strings with your foot, letting the note sound, regardless of releasing the key.
The harder strings are struck by the hammer, the ‘wider’ they vibrate i.e. the louder (and ‘brighter’) they sound (try the guitar again, same thing, strike hard: loud, bright tone), the softer the strings are struck, the softer the tone.
Both the loudness and brightness are thus controlled by your ‘velocity’ of playing, meaning ‘how hard you strike the key’. The harder you strike, the louder (and ‘brighter’) the tone.


In pop-music, the piano, with it’s distinct and characteristic- yet versatile sound, is used in a wide variety of ways. From punching hip-hop rhythms, to sophisticated melodic parts. The possibilities are endless.

Uprights are often interchanged with their ‘big brother’ the ‘Grand Piano’. Since they are both acoustic piano’s and both function and sound in a very similar way, but uprights are quite a bit smaller, cheaper, can be easily put against a wall (they are also referred to as ‘wall piano’s’) and thus take a lot less space (and money) than the Grand, while of course producing a very similar sound. Therefore they are also very commonly used when grand piano’s simply don’t fit the room (or budget): For rehearsing, in bars, on smaller stages, in small studio’s and of course by many starting pianists.

Yet I think it’s important to note that in pop-music, uprights are not only used in case space doesn’t allow for a greater Grand, but also because of a difference in sound, that can be very desirable.

The Grand, which also sounds more ‘grand’ and is therefore more often used when the piano has a ‘main’- or ‘flowing’/‘rolling’ role in the music, can -on the other hand- also sound more ‘clean’, ‘tidy’ or even ‘classic(al)’.
When I thought it would be nice to include a list of ‘greatest players’ in this post and was doing research to compile it, I was confronted with a fact that I actually already knew: most of the ‘greatest piano players’ are known for their ‘leading role’ in both their music and on stage. Therefore, most of the time when space allows (as it often does with ‘great’ players), they use ‘Grand Piano’s’ on stage, for both their ‘grand’ sound and -posture, putting the ‘great player’ in the spotlight.

Uprights on the other hand, have a more characteristic sound, and can therefore also be used ‘on purpose’ instead of ‘for lack of better means’. They can sound more ‘punchy’, ‘edgy’, ‘raw’, ‘authentic’ and/or ‘immature’ than the Grand, and as we as Pop Pianists should all know: every characteristic in sound, can be desirable at some point. ‘Sound’ should be a choice. Therefore, Uprights are both very ‘wanted’ and ‘usable’ in pop-music.
Use of the Upright is thus found in a wide variety of ways: when a piece needs that ‘rock
-feel’ (think of Coldplay, who always use an Upright for the piano parts in their music), a certain specific characteristic sound (for instance think of honkey-tonk piano’s for that parlor-vibe), when the piano sound needs to be more ‘fragile’ / ‘breakable’, or when they are to serve an explicit rhythmic purpose, like in hip-hop when the piano is very often used for steady, eight-note patterns, as well as small phrases of characteristic melodies.




Dr. Dre

Bon Iver




The (actual) list of all brands would be quite long. To keep it a little shorter and clarifying, I’ll name the ones that I think are worth mentioning and that are more or less commonly used in pop-music.
Yamaha’s upright model (U1 or U3) is the absolute number one in pop-music, used on many, many records. The rest follows in random order.

  • Yamaha
  • Schimmel
  • Baldwin
  • Bechstein
  • Bösendorfer
  • Petrof
  • Kawai
  • Steinway (& Sons)


About Coen

Founder of Piano Couture and creator of the Hack the Piano method. Coen is a musician, reader, writer, web-designer, eater and traveler. Find him at

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