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Piano Tuning: The Key to Beautiful Tone

 

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

 

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. 

 

(Note: The lowest note on the piano is A0.  Following that are Bb0/A#0 and B0.  The first C 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, that 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. 

 

(Our head teacher's piano is tuned every 1-2 months.  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.)  One technician of ours said that uning, 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, consult with your piano technician or the dealer regarding humidity control for your piano.  

 

Avoid home-made/store-bought systems in general, as they do not allow humidity to remain relatively constant.  Specifically, never use wet or visible mist humidifiers as they can permanently damage the piano.

 

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.

 

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