That Ole "Rag Time Piano Sound"?

Think of that style of music called “Rag”. Think of a tune like “The Entertainer”. How do they get that “vibretto”-like sound in the piano? Are the strings slightly out of tune? - Jinx

Yup. Of course, what you mean is the “honky-tonk” sound that old-time player pianos tended to have, and that was what Ragtime just happened to normally be played on. Other things that give Ragtime its distinct characteristics are the chromatic runs and the syncopation.

Here’s a clip from a music digest: “There is a
method for creating the ‘Honky-Tonk’ effect via tuning. However,
there is no agreement about exactly how it should be accomplished.
One point of agreement is that the effect is created by shifting the
pitch of one string per note in the entire tri-chord section by 2-5 Hz,
which causes a very noticeable ‘twanging’ sound. A few people
also said that the lower couple of octaves should be left alone.”

Hope this helps…

In fact Scott Joplin wrote a rag time piano tune called The Syncopation IIRC. I can play some (simplified) rag time tunes on the piano myself. My favourite is the Maple Leaf Rag.

I think you’re looking for that rinky-dinky, tin-pan sound. You would use what is called a “tacked” piano. In such a piano, a bar, running the width of the piano, is studded with brass tacks, and then hung suspended over the piano strings with the brass tacks on the underside of the bar, touching the piano strings. Not laying full weight upon the strings, mind you, but held just in contact with them.

I once used such a tacked piano, and it had a lever with which you could raise or lower the bar over the strings if you wanted to switch from normal piano to tacked piano.

It’s more commonly called a “tack piano”.

Hadn’t encountered a piano with a specialized bar for the “tacked” sound before! That may be how the sound is achieved nowadays without damage to the piano: to my knowledge it was originally done simply by putting tacks in the hammers of the piano.

That said, I wasn’t aware that original ragtime pianists would have used tacked pianos–I’ve always associated it with blues piano. Of course ragtime sounds “best” on a beat-up, out-of-tune upright, rather than some concert grand…

The old honky-tonk piano sound is caused by the aging and disrepair of the instrument, as well. I used to work in a piano store and have played for 15 years on various instruments.

Walloon is right; there are indeed special varieties of instrument made with brass buttons (hanging from leather straps) that can be lowered between hammer and string. Also, these sounds were sometimes jury-rigged by actually pressing metal thumbtacks into the wool hammers themselves, though this is not an easily reversible process.

The hammers of a piano are made of compressed wool. In American pianos of the era the wool was allowed to dry naturally so the lanolin (natural oil) was left in. Some pianos in the US are still made this way today, despite the additional cost. The softer hammers give the piano a more mellow tone. (Pianos like Yamaha, Kawai, Young Chang, et al, have the hammers baked so the lanolin comes out. The hammers are harder and the pianos have a sharp, crisper sound that is popular there.)

Over time the hammers lose their resiliency and this changes the sound of the instrument.

Also, a piano is best kept in tune when it is in a room of the same humidity and temperature. If you imagine the classic Hollywood saloon, an open-fronted bar in the middle of a desert town, this is a terrible place to keep a piano. It would get hot during the day, cold at night, and the piano would lose tune very quickly and unevenly.

Today the effect is simulated on what is called a “detuned piano,” where an in-tune instrument is put out of tune. To amplify what DooWahDiddy said, the lowest register of piano strings (from low A up about an octave) consists of one string coil per note, a giant cord of spring steel. (It’s coiled because a straight string of the proper length would be far too long to fit in the cabinet.) The next range of piano keys correspond to notes with two coiled strings per hammer. Both strings must be tuned to the same frequency. The rest of the keyboard is three identical straight strings per hammer. As you can imagine, an 88-key piano can have 200 separate strings in it, making the piano sensitive to changes in tune, and making a tuning a labor-intensive proposal and relatively expensive. (Much more expensive than, say, tuning a guitar.)

Scott Joplin, often called the father of modern ragtime, played in a lot of bars and dance halls in what is known as “Tin Pan Alley” (the tin-pan sound Walloon mentions). It was not the most upscale part of town. I wonder if, due to the expense of tuning or replacement, these pianos were old and slightly neglected.


Wow – I can barely recall a movie I saw when I was a kid where a woman (presumably the owner of the establishment) walked up to the piano and removed something from the interior of the instrument and told the piano player that she “preferred it without the chain.” I always wondered if I had imagined this. That’s the only detail I remember of the film.

OK, why doesn’t 88 keys = 88 wires in the piano? Doesn’t a hammer stike one piano wire for each key played? If not, then what’s the physics being applied here? I thought there’d be one unique wire for each unique key - each wire set to vibrate at a unique frequency.

As Fish said, each key on the piano has three identically tuned wires. Why?


Partial correction to my previous post: the lowest notes on the piano have only one fat, spring-shaped string.

Great example of a tack piano is on the Beatles “Ob La Di Ob La Da”.

Or at the end of the Beatles’ proto-electronica “Tomorrow Never Nows”, in which the song is de-constructed until we hear only a tack piano furiously banging away into the fadeout.