Posts tagged pitch

The History of Piano String Tension

Blah! The title of this sounds to most as exciting as watching paint dry.  Operative words being “to most”… to me however this is one of the more interesting charts i’ve seen in a long time.  Back in 2005, published by Europiano, Juan Más Cabré wrote this article showing the differing string tensions over the last few hundred years. Everything i know about string tension i learned as a child with a bread pan and rubberbands. Hahaaa… i used to make musical instruments when i was a kid. What fascinated me though was the thickness of the rubber band and the sound that would happen at a certain pitch. This is exactly what’s going on in pianos. The graph shows the earliest of pianos from Cristofori (in 1726). That string tension is little more than that of a harpsichord. It became evident that a stronger frame would be neccessary to implement higher tension. With higher tension comes more singing tone. Next on the list is Silbermann who asked Bach for some input. Silbermann contributed the damper device (similar to a damper pedal) to the piano. Shortly thereafter in the Classical era (Beethoven’s time) more and more iron was added to the wooden frame so as to boost the string tension – again with more singing, sustaining sound and also more resonance and power. Enter the famed Steinway and Bosendorfer. Interesting to note is that “more is not always better”. There have been pianos that have had higher string tensions (as in Ibach) but manufacturers decide what sound is pleasing. This is part of the backbone of ‘scale’ – the trade secrets of piano makers. Length of string, thickness of wire and tension of string all add to the sound. To get a mini idea of this, play around with a bread pan. It really is a fascinating exercise in string tension. And after that… just make some fresh bread. Nothing beats music and food together :)

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.

Should Piano Tuners be Piano Players?

Is it necessary that a piano tuner know how to get around on the piano? No.  Piano tuners can competantly tune an instrument one note at a time.  HOWEVER, that said, it is an INCREDIBLE asset to know how to play to CHECK the tuning.  My background is in performance and teaching.  I started tuning only about 10 years ago.  When i first started tuning i would then play a favourite song and say to myself “BLECH… this is TERRIBLE!” hahaaa.  Then off i would go fixing what sounded ‘out’.  For a brief period in college i studied ancient Greek language.  The first 3 rules of interpretation are… context, context, context.  Similarly when tuning, the context of a note within a chord reveal pitch.  I’ve spoken about how some notes on certain pianos don’t sound ‘right’ and you can alter them to sound more…mmmm soothing instead of jarring or clashing.  And the way in which you tell if a piano sounds in tune is from playing a song, an arpeggio, a chord or melody.  So is it necessary to play if you’re a tuner? Absolutely not.  Anyone can play 2 notes at a time.  But is imperative to check the tuning?  Absolutely.

Piano Tuning – Finding A440

So after my last post about tuning forks and strobe calibration, this last week i had 2 customers hand me their own tuning forks to check my strobe.  For giggles i tapped each one and put them on my strobe… turns out that all 3 were different pitches!!  Mine was spot on, one was 3 cents higher but the other one… AMAZING but true… was a whopping 22 cents flat!  So not only does cold affect the tuning but i’m finding out that because all tuning forks are stamped as calibrated that “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (a fun jazz tune).  My pursuit turned to the internet where i found a few sources for A440.  One… believe it or not is on youtube! I know hey? Go figure… Check out this link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-kRShXR6qA – it simply is a computer generated sine wave – 30 seconds of A440 frequency.

You can also click on the picture to take you to Seventh String tuning fork website… kinda neat.  It helped reassure me that both my strobe and my tuning fork are “on”.  Whew!

Tuning Fork Calibration?

I make no bones about the fact that i do both ear and strobe tuning.  I’ve found that over the years, ‘musical’ isn’t necessarily ‘perfect’.  What sounds good in terms of overtones on one piano won’t be suitable to another piano.  So it’s ridiculous to expect a mathmatically accurate strobe tuner to make those judgement calls.  I also know that visually ‘seeing’ the pitch is an asset as well.  I’ve found that my ears play tricks on me sometimes and visually verifying pitch can be helpful.

Before i tune each day, i pull out my good ol’ tuning fork to ensure my strobe is working correctly and i just so happened to notice that my strobe seemed ‘off’.  Huh… that’s odd… never really thought about it before.  After awhile i was tuning away… thinking i should double check this and lo and behold, my strobe had ‘fixed’ itself.  Well that’s odd… how would that happen? I started thinking of variables… thinking that my strobe could’ve warmed up.  Then i got to thinking about my tuning fork… ‘hmmmm y’know my tuning fork was in my vehicle all night and it was REALLY cold.  So yesterday i did a tuning fork test.  My strobe was running for some length of time… i decided to put my tuning fork in the fridge.  Not really unheard of temperatures when you consider growing up on the prairies a tuning fork left in -30 degree weather.  Anyway my findings? My tuning fork when cold was 5 cents off!  I know, i know… i’m a bit slow to the draw but… i didn’t expect 5 cents! That’s a lot when you’re calibrating.  I warmed it up in my hands for a few minutes… back to normal.  So remember: cold forks mean an out of tune piano by 5 degrees.  Next time you have your piano tuned and it’s cold outside, offer the tuner a cup of coffee before starting and you’ll most likely have a more in tune piano. lol.  Or…orrrrrrrrrr this is just my way of shamelessly getting my morning cuppa. hahaa.  Cheers

Why should I buy a big piano instead of a small one?

I regularly get asked this question in my shop.  What IS the difference between big pianos and small pianos?  Well i’m going to preface this by asking you a question, “Do you ever see small pianos in concert halls?”  The answer unequivocally is a resounding NO.  Logically then, ALL piano makers have come to the same conclusion that bigger pianos are somehow better.  And you could argue that big pianos fill big rooms with sound.  And there is a measure of truth to that, HOWEVER… my nephew who is in his 20’s has a stereo system in his car that is a 1000 watts of output.  Now when you consider an average home stereo might be 200-400 watts and a clock radio might be 1-2 watts, a whopping 1000 watts seems overkill right?  Well the bigger the stereo system, generally speaking, the greater the fidelity.  In pianos too, the longer the strings (thus making a bigger piano), the richer the fundamental… generally speaking.  The what? The fundamental? What is that? Glad you asked.  The fundamental is the base frequency of a note.  Within every note on any instrument, there is a rainbow spectrum of harmonic tones.  The fundamental then is the base… the one we hear the most – the pitch of the note.  So if you play an E on the piano, primarily you will hear frequency corresponding to E.  Within the body of that note though are other notes – namely the 5th, the 7th, the 10th etc.  So within an E note are also present “overtones” or “harmonics” of B, D and G#.  They all are embodied in that same note.  A trained ear will hear them.  In fact, piano tuners tune a piano way more based on the sonority of the overtones than the pitch of the note which brings me back to the original quest for the truth about large pianos: Large pianos generally have more fundamental and more pleasing harmonics than small pianos.  And THAT is precisely why you should always find as BIG a piano as your space and budget can afford.  You will be MUCH happier with a taller upright and a longer grand because the fundamentals will be more present and there will be less conflict with ringing overtones.

The Problem with New Piano Strings

Five.  The number is five.  In my estimation, pianos require 5 tunings to stabilize the stretch in the steel.  Did you just read correctly? There’s stretch in steel? Absolutely.  And to prove it, try tuning a piano with new strings.  The first 3 times are almost laughable how much the pitch alters.  By the fourth and fifth times the strings level out.  Why is this important? There are three applications: if you have purchased a new piano, expect to tune it more than once in your first year.  Second, if you have just restored an old vintage piano – same thing applies.  I would hope that some of (if not most) of those tunings would’ve been done prior to arriving at your house but you’d be surprised at how off pitch i’ve seen new (and even expensive) pianos after the first year.  Third, if you EVER have a string break on a piano – just remember that putting the string on is the easy part… retuning 5 times that year… more challenging.  Recently i was at a customer’s home where the family piano had been dropped by movers.  6 strings broke trying to bring it back up to pitch – apparently the sudden jolt altered it considerably.  After ordering these new bass strings, it only took me a half hour to put them on but i told this teacher that i need to stop in for just a few minutes to tune because they won’t hold for the first few tunings. Just some thoughts to remember…

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.

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