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Piano Tuning

How often should my piano be tuned?

Simple answer: Every six months if you have a "good ear" and need it to be "right," once a year if you just want to maintain it at a reasonable level, acceptable to the average listener. 

Better answer: Depends on many factors. It is not unusual in a professional situation, (such as recording or performance) to tune the piano once or even twice PER DAY. Many hotels and restaurants tune their pianos once a month. Manufacturers recommend that new pianos be tuned a minimum of every 3 or 4 months until the strings stabilize. Older pianos that are stable and have had regular tuning and are not often used can sometimes do fine with tuning every 2 or 3 years. We will assess your situation and give an honest recommendation, based on your piano and your needs. 

What exactly is tuning?

This is a complicated question. The short answer is this: There are approximately 230 strings in a piano, each one under about 200 lbs. of tension and wrapped around a pin that can be turned to tighten or loosen the string; the tighter the string, the higher the note. There is an ideal relationship between every possible combination of strings, and a trained listener can put all these notes at their best possible frequency. For complicated reasons these frequencies will not be exactly the same on any two pianos, so tuning a piano is like solving a puzzle, and no two pianos have exactly the same solution. 

Also, tuning refers to the physical process of manipulating the pins so that the strings will be as stable as possible.

What is a pitch raise? What is A440?

Basic answer: If a piano is too far out of tune, it will not stay in tune after one “pass.” It will require a preliminary “rough” tuning first, known as a pitch raise. A440 is the internationally established correct frequency for the note “A” above middle “C,” and is the starting pitch from which the rest of the piano is tuned.

More details: Tuning defines the relationship of one note to another, whereas “pitch“ describes the specific frequency at which a string vibrates. The note we call "A" above middle "C" has been set by International Committee to be at a frequency of 440 vibrations per second. This is known as "standard" or "concert" pitch. When we tune a piano, we start by making sure that this "A" is exactly at that frequency, and then the rest of the piano can be tuned by establishing the correct relationships that result from that starting pitch.

Theoretically, a piano can be in perfect tune with itself even if "A" is far from the "correct" frequency. However, to be "in tune" means not only in tune with itself but at the correct pitch. Tuning a piano is like shooting at a target. The farther you are, the harder it is to hit the bulls eye, let alone the CENTER of the bull's eye. 

As time and other factors act on a piano the tension on the strings tends to drop until the pitch is very low. If a tuner brings the strings to the correct frequency in one pass, he or she will find that no matter how carefully they try to do it, the increasing tension created by the tuning process will change the strings they first tuned, often significantly. 

Therefore it is impossible to get a piano which is too far from correct pitch to stay in tune in one "pass." We have found that one or two quick tunings to get everything "close" followed by a careful tuning can yield excellent results. This process of performing one or two "rough" tunings before the "real" tuning is called a pitch raise. It obviously take more time, and most tuners charge extra for this. 

Pianos that have not been tuned in two years or more usually require this extra work, but new instruments where the strings are still stretching can require this process as well.

Does my piano need tuning even if no one is using it?

It's hard to justify spending money to maintain something that is not being used! However, used or not, the piano will still gradually go out of tune, because the pressure on the strings is constantly shifting due to normal changes in temperature and humidity. 

If no one is using the piano we recommend that it be tuned every other year, just to keep it "close." A piano is a valuable item, and when unused it can become a safe haven for mice, and other pests. Periodic inspection will make sure that the instrument is not deteriorating too rapidly, so that if you ever need to sell it, or if someone finally decides to start using it again, it will not be too difficult to get it back into shape.

How much time does it take to tune a piano?

No less than one hour, and usually no more than two. A pitch-raise followed by a tuning can take two hours, and sometimes longer.

My piano was just tuned but it doesn't sound right!

If the piano really is not in good tune shortly after being tuned, it is pretty easy to tell if it is because the tuner did a bad job, or if it is due to factors beyond his or her control. Let us have a listen!

In a more general discussion, it is impossible to say for certain what's going on, but there are a few possibilities. Although clearly there are times when a tuner simply has not done a good job, often these situations occur when the client does not have a lot of experience with piano tuning. This is even more true when the client has a good but untrained ear. Let's start with the most likely, and move to the more unusual reasons. 

  1. Many people do not know exactly what they are "supposed" to hear when a piano is in tune. The nature of tuning involves a compromise that leaves some musical intervals "off" from what might be considered an ideal sound. Often the piano really has been tuned well, but the inexperienced client hears elements that are definitely not desirable, but in fact necessary. A good tuner should take the time to demonstrate where and why this occurs so you can hear and understand.

  2. Keep in mind that the farther out of tune a piano is at the start, the less ideal the result of a tuning will be. It is unrealistic to expect that a piano which has not been tuned for years will end up sounding as good as it would if it had been tuned regularly. If the piano had to undergo a dramatic pitch raise before tuning, it is likely that some of the strings will shift slightly in spite of the tuners best and most professional efforts. Stability in a piano is a result that takes time. If a piano is tuned on a regular schedule, the stability should improve with each tuning.

  3. Often inexperienced clients assume that tuning will pretty much fix everything. After a tuning, there may still be sounds that are created by the strings that are a natural part of their resonance, but which they assumed would disappear with tuning. Similarly, if the tone is harsh or uneven, the piano may need voicing, which is often not included in the tuning price. (Also, it is never a good idea for a tuner to assume that the client will want the piano voiced unless they have discussed it first. For this reason we always recommend that the client remain to listen to the piano after it has been tuned.)

  4. The use of a high quality electronic device can really help to see what has happened. If some strings have gone flat, and others have gone sharp, and to different degrees, it is likely that the tuner did not do a good job. If all the strings have moved more or less uniformly in one direction, it is probably due to shifting temperature and humidity or the inherent instability of a piano that has not been tuned in a long time. If this is the case, we urge patience. It really will get better with each tuning.

Tuning "by ear" versus tuning with an electronic aid?

If a technician cannot tune a piano by ear, (known as an aural tuner), we believe that he or she has no business calling themselves a piano tuner. That being said, if that aural tuner does not utilize one of the sophisticated electronic aids, they will not do the best possible job. Piano tuning is a combination of art and science. The electronic aids are extremely helpful tools, especially for performing accurate pitch raises, and for maintaining consistency. Also, many of the devices can store the results of a specific tuning, so that once the "puzzle" of that instrument has been "solved," we do not have to solve it again at every visit. 

Having a memorized frequency of where every string was last tuned on a specific piano, (which was determined with a combination of aural skills and electronic measurements) means that at subsequent tunings we can concentrate on techniques to increase tuning stability and improve tone. 

Can my old piano be tuned to A440?

Almost always. Unless there is evidence that strings have been breaking, even neglected pianos can usually be brought back. Sometimes this takes a series of tunings, but often just a normal pitch raise and tuning will suffice. Even if a few strings break it is not too difficult or expensive to replace them, and we usually recommend taking the risk. Clearly there are exceptions, and if we arrive to find that a piano simply cannot be tuned at A440 it can still be improved by tuning "to itself."


Does it "hurt" the piano to let it go un-tuned for many years? 

The longer a piano goes untuned the harder it is to get it back into shape, but we do it all the time. If the strings sit for too long at the wrong pitch it can make the tone a little more unstable than it would have been. Also, strings can rust and get "stuck" at various friction points, increasing the possibility that they may break when stretched. 

Neglected pianos can develop sticky keys, or become the victims or insect or rodent infestations. Still, we see pianos every day that have not been serviced for years, and usually have very good results making them playable again. We usually recommend a follow-up tuning after six months, but after that your piano will usually be fine on a minimum maintenance schedule.

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