First, I’ll touch on the obvious differences. However, there are several differences between grand pianos and vertical pianos that are not so obvious. In general, grand pianos have the piano’s structure, piano wires and all accompanying components horizontal in relation to the floor, and vertical pianos are just that , vertical to the floor. ‘Vertical’ pianos (which includes upright pianos, studio pianos, console pianos and spinet pianos) all have the main frame or structure and all accompanying components vertical/perpendicular to the floor. Other seemingly obvious similarities like piano keys, hammers, happens, jacks and so forth are where some of the not-so-obvious differences lie. Keep in mind for the sake of this dialog, sound and touch.
Technically, the key of the piano translates to the ‘touch sensitivity’ of the instrument. Imagine a see-saw, if you will, for that is precisely what a piano key is. You depress your end of the see-saw and the other end reverses your touch or pushes up, literally duplicating the firmness, speed and so forth once the impetus is completed. In piano teaching parlance you’ll learn about a term, ‘dynamic range’, or how loudly/firmly and how softly/lightly you depress the key. The longer the see-saw, the more control you have over ‘dynamic range’. In grand pianos, the key is typically 4″ to as much 10″ or much longer than the vertical piano’s keys. More control over the touch= more potential regarding dynamic range= superior mechanism. I will insert here that better quality vertical piano keys utilize lead weights to address this difference with some limited success. Nonetheless, it is because the grand pianos mechanism is superior that they typically cost more.
In the action the difference is a matter of gravity… and repetition. In a vertical piano, there are several primary places where a metal spring is utilized to push or press a component in the process of repetition. In a grand piano, the primary function of the action is controlled by gravity. Now, what do I mean by repetition? You press a key, setting off a chain reaction that completes once the hammer in the action strikes the piano wires. The springs in a vertical piano force the components back to their beginning point, so that key can be depressed again. The principle of gravity causes the grand piano’s action to return to the starting point. The difference in the types of pianos is the difference between man’s metal spring and God’s principle of gravity. Translation, gravity is infinitely more consistent than a metal spring, and never wears out or weakens. Once again I’ll insert that quality vertical pianos are just fine as instruments for most applications and experience levels, but you’ll never see one in front of an orchestra if they can afford a grand piano. (Thank you for your patience to read all this I am attempting to wrap this up).
In a grand piano there is also an additional component you’ll never see in a vertical and that is called the repetition lever. Simply put, the repetition lever permits a more controlled/consistent and potentially rapid repetition than is possible in a vertical piano. As far as escapement the repetition lever also enhances the escapement once again lending itself to more consistency in ‘touch’ vs. the vertical piano. Structure/Frame-wise, grand pianos are essentially suspended in mid-air, and for this reason need a more stable/solid structure for their frame. Upright pianos do not need, nor do they have the frame requirement of a grand piano. The frame of a piano is the part you won’t see unless you look behind the vertical piano, and up from the underside of a grand piano. The ‘case’ is simply a facade that looks appealing and supports the mechanism used to play the piano. Now to give the upright/vertical piano honorable mention here, I will tell you that better quality upright/vertical pianos can be comparable in sound to some grand pianos, and these verticals’ action mechanisms can be very enjoyable to play for even the most discriminating touch. Let’s certainly not forget cost, and that verticals can run thousands of dollars less than owning a grand piano… but don’t let anyone tell you that what they have is a ‘vertical grand’. If it’s vertical, it is not a grand piano…. even it is simulates a capo’ bar on the plate. In closing, and if you’ve actually read all of this my hat is off to you. If you are just starting to learn or are seeking to optimize your loved ones interest in learning to play a piano (and have the money) obtain a grand piano and rest assured you’ve done well for you and yours. If your budget won’t permit, or your house’s space is limited, then know that owning any type or kind of vertical piano (whether an upright piano, a studio piano, a console piano or a spinet piano) will be very satisfying to own and play for the real reason here… which is music. Buy, beg or borrow (don’t steal!!) a piano and discover all that music can and will do you and bring to your life. Music is the real reason. Music answers so many needs not just artistically, but literally helps us to think more effectively. We need this more than ever in this world today, wouldn’t you agree?