What is a basic tuning?
A basic tuning gets your piano back in tune with itself, or is your 6-12 month regular checkup tuning. Each year, the piano gradually falls away from pitch (goes flat normally), so this tuning is designed to be about a 5-10% corrective tuning. If you’ve fallen further than 10-15%, a pitch raise (pitch correction) is necessary to bring you back to pitch. All of our tunings include the tuning itself, full exterior cleaning, cleaning inside the piano (particularly on the soundboard), and very minor repairs, such as sticky keys.
You may have heard your piano technician use the terms pitch raise and pitch lowering. The expressions actually have dual meanings and functions. From a simplistic view point, your piano may be significantly flat or sharp in pitch position when compared to an A440 tuning fork. Hence, the tuner will adjust the pitch accordingly. However, that characterization is not always sufficient.
The Easy Answer:
The simple response to the question of “Why is a pitch raise necessary?” is this: Pianos need to be in tune in order to tune them.
The More Complex Answer:
The average residential piano usually has 220 strings that are attached at fixed points. Most concert grand pianos can have up to 240 strings. Let us assume that your piano has not been tuned in ten years. It will most likely be the case that your piano is very flat. In order to bring your piano up to concert A440, the tuner adds tension to each string (i.e. 10lbs per string). The total amount of new tension on the wires can be quite significant (i.e. 2400lbs).
So you have probably seen a violin. The string is attached at the tail, then passes over the bridge, and then is attached at the tuning peg that tightens the string. How many strings are on a violin? 4. Compare that to a piano though. A piano may have 36 to 39 strings in 12″. So each time the string is tightened, pressure is pushing down on the bridge and sound board. For the piano tuner, this means that the sound board will be sinking as tension is applied to the strings. So by the time the tuner is 12″ from a previously tightened string, it may already be just a tiny bit flat and out of tune again.
Pitch raise does refer to raising pitch, but more importantly it refers to the procedure that a technician utilizes to pressurize a sound board before a Finish Tuning. In general, pianos behave in predictable ways. Sound boards are engineered and constructed to find a place of equilibrium against the forces being applied by the music wire. Once the sound board is evenly compressed, the piano will be more likely to hold a fresh tuning. Hence, pitch raise and pitch lowering are important pre-tuning passes and pressurizing techniques used to achieve a reliable, enjoyable, and stable finish tuning.
Bringing pianos up to pitch is not without its risks. Also note that pitch raised pianos tend to go out of tune quickly. Keep an ear open. Your technician controls the “tuning pin” end of the string, but time controls the opposite end – the “hitch pin“ end. It is not uncommon for a follow-up tuning to be required in 6 months.
Q: The piano doesn’t get much use – so I guess it doesn’t need regular tuning?
A: A piano still goes out of tune, even if it’s not played, just like a violin or guitar that is left in its case. This is because the main structure of the piano is made of metal and wood, which expands and contracts due to the day to day changes in temperature and humidity. Over a period of time, the overall pitch will drop and if left too long, it may take a double (or even a triple) tuning to get it right again, resulting in extra cost.
Q. I called around and your prices are some of the lowest in town. Some guys even wanted $175 for a basic tune-up!
A. We’ve heard that before as well. We feel our prices are fair, and the quality of work is guaranteed.
Q. I just bought a piano off craigslist for $50. What’s next?
A. Congrats! We will do our best to get her back in playing shape. Keep in mind though, without a tuning history or proper info, we may be limited in how close to concert pitch we can get it the first tuning.
Q. I just inherited by mother’s 100 year old piano. Can you tune it?
A. Experience is key here. Can we tune it? Yes. Can we pull the pitch higher than it currently is? Probably not. As the piano ages, so do the strings. They become brittle and the tuning/stretching process leads to more breakage than not. The normal process is to tune it down for enjoyment to protect the instrument.
Q: I saw a piano tuner who was using ear plugs. Were these hearing aids? I don’t want a deaf piano tuner!
A: They were in all probability hearing protection plugs. Just like operating noisy machinery, the noise of piano tuning over a period of several years can cause tinnitus and other hearing disorders. There are now various hearing protection plugs used by musicians that will reduce the volume without reducing the clarity.
Actually, there is no reason why a tuner shouldn’t use hearing aids. In the same way many people wear glasses or use a magnifying glass in order to bring their eye-sight up to standard to perform a particular task, as long as the tuner has the hearing ability to do the job, it matters not if it is aided or unaided. Modern day digital hearing aids are a far cry from the older ‘over-the-ear’ type, and do an excellent job of bringing a tuner’s hearing back to how it used to be.
Q: I have a good ear and I’d like to tune my own piano to save money. Can I do this?
A: Definitely not! First of all, it takes three years training to reach even the minimum standard of competency to tune and maintain a piano. By trying to do it yourself, even with the aid of an instruction book, you are more than likely going to do serious damage to it or at least make it more out of tune than before you started. Even with the use of the various electronic tuning devices, part of the training is to develop the technique and motor skills necessary. The use of a tuning lever requires considerably more finesse than using a socket set!
Secondly, specialist tools are required, which are only available from the piano parts suppliers who only supply bona fide members of the trade. Even if you could get them, being specialist tools, they are expensive and the cost of them would outweigh any saving.
Q: Why is it so expensive to get my piano fixed?
A: It reminds me of a story:
Many years ago, the engine of a large ship shut down. The Captain of the ship invited one ship engineer after the other, but none of them could fix the engine. Then someone recommended an old man who had been fixing ships for a long time. He came in with his bag of tools and inspected the engine thoroughly. The owners of the ship were watching him. The old man opened his bag and brought out a small hammer. He gently tapped something and the engine revved back to life. He replaced his hammer and walked away with the ship owners watching with gratitude.
A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for $10,000.
“This is a rip off.” the owners exclaimed. “What did he do that should cost so much?” They immediately ask the old man for a breakdown of the his bill.
Here’s what he wrote:
Tapping with a hammer……………………………..$2
Knowing where to tap…………………………..$9998
Never underestimate the value of experience! It takes many years of training and experience to become a competent tuner and/or technician, and any skilled labor is expensive, in addition to the cost of time and motoring expenses travelling to a client’s house. A 90 minute service call may take up to 3 hours of the day depending on travelling, traffic, etc.
Q: My piano still sounds fine after six months, does that mean it doesn’t need tuning?
A: Maybe, but not necessarily. What often happens is that a piano will drop out of tune uniformly; i.e. it still sounds perfectly in tune with itself but the overall pitch has dropped. A piano is designed to sound at its best at ‘concert’ pitch, with the correct amount of tension on the strings.
I have also had on many occasions clients saying they hadn’t realized how far out of tune their piano had gone. This is because one doesn’t notice tiny changes in the tuning on a day-to-day basis, but the combined effect over 6 months can be tremendous.
Q: But I don’t play in concerts! Why should my piano be tuned to concert pitch?
A; The term ‘concert pitch’ is very misleading. It doesn’t mean that it’s reserved for the concert platform; it just means that it’s the standard pitch that pianos (and in fact ALL musical instruments) are designed to be tuned to. This is so when instruments play together, whether it is a full symphony orchestra or just a piano and a recorder playing together in your front room, the instruments are in tune with each other. Whilst stringed instruments have the flexibility of tuning down to meet a piano that is not at concert pitch, wind instruments have a very limited tuning range.
Q: I’ve seen a tuner using an electronic device. What is this?
A: These are the piano tuners equivalent of a guitar tuner, but as mentioned above, are in a completely different league. They are designed to measure all the notes across the pianos’ huge range, and the programming contains complex algorithms to ensure each and every type of piano is tuned correctly and accurately.
Q: The tone of my piano has changed since I had it. Can anything be done about that?
A: Yes! Hammers harden up as they hit the strings in the same place each time. Softening the hammers is a process known as voicing or toning, and this can be carried out by a piano technician on site at the same time as tuning for an additional fee. However, over a period of many years, the hammers will become too worn for this, and they may need refacing or replacing. This is a reconditioning job for the workshop.
Q: My piano tuner broke a string whilst tuning. Should he/she pay for the replacement?
A: Piano strings do weaken as a result of age, rust, metal fatigue and so on. Whilst it’s not unknown for an inexperienced tuner to break a string by mistake, it is rare. In almost all cases, the string(s) will already be very weak and the act of tuning them was simply what finished them off; the proverbial ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. In such cases, the tuner would not be at fault and therefore would not be liable for the cost of replacement.
Why does my piano go out of tune?
This Frequently Asked Question can be addressed from many angles. There are many reasons that contribute to a piano’s ability (or lack of ability) to hold a tuning. The two most frequently encountered causes of pianos going out of tune are loose tuning pins and sound board movement – expansion and contraction – due to the piano’s environment.
The most important contributor to an instrument’s stability is its environment. The western scale began its journey with the ancient Greeks. Not only did they cultivate what we know today as perfect fifths, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras promoted our facility with triangles in what has become known as the Pythagorean Theorem. Before I familiarize you with the importance of triangles in your piano and how they relate to a piano’s stability, let’s first visit a very important piece of wood in the instrument – the soundboard.
The Soundboard –
From a physics concept, your piano is an energy transfer system. As we strike the front end of a key, a chain reaction of events happens in the “gears” which moves a hammer to impact a string. The hammer excites a wave pattern on the string that in turn transfers energy to the soundboard – the piano’s amplifier. The larger vibrating surface area of the board in turn excites the air molecules (more efficiently than narrow strings) at different frequency patterns. With regard to a piano’s tuning, we can imagine that a soundboard “breathes.” Just as our chests rise and fall as we inhale and exhale, our soundboards rise in the presence of humidity, and they fall in the absence of humidity.
The Soundboard & Triangles –
Below is an exaggerated and simplified depiction of a typical soundboard with a bridge and a single string. As you notice, the board is shown with an arch or radius. In a healthy piano this is known as a crown. Typically, the manufacturer has designed a 60’ radius into the construction of the soundboard. The primary triangle shown has labels “a”, “b”, and “c”. For our conversation, “a” is the run of the triangle; “b” will be referred to as the rise; and “c” will be assigned as the hypotenuse. Also, for our discussion, please note that the run of our triangle is typically fixed in the structure of your instrument and will very seldom be altered. We will be exploring the seasonal changes of the rise and hypotenuse that occur.
The Humid Season Environment –
Typically in the state of Texas, it is not unusual to see the humidity return beginning in the month of April. Wood acts like a sponge in the presence of moisture. As the soundboard in your piano begins to retain the moisture in the atmosphere this causes the crown (the hump) to rise upwards. As you probably recall from Algebra days, as the rise of a triangle increases, so too will the hypotenuse increase in length. As the hypotenuse grows in length, the tension on the string also increases. Pitch goes up. In Texas, our spring/summer season can be saturated with 80% relative humidity and sometimes more.
The Dry Season Environment –
In contrast to the thick, humid days of summer that we can cut with a knife, we see just the opposite during the fall and winter months. The dry months present a double challenge for your piano. Cooler air holds less moisture, and we turn on the heaters in order to warm our bodies. Again this mobilizes the tuning triangles. As the spongy soundboard begins to part with its moisture, the hump goes down, and the rise of the triangle begins to decrease. Less rise means shorter strings and less tension on the wire. Hence, the pitch goes down. Winter of 2010 not only produced record low temperatures; the relative humidity at my residence was as 16%.
A proper response to this question is contingent upon how the instrument is being used. For example, the performance grand pianos in the concert venues of the university where I received my degree were tuned 2 times per week during the active recital season. In contrast, the average practice room upright pianos would be tuned at least 3 times per season.
The Tuning Envelope and Piano Health –
The tuning envelope refers to the amount of pitch change that occurs between tunings. The less the change, the more stable a tuning will be and the greater the longevity the owner will realize on subsequent tuning visits. Hence, it is important to schedule tunings often enough to keep the tuning envelope as narrow as possible. If you want to save money, then don’t tune. But be prepared. Getting caught up can be costly. My Basic Tuning Fee only applies to the first 1.5 hours of a tuning visit. Beyond 1.5 hours means that more effort and passes are being made so the tuning will hold. Hence, an additional fee will be assessed to your tuning visit (extended tuning, pitch raise) in addition, one or more tuning visits may be required in order to re-stabilize a piano. Why? Because the piano technician controls the tuning pin end of the string, but time controls the other end that equalizes during heavy playing. Finally, pianos that are permitted to significantly drop in pitch are at increased risk of string and plate breakage. The responsible course of tuning maintenance: Keep it close.
Residential Pianos –
For most pianos in homes, the owner is advised to schedule tunings no less than once per year. Bi-annual tunings are the most recommended, and will be required as a student’s sense of pitch develops. Discerning artists typically have their pianos tuned 4 times per year.
Pianos make beautiful center pieces in our homes. However, there are things to consider when locating a piano in the home. Temperature and humidity changes will play an enormous role in a piano’s individual life cycle and in its ability to hold stable tunings.
- Try to avoid placing your instrument too close to the floor and wall vents of your home’s heating and air conditioning system. The heating especially can cause damage to a piano’s structural integrity.
- Try to avoid placing the piano in a location of direct sunlight as this too will shorten both the life of the instrument as well as blow out any tuning services that are provided.
- Try to avoid placing the piano on exterior walls.
- Try to avoid placing the piano underneath windows or even nested within bay windows.