How the AvantGrand, Yamaha's new electronic piano, improves upon a 300-year-old instrument.

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Oct. 29 2009 9:30 AM

Roll Over, Beethoven

How Yamaha's new electronic piano improves upon a 300-year-old instrument.

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Which is why it's a little odd that Yamaha isn't giving itself more credit for this remarkable product. The company seems desperate for acceptance from traditionalists—the crowd that doesn't think a piano should ever have to be plugged in. The press materials insist that the AvantGrand is virtually identical to a concert grand, only cheaper, smaller, and always perfectly in tune. (The AvantGrand goes for $20,000; there is also an upright version which sells for $15,000.) Testimonials from concert pianists extol its virtues. In essence, the company is doing the same thing Les Paul did when he debuted an early model of a solid-body electric guitar: namely, dressing it up like its acoustic forebears. Paul glued the wings of an Epiphone guitar on the sides of the pine 4x4 he was using for his prototype, which he called "The Log." Yamaha's hammers, resonators, and lid are a little more sophisticated and functional than those Epiphone wings, but the emphasis is still on verisimilitude.

It's a shame, because Yamaha has done more than capture the soul of a grand piano in an electronic device. They have improved on a 300-year-old instrument. Keyboards come with all sorts of dubious bells and whistles, but some are genuinely useful: The ability to record your playing very precisely and play it back, say, or to make simple adjustments in how responsive the volume is to the force you use striking the keys. The most obvious advantage is that digital instruments are always precisely in tune, which is especially important when you're forcing your young child to take piano lessons. (Even if perfect pitch turns out to be genetic, it's probably a good idea to start ear training on an instrument that plays the right pitches.)

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An instrument like this could actually change the way all pianos are tuned. Contrary to what you may have learned in Disney's Donald in Mathmagic Land, choosing exact frequencies for the notes in a scale is far messier than tuning the strings to the neat fractions of the Pythagorean scale. Tuning an instrument very exactly to one key using the standard ratios between notes makes it out of tune in every other key. (There's a very good, non-animated summary here.) The modern scale simply splits the difference between every key so that they're all equally out of tune.

The AvantGrand can instantly retune itself to a variety of tunings, or "temperaments," from Donald Duck's Pythagorean scale to those that were standard during Bach's lifetime, which is very titillating for baroque-enthusiasts. Those wishing to precisely re-create the tuning that Bach used can hit a few buttons on the control panel, and the pitches of the notes will revert to the asymmetric tuning used in the very early days of the piano, when different keys had different personalities, since they weren't all equally corrected. Are you a devotee of the 17th-century organist Andreas Werckmeister? You can set the piano to his preferred frequencies if you like. The AvantGrand even has a harpsichord setting that, like a real harpsichord, produces the same volume no matter how hard you strike the keys.

There are, of course, plenty of purists who will insist that an acoustic piano's sound is far superior to the AvantGrand's. But it is not necessary to win these people over for the AvantGrand to change the way we think about the piano. This instrument represents a psychological victory for the electric piano, which no longer feels merely like a better tuned or more tech-savvy alternative to the real thing. This is a really good piano. I would train my kids on it—whether they liked it or not.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.