Over the years, one of the questions we piano technicians often answer regards the sound made by a piano’s dampers when one uses the right pedal (damper pedal). This occurs with all pianos, though it is most noticeable in grand pianos because of their open design and the fact that the dampers are right in front of the pianist’s face. If you don’t already know, the dampers are the small felt blocks and wedges that press against the strings to prevent them from vibrating. When you press the right pedal on any piano, you are disengaging all of those dampers simultaneously. (see The Right Pedal) When all the dampers lift out of the strings at the same time, one can hear an audible “swish” or “zing” as all of the damper felts pull away from the strings at once. This is normal and happens on all pianos, no matter how cheap or expensive. You can prove this to yourself by using headphones to listen to a good quality modern recording of solo classical piano music, preferably something relatively quiet and slow, like Chopin Nocturnes for example. You must use headphones to hear this, but if you listen carefully, you will hear an audible “zing” or “swish” every time the pianist uses the damper pedal in the recording. Keep in mind that professional classical piano recordings are made on some of the finest, and most carefully maintained pianos in existence. And yet, many people claim never to have noticed this before despite playing the piano for most of their lives, especially people who have just purchased their first grand/baby grand piano. Here are some reasons why many people have never noticed “damper swish” before, even those who are accomplished pianists with many years of experience:
1.) For many people buying their first grand piano, their previous experience with pianos is almost exclusively with vertical (upright) pianos. It is nearly impossible to notice “damper swish” on a vertical piano because the entire mechanism is enclosed within the piano’s cabinet, whereas with a grand piano, the strings and soundboard area is open and directly in front of the pianist’s face, making the sound much more obvious and immediate. Add to that the fact that many first-time grand piano owners are justifiably fascinated by their new piano and spend time noticing tiny details of its sound and appearance that they never noticed on any other piano they’ve ever played. In my 30 years as a piano technician, many spent in home service, I have explained the phenomenon of “damper swish” to countless customers over the years. The number one reason why my customers never noticed this before was that this was their first time living with a grand piano on a full-time basis.
2.) Even people who have lived with grand pianos before may have owned an old grand piano that was not well-maintained and/or was in a state of advancing decrepitude. Therefore, even if the “damper swish” was noticeable, the owner may have dismissed the sound as a side-effect of the piano’s old age and poor condition. Once the person buys their first “nice” piano, the piano owner may believe that he/she will be free of such extra-musical sound effects. Therefore, any sound the piano owner associates with old pianos in poor condition is alarming, even if the sound in question, like “damper swish” is perfectly normal.
3.) Many owners of grand pianos play most of the time with the lid closed to use the top of the piano as a desk for sheet music, lamps, and metronomes. After purchasing a much nicer piano, the new piano owner will often experience playing the piano with the lid open for the first time in many years, therefore becoming conscious of the sound of “damper swish” for the first time, even after many years of playing the piano. (Speaking personally, I own a fully restored 1929 Steinway grand, which includes fresh new damper felts, and the sound of “damper swish” is still noticeable when I play quietly with the lid open.)
So, if you’ve ever been alarmed by the sound of “zinging” or “swishing” dampers, hopefully, this short explanation has alleviated your anxiety to some degree.
Until next time, thanks for reading.
Paul Yarish, RPT