What Is a Spinet Piano?

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The spinet piano was ubiquitous in American households from the mid-1930s, but a decline in popularity ended their production in the 1990s. These competitively priced mini pianos allowed those living in smaller spaces with lower incomes to introduce pianos into their homes. Although the spinet appears similar to a regular piano, several structural differences exist. 

Spinet piano

‘Spinet’ refers to the 17th-century harpsichord later known as the spinet piano. The spinet piano is typically wing-shaped with drop action keys and shortened strings and was popular in American homes from the 1930s. Due to poor harmonics and tone, the spinet ceased production in the 1990s. 

Many homes still have a spinet piano in the corner somewhere, most probably gathering dust. Spinet’s construction and internal mechanisms resulted in a sound that was far from pleasing to the ear. If you ever wondered just what a spinet piano is and how it works, please read on to find out.

What is a Spinet?

The word spinet may refer to various forms of furniture or diminutive objects such as the spinet desk or spinet dressing table. However, these terms are adapted from the spinet piano, a 17th-century harpsichord with shortened keys and drop action operation. 

Spinet piano close up

Spinets abound in attics and backrooms across the US where once they were a popular addition to middle-class households. These smaller and more cost-effective pianos sacrifice sound for space and are no longer in manufacture. 

Spinet Piano History 

The Spinet piano has its origins as far back as 16th century Italy where it became popular in England and France. The spinet replaced the large and costly harpsichords manufactured in the 17 and 18 centuries, and the etymology of the word spinet has two probable sources.

The word spinet may derive from the Latin term spinae or thorns. The word spinet may have been a reference to the quill-like mechanisms that plucked the piano strings. Alternatively, some experts link the term spinet to the Venetian 17-century inventor Giovanni Spinetti.

Although some superior quality spinets do exist, the compromised sound of the ‘drop action’ mechanisms eventually lost the spinet its buying public. When smaller pianos without compromised sound came on the market, the spinet eventually fell into obscurity.

Spinet Piano vs. Upright Piano Difference

The spinet piano is a type of harpsichord typically 36-40 inches high measured from the base to the tallest portion of the piano case. Early spinets were highly ornamented, but the popular spinet of the 1930s usually had a lavishly burnished wood finish.

Although the spinet appears similar to the console piano in terms of size, the key differences lie within the piano’s workings. The spinet operates by an indirect blow or drop action. The piano keys are not linked directly to the action but instead drive rods that pull up levers that engage the action below the keyboard.

The diminutive size of the spinet compromised the sound considerably, and many spinet players encountered problems with the stickers. The shortened piano keys had poor leverage, and thus the player had limited control and sense of connection between the keys and sound. The shortened strings resulted in a limited range of harmony and diminished tonal quality. 

Upright pianos have superior sound, and the strings are responsive to key pressure. The indirect action of the spinet makes for a poor playing experience and a ‘tinnier’ sound and harmonics. 

Is the Spinet Piano any Good?

The typical spinet piano is not good and is known for its poor sound quality. The spinet was mass-produced for a society experiencing the effects of the great depression and compromised sound quality for affordability. The drop action operation and shortened keys and strings affected performance and sound quality. 

The spinet piano was affordable and could fit neatly into smaller homes, making it a popular choice from the 1930s onwards. However, the indirect action of the keys to the strings made it a clumsy and inefficient instrument to operate. The shortened keys and strings resulted in a poor harmonics range. 

What Are the Disadvantages of a Spinet Piano?

The disadvantages of a spinet piano are poor sound quality and inefficient operation that makes for awkward playing. The spinet is also challenging to tune, with the drop action system presenting difficult access. Although these pianos are affordable, they are typically poor musical instruments.

Although the spinet is perfect for small homes with budget concerns, they generally make a terrible starter piano. Many parents are tempted to buy the smaller spinets for their kids, but most piano teachers will tell you that the spinet is not a good instrument for beginners. 

Young players need a piano with a well-tuned sound for ear training and a piano with proper action to develop muscle memory and hand strength. The spinet lacks both these qualities making it a poor substitute for an upright. 

The spinet drop action makes the keys relatively light and imprecise, giving students little dynamic control and preventing them from learning correct keyboard practice.   

What Are the Advantages of a Spinet Piano?

The advantage of the spinet piano is that they are substantially cheaper than their upright counterparts. The spinet’s diminutive size is under 40 inches and suits people in smaller apartments and homes. However, there are not many benefits to mention beyond their price and size. 

Some people prefer the spinet when they are uncertain whether to invest in the cost of an upright piano. However, the experience of playing the awkward spinet may not be conducive to practice and playing. 

If you have a child and are unsure if their interest will sustain, you may always hire a piano. It’s a more practical option than the risk of putting your child off piano playing for good. 


Spinets may be lighter to move and take less space than a traditional upright piano, but that may be their only advantage. Poor sound quality and drop action operation make them awkward to play and a nightmare to tune. If you are in the market for a piano, rather pay the extra to own a proper upright as spinets are a poor substitute. 

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