𝆏: 🔊, ➡️🔉. (How to make sound of piano quieter on a $50 budget)
March 9, 2019 11:50 AM   Subscribe

I am willing to spend $50 to dampen the sound of my spinet piano as a goodwill gesture toward my (also musical) new neighbors, who have strongly suggested I buy eight inches of open-cell acoustic foam to place the piano on. I do not want a huge project to take on, and $50's my limit. Special Snowflake and neighbor details galore.

I have a Baldwin Acrosonic spinet piano from the 1940's (about 24"d x 36"h x 60"w). Four months ago I moved into a new apartment, on the first floor of a 100-year-old, two-floor house. I am now living beneath a musical family—which includes a father who's an acoustic engineer/architect and designs concert halls (and who declares himself to be hard of hearing); and a mother who teaches voice and piano lessons. Upon seeing our piano being moved in, they were immediately nervous. (To the point of telling me where I could and couldn't place my piano in my apartment. Logistically, I showed them, they had to accept that there is only one possible space for the piano in my apartment—and in my silent opinion, that was an overreach on their part and not a great first impression.)

They've told me how they've dampened the sound in their apartment in this old house whose infrastructure transmits sound everywhere—they've carpeted and throw-rugged their whole apartment, and their piano rests upon eight inches of open-cell acoustic foam. It works to my ears; I cannot hear and have not heard them play music unless I was directly underneath their piano, and even then, it was indeed very dampened. Fine by me.

However, they say that they can hear everything we do—not just music, but everything. To insulate the piano—which seems to be the important thing to them, as the wife does not want her lessons interrupted, understandably—the husband insists the only solution is to place the piano on top of eight inches of open-cell acoustic dampening foam, and at least some more between the piano and the wall, and/or put rugs everywhere. (My piano has about 3 inches open space between its back to the wall. I have no rugs except an old oriental 3'x6'.) I've priced the foam; it's not cheap. And although I am not going to allow them to dictate things like "carpet your whole apartment or buy overly expensive acoustic foam," I do want to maintain a semblance of good will between me and my neighbors. (Both of whom have admitted a number of times to their own twitchinesses, but also their want for a harmonious relationship with their neighbors—which tells me that harmony hasn't been always the case with their downstairs neighbors during their 20-year tenancy above me.)

The mother gives her voice/piano lessons up until 7PM. We barely ever play music before 7PM, and afterwards, we do so pretty quietly. (I also have electric instruments too, but I keep the amps turned down WAY low. It's a house, not a practice studio.)

They are night owls, or they never sleep, they have claimed, and are "hyper" (wife's words), and both have independently apologized to me in advance for watching their Netflix above my bedroom all night. However, I haven't heard a single sound coming from above me, anywhere, other than stomping footsteps or heavy things being dropped. I don't hear their TV, their lessons, I barely hear their vacuum—any sound they are making aside from heavy footsteps or dropping things (both of which happen frequently, but to me it's part of apartment living). They have even taken vacations for weeks and I didn't even notice. I'm amazed that with a barrier like the one they've set up in their apartment, that they can hear "everything we do" (their words and emphasis) down here.

So, in a show of good faith, I am willing to spend $50 to dampen the sound of the piano. If they say that whatever I get is not enough, then, sorry neighbors.

How can I achieve this without eight inches of acoustically-dampening professional foam (which, by the way will compress down to four inches once it settles under the piano, the father assures me)? Any other issues surrounding this I may not be considering?

The house is an old, poorly insulated house made of wood. The support beam to the house itself is cracked, I'm told, so I am not sure how much longer the house would stand in any case. The neighbors also do not like the landlord for $reasons—mostly that he's unresponsive, doesn't maintain the house and grounds and that they do all the work to beautify the grounds—but the landlord has been very responsive and kind to me.

Thanks for your ideas! (Coincidentally as I type this, I hear them drilling and screwing something from above and below this room, so that's the amount of noise it takes to penetrate my walls. (Below me, the drilling was louder, but there's no insulation at all between my feet and their basement makerspace.)
posted by not_on_display to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Since he's the acoustic engineer, maybe he can source a deal on materials that respects your budget. Would you be willing to implement a solution arrived at jointly?
posted by kate4914 at 11:58 AM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

First, I assume you are renting from someone else, not your neighbor. Make sure you know what your lease says.
Second, you are getting the benefit of the substantial investment that they made to insulate you from their noise. Think about what you might pay to avoid having to listen to piano lessons all the time! My feeling is that the good will involved here is probably worth more than $50 to you and increasing your budget might give you more room to maneuver.
My inclination (if you think the interpersonal side of this won't go wonky) is letting them do some of the leg work involved in figuring this out. Let him know you have a budget and ask him to help figure out how best to spend it. If he recommends xyz, ask him who sells it and how to get it installed/delivered etc. Let him do most of the work to figure it out. If the cost is over your budget, tell him that since you doing this to keep him happy, would he be willing to pay part of the cost? My hope that you wouldn't be any worse off than if you just told him to shove off and it might end up with a better relationship with your neighbor.
posted by metahawk at 12:29 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

It seems to me like this is a question about how to dampen the sound of a piano and not a question about the OP's attitude towards his neighbors.

I would think most of the sound would be transferred from the physical connection between the wheels on the piano and the floor, so couldn't you just put something under the wheels to dampen it, rather than foam under the entire piano?

Also, during times when they are home and you want to play, could you do something to dampen the strings inside the piano so that you can still practice but the notes don't ring out? Like maybe draping a towel across the strings? I used to have a dampener for my banjo so that other human beings didn't have to hear a banjo. I don't really know from pianos though so maybe the strings aren't easy to access.

Maybe also drape some heavy blankets over the back of the piano.
posted by bondcliff at 12:45 PM on March 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

[Couple comments deleted. Folks please stick to constructive answers about what OP can actually do, here.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:55 PM on March 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think it would be reasonable to ask that when they are observing noise from your unit, they invite you upstairs so that you can observe it as well. This has the two-fold affect of making you appear willing to address their concerns, and giving you some insight into your assumptions about whether your noise is actually an issue. Then I would suggest letting them know that you have a budget in mind of X and asking what they'd advise.

I've read that heavy blankets over the back of the piano helps, but I haven't tried it myself.

Also, have you talked to the landlord about this? If carpeting would be a solution (and you'd be okay with carpeting) maybe that's something the landlord would be willing to do. The fact that these folks have been living there a very long time means that these issues are probably not new and probably not unknown to the landlord, either.... but they may have some advice nonetheless.
posted by sm1tten at 12:58 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I suppose you can assume that the upstairs folks have done what they've done out of concern for those below, but there are other explanations, some of which focus on their carrying on a business in a residential building during hours where the neighbors are likely to be home. If it is vitally important for the upstairs neighbors to be completely unable to hear what's going on below, it would be entirely appropriate for upstairs to do what they can to design and implement that solution (especially since they have some expertise), including sharing in its cost.
posted by bullatony at 12:58 PM on March 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Quilted moving blankets can be found cheap. I have a bunch I got through Craigslist for about $8 apiece. They're not the most beautiful decorative things ever, but they're decent sound dampeners for the price.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:02 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also - they've even given you free professional advice on sound-treatment and instrument placement. Most neighbors would just complain about the noise and expect you to figure out the solution on your own dime and time. (The ballpark figure for that type of detailed advice (dimensions, recommended material) and room acoustics assessment runs into hundreds, if not thousands in some cases.)

They've gone out of their way to attempt to help you to fix the problem that you are causing them (and yes, if it's your noise pollution it is a problem you are causing them). The least you can do is try to cooperate. A half-hearted $50 is (from the set up you have described) probably not going to cut it.

My advice would be to follow your neighbors' advice. You have already had a professional acoustics consultant thoroughly assess your instrument set-up and area. You have already been provided with detailed professional recommendations and options on how to sound-treat your music area. Asking random strangers on the internet for layman soundproofing advice is a step back. Even those of us here who are acoustics consultants would not be able to give you as accurate advice compared to the advice you have already received, because none of us here have conducted a physical assessment of your area.

You have already had a professional acoustics assessment of your area done (for free! At your neighbors' expense and time!). You know what needs to be done for sound-treatment, but you're still looking for a cheaper way out. Respectfully, I would suggest that if you don't have the budget to responsibly manage your sound pollution, then you should look to sell your Baldwin piano and buy an electronic piano instead.
posted by aielen at 1:02 PM on March 9, 2019 [16 favorites]

As a child, I had a tendency to play our upright piano at a consistent fortissimo. My mother tacked an old blanket to the back of the piano and it dampened the sound noticeably. In fact, the blanket was still there when I transferred ownership of the piano fifty years later.
posted by DrGail at 1:29 PM on March 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Pianos have a built-in "amplifier", called the soundboard, which in the case of upright pianos is basically the back of the piano. So first thing I would do is get the cheap quilted moving blankets suggested by others above and drape them over the top and back.

In the course of searching for "iso pads", which would be a way to reduce vibration traveling through the walls and floor (and yeah, most of the music-oriented stuff is over your budget), I did find these anti-vibration pads, which are intended for machinery and quite small, but a box of 48 for $26 might be worth a shot, although you'll probably need a couple of burly friends to help you lift the piano and place them underneath.
posted by soundguy99 at 2:06 PM on March 9, 2019

You all want a good relationship, so I'd invite them over or come over with cookies or something, talk with them, tell them you want to help with the piano business but you can't afford the 8 inches, your budget is $50. Let them offer solutions.
posted by trig at 2:31 PM on March 9, 2019

I am a bit suspicious. What kind of magic sound deadening blocks sound going from upstairs to downstairs and doesn’t hamper sound going the other way? So, I’d also say listening upstairs to someone playing downstairs would be a good first move.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:03 PM on March 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am a bit suspicious. What kind of magic sound deadening blocks sound going from upstairs to downstairs and doesn’t hamper sound going the other way?.
I'm amazed that with a barrier like the one they've set up in their apartment, that they can hear "everything we do"

Had a comment explaining this, but it was deleted. There was also another comment that explained this, and it too somehow was deleted. I wish the mods had left those comments up because they were actually useful to explaining some of the acoustic principles that the OP (and maybe some others in this thread) may be misunderstanding.

Basically what I said was (paraphrased):

If they've sound-treated their own living space using the methods described by the OP, that doesn't mean they can't hear you. That means you can't hear them. They've thoughtfully prevented their own sound/noise from reaching you.

You should research acoustics (sound-treatments, sound-proofing, sound-absorption, etc). Just because they are preventing their noise from getting out does NOT mean that your noise can't get into them. Quite the opposite - it means that your noise and piano sounds will be be heard by them (especially in such an old building), while theirs will not reach you.

A quick Google search can give you some simple resources that explain this more. Pretty sure there have also been a bunch of AskMe threads that explain this as well.
posted by aielen at 4:22 PM on March 9, 2019 [7 favorites]

Just to make things clear: this is not something that has been an urgent matter of conflict between me and my neighbors. We still get along fine. I just want to follow through on what happened during the first minutes of moving in and thenceforth.

> You have already had a professional acoustics consultant thoroughly assess your instrument set-up and area.

The sound acoustics engineer has not been inside my apartment. The first thing into the apartment—before any furniture, boxes, anything—was myself and three piano movers, with the piano outside; it was the first thing I got in there so that we could decide where to put it without any encumbrances yet in our way. The movers came in to assess the space, measure the spaces and corners for their own moving purposes, and to look at my new digs for placement, so as to have the piano not block entryways, stand over forced-air-heat grates, etc. While this was being done, [again, not a judgement but a report] the wife (vox/piano teacher; and not the husband) came downstairs and into my apartment, expressing alarm over a piano being moved in, and then arguing with the piano movers about where they could and couldn't place it, in my apartment. The three piano movers agreed with each other, and myself, and argued their case from their professional standpoint that the piano could be placed in one area only—which unfortunately happened to be directly under the one place that our neighbor could place her piano twenty years ago. When the piano was moved in about 15 minutes later, she (still in the apartment, and after some generic smalltalk) played a few keys and declared my place to be echoey and the piano to be out of tune, too, and something would have to be done about that as well.

By now it's a furnished apartment, and that in and of itself has dampened the noise. And the neighbors, I want to be clear, aren't complaining about the noise (about which I have asked them directly: are we too loud? Should we play at X or Y time? etc. the answers have been agreeable); rather they are just offering strong-opinion suggestions without explanations. (The husband said he had books and books about the subject, but when I asked if he could suggest to any title, or any layman's guide or web resource, he ignored those texts and just repeated, "Eight inches of open-cell foam. You can get it at Home Depot." if anything, that's letting them offer solutions.)

And, that may just be the best answer: Not necessarily eight inches of foam, but even the $26-for-48 dampening squares deal. That's what's in my budget. The quilted moving blankets are also a brilliant idea. Thanks for those suggestions.

[As for relations with my neighbors—I think I emphasized that a bit too much in a question, where all I really needed for an answer was, "Quilted Blankets, These Dampeners." I missed any comments that had been deleted, but it sounded like they were along the lines of "You should get along better with your neighbors and here's how..." and really, as stated above: they're twitchy (I'm a bit twitchy, too); we're getting along okay four months in; and I wanted to show them an act of good faith by following through.

I think if I had any question in the neighbor-relations field related to this question this, it'd be, "how much of a door am I opening here for them to 'strongly suggest' other ways of doing things?"—a separate question entirely, but I feel I'm negotiating those twists and turns fine. I'm optimistic about the springtime. I just needed to know about blankets and foam.

[and upon preview, simple advice about how sound travels through different media would have been helpful, but I can see how the mods may have wanted to delete that to prevent a debate that ends up way over my head.]

So I think I have what I need here for a start — thanks everyone! Resolved.
posted by not_on_display at 4:29 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I sometimes frequent the Goodwill Outlet, where stuff goes when it doesn't sell at a regular Goodwill. I often see yoga mats, and they cost 1.40/pound, like most everything else. Or interlocking foam tiles. A layer of something like that can be covered with a rug; I did this in my kitchen for warmth. I think it would be sound-mitigating and cheap.
posted by theora55 at 7:19 PM on March 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

This person seems to have solved the problem in an attractive yet relatively simple way.
posted by defreckled at 7:13 AM on March 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

> This person seems to have solved the problem in an attractive yet relatively simple way.

Ohhhhh. That IS awesome. That's a treated piano I could play! Thanks!
posted by not_on_display at 11:17 AM on March 10, 2019

« Older This is your brain on Marijuana   |   Shower leaking behind wall Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments