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.