A Quick Piano Tuning Primer

by ivories

Piano tuning is more than just tightening strings to a given pitch, it’s an essential part of keeping your piano healthy and in good working condition. Avoiding routine tunings and maintenance can lead to much more expensive repairs down the road. At Ivories.ca, a piano tuning begins well before the tuning hammer touches its first pin. A thorough initial visual inspection is critical to tuning a piano to its greatest potential. All front panels are removed and a check of the pinblock, soundboard and bridge takes place to ensure that the piano is in decent enough condition to be tuned. Especially in our varied Canadian climate, there are many factors that can render a neglected instrument to become difficult to tune, or as we see more an more these days, completely untunable (read more about proper humidity levels on our facebook page). Ivories.ca will not tune your piano if it becomes apparent that it is incapable of being tuned to our standards. In such cases, we provide free quotes for the necessary repair work to return the piano to a playable condition.

The condition of the soundboard and pinblock greatly influences one’s ability to tune a piano to the desired and ideal A440 (Hz). Pianos showing minor wear or damage may need to be tuned to a lower pitch to ensure the instrument’s integrity, as they can no longer handle the tension and pressure created by the strings at the proper pitch.

When a piano is in tunable condition, the “well tempered tuning circle” is used to obtain the critical temperament octave (the chromatic 13 notes in the middle of the piano) in order to properly tune the rest of the instrument. The A4 key is tuned to 440Hz, most commonly using a digital tuner or tuning fork, and then setting the intervals between the remaining keys using perfect fifths in relation to A440. During this process a tuner will assess the beating of the intervals (using fifths, fourths, thirds and sixths – both major and minor) in a ascending and descending pattern to ensure that the proper adjustment of beat rates has been achieved.

The adjacent strings are muted during this process (using mutes or temperament felts) to ensure a proper temperament.

Unlike, for instance, a guitar, which has six concrete, set pitches that must be obtained to be “in-tune”, a piano is far more complex, as a piano string has not just a set pitch, but one which varies along the length of the string. This creates a factor known as “inharmonicity, which leads the octaves to have a perceived sharp pitch. This increases the higher you move along the keyboard. To rectify this audibly perceived phenomena, a tuner must “stretch” each string to a greater or lesser degree to achieve an audibly balanced tuning. The amount of stretching necessary will depend on a string’s length, diameter, and tension. Being able to properly address these subtle nuances is a skill gained through extensive study and experience, a very compelling reason to only entrust your instrument to well trained expert piano tuners and technicians.