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#2263108 - 04/17/14 03:01 PM Why 88 keys?
gsmonks Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/17/10
Posts: 638
Loc: Saskatchewan, Canada
Why does the (average) piano have 88 keys?

Because that's how many keys fit into a 4' space.

Piano keyboards are 4' wide.

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#2263110 - 04/17/14 03:06 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
prout Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/14/13
Posts: 798
Originally Posted By: gsmonks
Why does the (average) piano have 88 keys?

Because that's how many keys fit into a 4' space.

Piano keyboards are 4' wide.


No. It is because '88' in morse code means 'love and kisses'.

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#2263114 - 04/17/14 03:18 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: prout]
iLaw Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/07/10
Posts: 193
Loc: Chicago
Because most pianos are made in China, where "88" is a very lucky number. wink

Larry.

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#2263118 - 04/17/14 03:23 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
JohnSprung Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/02/11
Posts: 1364
Loc: Reseda, California
Actually 85 was quite common by the mid-19th century. The range was C1 through C8. The change to 88 added A0, Bb0, and B0. Circa 1870's - 1880's IIRC. Keyboards are mostly a little over four feet wide, like 48 3/8" to 48 1/2".

It seems to be a matter of common industry practice rather than anything like a standards committee....
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Knabe Grand # 10927
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#2263124 - 04/17/14 03:39 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
accordeur Online   content
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Registered: 06/23/06
Posts: 1197
Loc: Québec, Canada
All the 85 note pianos I have seen go from A0 to A7, never seen any that go from C1 to C8.
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Musician, Tuner and Technician

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#2263129 - 04/17/14 03:56 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
AZ_Astro Offline
Full Member

Registered: 09/19/12
Posts: 462
Loc: Tempe, Arizona
Here are a few ideas:

1) How big are most fingers. To determine the size requirement of an individual key.
2) How long are most arms. To keeps the keys within reach.
3) That will reduce the number of keys to between 50 and 100 or so.
4) After that, I think manufacturing issues would come into play.
5) The size of CDs was dictated in the early 80s by the average length of a symphony. A CD needed to be able to hold 75 minutes of music. Now that we have quite a repertoire of music, the number of keys used by the various pieces now is a factor as well. If you reduce the size of the keyboard now, then some repertoire is affected.
6) Tradition
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#2263133 - 04/17/14 04:00 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
Minnesota Marty Offline

Platinum Supporter until October 5 2014


Registered: 05/15/12
Posts: 7438
Loc: Rochester MN
I agree with Jean. The standard range for an 85 note piano is A0 to A7.

One of Cristofori's pianos, the latest surviving, had a 4 octave compass from C2 to C6 in modern numbering.
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Marty in Minnesota

It's much easier to bash a Steinway than it is to play one.

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#2263139 - 04/17/14 04:29 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: AZ_Astro]
bennevis Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/10
Posts: 5128
Originally Posted By: AZ_Astro

5) The size of CDs was dictated in the early 80s by the average length of a symphony. A CD needed to be able to hold 75 minutes of music.

The average length of a classical symphony is around 25 minutes; that of a Romantic symphony around 40 minutes (by my estimate).

I believe that the length of the CD (75 - 80 minutes) was because Herbert von Karajan (the world's most celebrated conductor, and recruited as ambassador for the format in 1979) stipulated to Sony that the CD must be able to accommodate Beethoven's 9th Symphony in its entirety. Karajan's (in)famous proclamation on listening to the first pressing (naturally, his own recording with his orchestra - of R. Strauss's An Alpine Symphony) was "All else is gaslight!" grin

Very few symphonies of any era exceed Beethoven's 9th in length (principally some of Bruckner's and Mahler's, among the well-known ones), so by default, the vast majority of symphonies can be accommodated on a single CD.

BTW, I play regularly on a C.Bechstein of uncertain vintage which has 85 keys: A0 to A7. Unfortunately quite a few pieces that I like to play use notes above the top A......
_________________________
"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."

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#2263153 - 04/17/14 04:49 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
Minnesota Marty Offline

Platinum Supporter until October 5 2014


Registered: 05/15/12
Posts: 7438
Loc: Rochester MN
Well, Bosendorfer drop-kicked the 88 key maximum into the myth of tradition.
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Marty in Minnesota

It's much easier to bash a Steinway than it is to play one.

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#2263166 - 04/17/14 05:25 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: Minnesota Marty]
pianoloverus Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/29/01
Posts: 19348
Loc: New York City
In The Steinway Saga:An American Dynasty by Fostle a few theories are offered. These notes were thought to be the limit of those comfortably within reach, and notes higher or lower are almost indistinguishable pitch wise to the human ear.

At one point(can't remember exactly, but probably when they were making mostly square pianos)people buying Steinways were offered a variety in the compass of notes they wanted, i.e. not all pianos had the same lowest and highest notes.

I think this is the third book I've read about Steinway, and although I've just read 50 pages, it seems to be the most interesting. One doesn't even have to be interested much in pianos to enjoy the stories of the ocean trips of the immigrants to America and life in NYC starting around 1850.

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#2263200 - 04/17/14 07:01 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
bkw58 Offline

Silver Supporter until December 19, 2014


Registered: 03/14/09
Posts: 1728
Loc: Conway, AR USA
I have no idea. However, there is one constant in the piano universe: the exception to the rule.
A Bord Paris manufactured an upright 85 note C-C. For how long, I do not know. Mine was a C-A. I gave it to my son. The action now hangs on his wall frown Bord also made the 85 note A-A.
_________________________
Bob W.
Retired piano technician
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#2263209 - 04/17/14 07:44 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
gsmonks Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/17/10
Posts: 638
Loc: Saskatchewan, Canada
I heard the arm-span reasoning thing back in 1974-ish but can't remember the details. They came up with an average, and that's what determined the 4-foot span. 88 keys is how many fit exactly into 4 feet.

I'm adding keys to my old Hammond organ (you can buy them in 1-octave sets, and/or individually) to make the two lower keyboards 88 keys. Just because I can. Dunno why they did it, but the instrument is built exactly wide enough to accommodate 88 keys, again 4 feet.

Someone out there has a 4-foot fetish.

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#2263210 - 04/17/14 07:50 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
Diane... Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/16/06
Posts: 3450
Loc: Western Canada
Well, the piano started out with only about 60 keys, same as the harpsichord--in fact it WAS a harpsichord, except that the harpsichord maker Bartolomeo Cristofori (try saying that 10 times fast!) got the bright idea of putting hammers on one (to HIT the strings) instead of plectra (to PLUCK the strings). So the piano was invented--this was around 1700, or maybe a little before that. Anyway, as composers began to use the new instrument they started writing more and more complicated and brilliant music for it. Pretty soon, the keyboard had to expand in both directions. By the middle of the 19th century, it had 85 notes--up to A--then finally they added the last three at the top. There's even a piano made today--the Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand--which has 96 keys; the bass notes go all the way down to C. It's nine-and-a-half feet long and weighs almost a ton.
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#2263244 - 04/17/14 10:04 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
4evrBeginR Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/27/09
Posts: 1607
Loc: California
Jonathan Biss said in one of his lectures that when we think piano today, we think Steinway.

Steinway has 88 keys. It is the same reason why every modern piano has 3 pedals. While some music were written for some pianos that exceeded the Steinway range, there is no economical reason to exceed the Steinway range from the competitor's point of view for standard models. The repertoire will never really be there until Steinway offers more range and those pianos become generally available at recital halls.
_________________________
Art is never finished, only abandoned. - da Vinci

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#2263258 - 04/17/14 10:24 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
Minnesota Marty Offline

Platinum Supporter until October 5 2014


Registered: 05/15/12
Posts: 7438
Loc: Rochester MN
Oldsmobile liked the number, too.
_________________________
Marty in Minnesota

It's much easier to bash a Steinway than it is to play one.

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#2263260 - 04/17/14 10:31 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: 4evrBeginR]
Ed Foote Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/03/03
Posts: 1162
Loc: Tennessee
Originally Posted By: 4evrBeginR
Jonathan Biss said in one of his lectures that when we think piano today, we think Steinway.

Steinway has 88 keys. It is the same reason why every modern piano has 3 pedals.

Also beyond the current size, a bigger range is not really all that practical. The ends of the piano today are already hard to tune. Any more range just makes it even harder.


Greetings,
I don't find the ends of the piano hard to tune. The more focussed question is, "How far up does it make sense?" Where would you stop if not at C? How many people can actually hear above that, and shortening the string to reach higher would create problems with tone i.e. , you may create a pitch higher, but there wouldn't be much musical tone in it, and little use. C88 has a fundamental of 4130 Hz with a second partial above 8K. Young ears are good for that, but not most of us older than 30.

Bosendorfer has offered lower notes, but few humans can hear below 27 Hz (A0), and I think the primary purpose is to avoid having A0 being the last string on the bridge, (tonal implications, not pitch ones).

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#2263263 - 04/17/14 10:37 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: Ed Foote]
prout Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/14/13
Posts: 798
Originally Posted By: Ed Foote
Originally Posted By: 4evrBeginR
Jonathan Biss said in one of his lectures that when we think piano today, we think Steinway.

Steinway has 88 keys. It is the same reason why every modern piano has 3 pedals.

Also beyond the current size, a bigger range is not really all that practical. The ends of the piano today are already hard to tune. Any more range just makes it even harder.


Greetings,
I don't find the ends of the piano hard to tune. The more focussed question is, "How far up does it make sense?" Where would you stop if not at C? How many people can actually hear above that, and shortening the string to reach higher would create problems with tone i.e. , you may create a pitch higher, but there wouldn't be much musical tone in it, and little use. C88 has a fundamental of 4130 Hz with a second partial above 8K. Young ears are good for that, but not most of us older than 30.

Bosendorfer has offered lower notes, but few humans can hear below 27 Hz (A0), and I think the primary purpose is to avoid having A0 being the last string on the bridge, (tonal implications, not pitch ones).

Agreed, though I play a work by Busoni that has G#0 in it. Likely for visual and musical consistency of line.

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#2263346 - 04/18/14 04:17 AM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: prout]
bennevis Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/10
Posts: 5128
Originally Posted By: prout

I play a work by Busoni that has G#0 in it. Likely for visual and musical consistency of line.

If a ('classical') composer has access to a piano with extended range, sooner or later, he's going to make use of those extra notes. Beethoven couldn't wait to use the extra range as soon as he got them....

Ravel's Érard grand had that low G, so he used it. As, presumably, did Busoni.

If Debussy had a Bösendorfer Imperial, I think he'd have used that lowest C in La cathédrale engloutie on those pedal points (octave Cs in LH): the effect is overwhelming, as played by Carol Rosenberger in her "Water Music of the Impressionists" CD.
_________________________
"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."

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#2263376 - 04/18/14 06:39 AM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
PhilipInChina Online   content
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/19/13
Posts: 865
Loc: China
We had a person here who posted details of a piano he claimed was 6'+ wide. I got snapped at for suggesting he would need an ape to play it. A piano can only be a certain width if a person is going to be able to play it. Pity the 5'0" lady pianist.
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Currently working towards "Twinkle twinkle little star"

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#2263384 - 04/18/14 07:24 AM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: PhilipInChina]
bennevis Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/10
Posts: 5128
Originally Posted By: PhilipInChina
We had a person here who posted details of a piano he claimed was 6'+ wide. I got snapped at for suggesting he would need an ape to play it. A piano can only be a certain width if a person is going to be able to play it. Pity the 5'0" lady pianist.

Ravel's Concerto for LH has the first piano solo starting on the lowest A, and culminating in a glissando that finishes on the highest D. All on LH. As a pianist you use your body to get you to where you need to be...... wink.

Here's a petite French lady pianist playing it:
http://youtu.be/KJTUUKAdZDU

Notice also the blood on her fingers after that traumatic glissando.

Sometimes, a pianist's gotta do what a pianist gotta do.........
_________________________
"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."

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#2263391 - 04/18/14 07:59 AM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: bennevis]
bkw58 Offline

Silver Supporter until December 19, 2014


Registered: 03/14/09
Posts: 1728
Loc: Conway, AR USA
Originally Posted By: bennevis
Originally Posted By: PhilipInChina
We had a person here who posted details of a piano he claimed was 6'+ wide. I got snapped at for suggesting he would need an ape to play it. A piano can only be a certain width if a person is going to be able to play it. Pity the 5'0" lady pianist.

Ravel's Concerto for LH has the first piano solo starting on the lowest A, and culminating in a glissando that finishes on the highest D. All on LH. As a pianist you use your body to get you to where you need to be...... wink.

Here's a petite French lady pianist playing it:
http://youtu.be/KJTUUKAdZDU

Notice also the blood on her fingers after that traumatic glissando.

Sometimes, a pianist's gotta do what a pianist gotta do.........


One of my favorites. Found the cadenzas but no bloody glissando.

(Correction: Yes, I see it at 15:50)


Edited by bkw58 (04/18/14 08:11 AM)
Edit Reason: correction
_________________________
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Retired piano technician
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#2263398 - 04/18/14 08:12 AM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: bkw58]
bennevis Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/10
Posts: 5128
Originally Posted By: bkw58

One of my favorites. Found the cadenza but no bloody glissando.

(Correction: Yes,I see it at 15:55)

Notice that she grimaced and dabbed her fingers on her hanky soon after that first ff glissando, which did all the damage...
_________________________
"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."

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#2263405 - 04/18/14 08:34 AM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
bkw58 Offline

Silver Supporter until December 19, 2014


Registered: 03/14/09
Posts: 1728
Loc: Conway, AR USA
Yes, I noticed this but didn't see the damage until later. (Piano makers and rebuilders please take note.)


Edited by bkw58 (04/18/14 08:35 AM)
Edit Reason: typo
_________________________
Bob W.
Retired piano technician
Piano Technicæ Blog

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#2263450 - 04/18/14 10:17 AM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
prout Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/14/13
Posts: 798
Did you notice her use of vibrato at 2:37? Very impressive!

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#2263639 - 04/18/14 04:12 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: bennevis]
4evrBeginR Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/27/09
Posts: 1607
Loc: California
Originally Posted By: bennevis
Originally Posted By: prout

I play a work by Busoni that has G#0 in it. Likely for visual and musical consistency of line.

If a ('classical') composer has access to a piano with extended range, sooner or later, he's going to make use of those extra notes. Beethoven couldn't wait to use the extra range as soon as he got them....

Ravel's Érard grand had that low G, so he used it. As, presumably, did Busoni.

If Debussy had a Bösendorfer Imperial, I think he'd have used that lowest C in La cathédral engloutie on those pedal points (octave Cs in LH): the effect is overwhelming, as played by Carol Rosenberger in her "Water Music of the Impressionists" CD.


It is very true in the past while the piano was undergoing rapid change that composers adopted ever increasing range, with all makers following, but that was before. Today is quite a different story.

For whatever reason, I think at some point, the piano makers decided to stick to the past instead of look to the future.

Also there is no living composer today that is as prominent as Beethoven, Debussy or Rachmaninoff in their day. There is no shortage of concert virtuosic pianists but how many of them are composers? In the old days, all piano students were taught composition along with playing, not anymore.

Does Steinway even design pianos anymore? When was the last time Steinway made a single design change in any piano? (I don't know, just asking.) Even if a composer performs and travels everywhere with his/her Stuart & Sons piano with the extra range, would this act compel the industry to begin making piano with more range as a standard as it would have in Beethoven's day? I would say very unlikely. I don't know why we are stuck at 88 keys, but we are very much stuck.
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Art is never finished, only abandoned. - da Vinci

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#2263670 - 04/18/14 05:15 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: 4evrBeginR]
bennevis Offline
5000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/10
Posts: 5128
Originally Posted By: 4evrBeginR
Even if a composer performs and travels everywhere with his/her Stuart & Sons piano with the extra range, would this act compel the industry to begin making piano with more range as a standard as it would have in Beethoven's day? I would say very unlikely. I don't know why we are stuck at 88 keys, but we are very much stuck.

Even the Australian composer Carl Vine (no mean pianist himself), whose piano music is often performed on Stuart & Sons (and recorded on it) in his native country, doesn't make use of the extra notes on that piano, though his music frequently uses the extreme ends of the keyboard (e.g. his Piano Sonata No.1 starts with the lowest possible A minor chord, and keeps returning to the low A, as well as hitting the top C).

Almost certainly for pragmatic reasons - if you want pianists around the world to play your music, you can't expect them to have access to a Stuart, or a Bösendorfer 290 or 225. You end up writing for the 'standard' 88-key piano.

In other words, for Steinway.......
_________________________
"I don't play accurately - anyone can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life."

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#2263699 - 04/18/14 06:06 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: 4evrBeginR]
Ed Foote Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 05/03/03
Posts: 1162
Loc: Tennessee
Originally Posted By: 4evrBeginR

Does Steinway even design pianos anymore? When was the last time Steinway made a single design change in any piano? (I don't know, just asking.)


Greetings,
Steinway changed back to felt bushings in 1984, (and within that realm, they have changed the bushing processes trying to get some consistency, which I haven't seen happen). They changed the leg plate system two or three years ago. In between, they have gone to plastic bushings in the trap work, adjustable nuts on the pedal rods, the flange screws have gone through constant interations, they no longer use belly rail felt, the action brackets no longer have oversized holes for the rails. At one time, soundboards were hand planed to create the diaphragm, now the boards are machine sanded to dimension. Pre-war cases were made with hide glue, now they are made with a thermosetting glue, (it's faster).

It is what they call "improvement" when they change the design, yet, they call the piano a "Steinwas" when others do.
Regards,

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#2263958 - 04/19/14 07:23 AM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: Diane...]
pianolive Offline
Full Member

Registered: 09/09/11
Posts: 327
Loc: Europe
Diane, that Bösendorfer has got 97 keys, not 96 smile

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#2264546 - 04/20/14 12:39 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
gsmonks Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 08/17/10
Posts: 638
Loc: Saskatchewan, Canada
I saw a piano back in the mid-80's that had a flip-up panel in the low end that revealed extra keys. Can't recall how many. The dealer told me they were there mainly as sympathetic strings. My Jurassic memory is telling me it was a Bosendorfer, but I may be wrong.

The average man has an arm-span of six feet. That's how mariners used to measure a fathom (= six feet). You therefore could make a piano with a span of six feet, but you'd have to do a face-plant into the keys in order to pull it off.

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#2264566 - 04/20/14 01:40 PM Re: Why 88 keys? [Re: gsmonks]
subcontra Offline
Full Member

Registered: 02/15/13
Posts: 29
Did you count the extra white keys? If it's 5, it's an old-style Imperial. If 2, either a 275 or a 225. Old Imperials and 2/25/75s had the key cover.

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