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Bring a piano into a home and it becomes the centerpiece of a room, one of the few things that can compete for attention with the television. Even a small upright will be the size of a cabinet and take up more space, complete with seat, than the widest of wide screens.

In fact, the only thing that will really give a piano competition for attention is the fireplace.

When the snow is falling and the fire is lit, those crackling flames can steal eyes away from even the most impressive of Steinways. And they’ll do something else as well. They’ll start baking it.

Piano owners are usually told to keep their instruments a good ten feet away from their log or gas fires so that they don’t burn the wood. That’s sound advice. When you’ve just tossed another log on the fire, it doesn’t take too much of a mental leap not to notice the great and expensive pile of wood filling up a corner of the room. It’s at times like those you’ll want to sit at the keys and play a mournful winter tune — but only after you’ve pushed the piano as far away from the fireplace as possible.

But while keeping a good distance between your wooden instrument and the heat of the fire is clearly a good idea, less clear is the other kinds of damage your home’s heating will be inflicting on your instrument.

You Can See the Fire but Not the Humidity

As the heat rises, especially the warmth from a fireplace, it will also start drying the air in the room. The humidity necessary to have brought down the snow or the rain outside (and put you in the mood to play) will also be in the room itself — at least until you light the fire. At that point the air will start to dry, and if the humidity drops too far and stays too low, the soundboard will shrink, and the pitch will drop, especially in the middle of the keyboard. If the swings in humidity are really severe, you’ll find that it’s necessary to make bigger changes in the tension of the strings to bring the piano back into tune. You can forget about having a stable piano.

So while a fireplace and a piano will make for a wonderful and warm living room, the two don’t really go too well together even if you keep them at more than arms’ length.

But there are things you can do to help them live together better. A hygrometer will let you keep track of the humidity changes when you light the fire, so you’ll always know exactly what’s happening to the air when you heat up the room. And a humidifier that you can just slip into the piano will help to maintain the humidity levels around the wood even when the flames are roaring.

It’s a much better idea than setting fire to your piano.

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