This is a great question but it does not have a simple answer. If you play guitar you know that the oils in your skin can degrade the strings quickly and you will need to replace them often to get a lively tone. The piano is certainly not this extreme but the strings are susceptible to the elements as well. However, there is no definitive answer when it comes to this question.
Right now we have two Steinway pianos in our inventory from the 1930s. Both of these pianos actually have the original strings and they sound incredible. The bass sounds robust and the tone is vibrant; there is simply no reason to change the strings. On the other hand, we have a Steinway piano from the 1980s that we actually replaced the strings. How can this be? How can a piano that is fifty years older than others not need to be restrung? It has everything to do with the environment the piano is in.
The strings of a piano don’t actually age on their own; they age through outside forces and elements of their surroundings. A piano that is in a very humid environment – like near the beach – is highly susceptible to the elements. I have seen pianos in homes near the beach where the lid of the piano is left open with windows left open and the strings are rusting, breaking and just completely degraded within a decade.
However, here in Southern California if you go only ten miles from the beach and not too close to the desert you have an incredibly ideal environment for your piano. Just ten miles from the humidity of the beach there is an area where you can have a piano even left open in your home and not experience rust or serious problems with your strings possibly for decades. This is where I have seen 80 year old pianos still with the original strings; and they sound great!
There is a limit however to how long strings can last. I have seen pianos 50 to 100 years old lose some of the tone in the copper wound strings – which is where you will first see string problems. There is a simple way to check for this. Play a descending chromatic scale on the piano and notice where you transition from the steel strings to the copper wound strings. If you hear an abrupt change in tone in this transition to the copper wound strings, you know that it’s time to replace at least those strings. Sometimes you can twist the bass strings and get them back to life and sometimes you can simply replace the bass strings and be just fine.
The big red flag when it comes to strings is seeing rusty and broken strings – and this can be both the copper wound and steel strings. This is a sign that more strings are bound to break and it’s a good idea to restring the whole piano.
If you have any more questions about replacing the strings of your piano or if you have a piano in particular you would like advice with, please contact me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729