How to Tune Your Own Piano: Part I

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s subject is about how to tune your own piano. Can you tune your own piano? That is the real question. I’m going to provide you with the information so you will know if you can tune your piano, and if you want to tune your own piano. But more than that, I’m going to show you an incredibly valuable skill that you can all take to heart: how to touch up the tuning on your piano! That is something I think every pianist should learn how to do. I’ve been doing it for years. You’re going to love it once you learn how to do this!

What tools do you need to tune a piano?

You will need a tuning wrench, sometimes referred to as a tuning hammer. Make sure it has a removable head. You should look for a star head, not a square head. Because with a square head, you only have four positions that you can put the tuning wrench. That is really cumbersome because as you’re going to discover, it’s really hard to move a tuning hammer! So, you want a star head that can be in many different positions. That’s going to be a lifesaver for you! Don’t skimp on your tools either. It’s not that expensive. There are tons of them on Amazon starting at less than $40. Then you just need a couple of wedges so you can mute out some of the strings. As you know, through most of the piano, there are three strings to each note. You need to be able to hear just two of the strings at a time when you’re tuning one string to another. For tuning grand pianos, this is really all you need. To tune a whole piano you can use software for the pitches, but these few tools are all you need to touch up your tuning.

Why is it so important to touch up the tuning of your piano?

It can take hundreds of tunings before you have the skills to get a piano not just to be in tune, but to hold its tuning any length of time at all. Any competent tuner can get a piano in tune. But the first time you play it, notes can go out of tune. It’s really hard to set the strings and pins in such a way that the pitches will hold. Touching up is a totally different ballgame. Let’s say you get your piano tuned. A few days later you’re playing it and notice notes drastically out of tune right in the middle of the piano. It can drive you crazy! You scheduled this tuning, you paid good money for it, and now your piano is just not fun to play at all. What do you do? Hire them back for another tuning a couple weeks later?

If you have the tools and the knowledge – You can touch up the tuning on select notes yourself!

 

Armed with these tools and the knowledge I’m going to show you, you can alleviate the problem of stubborn out of tune notes on your piano. And you can actually extend the tuning of your piano to last much longer just by going through and touching it up on a periodic basis. Let’s get right to work on this. Now, my piano is pretty well in tune. There are some notes in the very high register that are not perfect. But those high notes are really very difficult to tune. The slightest motion of the tuning wrench knocks the pitch way off. To get it just right is very difficult. The lowest notes on the piano are also difficult, for a different reason. Particularly on smaller pianos, there’s so little fundamental pitch it’s hard to tell what pitch you’re even hearing. But If a note in the very high or low register is out of tune, it’s not going to affect you that much. You’re not going to encounter those notes nearly as often as you will with notes in the middle register of the piano. So, that’s what I’m going to focus on here today, because it’s the most value with the least work.

Let’s start with middle C. Does it sound in tune to you? How do you know if a note is in tune or not? Do you look at a tuner to see if it’s in pitch? No, because the important thing is for a piano to be in tune with itself. If your piano is tuned to 442 and then you play A and you want it to be at 440, that A is going to be out of tune with the rest of the piano. When you’re touching up the tuning, it’s usually only one or two strings of a certain note that will be out of tune. A unison goes out to make it sound funny. It’s not the whole note that is going to go out. That rarely happens in any kind of uniform fashion.

You don’t need a chromatic tuner for what I’m showing you. You do need to listen.

When one of the three strings is out of tune on middle C on your piano, instead of the pure sound, you’ll hear waves. If it’s slightly out, the waves will cause a slow undulation. As it gets more out of tune, they become quicker and quicker. So, the first thing you do is find the three strings for middle C. By pushing down the key, you release the damper so that you can pluck them. Then you’re going to follow the string all the way back to find the pin that associates with the right string. When one string is low you can hear that slow wave. Listen for it. If it’s even further out of tune, that wave will get faster.

This is what I’m talking about. You’re playing your piano just after it’s been tuned and a note goes out for no particular reason. It can happen. The weather or just playing hard can knock a string out of tune. If it’s right in the middle of the piano like this, you won’t even want to play your piano. And you don’t want to spend a bunch of money getting the whole piano tuned again. Even just getting your tuner there, they have to charge you for their time, right? So what do you do? Well, the first thing you do is you identify which string is low. You want to listen for it, so listen to the separate strings. Go ahead, pluck them and listen. See if you can notice which one is lower. One thing you want to do is check to make sure the other two strings are in tune with one another. You can do this by muting the string that is low. Now you’re listening to the other two strings. Let’s say those two strings are absolutely in tune with one another. To be able to compare the out of tune string with an in tune string, having just one string sound with the out of tune string is better. So, you want to mute one of the two in tune strings so that you’re left with one string that’s in tune and the one that is low.

Once again, you pluck the strings to be sure you got it right. Push down the key to release the damper so you can pluck them. Now you’re ready to adjust the pitch. When you try this the first time you will develop a deep respect for your piano technician, because it’s really hard to get even one string in tune! Now, you might just luck out and get it right on the first pull. It can happen. But you might go back and forth for five or ten minutes trying to get it locked in. It’s hard to believe how much effect the minuscule motion on your tuning hammer has on the string.

I’ve seen my piano technician, who’s a master concert technician, struggling to get the string locked to the right position. This is because there’s huge amounts of tension on the strings.

Tension builds up at all the points of termination. Right near where the felt is, there’s tremendous tension. As soon as you hit a note hard, that tension is released on the other side where there is termination at the bridge. You can get a note in tune, but with the first loud strike of the note, the string tension equalizes across the points of termination. That’s why it’s so important once you get your piano tuned to give a couple of hard blows to the key so that the first time you play it loud, it doesn’t go out of tune.

Now you want to pull the low string up to pitch very gently. As you do this you will want to check to make sure you didn’t pull it too far. Listen to the strings again. First the string that is in tune, and then the one that was low before to see if it’s still low. If it’s still low you are going to pull a little bit more. When it’s really close it’s tough to hear which one’s higher and which one’s lower. Once again, push the key down and pluck them. Now if it’s extremely close, you can listen to the difference between the slow undulation of the out of tune string played with the in tune string, compared to the purity of the two strings that are in tune with one another. Once you’ve gotten the two strings sounding in tune, listen to all three strings. Now that note sounds good!

What you’ve just done is tune one string on a piano that has somewhere between 220 to 240 strings!

It gets more complicated if your piano is really out of tune. The pitch of the whole piano could be slightly low. As you start tuning one section of the piano, the pressure that is exerted on the bridge in one area pushes the soundboard down affecting the previously tuned area of your piano. So, you have to go through the tuning at least a couple of times to get anything to hold. Tuning a whole piano is very complicated. You also have the factor that smaller pianos don’t have such pure sounds. They have a lot of what are called overtones, which are color tones that are higher notes contained within the lower notes. Sometimes those can conflict with the fundamental pitch of other notes. So, skilled tuners know how to finesse the tuning to get a sweet sound out of all different pianos.

There is good news for you if you want to learn how to tune a piano like a pro!

 

There are software programs that can take the tunings from great tuners and take into account the size of the piano and the pitch you’re starting with. By sampling all the A’s on the piano, for example, it knows how much stretch you need. It’s still an arduous task to tune a whole piano. So, I recommend all of you get your feet wet by touching up your piano. This is something that will really prolong the tuning of your piano and save you when you have one or two notes that are out of tune driving you nuts! Touch up tuning is a great skill to develop! I hope this is enjoyable for you! If you’re interested in learning more about piano tuning I’m happy to share with you a bit more about it. Today I’ve given you a valuable skill that any of you should be able to take to heart and make your piano sound better, longer, by touching up the tuning. I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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