You’ve been playing your piano for years now and the time has come to seriously consider downsizing the house and move into a condo. But what do you do with the piano? You love your piano and can’t imagine life without it and besides, you absolutely hate the idea of playing a digital keyboard. Many people don’t know that you can add digital functionality without compromising your existing piano. Yes, it is completely possible to keep your piano AND add silent features so that you can use headphones and not hear the hammers strike the strings. Although this technology is not new, many people haven’t explored this option.

How does it work?

By placing optical sensors under the keys, data is returned to the controller, which really is the brains of the system. The data consists of the notes that are being played and the dynamic level of the keys (what volumes you played on each note). It should be noted that none of these parts physically touch the keys or mechanism and so the touch of your existing piano stays the same. The data returned is then translated into digital sound samples (called Wavetable Synthesis). A sound sample is nothing more than a recording of a real piano. When you play an A on the piano, it translates that into a recording of the note A of a real piano that you can then hear through the headphones. When you play quieter, it returns a softer recording of the note A to the headphones. When you play loudly, it becomes louder in the headphones etc. When you add pedal, the recordings are that of an A note with the pedal.

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But how does the piano become silent?

If nothing changes with the hammers striking the strings, won’t you hear the piano sound like you would normally? This is where the addition of a Stop Rail is added. It prevents the hammers from touching the strings of the piano. The stop rail can be turned on or off depending on whether or not you wish to play your piano like a traditional instrument or one with headphones. While we would like to think that there is absolutely no sound when piano parts move, that simply is untrue. Piano actions and hammers in motion will still have some sound associated with them because you are depressing the keys and when you lift your fingers, the parts reset. This creates subtle sound. It would be impossible to press keys on any piano and not have some ‘thunks’ of the keys hitting the felt punchings when depressed. That said, the sound is minimal.
The main advantage that I see with these piano retrofits is that you’re still playing a REAL PIANO ACTION. Playing a digital keyboard is simply not the same. With a silent piano system, you utilize your existing piano keys and action.

What other things can you do with silent piano systems?

Connecting to a computer, tablet or phone allows you to use educational software. This is a blossoming business in the piano world. Many people want to learn piano on their own time and play only the songs that they want to listen to. Software now can teach all of that and even correct notes and timing. In addition, you can record your own performances. Because silent pianos capture the notes that you are playing, you can listen back to your performances. I find this helpful to not only objectively listen and evaluate a piano performance but it’s also fun to share your recordings.

Since the silent piano system renders note data, you can also use it to play back other instruments sounds as well. You could, for example, play a harpsichord, an organ or sound like an entire orchestral string section.

Where do you buy these systems?

At the moment, there are three main aftermarket systems that can be installed. The most well-known is PianoDisc QuietTime. The second is Genio and the third is a newer European one called AdSilent. All 3 of these function the same in that they each have optical sensors and each of them have stop rails that prevent the hammers from contacting the strings. Where they vary is mainly in the samples, the recordings that you hear back in the headphones.
Due to the precision of piano regulation, silent systems can only be purchased through a piano store or an independent authorized piano technician.

The end result is that these silent piano installations give you more freedom – freedom to play at whatever time of day suits you. Freedom to learn at your own pace. Freedom to record your performances but best of all, freedom to keep your piano without changing the way it plays and sounds. It will perform like it always has and with the flick of a switch, you can conveniently use it as a silent piano system.