Written by Joshua Villanueva
The piano, that magical box housing hammers and strings, has fascinated people for more than 300 years.
While many pianos come in the regular format — a shiny black housing with 88 keys and three pedals — that’s not always the case. From lightweight sleek designs to imposing instruments to folding keyboards, here are 10 of the more unusual pianos ever built.
1. Schindler yacht piano
If you live in a tight space, this is the piano for you. Yacht pianos, also known as ship's pianos, are uprights with foldable keyboards. They first came into fashion during the early 20th century. This piano design usually does not have a damper pedal, but the 1950 Schindler yacht piano, pictured above, features a knee lever to operate the damper. When the instrument is closed, you could mistake it for a fashionable mid-century modern TV case.
2. The bed piano
Whether you’re lazy, tired or confined to a bed for medical reasons, there’s really no excuse to skip practising piano. Designed in 1935 for the bedridden, this piano is for anyone who loves playing from the comfort of a cozy bed.
3. The pedal piano
Sometimes 88 keys aren’t enough. This double-decker concert grand piano designed by Luigi Borgato boasts an additional 37 pedals. Since its completion in 2000, numerous compositions have been completed specifically for this pedal piano. The design looks futuristic, but the concept is not new. In the classical and Romantic eras, it was not out of the ordinary to find pedal fortepianos. Reportedly, Mozart owned something similar to this instrument.
Watch Robert Prosedda put one to use playing Gounod’s Concerto for Pedal Piano and Orchestra.
Combining a piano roll, percussion and a reed organ, the photoplayer was used to accompany silent films in the early 20th century and has all the bells and whistles. Admired for its capacity to imitate wide-ranging sound effects, from the roll of thunder to the chirping of a bird, this is the best instrument for a one-man band. Here’s a demonstration:
5. Beethoven’s Érard piano
You may know that Ludwig van Beethoven once owned a Broadwood fortepiano that was later acquired by Franz Liszt. But it’s a little-known fact that Beethoven also had a French Érard piano. It may look like a pretty typical piano, but take a close look at the pedals. While modern pianos have the damper pedal on the right and the una corda pedal on the left, the reverse is true on this Érard piano, which also has moderator and harp pedals.
6. Schimmel Pegasus piano
Futuristic and elegant, this organically shaped piano designed by Luigi Colani is destined to bend audiences’ imaginations. The Pegasus has an ergonomic curved keyboard and a fully adjustable leather stool. Sound projection can also be controlled by an electrically operated hydraulic lid that opens to any desired angle.
7. Liberace’s rhinestone piano
Liberace impressed his audience with extravagance and showmanship, but nothing captivated fans more than his love for rhinestones. This piano was Liberace’s favourite and it accompanied him to all his shows. While it sounds no different from any other concert grand, the Austrian crystal rhinestones encrusting this Baldwin SD-10 concert grand add 200 pounds to the 1,200-pound piano. Watch Liberace play it:
8. The pianocktail
It has been a trend for a while now to convert pianos into liquor cabinets. But what about a piano that actually dispenses a custom-made cocktail?
The pianocktail mixes drinks depending on the mood of the piece and the combination of notes played. The mechanics of the instrument are inspired by the following passage from Boris Vian’s novel L’Écume des Jours: “For each note there’s a corresponding drink — either a wine, spirit, liqueur or fruit juice. The loud pedal puts in egg flip and the soft pedal adds ice. For soda you play a cadenza in F-sharp.”
Watch the pianocktail in action:
9. Bogányi piano
Dubbed by some as the “Batpiano,” this sleek piano design by Gergely Bogányi looks like something directly out of a sci-fi film. Unlike other concert grands, whose soundboards are made of wood, this piano uses a carbon composite soundboard that produces a rich and airy sound. Capable of accommodating both lightweight finesse and significant power, this piano features a very easy action enabling the pianist to amaze audiences with rolling arpeggios.
10. Maene-Barenboim straight-strung concert grand
While trying out a piano that had been owned by Franz Liszt, Daniel Barenboim was impressed by its tone production. The difference, he found out, was that Liszt’s 19th-century piano had straight, parallel strings, whereas normal modern concert grands have bass strings that diagonally cross over the middle register strings.
Combining historical piano-building and modern-day innovation, piano-builder Chris Maene designed a groundbreaking piano that reproduced the transparent tonal quality of Liszt’s piano. No strings overlap and everything runs parallel, from the miniscule wood fibers to the longest bass string. The Barenboim-Maene piano can be heard in Barenboim’s solo recording On my New Piano.
The world's favourite pieces for solo piano played by contemporary masters like Glenn Gould, Arthur Rubinstein, Angela Hewitt and Lang Lang. Hear: Beethoven Sonatas, Chopin Preludes and Etudes, Mozart Sonatas, Bach Suites and Partitas, Debussy Preludes and Suites, Rachmaninov Preludes and more!