A lot of people love the appeal of having a real acoustic instrument in their homes, music rooms or community halls, however one common error we often see is that these instruments are simply left in a room and not treated and even if it’s played often, is left untreated year after year.
Unlike other instruments such as acoustic guitars or violins, acoustic pianos are a little more complicated to keep in tune and require the specialist help of a tuner. (We’ve actually written a guide on the process that occurs during a piano tuning here!)
Today we wanted to cover not only why it’s important to keep your acoustic piano in tune, but what can occur if it isn’t tuned at least on a yearly basis. Whether you’ve just got your first acoustic piano, or have owned one for years and it’s sounding a little less than it’s best, you’ll learn something new here!
The History Of Pitch & Tuning
Interestingly, before the dawn of recorded music, it didn’t matter particularly what the pitch of any instrument was, so long as it was in tune with any other instruments it was being played with. This means that all of your favourite composers and pianists of the past were actually playing in different keys to each other, in fact the pitch of an ‘A’ is known to have varied by almost a semitone either way, Handel at A409Hz (play a G#4), Beethoven at A455! (play a B4).
Thanks the the precision of modern technology now, ‘playing’ pitch has been standardised to A440, and this is used almost globally in western music, so whether you’re playing along with a recording, or duetting with another instrument, everyone agrees on the correct tuning of instruments.
What affects an acoustic piano's tuning?
Unlike other stringed instruments like guitars and violins, pianos hold their tuning far more effectively. This is due to a culmination of not only the level of pressure placed on the piano, but also the high quality materials used in production - To learn more on the strength of piano strings, click here!
There are three factors that affect the tuning of a piano:
First is playing - This makes sense as every time a hammer hits a string, it forces it to stretch a little, and although each note has a minute effect, these add up with the thousands of times a key is pressed whilst practising.
Second is the environment - Although playing a piano a lot will cause the piano to go out of tune more quickly, the larger (and most important) factor is temperature and humidity. As the temperature and humidity rises, the materials in a piano expand, raising the pitch. As the temperature and humidity drops, the pitch drops. Not sure if your piano is in it’s optimum location? We’ve got a guide on the best positions to put your piano here.
The third main factor is time - As time passes, the steel of the strings stretches. In a piano, there are usually over 250 strings, each at a tension of between 70 and 100kgs. In total, it’s around 20 tonnes of tension held by the iron frame and the wooden soundboard.
With every tuning, the strings are tightened a little to keep the strings at the correct tension and the tuning at the correct pitch.
What other parts of a piano can come out of tune?
In addition to the strings, there are a number of other parts of the piano that can become out of tune and affect playability! There are thousands of precision components in a piano, and the three factors mentioned above will affect these too.
For example, felts under keys will gradually compress, changing how far a key moves down, hammers will compress and flatten, parts may become too loose or too stiff, making playing feel either difficult to control or ‘sticky’.
As our technicians turn the tuning pins, they’re also paying attention to the feel of the key and the quality of the tone being produced. Many minor adjustments can be made to make sure the piano feels as good as the day you bought it.
How often should a piano be tuned?
We recommend a regularly used piano be tuned once every six months. This not only ensures the piano is in tune, but also gives the technician a chance to perform a general health check and make any necessary adjustments to the action and tone.
What happens if a piano isn’t regularly tuned or treated?
Pianos that are left untuned develop many problems.
Left for years, a piano will drop in pitch by as much as a full tone. If a piano is left for so long, it will at the least require a double tuning - one to get the extra tension on the strings, and a second to fine-tune the piano. At worst, it will not be possible to get the piano back to the correct pitch without strings breaking or even worse, the cabinet could even collapse in on itself!
A piano that is not played will also develop problems. Keys that have not been played can start to seize up, and parts inside the piano start to degrade and corrode where dust has settled on them. The best medicine for a piano really is playing it. This keeps the parts moving and stops dust settling.
What can you do to look after your piano?
- Make sure the piano is well placed: Avoid kitchens, bedrooms and conservatories. Pianos like consistency. In a kitchen you’re boiling a kettle, or using an oven, and this effects the temperature and humidity of the room - not good. The same happens in a bedroom - at night the humidity increases a lot as the temperature drops. In a conservatory, the direct sunlight and extra heat causes havoc with the stability. To learn more about piano positioning, read our guide here.
Cleaning the piano: We have a great range of polishes for cleaning off the fingerprints and grease, both on the piano keys and the outer case. Our technicians use a bleach-free disposable wipe to clean the piano after they’ve tuned your piano. A damp cloth will also do a good job, but depending on where you live you might find that hard water can leave some streaks on the finish.
Whatever you use, if you haven’t tried it before, test a small area such as behind a leg or on the back of the piano to make sure it doesn’t damage the finish. Lastly, always use a microfibre cloth whether you’re using water or a professional cleaning product, you don’t want to use anything abrasive that may scratch the surfaces. To learn more about cleaning your piano, read our guide here.
- If you have a grand piano and the soundboard is becoming dusty, our technicians have specialist tools for cleaning behind the strings and this is a service you can add when booking your tuning appointment.
- If dust is a serious problem in your home (maybe you have a few cats that shed and like climbing over your piano), then you may want to consider a dust cover. As pianos come in different shapes and sizes so you may need to contact a specialist for this.
So there you have it! All you need to know about keeping your instrument in incredible condition and the importance of tuning! Need to book a tuning or service of your piano? Our technicians would be happy to help! Speak to our team today!