After a few months, or even a year of playing an acoustic piano you may find that overtime your piano doesn’t quite sound the same as it used to. Don’t worry, your instrument isn’t broken or necessarily in need of repair - it just needs a tuning!
Like other acoustic instruments, pianos require tuning to deliver the best possible sound. Unlike guitars or violins however, the piano tuning process is incredibly complex and actually requires years of training and practice to master.
When buying an acoustic piano or second hand piano, a lot of people fall into the misconception that you are able to easily tune the piano yourself. Today we wanted to outline not only why that isn’t necessarily a good idea and also outline the extensive and intricate practices that some of our expert piano tuning technicians go through to get your piano tuned perfectly!
On average, an acoustic piano should be tuned at least every six months to deliver optimum sound quality and tone, whilst in some cases pianos can be left up over twelve months before you begin to notice a real difference in sound, we do recommend your piano is tuned at least twice a year in order to prevent any unnecessary tension being put on your piano when it is re-tuned once more.
It is also worth noting that there are a few different reasons that may cause a piano to go out of tune before six months. The most common reason we see for this is if your piano is being stored in a room with varying temperatures, for example next to a radiator or in a conservatory. This is because the wood of your piano will expand and contract with the temperature, causing differences in the string tensions and pulling the piano out of tune. For a longer lasting tuning, keep your piano in a stable environment that doesn’t vary in temperature too much.
What is needed to tune a piano?
There are a plethora of tools that are needed to tune a piano, however we will begin by focusing on the three most common tools that our technicians use for every tuning.
Firstly, the Tuning Lever/Hammer:
This is a simple device that is used to turn the tuning pins. The reason we need this tool is to either increase or decrease the tension of the string to tune the string to the correct note. This is similar to the way a tuning peg works on a guitar, however on a piano those pegs are harder to reach, much tighter and far more difficult to turn by hand, so we need the hammer to provide leverage when tuning the string.
Because tuning a piano is such a sensitive and precise adjustment, mutes are required to prevent the other strings from ringing when turning a string. When you press a piano key and the hammer strikes the string, because it is often done with a significant level of force and vibration, other strings may also ring. These mutes prevent the other strings vibrating when tuning one string to make sure other sound is not interfering with the tuning process.
A Tuning Fork or Electronic Tuning Device (ETD):
A tuning fork or tuning device helps the technician find the perfect note that the string currently is in and then where it needs to be as a reference for tuning. Most tuning forks are usually tuned to a C or A pitch.
In the image below you’ll see the tuning lever, on the left two felt wedges that are used for muting a grand piano tuning and then a ‘papps wedge’ that is used for muting the strings on an upright piano.
The Tuning Process:
In some ways, the piano tuning process is an incredibly personal affair where no two technicians will follow quite the same technique in order to achieve the desired sound and feel of the client. However, one common theme is that almost all tunings are based on temperaments within the piano.
In its most simple form, a temperament is the interval between each note in an octave. In western music for example, the equal temperament has been used for over a century, and has an equal spacing between each of the 12 notes in an octave.
In order to discover the current state of the piano and the work needed to get it perfectly tuned, a technician will either work aurally, use an electronic tuning device (ETD) or a mixture of the two. Aural tuning involves listening to the beats generated when two notes are played.
A beat is the interference produced when two notes of different frequencies are played together, which results in a tremolo style of sound. As two notes converge on a single frequency, the beating slows and eventually stops. Once the beating has stopped, the notes are in unison.
In a piano this becomes slightly more complicated as in your middle and treble keys, there are 3 strings per note in the middle and treble of a piano, all three have to be in perfect unison so the technician will need to achieve absolute perfection between the three strings just for 1 note to be tuned correctly - This is then repeated for each other key to ensure the entire instrument is in tune.
To explain just how in depth this process can be an how the slightest movement can result in disaster, our technician Chris has outlined his approach when it comes to piano tunings:
- Firstly, Chris evaluates the existing tuning and condition of the instrument, playing chords across the piano and each note to help spot any problems.
- Next he takes the front panel (the top door) and the key cover (the fall) off so the action and tuning pins are accessible.
- Using the ETD to measure the harmonic content of C1, C2, C3, C4 and C5, Chris then examines the resulting tuning curve to make sure it will work.
- Starting from the lowest note, Chris begins tuning the single thick bass strings, which are one per note.
- After that, he tunes the bichords, where each note has two strings, by tuning the lowest one using the ETD, and the second by ear to the first.
- From here, Chris tunes the trichords, where each note has three strings, by tuning the middle one using the ETD, and the ones either side to the middle on in turn.
- Whilst tuning, Chris will be continuously checking octaves, fifths and fourths, paying special attention to the breaks, where the piano changes from wound strings to plain strings.
- In the mid-range of the piano, Chris also checks the thirds to make sure they all sound as they should. The beating should get faster as the thirds progress up in pitch.
- Finally, Chris tests the piano and repeats the process until the tuning is complete and both he and the customer are happy with the new sound!
Of course this is incredibly oversimplified and does not include any of the intricate repair work or servicing that Chris will also carry out during a tuning, however gives an insight into the process and how much of his attention is required to create the perfect sound!
As outlined to begin with, we strongly do not recommend trying to tune your own piano as most of the time, without proper training and the correct equipment, you will usually end up unintentionally causing more damage than good! Some pianos are made from over 12,000 different parts, from the smallest of pieces to the soundboard so trust us on this one - leave it to the experts!
If you would like to learn more about our piano tuning services, or speak to our experts about our acoustic piano ranges, get in touch today!