Posts tagged humidity

How Often Should Pianos Be Tuned?

There hardly is a day that goes by when people don’t ask “How often should i tune my piano?”  To understand this question, there are a few variables you need to be aware of.  Firstly, there are roughly 18 tonnes of string tension pulling on most pianos at any given time.  To say to me “We hardly ever play it” in some ways is irrelevant because the strings are still under tension regardless of whether your hand touches the keys.  That said, pianos that get play a LOT will go out slightly if the tuning pins have not been properly set when tuning and i have noticed that more frequently used teaching pianos require more attention.  Second, humidity change plays a large part in tuning stability.  The strings are not just stretched from one end to the other.  They go over a bridge (much like you would see on a guitar).  That bridge is attached to the soundboard and depending on seasonal changes in humidity, the piano will fluctuate in pitch as the wood expands and contracts.

Now then, once you understand all of that, my usual response when asked how often pianos should be tuned is this: Depends how particular you are in having it in tune.  Recording studios and concert halls have it tuned every time it’s used.  Some churches even locally have it tuned once a month to quarterly depending on budget.  Most teaching studios tune twice a year.  Most families tunes yearly.

“But my piano doesn’t go out of tune that often”… hahaaaa.  I’ve encountered VERY few pianos in my lifetime and i’ve played over a thousand that rarely go out of tune.  My guess is that the piano is just gently creeping out of tune in such small increments that you don’t realise it’s gone out a few degrees.  My rule of thumb is that most people can’t hear when a piano is out of tune up to 6 degrees!  A degree in tuning is called a cent.  A semi-tone is 50 cents.  Full tone 100.  When pianos are out by about 3 or 4 degrees, the piano has still dropped in pitch but may not have been noticed.  Well… wait another year and then it’s out another 3 or 4.  Sooner than you know it, the piano has sunken 12-15 degrees over 3 or 4 years and instead of simply correcting a few degrees, you’re pulling strings.  My advice? Whether you hear it or not, do yourself a favor and keep it in regular maintenance.  And besides, like freshly squeezed orange juice, nothing beats a freshly tuned piano.

The Best Time to Tune

First of all, let me say that if you haven’t had your piano tuned in YEARS, the best time to tune is RIGHT NOW.  This article relates to people who tune their pianos regularly and would like to know how to optimize their tunings so that they last longer.  (and i just heard someone say “You can optimize tuning???”) The answer is a resounding YES! But before i give you the goods on that answer, i’ll keep you in suspense and drag you through the proverbial mud on the why’s of this answer first.

There are 3 elements that affect tuning stability.  Tuning pin torque, stretch in piano wire and soundboard fluctuation. Tuning pin torque has to do with how tight the tuning pins are in the pinblock.  For those who can’t place what part i’m talking about, these are the steel ‘pegs’ the tuner loosens and tightens to tune the piano.  The wire is stretched across the piano and are wound around these at either the top of the piano (on an upright) or at the front (on a grand).  Tuning pins are held by friction in a pinblock – a wooden (most often laminated) block of wood which i found out a few years back is called a wrestplank in Europe.  The word ‘wrest’ has its origins in ‘wrench’ which makes perfect sense really.  It is the part of the piano the tuner uses the tuning hammer (or wrench).  So if the friction is not there, the torque is not there and there will not be tuning stability.

The second factor affecting tuning is the steel wire itself.  Now this only applies to new wire.  Believe it or not, there’s HUGE amounts of stretch when new wires are installed on a piano.  Generally, i’ve noticed that it takes about 5 tunings to get new strings to stabilize.  If you’ve EVER had one broken string on a piano, you’ll know that the new wire will go out of tune quite quickly for the first few tunings.

So if your piano has good tuning pin strength and the wires are not new, that only leaves one alternative as to why pianos go out of tune on a regular basis (remembering that there are 18 tonnes of pull constantly at work as well!)  The last factor affecting tuning is the fluctuation in the soundboard.  The soundboard is the giant ‘amplifier’ that takes string resonance and multiplies the volume.  Without soundboard there is little sound on a piano.  Now similar to a guitar, the strings of a piano cross over the bridge which is directly attached to the soundboard.  Since the soundboard is dynamic – meaning that it is constantly moving, fluctuation in tuning will occur.  And what affects the soundboard? You guessed it, humidity.  Humidity affects wood CONSTANTLY.  It absorbs moisture and swells and dispells humidity and shrinks.  There is a constant contraction and expansion of the soundboard. 

So back to the question: When is the best time to tune the piano? The answer: after the major adjustment in humidity has occurred – namely spring and fall.  In the fall, the humidity shifts into the rainy/snowy season and in the spring the humidity moves into the dry/sunny season.  As soon as that shift has taken place, the piano will then be adjusted for the next 6 months.  So what happens if you tune before that time?  Well, you’ll nicely get your piano tuned, the humidity will shift and then you’ll notice notes will start to sound a little bit ‘out’.  To optimize your tuning, wait until AFTER the shift.  Where i live those months are October/November and March/April.  Just a thot to make your hard earned dollars last a bit longer…

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