A piano is an expressive musical instrument, and the particular one you decide to buy is an expression in itself. New or used, grand or console or spinet, bought from a dealer or private party, made of mahogany or French provincial cherrywood - each aspect should be considered. But how to decide?

"It depends on a person's needs, for one thing," says piano technician Richard Butler Jr. of Suitland. "Whether someone buys a used or new piano depends on how much of a hurry he's in. With a certain amount of money you want to spend, you can buy a better instrument used than new, but the time factor is important.

I just looked at a five-year-old spinet someone bought for $125. It was a steal. I don't know why I can't find pianos like that to buy and sell. The man who bought the spinet had been looking for two years. The lady selling the piano wanted money, and she got cash, he got the piano." Butler figures that that piano is worth somewhere between $600 and $800. The buyer happened to be a salesman and he mentioned his interest in buying a piano to one of his clients. She knew of the woman with the spinet. Word of mouth is often the best way to turn up good used pianos, but there are pitfalls.

"I must emphasize that you have a professional technician examine the piano before you purhcase it." Butler says. "Some pianos can't be tuned.

"I know of someone who paid $2,000 for a baby and the pin block was cracked. The pin blocks is the wood the tuming pins are inserted into. This means a major repair job costing another $2,000. So $4,000 was shelled out for $2,800 or $2,900 piano."

It also pays to follow the classified ads. Usually an ad gives the model of the piano, the condition (according to the owner), a price and a phone number to call. Some ads further describe the finish, style and age.

One important clue to the value of an advertised piano is the owner's reason for puting it up for sale. Reasonable reasons include moving to Colorando or to a fourthfloor walkup where it's impractical to have a baby grand, graduating from a spinet to an upright or baby grand, switching to an electronic multi-sound machine at the behest of a teen.

Ask if the listed price is firm. Many owners will admit that they're willing to negotiate. A piano takes up a lot of space, and often sellers are anxious to settle. They might also be asking a high price in anticipation of being hassled down.

Learn as much as you can by telephone: if the piano has been tuned regularly, did the present owner buy it new or used, and so forth. You'll save yourself time and energy by eliminating piano that obviously aren't for you.

"Educate yourself a little bit," Butler says, "then go look at a piano that's listed in the paper. The first thing to look for is if the case is beaten up or scratched - to see if it has been cared for. Is the piano in tune? Has it had regular service? If the piano is way out of tune, it just might not have been tuned recently, but possibly it can't be tuned. A piano severely out of tune can present problems; strings can break when it is tuned.

"Check whether all the notes play, the keys work. Look for evidence of humidity damage like rust inside or indications of dryness, like buzzes, as if tissue paper were caught in the strings."

There are basically two types of pianos - horizontal (grand) and vertical (upright, spinet, console). True uprights with full-lengths strings and full-size harps haven't been built since the 1920s. Now any piano that does not have horizontal strings like a grand can be referred to as an upright. Spinets are the smallest in this category, and usually the least expensive. Then there are consoles and studio versions. Size is important - you wouldn't want to put a grand into a little apartment.

The serial number on every piano can be looked up in a catalog, or atlas, to check its age. Such a book also provide the numbers of similar pianos manufactured. Any piano dealer can check this or you can contact the manufacturing directly.

Asking to see a technician's membership card in the Piano Technician's Guild is some assurance of his qualification, although many capable technicians choose not the be members.

Butler charges $35 to examine a piano.

"It takes as much time to go look at it, write an estimate and give an appraisal as it does to tune a piano. I check the entire piano over, including the pin block, bridges, soundboard, action. I see what work needs to be done, figure the cost of materials and time involved. . .

"Sometime I recommend 'Don't buy the piano,' due to the overall condition. For $600 or $800 people can buy ever, very nice English uprights with beautiful cases, ornate. Those particular pianos are not a good design and have really inferior materials so they can't be tuned. Repair costs much more than the piano is worth. This factor must be considered."

The inner construction of a piano is the key to the proper tone and action, and the cabinetry is unimportant to many buyers. Butler sometimes offers a used piano for sale before sending it out to be refinished.

"Lots of people are interested in a piano as an instrument, not a piece of furniture - students or those without a lot of money to spend, I can usually offer a good, reliable piano that is not refinished as much as $1,000 cheaper." People can do an adequate refinishing job quite readily, simply stripping off the old finish and putting on oil - " a French polish," Butler says.

Getting a piano home is no small consideration. The best approach is to contact several movers who specialize in pianos and get quotations. Moving costs are normally based on the number of men required (more for a grand than a spinet) and the distance to be traveled, plus any obstacles that slow the move down.

Never neglect to get a bill of sale that includes the model of the piano, the serial number, and the seller's signature. And take care of your piano once you have it - polish the wood, keep it away from heating vents, avoid extreme changes o f humidity and temperature, and have it professionally tuned on a regular basis (probably once every six months, as the weather changes).

Not everyone becomes a concert pianist, but the piano can foster music appreciation and provide years of personal satisfaction, Butler says.

"My brother Richard and I both took lessons on the same spinet for many years. I can play one Beethorn sonate and 'Chopsticks.' Richard's a member of the Guy Lombardo orchestra. One out of two isn't bed at all"