Posts tagged pins

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.

A Piano That Can’t Be Tuned?

There are two thoughts that resonate in my brain when someone says “A tuner once said it couldn’t be tuned”.  The first thought is “hmmmm here’s a challenge” and my second thought is “lazy”.  Lazy?  Lazy??  Yep… you heard me.  I’ve run into this many times where a piano is so badly out of tune that tuners don’t want to bring it up to pitch.  Why? Because it will require multiple tunings and probably string breakage… the piano is usually old and frustrating to work on.  Au contraire pour moi.  I enjoy the challenge.  It’s kinda like washing your car when it’s really dirty and you have a better sense of satisfaction when you’re done cleaning it.  Tuning a piano that’s really out of tune is quite satisfying for me.  I find that i enjoy bringing it back to life – to the original sound that it was intended to make.  Y’see… individual notes are meant for a specific pitch.  The gauge of wire corresponds with the pitch of the note.  Subsequently, when a piano has slidden down terribly in pitch, it resembles sound more akin to a steamship than a piano!  This last week i had such a case.  The piano is called a Sterndale.  From outward cabinetry i would date this piano at about 1880-1890.  Though the name sounds English, directly below you’ll see the word “Berlin”.  I must say that Germany really is known for engineering and when i took a quick look at the inside structure, i thought that immediately that this piano has potential (contrary to the aforementioned words of “can’t be tuned”).  I put on my strobe to find out exactly how far down we’re talkin’.  UGH! 150-200 cents down! It beat my previous record of 110 cents down.  Just to give some perspective, a piano on average will slide between 3-5 cents per year… so… 200??? Exactly.  You do the math and think that this piano hasn’t been tuned in awhile.  In fact, inside i saw a tuner’s signature in 1923.  I laughed and thought… “y’know… this may have been the last time” hahaa.  Anyway… 3 tunings later and one broken string and VOILA! The metamorphosis happened! This turned into my second favorite old piano (first being an old Steinway i tune regularly).  Tightening down flange screws, taking out lost motion, adjusting front pins and damper heads and i must say…  what an incredible instrument.  So the next time you hear those words “Can’t be tuned”… think again.  It’s amazing what a little time and TLC can do.

Cause & Effect: Piano Rattles

HOPEFULLY you don’t have a rattle like this snake inside your piano! But you have to admit… it DID grab your attention right? Well… needless to say, sourcing out rattles in pianos are tough tough tough… Yep… A rattle in a piano is a difficult thing to find the source of.  Why? Because the piano emits vibrations and the vibrations usually excite some part on the piano unrelated to the string that is loose.  Generally there are 4 main areas that cause rattles in pianos:

    1. Something loose on the soundboard (especially on grands) – a pencil, paperclip, ummm (don’t laugh) rat poop (ewww i know…), marbles, combs, pieces of paper
    2. Loose hinge pins are HUGE on the list – the centre pin of the hinge is sitting too loosely in it’s frame and rattles sympathetically with the string
    3. Loose pedal rods or trapwork
    4. Buzzing unseated string – where an individual string is not snug against the bridge or capo
      The solution? I start by removing any extraneous things (like pictures or ornaments from the area). Next, try to localize the source.  Move your ears around as you play the note and try and find out the general vicinity where the noise is coming from.  If you see any loose item, now’s the time to grab the tweezers and pull it out.  It may be something simple like that.  Then start holding things – start touching all the hinges or piano parts until the noise stops.  When all else fails, try touching individual strings that are being struck by the hammer.  If for example there are 3 strings being struck at once, place your finger on each one and then strike the key again.  You may find that one of them is creating noise.  Now when it comes to loose parts, you MAY be able to tighten a screw down and stop the noise.  But if you feel like you’re over your head, simply ask a technician about it next time he/she comes to tune.

Loud but not belligerent

There are few things in my life that i am SOOOO opinionated about that i would venture to say “YOU ARE WRONG” but to this regard, i’ll go to my grave standing behind this point.  “What is it” you ask yourself “that would make him so adamant?”  It relates to piano tuning.  Y’see, a few months ago i was tuning while another tuner was working on another piano adjacent to me.  After some time he put down his tools, came over to me and said “that’s CRAZY how loud you’re hitting the keys when you tune! Why do you do that?”  The answer is really quite simple (the explanation – a little more complicated).  When you tune a piano, you do something called “setting the pins”.  Each of the approximately 225 tuning pins is either loosened or tightened to raise or lower the pitch of the piano.  Only problem is… once you move the string, there is still residual movement of the pitch until that note has settled.  How do you get the note to *JOLT* into place? That’s where the term ‘setting’ the pins comes in.  If you strike the key with some force, it moves the string until it settles.  The advantage to this is that when a performer then sits down at a piano and they play some really loud chord, the strings won’t move out of position because they’ve already been set – they’ve already been struck with similar force when it was tuned.  What this ensures then is tuning stability – if i when i tune a piano hit quite a loud volume, the strings will only jostle out of pitch if the performer hits HARDER than i do when tuning.  In a nutshell, if you hear a piano tuner who is really gentle at the piano… you have the wrong tuner (in my humble opinion).  If they don’t bang the tar out of the piano when they’re moving the strings, the first loud piece you play at the piano will move them out of pitch and you’ll be having to live with that out of pitch note for the next year (or until you have your piano tuned next).  So when i was asked “Why do you hit the key so loudly?”, i simply stated “Because it makes no sense whatsoever to tune the piano quietly”.  We exchanged a few more words but… i still walked away thinking “I am right, and you’re wrong”.   Hate to say it… but unless you have a loud tuner, you will be unsatisfied with your tuning.

Aye, There’s the Rub

Indeed, friction is one of the piano technician’s worst nightmares.  At best, the piano is a simple machine – you depress a key, it lifts a hammer to strike a string.  At worst, it’s a complex mechanism where levers and joints are in contact all the time and each surface area is potential for friction to either be too loose or too great: too loose and the piano feels ‘warbly’ and too tight and it either doesn’t function properly or feels like you have to work too hard to compensate for the touch. 

I learned this only a few years back but the formula for touch on a piano is relatively simple (operative word being ‘relatively’).  There is a 5:1 ratio of hammer weight to key.  What that means is, for every gram of weight at the hammer there is 5 grams at the keyboard.  An average hammer weighs in at about 8 grams (multiply by 5 = 40 grams).  So if average touch on a piano is 55 grams per key, where are the other 15 grams of resistance coming from?? Answer: friction.

One side of key bushings replaced

Today i had the opportunity to redo key bushings on a fabulous grand piano owned by one of the best jazz musicians in the area.  With a lot of playing (both from his own practice and from his students), the bushings around the contact points on the keys were completely worn making almost a ‘knocking’ feel from side to side.  A bushing is nothing more than a substance used to reduce friction between two contact points.  In pianos, bushings are almost exclusively made out of cloth (some people mistakenly call it felt but truly it is cloth – woven together).  The cloth then allows the interaction of joints.  Centre pins are made out of steel and they need to interact with wood.  Without bushings these two hard substances would click and knock together.  As well, friction can be taken up by cloth in varying degrees of thickness.  So the cloth is the perfect substance for acting as the ‘spacer’ inbetween. 

Next time you’re at a piano, test the bushings.  Take one key and swivel it from side to side and see if you sense a knock or a thunk.  This will tell you they need replacement.  Simply steam out the old ones (see pictures) and glue in new ones and you’re good for years to come.

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