[2.7.1] Hammer Voicing

A common problem seen with many pianos is compacted hammers. I raise this point because the condition of the hammer is much more important to the proper development of piano technique and for cultivating performance skills, than many people realize. Numerous places in this book refer to the importance of practicing musically in order to acquire technique. But you can't play musically if the hammer can't do its job, a critical point that is overlooked even by many tuners (often because they are afraid that the extra cost will drive customers away). For a grand piano, a sure sign of compacted hammers is that you find the need to close the lid at least partially in order to play soft passages. Another sure sign is that you tend to use the soft pedal to help you play softly. Compacted hammers either give you a loud sound or none at all. Each note tends to start with an annoying percussive bang that is too strong, and the sound is overly bright. It is these percussive bangs that are so damaging to the tuners' ear. A properly voiced piano enables control over the entire dynamic range and produces a more pleasing sound.

Let's first see how a compacted hammer can produce such extreme results. How do small, light hammers produce loud sounds by striking with relatively low force on strings under such high tension? If you were to try to push down on the string or try to pluck it, you will need quite a large force just to make a small sound. The answer lies in an incredible phenomenon that occurs when tightly stretched strings are struck at right angles to the string. It turns out that the force produced by the hammer at the instant of impact is theoretically infinite! This nearly infinite force is what enables the light hammer to overcome practically any achievable tension on the string and cause it to vibrate.

Here is the calculation for that force. Imagine that the hammer is at its highest point after striking the string (grand piano). The string at this point in time makes a triangle with its original horizontal position (this is just an idealized approximation, see below). The shortest leg of this triangle is the length between the agraffe and the impact point of the hammer. The second shortest leg is from the hammer to the bridge. The longest is the original horizontal configuration of the string, a straight line from bridge to agraffe. Now if we drop a vertical line from the hammer strike point down to the original string position, we get two right triangles back-to-back. These are two extremely skinny right triangles that have very small angles at the agraffe and at the bridge; we will call these small angles "theta"s.

The only thing we know at this time is the force of the hammer, but this is not the force that moves the string, because the hammer must overcome the string tension before the string will yield. That is, the string cannot move up unless it can elongate. This can be understood by considering the two right triangles described above. The string had the length of the long legs of the right triangles before the hammer struck, but after the strike, the string is the hypotenuse, which is longer. That is, if the string were absolutely inelastic and the ends of the string were rigidly fixed, no amount of hammer force will cause the string to move.

It is a simple matter to show, using vector diagrams, that the extra tension force F (in addition to the original string tension) produced by the hammer strike is given by f = Fsin(theta), where f is the force of the hammer. It does not matter which right triangle we use for this calculation (the one on the bridge side or on the agraffe side). Therefore, the string tension F = f/sin(theta). At the initial moment of the strike, theta = 0, and therefore F = infinity! This happens because sin(0) = 0. Of course, F can get to infinity only if the string cannot stretch and nothing else can move. What happens in reality is that as F increases towards infinity, something gives (the string stretches, the bridge moves, etc.) so that the hammer begins to move the string and theta increases from zero, making F finite.

This force multiplication explains why a small child can produce quite a loud sound on the piano in spite of the hundreds of pounds of tension on the strings. It also explains why an ordinary person can break a string just playing the piano, especially if the string is old and has lost its elasticity. The lack of elasticity causes the F to increase far more than if the string were more elastic, the string cannot stretch, and theta remains close to zero. This situation is greatly exacerbated if the hammer is also compacted so that there is a large, flat, hard groove that contacts the string. In that case, the hammer surface has no give and the instantaneous "f" in the above equation becomes very large. Since all this happens near theta = 0 for a compacted hammer, the force multiplication factor is also increased. The result is a broken string.

The above calculation is a gross over-simplification and is correct only qualitatively. In reality, a hammer strike initially throws out a traveling wave towards the bridge, similarly to what happens when you grab one end of a rope and flick it. The way to calculate such waveforms is to solve certain differential equations that are well known. The computer has made the solution of such differential equations a simple matter and realistic calculations of these waveforms can now be made routinely. Therefore, although the above results are not accurate, they give a qualitative understanding of what is happening, and what the important mechanisms and controlling factors are.

For example, the above calculation shows that it is not the transverse vibration energy of the string, but the tensile force on the string, that is responsible for the piano sound. The energy imparted by the hammer is stored in the entire piano, not just the strings. This is quite analogous to the bow and arrow -- when the string is pulled, all the energy is stored in the bow, not the string. And all of this energy is transferred via the tension in the string. In this example, the mechanical advantage and force multiplication calculated above (near theta = 0) is easy to see. It is the same principle on which the harp is based.

The easiest way to understand why compacted hammers produce higher harmonics is to realize that the impact occurs in a shorter time. When things happen faster, the string generates higher frequency components in response to the faster event.

The above paragraphs make it clear that a compacted hammer will produce a large initial impact on the string whereas a properly voiced hammer will be much gentler on the string thus imparting more of its energy to the lower frequencies than the harmonics. Because the same amount of energy is dissipated in a shorter amount of time for the compacted hammer, the instantaneous sound level can be much higher than for a properly voiced hammer, especially at the higher frequencies. Such short sound spikes can damage the ear without causing any pain. Common symptoms of such damage are tinnitus (ringing in the ear) and hearing loss at high frequencies. Piano tuners, when they must tune a piano with such worn hammers, would be wise to wear ear plugs. It is clear that voicing the hammer is at least as important as tuning the piano, especially because we are talking about potential ear damage. An out-of-tune piano with good hammers does not damage the ear. Yet many piano owners will have their pianos tuned but neglect the voicing.

The two most important procedures in voicing are hammer re-shaping and needling.

When the flattened strike point on the hammer exceeds about 1 cm, it is time to re-shape the hammer. Note that you have to distinguish between the string groove length and flattened area; even in hammers with good voicing, the grooves may be over 5 mm long. In the final analysis you will have to judge on the basis of the sound. Shaping is accomplished by shaving the "shoulders" of the hammer so that it regains its previous rounded shape at the strike point. It is usually performed using 1 inch wide strips of sandpaper attached to strips of wood or metal with glue or double sided tape. You might start with 80 grit garnet paper and finish it off with 150 grit garnet paper. The sanding motion must be in the plane of the hammer; never sand across the plane. There is almost never a need to sand off the strike point. Therefore, leave about 2 mm of the center of the strike point untouched.

Needling is not easy because the proper needling location and needling depth depend on the particular hammer (manufacturer) and how it was originally voiced. Especially in the treble, hammers are often voiced at the factory using hardeners such as lacquer, etc. Needling mistakes are generally irreversible. Deep needling is usually required on the shoulders just off the strike point. Very careful and shallow needling of the strike point area may be needed. The tone of the piano is extremely sensitive to shallow needling at the strike point, so that you must know exactly what you are doing. When properly needled, the hammer should allow you to control very soft sounds as well as produce loud sounds without harshness. You get the feeling of complete tonal control. You can now open your grand piano fully and play very softly without the soft pedal! You can also produce those loud, rich, authoritative tones.