Little is known about the celeste rails history. As far as we can deduce, the rail has been around in the mainstream from around the 70’s. And little music has been written with it for personal study.
Film composers, modern minimalist pianists often use it for writing music. It has silently made a space for itself in the modern music world.
How the celeste rail works
The short story is the celeste rail is a piece of felt, mostly only installed on modern upright pianos. When a pedal is pressed, or a lever is moved by hand, a metal rail with a felt attachment comes down. The felt rests in front of the strings, and intercepts the hammers.
When the hammer launches towards the strings, it hits the felt first, then collectively hit the strings.
This cushioned blow is much softer.
How the hammer is designed
The hammer is made of felt, a resilient material. Much like a tennis ball that absorbs some of the impact (crushing the ball). Softer than the original leather used in early pianos.
Felt varies from soft to harder. The science behind this is something that quality manufacturers spend much time exploring the best tone. When a provider ships felt to the factory, the felt can vary in softness. If it is too soft, the felt can be hardened with lacquer, and other products. And if too hard, it can be softened with needling.
When and how it is used
Learning the piano required conscious repetition. When a child is learning much of the playing is non musical, scales, arpeggios, hannon (especially). Multiple non harmonic exercises. A celeste is ideal in these circumstances, as it reduces the sound by multiple decibels.
Soft piano playlists
Much of this playlist and others under the ‘soft piano’ category of Spotify are played with the celeste rail.
Listen now only on Spotify: Relax and indulge with beautiful piano pieces
Soft piano has less attack, less percussiveness that stands out than normal piano pieces.
Some composers of modern film score, documentaries, and the like have been known to produce their own celeste rails with varying thickness, and materials. This nuance is mostly in the film world, as they are looking for a final recorded product. Whereas the practicing musician, will likely be content with a factory installed rail.
The celeste rail can be used as a tool to practice, to write with, and for improvisation. Without too much fanfare, and recognition from the establishment it has made a place for itself in the modern world of minimalist classical music, and film scoring. I use it personally when unwinding, or improvising. It’s another tool, much like the sostenuto pedal on a grand piano. And one that is likely to stay.
About the author : Evan Roberts
Piano enthusiast, Oxford Brookes music grad with a passion for worship. Church music coordinator, songwriter, and founder of Roberts Pianos Houston.