Piano Tuning 

What is piano tuning?

Your piano has approximately 220 strings all bearing down on a flexible piece of wood called a soundboard.  Piano tuning is the art of balancing all 220 strings at the appropriate tension to produce a beautiful tone.  Each string is attached to a metal tuning pin, which is friction fit into a wooden block called the pin block.  We adjust the tension on the string by turning the tuning pin with a special tuning lever.  During a tuning each string is adjusted 2-3 times before the piano is stabilized.   It is a lot like tuning a guitar, but one with a thousand strings.


Can I tune my own piano?

Sure!  If you have the right equipment, and skills!  A good tuning lever is a must, and the cheapest ones will strip your tuning pins if they don't fit correctly, then you are in some real trouble!  So what makes it an art?  Each string is divided into 3 segments.  The segment between the tuning pin and the agraffe or capo bar, the speaking length, and the length between the bridge and hitch pin at the bottom of the piano.  The tension between these segments must be balanced or the piano will go out of tune very quickly.  Also the tuning pins are 2.5 inches long and will flex, so if they are left in a flexed position, or if they have not been set in the pin block properly, the piano will go out of tune very quickly.  It took me a day and a half to tune my first piano, it was a very exhausting experience!!  AND the tuning did not last very long!!  If you think you are up to the challenge please let me know and I can recommend some good books and tools to get started.


Any accomplished piano tuner will tell you that you must tune 1000 pianos before you start to get the hang of it!  I have tuned well beyond 1000 pianos......


Why does my piano go out of tune?

If your piano has been serviced by a competent piano technician, it is the weather that makes the piano go out of tune.  A piano's soundboard is just like the top of a violin.  It is arched against the strings.  When the weather is humid, such as spring and summer, the wood swells and the arch is exaggerated, pushing against the strings, causing the pitch to rise.  When the air is dry, in fall and winter, (mostly caused by your furnace), the wood shrinks , decreasing pressure on the strings, and the pitch falls.  If left unchecked the pianos tension will fall lower and lower over the years and then your piano technician will charge you for a pitch raise.  


What is a Pitch Raise and why do you charge for it?

A Pitch Raise is a rough tuning, sometimes two, that gets the tension on the piano back up to where it should be.  In the old days piano tuners would often tell the customers that it would take many visits to get the piano back up to pitch because they only wanted to move the overall tension on the instrument a small amount or they would be there all day, tuning it over and over again!!!  Now with advent of computer technology we can use actual measurements of string tension to determine how far past the target we have to go to have the pitch settle where it is supposed to be. When the overall tension of the instrument is changed significantly, it adds more pressure against the soundboard, meaning that the notes you have already tuned will sag lower before you are done tuning the piano.  Now it is possible to bring the piano up to pitch and fine tune it in one visit.  This actually saves you money because you are not paying for multiple tunings 4 weeks apart.  Since the average piano has over 34,000 lbs of string tension, a piano that has gone flat will need that tension reinstalled by arm.  This makes my arms hurt, and takes extra time, hence the extra charges.


How often should my piano be tuned?

At a minimum once per year.  Preferably the same time of year each year.  If your piano is one that reacts viciously to our brutal winters you may want to tune 2-4 times per year depending on your personal standards for your piano.  Pianos in halls like the Jubilee Auditorium, or the Winspear Centre, are tuned once before the rehearsal and once again just before the show.  Sometimes the piano will even be tuned during the intermission!!  College classroom pianos are tuned once per month.  Tuning the piano is somewhat cumulative, the more it is tuned, the more it will stay in tune!... It is just like exercise or taking showers.... If you only did it once her 10 years......   Or the oil in your car???  Pianos are as equally complex as cars, and often worth more money.  Piano tuning insures that the piano tuner can inspect your piano and keep it in top playing condition mechanically before things get expensive.....


How can I make my piano tuning last longer?

It is the drastic changes in our humidity from winter to summer that cause your piano to go out of tune.   In the summer the air is very moist. Often over 60% in your home.  When winter comes, your furnace heats the air, which has been drawn in from outside.  Once heated this air becomes very dry, often less than 10% relative humidity.  This dries out your piano's sound board.  Flattening the "crown" and your tenor section....  So to prevent this.  CONTROL THE HUMIDITY!  If you have a humidifier on your furnace, use it!  Try to keep the humidity over 30%.  I had to put heat shrink plastic on my circa 1976 windows to maintain 35% Relative Humidity to maintain a stable tuning on my Yamaha C1 grand  piano.  If you have old windows on your home it will be difficult to maintain higher humidity values because your windows will frost over and eventually cause mould in the window sills.....   In these circumstances I recommend Dampchaser Piano humidifier systems. 


Keep your piano out of the sun! 

Do not place the piano over heat registers or cold air returns.

Avoid placing the piano near draughty openings, like fireplaces, front doors, etc.


The last tuner said my piano has loose tuning pins....

This means that over the years the holes in which the tuning pins fit have become enlarged, and therefore do not grip the pins tight enough to hold a tuning for very long.  This can be corrected by pounding the pins deeper into the wood to get at fresh wood, or if that has already been done it is probably time to install bigger tuning pins, and while you're at it we may as well put in a new set of strings.  There is a modern chemical treatment that can be applied to the wood around the tuning pins that does work very well on some pianos, however results are not guaranteed, and the chemical is very smelly for a short time.  It is much cheaper than re-pinning and restringing though.


Questions & Answers

Joshua Switzer-Crowe

The Edmonton Piano Tuner