How to TUNE a Piano–by Ear
PERHAPS PERHAPS PERHAPS
Hi, there. So, you want to tune a piano.
Perhaps it’s a family members piano or a friends piano or an acquaintances piano.
Perhaps it’s your own piano.
Perhaps someone challenged you to do it or even perhaps you challenged yourself. That is not out-of-the-question.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps….the reason is that you are sick to death of paying for your regular Piano Tuner to come every six months or every year to tune.
I can see these things as being a nuisance. I really can because I’ll let you in on a little secret….”I was there myself one time and it bugged me, too.”
HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY
So, I’m going to be very honest with you. If you have never had any training in acoustic piano tuning, then back off. Hire a professional technician at least keep him/her coming until you have learned something about this trade.
Trust me you don’t want to get into this sack of monkey’s without some knowledge of what can (and will) happen to the inexperienced and untrained would-be piano tuner. You see, this is my trade. I am a professional Piano Technician who not only tunes acoustic pianos but adjusts them and repairs them.
Now, when I say “trust me” I do hope you will. I know what I’m talking about first hand. I have been one who has been called to bring the piano back to playing form after the would-be tuner tried and failed drastically.
That said what I intend to do here in this blog is at least instruct you on the ins and outs of tuning a piano by ear. The bare-bones really. The basics only. I will not get too in-depth but you will walk away from this short study with the general idea of what is involved in tuning a piano. I want you to see the reason for caution before twisting even one tuning pin.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
I will explain some of the tools needed (not all of them, that would take hours) and I will caution you as to when it is time to seek out a tuner for your piano.
I will give some subtle hints and my experience which you can apply yourself without training. This may prevent calling the tech at all for certain situations.
So hang in there and let’s begin by introducing some points of interest that should know. This way you will be able to comprehend the reasoning behind tuning a piano.
WHAT IS COMMON IN PIANOS
While it is true that there are many different “makes” of acoustic pianos there are only two “styles” that standout now-a-days. The Upright Piano and the Grand Piano and both of these have various lengths and heights but some parts within them are similar, at least, and quite often they are the same.
Sometimes….everything looks the same……
For instance, like our caption here, they all have a frame that the rest of the piano is built upon. In the grand piano this frame is referred to as a “skeleton”. They do all have a “soundboard” which essentially act as a wooden microphone as it vibrates once the strings are struck increasing their volume. We see that is common in both styles of piano.
Both are fitted with “ribs” which are placed on the soundboard and are designed to give strength to the soundboard and keep it from changing shape over time. The are “bridges” which are used to attach strings to the soundboard.
PINS AND PLATES AND MORE PINS
There are “tuning pins” and “plates” and “hitch pins” all of which play a prominant role when a piano is being tuned. Tuning pins are what a piano tuner turns to tune the piano.
The piano strings are wrapped around hitch pins at the bottom and eventually pass through the tuning pins. Here they are stretched to form the proper note for that string in its position along the keyboard.
When the frame, soundboard, bridges, pinblock, plate and strings are installed, it is referred to as a “Strung Back. The “Keyboard” and “Action” sit on the “Keybed” which is firmly attached to the cabinet part of the piano.
A VIVID SCHEMATIC
I have taken the time to give you this schematic of a piano so that you could begin to take notice how complex it is. This brief description and caption should give you an idea of the layout of pianos. There is a whole lot more that I could address here and perhaps should but for fear of confusing you even further I will stop.
Suffice is to say that by now you should get the picture as to why you should not attempt tuning a piano without proper knowledge of the procedure.
WHY DOES A PIANO GO OUT OF TUNE
One of the major reasons for a piano to go out of tune but far from the only reason is the fact that there are on average 230 piano strings in a full scale piano. Not only that but each string is stretched to between 50-100 pounds of pressure. The total pressure of all the strings together is between 18-20 tons.
Sometimes it’s a matter of “Fix before Tune”….such is the case here.
You need to know that if you take a look at the layout of the strings in a piano commonly you will find the bass strings are called a “wound” strings. They start off at the left side in single fashion.
They quickly move to “double” wound strings and continue this way on up to about the third (it varies) octave where the wound strings are replaced by “steel” strings. These steel strings are grouped in threes and continue that way through to the end of the treble at the extreme right end of the piano.
I tell you this because these double strings and triple string groupings (bi-strings and tri-strings) must play as one note. Hence lies the tuners challenge. This is significant but there is more.
The tuning pins themselves are fine usually but the problem lies in the fact that they are all fitted in the pinblock that is continually drying out year after year.
It becomes impossible eventually for the tuning pins to stay where they are placed by the tuner as they are under such strain as just explained. The dryness of the pin block lowers the resistance of the pin and they slowly (sometimes not so slowly) slip out of tune.
WHAT WILL THE WEATHER BE
Another contributing factor is the weather. As you may know wood is dramatically affected by changes in the atmosphere. Summer brings large amounts of moisture to the air. We call it humidity.
Humidity in the air causes the wood in the piano to expand which in turn drives the tuning pins to a state of “sharpness” along the tuning scale. Conversely, in the winter with heaters on in every room the air drys out which causes the wood to shrink and in turn the strings to a state of “flatness” now. Go figure.
So, at that rate it is a constant battle. This is the reason that it is recommended your piano be tuned every time the owner turns off the air conditioner and turns on the heaters, so to speak. This is a polite way of saying that it is recommended that your piano be tuned every six months.
EVERYTHING KEEPS MOVING
Another factor that contributes to string fluctuation is vibrations by continuous play. When the hammers hit the strings during play this obviously affects the pressure on the strings. Pianos being moved are subject to tuning pin and string pressure (usually) decrease.
As I said at the beginning of this section these points mentioned do not cover all the reasons for a piano going out of tune but do highlight the obvious.
A piano tuner who tunes by ear his tools consist of a tuning lever commonly referred to as a tuning hammer, a felt temperament strip three feet long, a couple of rubber mutes and an C4 tuning fork (some tuners prefer an A4 tuning fork). If the piano he is working on is in good condition and in good working order, all the keys play and so on, then the tuner can get away with just these four tools.
The trouble with this quaint description is that it make piano tuning sound quite simplistic as you see it and read it written here. Let me assure you that the simplicity ends abruptly once you get down to the actual tuning.
FIX IT FIRST TUNE IT LATER
For instance, in my experience, not always but often enough the piano before you needs something fixed on it before you even attempt to tune it. But that is all part of the profession and just saying for the casual tuner wanting to touch up their own piano between professional tuning schedules it is fine to just leave the major problems to the tech.
With these four tools a tuner can tune the standard piano without an electric tuner. The “Tuning Hammer” is used to tighten or loosen the tuning pin while the “Tuning Fork” is used as a starting point to tune the remaining strings from. The “Rubber Mutes” and the “Temperament Strip” are used to mute the strings that are not being tuned while the tuner tunes the octaves.
A BRIEF WORD OF CAUTION
I caution you who have no experience to seek out some other source to instruct you as to tuning a piano. My method is accurate but very concise and you will need further training. The piano is a complex musical instrument and if you are not very careful you can run into a boat load of trouble very quickly.
So my caution should be taken seriously. At least find someone recommended u-tube videos, purchase some online materials, visit some websites, join some piano chat groups and more to get yourself acquainted to the chore of tuning a piano before you attempt.
WHAT IS A NOTE
Everything we hear is a vibration of sort. Whether it’s the sound of a door slamming or a fiddle string being plucked it is a vibration of some sort. Vibrations come in two forms. They are either a Noise or are a Note. Simple as that.
A sound is a noise when it sends out “scrambled” vibrations into the air which cause your eardrums to vibrate in an unorganized way. A note, on the other hand, is a series of beat like vibrations that our ears mimic.
Some notes have slow vibrations and some have fast vibrations. Their frequencies are measured in “Cycles Per Second or Hertz (hz)”. If these slow vibrations just mentioned are within the human range of hearing you hear a musical tone….a note.
WHAT IS PITCH
The frequency, which is the rate at which something occurs, of the vibration is called the Pitch. We often talk in terms of “Standard Pitch”. This is called A440 which happens when the “A” above middle C vibrates at 440 Cycles Per Second or Hertz (see “What is a Note).
WHAT ARE BEATS
Let me enlighten you in this section by introducing you to two things that happen when you tune two strings together. When they are tuned exactly the same this is called “Constructive Interference”. Called this because they reinforce each other and produce a louder combined tone.
BEATS ARE NOT ALWAYS GOOD BEATS
However, if one string is off, even just a little bit, they will subtract from one another and cause a softer tone which we call “Destructive Interference”. It is the Destructive Interference that produces the “Beat” whereby one string is one reading and the other is another reading. This creates the “Wah-Wah-Wah” beat spoken of earlier and must be eliminated by tightening or loosening the string that is not on pitch. Just to clarify. These sounds caused by the strings not playing as one are the “Beats” being described and must be removed.
WHAT IS UNISON TUNING
If you opened a piano either the front panel (above the keys) on an upright or the flat wide board behind the keys and covers the strings on an grand you will observe three sections of strings. Going from left to right you’ll first observe the “Bass Section” which is series of “wound” strings. The Bass Section starts off with one wound string and soon graduates to two wound string.
Next you will observe the “Middle Section” whereby the strings are in groups of three. Lastly, is the “Treble Section” which begins some where around the sixth octave to the end of the piano. Here also the strings are placed in groups of three.
PIANO TECHNITIONS LOVE UNITY
Once again I have explained this to you so you could better understand the definition and application of “Unison Tuning” which is making the double and triple string sections play as one note in their grouping.
For instance if you press C4 key the three strings that make C4 as a note should play in perfect or identical unity. This is Unison Tuning and is actually the easiest part of tuning a piano. Unison Tuning is easy to tune because the strings produce very distinct beats to adjust.
WHAT IS INTERVAL TUNING
First of all Intervals are the notes that relate to each other in the same octave. Intervals are found by counting up or down from your starting key a specified amount of keys until you acquire the interval you need.
For instance, by counting up or down five keys and counting the starting key as well you would have the third interval of any key. Fourths are found by counting up or down six keys. Fifths, you count eight up or down, sixths count ten up or down. The octave, of course, is 13 keys counted up or down in the same manner. A piano tuner does this to eleminate beats.
OCTAVE TUNING and EQUAL TEMPERAMENT EXPLAINED
Shoot for the Balance
We will begin by tuning the octaves. Find middle C or C4 as it is called technically and count 13 white and black keys to the right of it. Include the middle C that you just found. This is an octave and this one is called the middle octave or the fourth octave. There are six full octaves on a full piano keyboard with one partial octave at the start and one partial octave at the end.
When tuning a piano by ear we tune the middle octave first from C to C and when we are done we find that this octave is not beat less. That is a bit of a problem. This is where the term “Equal Temperament” comes in. Equal Temperament is a system of tuning in which the frequency interval between every pair of adjacent notes has the same ratio rather than the same absolute change in frequency.
In other words, there are equal ratios of the frequencies of any adjacent pair, and, so pitch is recognized roughly as the equal “perceived distance” from every note to its nearest neighbor. To be plain we tune the middle octave to be as beat less as feasible by making every note in it as equal in its ratio to the next note as possible hence Equal Temperament.
PROCEDURE FOR TUNING OCTAVES
- Let’s start with middle C (C4) found in the middle (fourth) octave and mute the outside strings using your mutes. Actually you can chose any note you want in the middle Octave but it is just more common and less confusing to the beginner to start with C4 and work your way to C5.
- Okay so you have the two outside strings of C4 muted now also mute the two outside strings of C5 at the same time. Remember to count up 13 keys both black and white and include C4 in your count. If you do this properly as explained the thirteenth key will be C5 which is in the fifth octave.
- With these two keys now muted you will strike the two keys so that their middle strings sound only. You will now put your tuning hammer (lever) on the upper octave’s middle string and eliminate the beats. Beats are waw-waw-waw sound you hear as you listen closely.
- Work your way up and down the piano only tuning one of the strings for each note. If there are three strings in the note, tune the middle one. If there are two strings, tune the one to the right.
Eventually you will go back in and tune the other strings you have left out comparing note for note beat for beat until your piano is in tune.
IN THE END
To close out this essay on tuning a piano by ear let me be very clear once again. I do and will always strongly advise the piano owner to seek out professional help or get good training themselves before attempting this task. I have given you a very brief layout of the procedure of tuning by ear in hopes that it will “wet your whistle” so to speak.
Pianos are peculiar instruments. They are not fragile and will take a lot of punishment but they are fickle as all get out in terms of tuning and adjustments. Best of luck as you decide the best way for you to have your piano tuned.
Written by Duane Graves of Duane's Piano Tuning & Technology