Tuning a Piano  … when is a piano “in tune”?

Really excellent piano tuning is not a subjective thing.

It is not done by someone with a “good ear” who decides “that sounds pretty good!”

Fine piano tuning is a combination of technical and artistic skill – not unlike being a good musician. And it takes about as long to become a highly skilled tuner as it does to become a highly skilled musician. It takes both knowledge and lots of practice. There are no shortcuts.

There are bad tunings, good tunings, and excellent tunings! Which do you want?

Often the only question people ask us before having a piano tuned is “How much will it cost?” Sadly, untrained and inexperienced people usually charge as much as or more than highly trained professionals! So cost should not be your only question. Where and how was the person trained? Is she or he a Registered Piano Technician? Any references?

And after a piano is tuned, people ask “How often should it be tuned?” The answer is not as simple as you might think. See the FAQs below for more information.

People are often unclear about what it means for a piano to be “in tune”. There are three objective criteria for determining if a piano is “in tune”: the A above middle C should be tuned to 440 cycles per second, the unisons (strings for one note) should be in tune with each other, and all the intervals on the piano should be properly in tune with each other. The piano tuning should be stable so that, unless a pitch raise was also done, the piano doesn’t go out of tune right away.

In depth answers to Frequently Asked Questions:

A = 440 cycle per second

Early in the 1900s, musicians agreed to standardize the pitch of the note to which they tuned their instruments. They agreed to tune to an A that vibrated at a frequency of 440 cycles per second. Before that time, the A in different parts of the world (and in each country) varied. Once this A=440 standard was established, piano manufacturers began designing their instruments to be tuned to this pitch as well. When a piano is properly tuned, the A above middle C is set to 440 cycles per second. The piano technician gets the pitch for this note from something that has been precisely calibrated – like a tuning fork or an electronic device.

Pitch raise

If the piano is more than slightly “flat” (below 440 pitch), it will probably need a pitch raise. When a piano is very very flat, increasing the tension on all the strings on the piano (there are over 200 of them!) enough to get it up to pitch increases the pressure on the bridges and soundboard and actually causes the notes that have already been tuned to go flat again So the piano would have to be tuned again … and probably again … and again … until it was “up to pitch.”

To avoid this, the pitch of all the strings can be raised to slightly above where they should be, and when this pitch raise is complete, most notes should be very close to their correct pitch. The piano can then be tuned properly. Obviously, it takes training and considerable experience to be able to raise the pitch just the right amount.

The pitch raise is, therefore, a very rough tuning which gets the tension on the strings close to what is should be, preparing the piano for a fine tuning which will stay “up to pitch.” Because of the extra time involved as well as the skill (there are piano tuners who do not know how to do a pitch raise, or who will tell you the piano cannot be brought up to pitch), technicians usually charge extra for this service. Generally, a tuning after a “radical” pitch raise will not be quite as stable as a tuning on a piano that was only slightly out of tune. This is one reason to have your piano tuned regularly.

There is a lot of debate among technicians on whether a pitch raise must be done on pianos which are flat, or whether a pitch raise is only recommended. It is true that pianos manufactured since the early 1900s were designed to be tuned to A=440. This is where they will sound the best. However, this pitch was arbitrarily decided upon. The piano will not sound “out of tune” if the A is set to some other pitch and all the other notes on the piano are properly tuned to that pitch. However, if the piano is going to be played with other instruments (for example, you are going to accompany your child who plays the flute), the piano must be tuned up to pitch so those other instruments can tune to the piano. Other instruments cannot “tune down” very far.

We recommend that pianos be tuned to the correct pitch. However, we can give people the following options if their piano is flat:

Do a pitch raise (and a tuning) or …

Bring the pitch up slightly while doing a tuning without a pitch raise, and encourage the owner to have the piano tuned again in about 6 months, at which time the pitch can be brought up a little more. Repeat this until the piano is up to pitch.

As professional musicians ourselves, we believe it is very important to develop good relative pitch. This is impossible on a piano that is not in tune with itself. Therefore we believe that tuning the piano relative to itself but below pitch is preferable to not tuning it at all.

There are many people who call themselves piano tuners who do not know how to do a pitch raise, or who will say a piano cannot be tuned up to pitch. We have encountered very, very few pianos that were tunable that could not be brought up to pitch. We have successfully raised the pitch on some pianos that have been extremely low (2 or 3 whole steps).

There is always a chance with older pianos that strings may break. However, it is usually true that the strings may break in these pianos when the pitch is changed at all – not just during a pitch raise. Piano wire can become brittle after many decades, and any change in tension can cause it to break. Our rule of thumb is that if three strings break in the middle of the piano, we will stop tuning and consult with the owner about the best way to proceed. If a piano already has many strings broken before we get to it, that piano is probably not a good candidate for a pitch raise.

Unisons are in tune with each other

There are 88 notes on a piano, but over 200 strings! This is because in the top two-thirds or so of the piano, their are three strings per note. In the top half of the bass section, there are two strings per note. Each group of two or three strings should be vibrating at the same frequency as its neighbor(s). It should sound like one note! These are called unisons.

If the unisons are “out,” the note will sound “fuzzy” and distorted because the sound waves coming from the two or three strings are close to the same pitch, but not the same pitch. When the unisons are perfectly in tune with each other, the note will sound “pure” or “clean.”

There are several techniques which qualified piano technicians use to make sure the unisons not only get in tune with each other, but stay in tune for as long as possible after the technician has left. The technician learns to use the tuning hammer in such a way as to ensure that the tuning pin will be in a stable position after the tuning hammer is removed from the end of the pin. The technician should also give “test blows” to each note as s/he tunes it. This means striking the note hard in order to equalize the tension on different parts of the string. If a tuner tunes quietly, the tuning cannot be stable. The first person to sit down at the piano and play it forcefully will knock it out of tune.

Intervals are in tune with each other

The most difficult part of tuning is to make sure that all 88 notes on the piano are in tune with each other. Out of the hundreds of ways of tuning pianos in earlier centuries, modern musicians settled on one – equal temperament. The “distance” between the bottom and top notes of an octave is “broken up” into 12 “even pieces.” One way of imagining equal temperament is to think of the “distance” between two notes. For instance, the relationship between the two notes that make up a “fifth” on a piano stays the same, even though the pitches change. Every fifth on the piano has the same sound to your ear, even if the pitches are different. This is because the relationship between the two notes in any fifth is the same. This was not always the case historically.

When a piano is properly in tune, all the notes in one middle octave will be in correct relationship with each other. This octave is called “the temperament.” It is like one of those wooden geometric puzzles, and the puzzle has 13 pieces. Whenever you move one piece, it affects all the other pieces in the puzzle. When taking the rigorous Piano Technicians Guild tuning exam, the temperament notes must be tuned only “by ear” without the aid of any electronic device. Then the rest of the piano is tuned, either with or without the aid of an electronic device. In addition to the pitch of the strings, tuning stability is also tested. Both Scott and Barb have passed this exam.

The design of the piano and the quality of its components and assembly affect how well it can be tuned. The result of a really fine tuning is that the piano is tuned the very best that that piano can be tuned. A good tuning is truly a joy to hear.

I hope this explanation gives you an idea of the amount of training and skill required to tune a piano really well. I will be happy to answer any questions you have about piano tuning.

How often should a piano be tuned?

This is the most common question people ask about their pianos. (Often it is the only thing they ask!)

How frequently a piano “needs” to be tuned depends on the tuning criteria of the person playing it, what the piano will be used for, the environment the piano is in, whether the piano has brand new strings (a new or restrung piano), and of course, how much money the owner or performer wants to spend on tunings.

At one extreme, pianos used for professional performances are usually tuned before every performance. Clearly, that is not the standard for most pianos.

The pitch of the strings on a piano change very, very gradually, and the rate of change is not consistent across the whole piano. These changes are happening all the time due to changes in humidity and temperature and just time elapsing, and they will happen whether the piano is played or not. Because the change in pitch happens so gradually, the owner may not notice that the piano is out of tune until it is extremely out of tune. A tuning on a piano that is extremely out of tune will not be as stable as a tuning on a piano that was close to being in tune to begin with.

In addition to the strings not staying in tune with each other, over time the entire piano gradually drops in pitch until over several years, the whole piano is “flat” – below the pitch at which other instruments can tune to it. Then a pitch raise will be required along with the tuning. So regular tunings are better!

Pianos in the home, church, school

After the first year of a new or restrung piano’s life, when the wire has stabilized, all the major piano manufacturers recommend that pianos be tuned twice a year. This is because changes in humidity and in temperature are the main things that cause the piano to go out of tune, and humidity and temperature change with the seasons. During 12 months, the piano has usually gone through 4 cycles of change. Unfortunately, different sections of the piano change in pitch to varying degrees. The entire piano does not rise and fall in pitch together, so the piano sounds “out of tune with itself”.

We find that in southern Oregon, where temperature changes are not as extreme as in some other geographic locations, one tuning per year is often adequate for the piano to be “enough in tune” for the typical piano in the home where family members play for their own enjoyment or are taking piano lessons. Music teachers and serious musicians will probably want their pianos tuned twice a year. If the ambient humidity or temperature is constantly changing, as in a school or church, the piano may need more frequent tunings.

Allowing a piano to go much more than a year without being tuned means that the entire piano gradually drops in pitch until over several years, the whole piano is “flat” – below the pitch at which other instruments can tune to it. At some point, the piano will then need a pitch raise before the next tuning because it has dropped in pitch so much.

New or restrung pianos

New piano wire is extremely elastic. Even tho a new or restrung piano is tuned many many times before it is delivered to its home, the wire is still “stretching out”. New or restrung pianos need to be tuned three to four times during the first year, at which point the wire will have reached a point of stability in tuning.

Concert tuning

Professional musicians such as those who appear at Britt or the Craterian have contracted with the venue to have the piano they are using tuned at least once before their performance. Concert tunings are ideally scheduled as close to the performance as possible. In some cases, the piano is tuned early in the day, before a sound check or rehearsal, and then “touched up” before the performance.

Ideally, the piano will be in exactly the location in which it will be played before it is tuned, and will be permanently housed on a piano dolly. Changes like moving the piano from indoors to outdoors, ambient temperature and humidity, direct sunlight, and stage lights all affect the tuning. The more of these variables that can be controlled, the more stable the tuning will be. Even pushing a piano around on a stage can affect the tuning – more so if it is not on a dolly.

Historical temperaments

Before the 1900s, pianos were tuned differently than they are today. We tune in “equal temperament” whereas even in Beethoven’s time and definitely in Bach’s time pianos were tuned in various “well temperaments”.

I am one of many piano technicians and pianists who are interested in the sound these early tunings produce. Music historians refer to “the color of the keys”. In today’s equal temperament, there is no “color of the keys”. If you are interested in the theory of historical temperaments or would like to have your piano tuned in a specific temperament, please contact us for more information. We will be happy to explain the history of piano temperaments, refer you to technical articles, and to tune your piano, harpsichord or fortepiano in any temperament you request.