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THE MINIPIANO

history and mechanics of the 'Pianette' Model minipiano patented in 1934

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Minipiano with Matching Stool

Minipiano with Matching Stool
The minipiano 'Pianette' model viewed with its original matching stool; the wooden flap at the front of the instrument has been dropped revealing the unique tuning pins at the front of the instrument, although the cover is closed hiding the keys.


The minipiano is a type of piano patented by the Brasted brothers in 1934 under the name of their company Eavestaff Ltd.[1] The first minipiano brought onto the market was known as the 'Pianette' model and was enormously popular due to its sleek and fashionable Art Deco design which was at the time popular in many different fields of art and design.[2] In the fifties another type of minipiano was brought onto the market and was known as the 'Royal' model. The minipiano differs from a normal upright piano in many ways, mainly in that it has a braceless removable back and that both the soundboard, the piano wires and the mechanics of the instrument which both strike and dampen these strings, are extended beneath the instrument rather than above it (as in an upright piano) or behind it (as in a grand piano). These factors combine to result in an economical use of space. The minipiano differs from other forms of piano in many other ways which will be described in more detail below. What makes some models of the 'Pianette' quite exceptional is the way the tuning pins extend from behind the metal soundboard at the back into which the tuning pins are inserted through to the front, allowing the instrument to be tuned without actually having to remove the braceless back. The minipiano, when it was initially brought onto the market in 1934 was enormously popular, but like many products which are attached to fashions, its popularity ended as abruptly as it began. There is no doubt, however, that the 'Pianette' did have a significant influence during a period in which the gramophone was growing in popularity.[3] It's unpopularity today is related to the fact that without regular upkeep many models appear to become unusable and because they are so different to upright pianos both piano tuners and piano sellers are quick to write them off as bad instruments.[4] A better understanding of the instrument and its significance can be made clear by exploring both its history and the factors that make it so unique.

The minipiano 'Pianette' model viewed with its original matching stool; the wooden flap at the front of the instrument has been dropped revealing the unique tuning pins at the front of the instrument, although the cover is closed hiding the keys.
The name minipiano may well sound strange today, but it shouldn't be confused with either a toy piano or an instrument that is in someway 'smaller' than an upright piano; in fact it is almost equally as heavy despite its compact size. It is neither a collector's item nor an aberration on the historical timeline of keyboard instruments. The ‘Minipiano’ was patented in 1934 by the Eavestaff Piano Company and is an instrument which differs in so many ways from an upright piano that if compared objectively today in terms of sound quality, tone, mechanics & range, it would be possible to classify the two as completely different instruments.


Contents

  • 1 History
    • 1.1 Eavestaff Ltd. & the Brasted brothers
    • 1.2 The minipiano and the Art Deco era
    • 1.3 The 'Royal' minipiano
    • 1.4 Recent appearances of the minipiano
  • 2 Design and patent
  • 3 Mechanics of the minipiano
    • 3.1 The minipiano keys and the soundboard
    • 3.2 Accessing the tuning pins
    • 3.3 Comparing the piano with the minipiano
  • 4 References

 

History


The development of the pianoforte is littered with examples of experiments in the size and layout of the instrument while the more generally accepted forms we recognise today were being developed. As Dulcimers developed into Clavichords which in turn influenced the development of the Harpsichord, many sub-families developed as instrument-makers experimented with new techniques and ideas; this was a natural part of improvement and adjustment as styles and fashions changed. The ‘minipiano’ may have been a side-step in piano development away from what is now accepted as the norm, but in retrospect and viewed in terms of its historical significance, the intention is to view objectively the role this instrument actually played.

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The minipiano's lid has been completely detached to allow access to the back of the instrument; to do this two screws are removed while the piano lid is open and then after detaching the braceless back by removing a set of screws, two levers release the entire wooden structure, essential for the arduous task of getting at the piano wires.


Comparisons have been made between the minipiano and Pape’s ‘Console Piano’ which had been invented more than a hundred years earlier in 1828.[5] It apparently shared some characteristics and mechanics which were included in the minipiano but not in other pianos. But it was ultimately the Eavestaff piano company which was to eventually patent the ‘minipiano’ in the two major forms we remember today: the 'Pianette' and the 'Royal'.[6]


Eavestaff Ltd. & the Brasted brothers


The company itself was instituted in 1823; at first they were only known for printing music, but after it was taken over in 1925 by the Brasted brothers – who were already competent instrument makers – the company was able to extend itself in this direction. Although the Brasted brothers did make pianos before they purchased Eavestaff, they weren’t well-known so purchasing the Eavestaff company name brought them the necessary fame within the industry to allow them to design instruments such as the Eavestaff grand which are generally looked upon favorably in the industry.[7] The company, however, is often remembered in a negative fashion for its design and production of the ‘minipiano’ which they patented in 1934. The two major models they produced were known as the 'Pianette' and the 'Royal'.
In judging these instruments today, the 'Royal' is seen as making the grade despite its ugliness whereas the 'Pianette' is considered an instrument hardly worthy of mention.[1]. This doesn't take into account the fact that the 'Pianette' was the first minipiano brought onto the market and in its day was both enormously popular, fashionable and technically innovative. But it differs in so many ways from a normal piano that it is hard to classify. The instrument is also notorious because of factors such as the unfortunate loosening of the tuning pins caused by ageing and improper storage. Parts like the tuning pins and the rods leading to the striking pads behind the instrument are difficult to repair or replace as they are not shared with other instruments.


The 'Royal', which came much later and was far less popular, doesn't share any of these problems and for the piano seller is a far more interesting prospect; because it both sounds like a normal piano and is newer and easier to tune, it is far easier to sell. It should not be forgotten, however, that the 'Pianette' in its day was so popular that it helped to hold the world's attention on keyboard instruments during the period of the rise of the gramophone and other technological innovations.[8] Its unique design, despite any problems that may be present to either piano tuners or piano sellers of today, should not prevent the instrument from being seen as an important artistic development within the world of keyboard instruments, no matter how they are judged today according to the standards we apply to instruments we are more familiar with (particularly the piano), despite the differences that tend to alienate those who compare it to an upright piano.


The minipiano and the Art Deco era


It is true that the minipiano formed part of a ‘fashion’ that was dictated by that period. As history has shown us time and time again, fads that are dictated by fashion can be for a short time enormously popular but are as quickly forgotten, and this could be applied to the minipiano ‘Pianette’ which enjoyed a period of enormous success. The movement in art and design that it formed an inevitable part of is commonly referred to as Art Deco. Reacting against the organic exuberance of Art Nouveau, Art Deco was a utilitarian rethinking of artistic creativity in forms that were economical in their use of space and at the same time both elegant and angular; the movement touched all major art forms and crafts from ceramics through architecture, and the intention was to produce items that were not only pleasant to look at, but in fact could form a practical part of everyday life.[9]

piano pedals

piano pedals
The angular frame surrounding the piano pedals of the 'Pianette' model minipiano is clearly influenced by currents of design popular particularly during the later years of what is now called the Art Deco era.


The minipiano with its remarkably economical design, its sleek finish but also its sturdy structure, makes it a perfect addition to the Art Deco oeuvre. The fact that it is viewed upon today so negatively probably has more to do with expectations people have about what a piano should be like; this particular contribution to the history of piano-making is so different to a traditional piano of the romantic era that expectations relating to quality of sound or the instrument’s range are bound to remain unfulfilled. This is unfortunate as the instrument itself is uniquely designed and compact and evidently fulfilled the expectations of the many thousands of people who purchased them during the period in which they were so popular.


The 'Royal' minipiano

In 1958 the Brasted brothers brought out another ‘minipiano’ they called the ‘Royal' model.[10] Although designed much later, and as an instrument rather ugly in comparison to the ‘Pianette’ model, most piano connoisseurs who have any knowledge of minipianos consider this instrument the only one worthy of note because it sounds and functions like a ‘normal’ upright piano.[11] It shouldn't be forgotten, however, that the time between the patenting and popularity of the 'Pianette' and the release of the 'Royal' model was a period spanning three decades, and that the 'Royal' did not enjoy the enormous success of the original instrument. At its year of release, for example, up to 7,000 ‘Pianettes’ were sold at prices ranging between 28 and 38 guineas each at major music shops on the High Streets in London.[12] The ‘Royal’ minipiano, although considered a better instrument, did not cause a comparable rage in popularity although it is as often ignored as the ‘Pianette’ in most comprehensive music instrument guides (see for example Midgley, R. 1976, in which both the 'Pianette' and the 'Royale' are completely ignored).[13]


Recent appearances of the minipiano

The last appearance of the minipiano to date was at a Frankfurt music fair in 1967. Also produced by Eavestaff, this instrument, known as the ‘minitronic’, resembled more an electric organ, making use of tremolo and electronic amplication. Most reactions to the unusual sounds it produced were rather negative and whether or not it was actually released onto the market is moot.[14] With this in mind and despite the comparative quality of the 'Royal' model because of its resemblance to an upright piano, it is still the ‘Pianette’ which is most unusual as an instrument and which enjoyed an enormous amount of popularity for a brief period during the Art Deco era. It also shouldn’t be forgotten that during the era of the gramophone, the novelty of the Pianette helped maintain a general public interest in keyboard instruments because so many households owned one.[15]


Design and patent

MINIPIANO PATENT

PATENT MINIPIANO
Only after removing the braceless back of the minipiano and the set of metal rods are these words clearly viewable behind the piano wires.


In addition to ambiguities about what one can define as a minipiano, there also exist discrepancies among various sources as to who put the patent onto the minipiano and whether or not they had the right to do so as it was not, in fact, invented by the Brasted brothers who had by then taken over the Eavestaff piano company. Apart from patenting the design in 1934, Robert Percy Brasted came up with the name 'Minipiano', and therefore there are those that claim that he either invented the piano or stole the invention from someone else and put his name to it.[16] Neither of these facts are true and the whole affair occurred quite amicably. In fact, the Swedish designer Lundholm of Stockholm sold the rights and the minipiano in the form it was patented was produced only in England. Lundholm imported them to Sweden and received royalties for every minipiano sold.[17]


Mechanics of the minipiano

internal mechanics

internal mechanics
After removing the piano lid, the braceless back, some screws and a set of 73 metal rods a mechanism pivots outwards to reveal the striking and dampening pads as illustrated in this photo.


The minipiano, despite its name and the elegant appearance of the 'Pianette' model, is a sturdy and heavy instrument; it appears small only because it differs in appearance to an upright which takes up more room and is more bulky because the chamber in which the strings are held is situated in front of the player and above the keys and appears therefore to take up more space. On the minipiano, the soundboard and the strings are neatly positioned underneath the keys at the back of the piano, protected by a simple wooden frame to which fabric is attached to prevent dust getting in. When a key is pressed, the action which results in the striking and dampening of the piano wires, results from a mechanism which contrasts to any existing piano made today: a long thin but sturdy metal rod which reaches halfway down the back of the instrument is lifted. This lifting motion causes the piano wires to be struck and then dampened when the key is released as is typical of a traditional piano, at least on those notes which require dampening (on a minipiano, the highest 13 notes aren't dampened).


The minipiano keys and the soundboard

minipiano soundboard

minipiano soundboard
In this photo the soundboard is clearly visible. It is strung with two sets of piano wires which extend across the back of the instrument. The longer monochord bass strings pass in front of the treble strings, most of which are bichords.

There are 73 keys on a minipiano. A metal soundboard extends beneath the keyboard and is hidden behind the set of 73 metal rods which interact between the keys and the striking/dampening mechanism that produces sound on the instrument. Sound is produced by the striking and dampening of a set of piano wires which are strung to the soundboard. In a minipiano, two types of piano wire are used; bass strings which are all monochords and treble strings which are largely bichords. Like on an upright piano, an economical use is made of the space within the instrument by crossing different groups of strings. The first 29 keys counting from the lowest note form the first group and as mentioned they are all monochords. The second group consists of 44 keys. The first two keys counting from the lowest notes strike monochords, but the rest of the keys strike bichords. A standard piano consists largely of trichords although the lower notes use bichords and then monochords as the notes get progressively lower. Monochords extend between two pins at opposing sides, whereas bichords extend between two tuning pins one which is a little higher than the other, and the piano wire actually extends down to a nail around which it is tightly strung. The two strings are tightened so that they are tuned at exactly the same pitch. A piano makes use of trichords where three alike tuned strings are struck to produce its well-known rich tones. The significance of the fact that the minipiano doesn't make use of trichords will be discussed further on.


Accessing the tuning pins

metal rods

metal rods
After detaching the piano lid completely and removing the back of the 'Pianette' model minipiano, a large set of metal rods is revealed preventing access to the piano wires.


What made most models of the 'Pianette' so innovative was the positioning of the tuning pins which actually stretched from the soundboard at the back of the instrument into which they were pounded through to the front, making it possible to tune the instrument from either the front or the back. It is infinitely prefereable to be able to tune the minipiano from the front because in order to open the back you have to remove a whole set of metal rods, some screws above and across the wooden contraption holding the striking pad mechanism as well as two wooden rods attached to the dampening and softening pedals to allow the central striking mechanism to pivot towards you. Illustrations are included below of the tuning pins as seen from the front of the instrument which are revealed after a small wooden flap is allowed to fall, and anyone with a chromatina tuner and a good ear could tune the instrument this way. Opening it up from the back is far more problematic. First one has to negotiate with a set of metal rods which have to be individually removed and stored safely (if one is lost, it may be very difficult to find a replacement).


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For each of the rods revealed after the braceless back is removed, a screw is removed from beneath it and it can be lifted out of its position thanks to a hook at the top of the rod which attaches it to the key. In this image one of the two 'handles' is also visible which needs to be detached by removing the top two screws before the whole mechanism can pivot outwards.


After removing these rods, four screws need to be removed from above the wooden structure that is holding the mechanics in place before it can pivot outwards. These screw are only accessible after the piano lid has been completely detached from the minipiano. One has to take care also to press hard on the two central metal bars that lead directly to the pedals at the front of the piano and while holding pressure upon the bars, loosening the two wooden rods ending in blunt metallic spikes which influence the position of the dampening pads. While one performs the action of pressing on the pedal with one hand, it is easy to remove the wooden rods by gently sliding them out of their position. Like all parts of the instrument, including the screws and the set of metal rods, these items should be stored carefully because they are so difficult to replace. Finally, before the wooden structure can pivot on the two large screws attaching it firmly to the instrument, there are still two sets of screws that need to be removed. In the photo of the pivoting mechanics behind the instrument, there appear to be two curved metallic 'handles' that connect two wooden bars passing horizontally just behind the row of metal rods. This can appear misleading. The mechanics won't pivot until the two screws connecting each of the 'handles' to the higher wooden bar are removed. After this, the whole structure should gracefully pivot outwards.


Although it is unlikely, the ideal situation would be to tune a minipiano which has been kept in a warm stable environment which means the natural loosening of the tuning pins which occurs when a minipiano is stored inappropriately does not occur. This would mean that any adjustment to tuning of the instrument could take place by adjusting the pins at the front of the instrument with a standard star-shaped piano wrench. The monochords used on the lowest 31 strings are relatively easy to tune. The Bichords are somewhat more difficult but if the pins are still tight enough, they can be adjusted with slight movements of the wrench until the desired tone is reached.

tuning pins

tuning pins
Viewed from beneath the front of the instrument, a wooden flap drops to reveal the tuning pins.


Viewed from beneath the front of the instrument, a wooden flap drops to reveal the tuning pins.
Even if the minipiano needs to be opened up completely at the back according to the arduous process described above, for example if a piano wire snaps or needs replacement for some other reason, or there are inexplicable problems with the action of the striking or dampening pads, because the piano uses monochords and bichords, the 'wedges' required for the tuning of upright or grand pianos with trichords are not necessary.


Comparing the piano with the minipiano


It should be noted that whereas most pianos have three strings per note, the minipiano ‘Pianette’ model consists of monochords (where a single piano wire is struck) for the lowest 31 keys and bichords (where two piano wires are struck) for the remaining 42 keys. A bichord is a single piano wire which is tightly wrapped around two metal pins but which is divided into two by a single nail. One of the pins is positioned slightly higher than the other, but the two pins are tuned separately to produce the same tone. On certain models of the minipiano, a factor which makes the 'Pianette' unique among pianos, is the fact that these pins can be tuned at both the front and the back of the instrument. A monochord is attached to a single pin and is therefore easier to tune.


The 'Pianette' today is seen as being limited by its use of simply bichords and monochords. The 'Royal' minipiano released far later is considered the more important sibling because it has deep bass strings and trichords in the middle and upper registers far more similar to an upright piano.[18] With only monochords and bichords, the 'Pianette' model could never have been expected to produce the richness of sound a standard upright piano or grand piano produces. In addition, it does not have as many keys as a standard piano of the romantic era. Still, the 'Pianette', after its release in 1934, was enormously popular; apparently people lined up outside of stores to view the sleek new models in London High Street stores, and a large number of the instruments were sold all around the world.[19]

piano minipiano range

piano minipiano range
The minipiano's range is clearly limited if compared to a standard piano.


It has received such a bad reputation because of the expectations people have of keyboard instruments and it is naturally difficult to view an instrument that doesn’t seem to sound as rich as a standard upright, does not have as many notes, and has a set of difficult to replace tuning pins which with time tend invariably to loosen more than any other instrument of its ilk. The following illustration, for example, compares the ranges of a standard piano with a minipiano. Pianos made today generally extend down 8 semitones lower than the minipiano, and 7 semitones higher. A lot of music composed for the piano is simply unplayable on a minipiano because notes are made use of which extend beyond a minipiano's tessitura.

Would it be possible to say that an upright piano is to a grand piano in the same way a minipiano 'Pianette' model is to an upright piano? Not really because apart from the resemblance of the keys, the tuning system and the mechanics which strike the piano wires, the 'Pianette' can never attempt to achieve what the upright piano was intended to do; to fit into a smaller space a similar set of trichords to achieve the rich sound associated with the pianoforte and the grand piano, the great achievement of the romantic era. The minipiano with its bichords and monochords, its reduced tessitura and its contrasting tone becomes problematic if compared at face value to other instruments that followed it. Unfortunately, that is why the 'Pianette' model remains so maligned today. In fact, although the 'Pianette' model may be a terrible piano, when it was released in 1934 its popularity bears out the fact that it was a perfect minipiano in that it lived up to the expectations the many thousands of purchasers had of it that made the decision to buy one. if it has been stored in the correct conditions, or if the trouble is taken to repair and retune a 'Pianette', there is no reason for it not to be considered a perfect minipiano today as well. It is, after all, the only instrument of its type.


References

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.


*LAST MODIFIED:
September 27 2013.

 

 

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