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What is a Spinet Piano?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A spinet piano is a smaller version of a piano. The term “spinet” is actually used to refer to any smaller version of a larger instrument such as a spinet harpsichord or organ. Spinet pianos were manufactured between the 1930s and the late 1990s, when they fell out of fashion. The primary reason for the decline of the instrument was the inferiority of its sound.

In the 1930s, a piano manufacturer introduced the spinet piano to make pianos more accessible to the populace. In the United States, many people had severely restricted incomes as a result of the Great Depression. Although they may have wanted a piano for entertainment, normal uprights and grands were out of reach. The spinet piano was a compromise, a much smaller and lighter piano that had a price tag much lower than a traditional piano. It was by no means affordable for all, but it was easier to afford than a full sized piano.

The entire casing for a spinet piano is much smaller than a regular piano, and the top is much shorter. Because of the smaller size, the strings of the instrument are shorter. Shorter strings result in a decline in sound quality, especially for deeper keys. In addition, the shortness of the case left limited room for the piano's mechanism, resulting in the development of “drop action” keys which engaged levers indirectly. On a conventional piano, striking a key causes a hammer to strike the piano string directly, resulting in a more immediate, crisp sound.

The interior of a spinet piano is very cramped because of the mechanism used to operate it. The keys are also shorter, to make room for the components of the drop action. As a result, musicians sometimes have trouble playing this instrument well, and this combines with the poor sound to make it a less than ideal instrument. Piano tuners and repair professionals struggle with spinet pianos, because of the limited room to work in. Often, a large part of the piano has to be disassembled to work on any portion of it.

Despite the limitations, people with limited space and funds greatly appreciated the introduction of the spinet piano. Electric pianos and a growing dissatisfaction with the sound ultimately led to a steep reduction in the number of spinets produced. Most consumers seek out small uprights if they have limited space to work with, or they use an electric piano, as the sound is usually superior to a spinet piano.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon346146 — On Aug 26, 2013

If a spinet piano was good enough for the great jazz pianist Bill Evans, then nothing more needs to be said.

By anon318498 — On Feb 07, 2013

Spinets aren't too bad, just watch who out for who made it. I have a 1952 Wurlitzer Spinet( Wurlitzer was actually the one who invented the 36' spinet for the mass market), and it sounds nice. I would like a Studio Upright, but hey, you can't have everything.

By anon317161 — On Jan 31, 2013

Correct. A spinet is the smallest type of upright.

Also, "small baby grand" is a redundancy; a baby grand is by definition the smallest type of grand. Some argue they're the only kind of piano that sounds worse than a spinet, but they do have a more "correct" key feel.

There is great debate on the topic of spinets, but the actual instruments needn't sound bad. They will necessarily have less bass than a larger instrument, but so what? Does anyone say that violas stink because they lack the punch of a cello? Yeah, I thought not.

I think a great deal of confusion stems from the fact that small pianos, of any flavor, are aimed at the budget-conscious market, hence there were more poorly made examples of spinet than contemporary larger form factors. This doesn't mean they all stink.

I'd describe the sound of a well made, well cared for spinet as light and airy, with a nice balance of brightness and warmth. They are indeed a pain in the butt to service, but have exactly the same limitations on holding a tune as any other: environmental stability, robustness of manufacture, and overall wear condition.

Some do find the drop action strange. Personally, I like it; a feather touch will definitely produce a sound every time, and their so-called leverage disadvantage means they react well to coming down hard on the keys. What's lost is the quietest of strikes, but as compensation, they don't have a grand's drawback of getting silence when coming down too light.

I don't perceive any additional delay from the extra linkage in their drop action, unless it's so worn it's noticeably loose, and at that point it's a problem on any piano.

By anon315992 — On Jan 26, 2013

It is hard to believe what some people say about spinets. Does everyone drive a Rolls Royce? I know a grand, of course, is much better, but I agree craftsmanship is very important and it was used when making spinets. Everything is bigger now. People live in bigger houses and have bigger credit card bills.

I have had one for 50 years. I play it all the time, have it tuned twice a year and it retains a good sound.

Some of us drive Chevrolets and are OK with that.

By anon136523 — On Dec 22, 2010

Like any musical instrument, a piano's sound is determined by the material and workmanship used to make it. I have had several "spinet" pianos and a couple of uprights as well.

If it is a piano made by craftsmen who know their work, with good materials it will have good sound. It will not sound like a grand piano but it will not cost you $10,000 plus either.

There are cheap pianos, just like there are cheap violins neither have the quality wood to get the resonation need for full sound, however a good quality spinet piano is a thing of beauty and a sound to behold.

By anon128168 — On Nov 18, 2010

I have a chance to purchase a used Spinet player piano. Am told it is in good shape but may need to be tuned. The piano rolls will go with it. Do they have a good sound or are they tinny?

I was thinking it would be nice as I don't have room for a larger one.

And as a child my parents had an upright player piano that gave us great pleasure. I will go to see it soon and make an offer. However I am not sure what to offer. I am sure they have had this for years. But I was told there was not a scratch on it.

By anon75928 — On Apr 08, 2010

Spinets may be small but they sound just fine to my ears. Each individual piano is different, but the one my folks have sounds warm and wonderful, with a versatile sound that is not too chimey but not too dead either. It has a nice tone, and contrary to what this article says, any real piano sounds way better than an electric and/or digital one.

By anon42201 — On Aug 19, 2009

Any upright piano between 35 and 39 inches tall is a spinet. As far as the sound goes, the strings are shorter so they resonate less, so trebles sound a bit tinny, and the lows don't have that same rumble.

By anon35856 — On Jul 08, 2009

I have my grandmother's spinet, it is 35 inches high, 25 inches deep and 50 inches long.

By anon29812 — On Apr 08, 2009

i'm doing a project on elizabethan music and

i was wondering if anyone had a more indepth description on the sound of a spinet.

i understand that the sound is sloppy compared to the piano due to the size difference and the face that the spinet is cramped, but is there any other descriptions?

is the sound eerie, or delicate or what?

anything would be great!

help me please, ASAP!!!! :)

By iwonder — On Jan 09, 2009

Any idea what the dimensions of typical spinet piano would be? The one I'm considering is 39" high and 2' deep; 57" wide.

By anon23931 — On Jan 05, 2009

The spinet is the smallest upright. A baby grand is a small grand piano.

By anon16685 — On Aug 12, 2008

So then the spinet piano is a small upright as opposed to a small grand or small baby grand, right?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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