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How to Improve the Sound of Your Piano

 

This article is copyright (c) AVGPA 2012.  Distribution in whole or part through any means is a violation of federal copyright law.

 

To fully understand how the sound of your piano can be improved, you must first learn some basic music theory regarding the nature of string vibrations. 

 

Click here to read our article on Piano Tone Production Theory.

 

This article contains material from another on our site:

The Inside Story of the Piano

 

IS YOUR PIANO MAKING STRANGE SOUNDS?

 

Piano sound consists of very rapid expansions and contractions of air molecules that can make other objects vibrate in the piano room, such as a light fixture.  The strange sounds that result can make it seem that your piano needs to be fixed.  As an interesting example of this, we discovered that the "A" string of a guitar in the room with our piano was sounding whenever we played certain "A" keys on the piano.  Thus, we we lifted these keys, the sound of the notes continued.

 

HAMMER VOICING AND TONE

 

Piano hammers are pieces of wood wrapped in layers of felt, like an onion.  The rounded narrow end or tip of the felt strikes the strings to produce sound.  If the hammers are too hard or compacted from years of playing, the tone will become harsh and thin, and may lose a certain amount of sustain. 

 

In addition, this compacting occurs unevenly across all the hammers, so that some are louder and/or brighter than others.  Artistically, this is a problem because the pianist can no longer reliably "shape" the volume/tone of melody lines, arpeggios, etc.  Instead, random loud notes cause these musical figurations to sound ragged and uneven.

 

Specifically, excessive brightness is often due to the hammers' elevating the volume of higher harmonics, which are dissonant to the fundamental pitch of the note played (dissonance = harshness).  In contrast, a well-conditioned hammer emphasizes lower harmonics, which are more consonant to the fundamental and sound more pleasing.  (See our article: "Piano Tone Production Theory" for details regarding harmonics.)  

 

Softening of hammers, one aspect of "voicing", can remedy this problem.  Traditionally, this is achieved by inserting thick needles into the narrow edge of the hammer.  A common insertion point for the needles is about "10 o'clock" and "2 o'clock", on the shoulders of the hammer. 

 

Note: The regulation of a piano's action should be checked before any extensive voicing of hammers.  Regulation, among other things, involves adjusting how the hammers contact the strings.  If this contact is incorrect, the hammers, for example, can over-emphasize certain harmonics that produce unwanted brightness.  If this type of action problem is not corrected first, voicing may be only a partially successful.

 

Needling hammers directly across the grain of the felt (as if pounding a nail into the side of a tree) can sometimes damage it.  In certain cases, the damage can be permanent.  Therefore, be sure to hire a technician with hammer voicing experience to do this work. 

 

One non-traditional voicing technique has been developed where the needle is inserted into the edge of the hammer at various points, such as 11 o'clock and 1 o'clock, and pushed almost straight down to minimize cutting across the layers of felt.  Thus, a needle inserted at 11 o'clock, if long enough, would exit the hammer at about 8-9 o'clock on the side of the hammer facing the player.

 

Another technique involves pushing the needle through the wide side of the hammer at 11 or 1 o'clock (or lower if necessary).  This supposedly does not damage the hammer felt at all.

 

Hammers that produce dull or mushy-sounding notes can be made more rigid by certain processes, such as adding a liquid chemical to the hammer felt or heating it with a hammer "iron".  For adjustments as radical and long-lasting as this, we recommend that you contact the manufacturer of your piano for advice before proceeding. Alternatively, if you bought your piano from a dealer authorized by its manufacturer, their in-store or affiliated technicians should be able to help you. 

 

After many years of strings high-tension metal strings, the ends of the hammers change from a rounded to a flat shape.  As a result, the tone produced by these hammers loses its sweetness and richness of color, and may become "glassy".  The solution is to restore the original shape of the hammer.  Again, this is a delicate process that if done wrong can ruin the hammers of your piano. Therefore, ask your technician if they have experience in this.

 

HAMMER SHAPING AND TONE

 

The tips of hammers on older or heavily used pianos eventually become flattened, causing more severe tone problems than those that are simply compacted.  In particular, flattened hammers strike at the wrong points along the strings.  Since the correct strike points are an important part of a piano's "scale design", this problem must be remedied in order for it regain its originally intended beauty of tone.

STRING LEVELING

 

After extensive use of a piano, unison strings may move to the point where they are uneven:

                                                            

 

If so, the rising hammer will hit the lower string(s) of a note first and the higher ones later.  This affects tone as well as volume and sustain.

 

Have your piano technician check string levels as often as he/she sees fit.  Our last string leveling for our grand piano cost about $50, and made the affected notes "sing" richly and clearly.

 

SECURING STRING TERMINATION POINTS

 

In order for a piano string to produce the best possible tone and purest pitch, the ends must be securely fastened to to their "termination points". Among these are the small metal protrusions on the bridge, a curved block of wood about 1 inch high that sits on the soundboard.

 

TUNING AND TONE

 

The aspect of tuning that has the most obvious effect on the tone of the piano is related to unisons--groups of two or three strings that are struck by the hammer for one key.  On our grand piano, the first note with two strings is Bb1; the first note with three strings is F3.  Bass notes lower than Bb1 have one thick string. 

 

(The lowest note on the piano is A0.  Following that are Bb0/A#0 and B0.  The fourth key from the left is C1.  The highest key is C8.)

 

Thus, about two thirds of the notes on the piano require perfect tuning of 2-3 strings in order make their pitches match.  When they don't match, we hear a twangy sound referred to as "beating" or "beats". 

 

When even a few unisons are out of tune, a beautiful, slow melody line will be ruined whenever you land on one of these "sour" notes.  When many unisons are out of tune, everything you play sounds bad.  Out-of-tune unisons also ruin the sound of octaves: two keys with the name note name, such as C3 and C4, played together.  And since many chords contain octaves, chords can sound off as well.

 

When the damper pedal is pressed, the felt string dampers for the entire piano go up.  As a result, every string is free to vibrate.  When a note is played with the pedal down, strings for other notes will sympathetically vibrate.  (See the article Piano Tone Production Theory for details.) 

 

As a result, raising all the piano's dampers with the damper pedal and playing notes makes it sound louder, more airy, and more colorful in tone compared to not using the damper pedal.

 

This represents a good reason why you should have your piano tuned frequently, because strings that are out-of-tune may not resonate fully in terms of sympathetic vibrations.  This may result in a dull or even distorted tone.

 

TUNE YOUR PIANO ONCE A YEAR?

 

The most common advice regarding piano tuning is to have it done once per year.  Unfortunately, even with the best pianos, there will be several obviously out-of-tune unisons and octaves a month or less after it is tuned; by six months, the number will be in the dozens. 

 

To put this in perspective, in recording studios, pianos are tuned about 1-2 times per week.  When pianists give concerts, the piano is often freshly tuned even if it was tuned the day before.  In some cases, it is tuned during the intermission, after less than an hour of use.

 

If you want to play a beautiful-sounding piano on a regular basis without putting up with sour unisons and jangling octaves, three tunings per year should be considered the minimum, and four tunings per year the ideal for nonprofessional players.  Note that need for tunings depends on how often the piano is played, and how forcefully the keys are struck when it is played.  The greater these two factors, more often the piano needs to be tuned. 

 

(At Apple Valley Guitar and Piano Academy, we have our grand piano tuned every month.  This also helps stabilize the strings, so they become more and more likely to stay at the level of tension they were at when they were previously tuned the month before.)

 

Humidity changes from one season to the other cause wooden parts in the piano to move significantly.  In the case of the soundboard, this movement changes the pitch of the strings, and the piano sounds out of tune. 

 

Thus, the minimum recommended number of tunings corresponds to the beginning of the four seasons, as soon as temperatures rise or fall significantly, and stay there.

FREQUENTLY TUNE NEW PIANOS

New piano strings often have excessive unevenness in their diameters, which produce highly inaccurate harmonics referred to as inharmonicity (See our article: "Piano Tone Production Theory" for details on these topics.)  Tuning, which stretches new strings, makes their diameters more even and increases the accuracy of the harmonics.  In turn, the tone of the piano improves.  Thus, tune your new piano as many times in the first year as you can afford. 

HUMIDITY AND TUNING STABILITY

 

During these periods, there will be distinctly different levels of heating and air-conditioning inside your home, which affect the humidity level.  Humidity, in turn, affects the soundboard of the piano. Specifically, low humidity causes it to "drop", making the piano strings go flat or below normal pitch.  High humidity causes the soundboard to "rise", making the piano strings go sharp or above normal pitch.

 

Since the temperature also affects the soundboard, try to keep your home at an even temperature throughout the year.

HUMIDITY CONTROL SYSTEMS

In Minnesota, in any particular season, there can be wide swings in humidity and temperature.  As result, seasonal tunings can be destabilized. To avoid this problem, install a humidity control system and your piano. 

 

The most popular system is the Dampp-Chaser or Piano Lifesaver system.  This is a permanent system that costs around $500.  Despite its substantial cost, you will enjoy your piano far more because it will not be going out of tune at a "moments' notice" due to erratic Minnesota weather.  It will also reduce the likelihood of rust or corrosion on the strings.

 

THE EFFECT OF TEMPERATURE, AIRFLOW AND SUNLIGHT ON YOUR PIANO

 

In the room were your piano is kept, significant changes in temperature, drafts, direct air flow from heating or air-conditioning ducts and direct sunlight may cause it to go out of tune quickly.  Careful positioning of the instrument, or moving it to a different room, should be considered if you like playing an in-tune piano.

 

STRING LEVELING

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After extensive use of a piano, unison strings may move to the point where they are uneven:

                                                            

 

If so, the rising hammer will hit the lower string(s) of a note first and the higher ones later.  This affects tone as well as volume and sustain.

 

Have your piano technician check string levels as often as he/she sees fit.  Our last string leveling for our grand piano cost about $50, and made the affected notes "sing" richly and clearly.

 

SECURING STRING TERMINATION POINTS

 

In order for a piano string to produce the best possible tone and purest pitch, the ends must be securely fastened to to their "termination points". Among these are the small metal protrusions on the bridge, a curved block of wood about 1 inch high that sits on the soundboard.

 

 

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