Posts tagged tuning

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.

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

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…

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…

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.

When 50 Cent Ain’t a Half Dollar

Pianos are stubborn! There are no two ways about it. If you pull their strings, they’ll pull back. In fact, it’s a little like a tug of war when tuning. The farther the piano has dropped in pitch (remember that there are thousands of pounds pulling whether you play the instrument or not), the more the piano is going to complain when you pull it back up to pitch. For example, there are 100 cents in a semi-tone. A cent is an increment of pitch. So if you pull strings 25 cents, quite often the piano will pull back 8 cents. Raise the pitch 15 degrees (or cents) and it will pull back 5 cents. Why is that? Most of that pull-back is from the soundboard responding to added pressure.

The following are some tuning fun free facts i’ve noticed in recent years:
1. Solid reputable pianos will fall about 3-5 cents per year. It makes sense then that a piano that hasn’t been tuned for three years will be out of pitch 9-15 cents.
2. Pianos will not stay perfectly in tune if they are out more than about 15 cents. Back to the tug-o-war… you tighten the strings and it will pull back. It is impossible to stabilize perfectly a piano on first tuning that is out more than 15 degrees.
3. It’s a good idea then to compensate for this loss of pitch. Let’s say that A440 is “0” and that the piano is 15 cents down in pitch (-15). I usually adjust my strobe to tune +5 and expect that the piano will then drop by that amount. Crossing fingers, the piano will end up at 0 after completion.
4. Pianos farther than 40 cents down and have strings that look old and rusty, expect possible string breakage.
5. When pianos are farther than 15 cents down, it doesn’t mean that the piano cannot be tuned, it simply means that it would be a good idea to do a ‘pitch raise’ first and then do a fine tuning. A pitch raise is a very fast tuning to bring the piano into the ballpark. Once the piano has settled somewhat to the new tension, it is then possible to tune it at which point, the piano should be stable.
6. Piano wire gauge is matched to the pitch of a note. Even though the wires may look all the same thickness, they’re not. And so when pitch has slidden, the piano also won’t sound optimal. Only when the instrument is matched for the pitch will the tone also follow. Pianos that are flat in pitch usually sound dull and lifeless.

Next time you have your tuner over, ask him/her (providing they have a strobe) how many cents your piano is ‘out’.
PS…you’ll look like you’re in the know

The Eye of the Beholder…

hammers2Quite a number of years ago a friend of mine watched a show on TV about beauty.  What was interesting to note was that they took a number of pictures (i hate to say it…sorry i’m not sexist but…) pictures of women of all different shapes, colours, kinds and sizes and showed them to different cultures asking “Point out the most beautiful”.  The statistics were interesting… that regardless of culture there is a general sense of ‘beauty’.  And before you get your nickers in a knot, let me just say that in North America, they’ve manipulated that concept to the NINES! to the point of disgusting.  It’s created a weird box that women are somehow supposed to fit into – regardless of the fact that most do NOT.

Seguay.

I was tuning a piano this morning – thinking of the concept of beauty in tone; how 8 out of 10 of my customers listen for a similar type of tone.  I was contemplating what the ‘averages’ were in piano sound – that if you were to play a number of pianos, what most people would find pleasing.  Ok follow the rabbit trail here… i was then thinking about connecting a spectrograph (an electronic device that displays a breakdown of frequencies) to pianos that are considered ‘beautiful’ and analysing the correlations of tone.  (i know, i know…piano tuning is boring…lol… i have such thoughts when i’m tuning for better part of 2 hours…lol).  So after the tone is ‘visible’, then look at the physical makeup of the piano – the felt, the strings, the make and model etc and try and reverse engineer the formula.  Why?  Well, there’s this thing called VOICING.  Voicing is the art of manipulating the piano hammers in such a way as to enhance frequencies or remove unwanted frequencies.  When i was young, i thot that each piano company had a certain tone.  Yamaha had a tone, Baldwin had a tone, Kawai had a tone, Steinway had a tone… etc… and to a degree, that concept is true.  But what MANY people don’t know is that the tone can be altered almost up to 50%.  What that means is that you can have an extremely mellow sounding Yamaha – which typically is a brassy bright instrument.  Through voicing, you can change the way the fibres of the hammer strike the string.  Once this is accomplished, pianos can go from very mediocre to dazzling!

Well… my time is up.  I’ll write another blog about voicing some time…promise.  And there you’ll understand the basics how-to’s of the process of voicing.

Just Pedaling

pedals

Piano pedals

Did you know that you can spell the word pedalling with two L’s or one? huh… the things you learn… i learned early on in teaching that you can either practice or practise.  ANYWAY… i was on the phone with my sister the other day (piano teacher extraordinaire) and i was telling her about my piano blog… she said “For goodness sakes – do one on pedalling!!!”  And so here it is… (shout out to my sister lol).

Just to clear up any misconceptions; the pedals on a piano are not GAS, BRAKE and CLUTCH.  They’re also not LOUD, MEDIUM and SOFT(which is usually the 2nd guess).  The 3 pedals are 3 S’s: SUSTAIN, SOSTENUTO and SOFT or alternatively: DAMPER, BASS SUSTAIN and UNA CORDA.  Either works really.  Today, however, we’re just going to look at one pedal – the most used by FAR, which is the right pedal known as the sustain/damper.  If you ever see someone playing an electronic piano and they have a cord down to the floor with one pedal, it’s gonna be this one.  The percentage of use for sustain vs. the other two is probably around 95% sustain, 4% soft and about 1% sostenuto.  So the sustain/damper does it all really.  To piano playing i call this pedal the ‘mortar to the bricks’.  This pedal practically ‘fills the cracks’ when you play the piano.  It is used to connect what your fingers can’t hold on to.  So imagine you’re at the piano, you’re playing lots of notes at one time – you then need to almost instantaneously move to another group of notes.  Most times you will audibly hear a gap in between those two sets of notes.  You can, however give the impression that notes are somehow ‘connected’ by moving quickly from one to the next.  Quite a lot of the time though, you just can’t change positions that quickly and thus the need for the sustain pedal.  The sustain pedal keeps the strings ‘live’ by sustaining the notes.  This is accomplished through the dampers (thus both names for this pedal).  dampersWhen the dampers are not sitting on the strings, they are allowed to resonate freely.  So while your fingers are moving to the next notes, the sustained tones from the last chord will continue to resonate until you arrive at the keys.  Make sense?  Then when you come to the next chord, the damper pedal is released, effectively bridging the gap between the notes.  The most difficult part of this pedal is the timing because you need to think ‘bridge’ ALL the time.  After a while though it becomes second nature.

I was at a home recently where i was tuning.  The lady called me a day later and commented on how her piano didn’t sound that good after i left.  I was thinking to myself that i had somehow done an inadequate tuning and promised to stop in.  When i sat at the piano, i rattled off an old song i knew by heart and she said “How come it doesn’t sound like that when i play?”  lol… it was because she had yet to learn about the damper pedal.  I must say that the damper DOES make you sound more professional… but only when executed properly.  Give it a try.  You’ll like it.  Promise.

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