When was the last time you had the inside of your piano cleaned?
Well, how often does a guitar or a violin need tuned? Every time it is picked up and played. Sometimes even in the middle of a performance. Well, in reality a piano is no different. The time, effort, and cost involved simply make it impractical unless you are a professional performer. Fortunately, pianos can be relatively stable and tend to change pitch more or less uniformly, the whole instrument moving sharp or flat. There is a well known quote from a textbook in the trade, “'The piano is a remarkable instrument, it will stay in tune for up to 3 weeks”.
People tend to get their piano tuned either on a regular basis (monthly to yearly), when they start hearing individual out of tune notes that bother them, or when someone tells them their piano is out of tune. The gist of my note here is that it is never too soon to get your piano tuned. Unless it was tuned just last week, it needs it. It just a matter of degree, how badly it needs it. For each owner and instrument, that can vary widely.
Tuners strive for two things when tuning a piano, accuracy and stability. Tuners try to get the instrument to stay in tune for as long as possible, but that is limited by the instrument and the environment. All of the wood and felt in the instrument swells with increasing humidity and shrinks when the environment dries out. This means the size of the bridge, the crown of the sound board, the shape of the frame are continuously changing, putting more or less pressure on the strings, changing the pitch. Much like a guitar or violin. In some cases, environmental control system, such as the Piano Life Saver System by Dampp-Chaser can be used to keep the humidity and temperature more constant inside the piano. This can help stabilize pitch.
A secondary reason for regular tuning is that the technician gets to spend time inside the piano, making observations and getting to know the instrument better and better with each visit. Such intimacy with the instrument allows the technician to see problems that are on the horizon and enabling a repair that is generally more simple and less expensive than letting small issues become major problems.
A piano that is left untuned, even if not played, will tend to dry rot, like an old car left in a barn. Regular tuning for an unplayed piano is often the only exercise it gets, and like humans, pianos need exercise. Instruments want to be played, they need to be played.
So, how often should you tune you piano? At least once a year, even if you do not play it. I recommend seasonally, with the changing environment in your home, a couple of weeks after you turn on the furnace and six months later. If you are a performer, more regular tunings will make your musical experience more pleasurable and the deeper the relationship you have with your tech, the more they can help make your piano work, play, feel, and sound better.
Pet owners have to keep a pet budget, for food, tags, shots, toys, litter, treats, kenneling, etc. Piano owners can budget to care for the pianos in much the same way, saving money for regular tunings, and long term maintenance such as voicing or regulation (keeping the piano sounding and working at its best). One can make a soft analogy between the responsibilities of a pet owner and the responsibilities of a piano owner. Your tech is your vet.
It is never too soon to tune your piano. Regular tunings have many advantages for you and your instrument. Neglected instruments can become very costly to repair. Keep a piano care budget.
Schedule your tuning now or anytime online.
Every piano has a unique sound quality, a voice. Much of the difference is due to design, but even pianos of the same make and model will sound different. The procedure of modifying a piano’s tone quality is called “voicing”.
Sometimes a piano will sound very metallic, with clanging tone quality. Sometimes the sound is muffled and dull. Often there will be certain notes that exhibit these qualities more than their neighbors. Voicing evens out the tone and can make the sound brighter or darker to a certain degree.
Bright, metallic tone is often caused by hard hammers. You can look at the hammers on your piano. Where the hammer strikes the strings you will see grooves. These grooves are where the felt has compressed and has become more dense. If these grooves are not too deep, the hammers can be reshaped by sanding,
The overall tone quality of a piano can sometimes be made brighter by chemically hardening the hammers.
Subtle changes of voicing and getting notes to match is achieved by “needling” the hammers. This entails delicately changing the felt fibers using a sharp needle.
Thuddy sounding notes in the bass are most often caused by dead strings. Sometimes giving the strings a twist can sometimes improve the tone.
Whatever is done to a hammer is usually not very reversible. So, before even touching the hammers, the strings need to be well seated, level, and in-tune and the piano should be well regulated.
For certain pianos, the only remedy for deteriorating tone is to completely re-string the piano, replace all of the hammers, or even rebuild the action. These are expensive propositions and are usually applied only to pianos of reasonable value.
The short story is that you can change the tone quality of your piano (within reason). People who like the way their piano sounds tend to play more often. I can only assume that they are finding their experience more enjoyable.
Please ask me about how voicing or regulation might help you love your piano more. Call or send a message. For a more detailed assessment, let’s schedule a tuning and we can look at your piano in detail. Voicing and Regulation are included in our Full Service appointments.
Have you played some pianos that were easy to play that your fingers seemed to be just floating - and others that felt like you were trudging through three feet of thick mud? Your piano is probably somewhere in between. A good “regulation” can greatly improve the feel of your piano and make it far more easy to play. Of course, an upright will never feel and play the same as a nice grand because the mechanics of the actions are too different. But a well regulated upright can still be real pleasure to play.
Proper piano maintenance requires more that regular tunings. It is a complicated mechanical instrument of over 5,000 parts. There are no less than 6 adjustments that can be made (to every note) in addition to tuning it. These adjustments are known as “Regulation”. Adding to the complexity, each adjustment pretty much affects all of the others. Yamaha teaches a 37-step regulation procedure. In this article I will break down the basic needs of a typical upright piano and how they affect the enjoyment of playing your instrument.
Before regulating, it is important to remove the action and tighten all of the action screws. These screws work themselves loose over the years, making the parts unstable resulting in making any adjustments only temporary. (This takes about 1 hour).
1. Hammer Blow Distance. This is the distance between that hammer at rest and the strings. This is the starting point and sets the requirement for many of the other adjustments and is usually worked on first. It can usually be adjusted in less than 30 minutes.
2. Key Height.
This is probably one of the most noticeable regulation needs. It is relatively easy to tell if the keys are pretty much level and even or if some sit lower or higher than others. Not only is this starting point of the key stroke important, the unevenness can be noticeable to the touch and make the piano unpleasant to play. It takes approximately 2 hours to set and level the keys.
3. Key Dip.
This is how far you can press the key down. This should be the same for all of the keys and can become uneven just like the key height. Poor key dip can make it feel like the keys are hard to press down, like the piano is fighting against you, making the instrument tiring to play. It also affects how the hammer moves toward the string. Poor key dip could cause “bobbling hammers”, hammers that stutter and repeat the note. It takes approximately 2 hours to set and level the key dip.
4. Lost Motion
The keys are not directly connected to the action. Capstans push on wippens. Sometimes there is an excessive gap between the capstan and the wippen. One can press the key quite a distance before they make contact and the action is engaged. If this gap is excessive, you can oress the key slowly and you can feel the key engage the action part way through the key stroke. It takes approximately 1 hour to adjust all of the capstans.
5. Let Off
In a piano, the action disengages from the hammer and “throws” the hammer at the sting for the last 1/16th of an inch. Poor let off can mute the note by pressing the hammer against the string and can drastically change the feel of the piano. Press the key slowly. You can feel the “jack” releasing and can see the hammer fall backward. It usually takes between an hour and 90 minutes to adjust all of the let off screws.
6. Back Checks
Besides the hammers, the second most obvious part someone looks at the piano action. The back checks catch the hammers after they strike the string, preparing the note to be repeated. Poor back check alignment can affect the playing to repeated notes or could even mute notes by pressing the hammer against the strings. It usually takes about an hour to adjust all of the back checks and bridal straps.
Beyond these Basic 6:
The hammers must be aligned to hit all of the strings, as do the dampers, which mute the strings when you lift the key. The dampers should be regulated so that they all lift about half way through the key strong, and so they all lift at the same time when you press on the damper pedal. Dampers are hard to access and take a bit more time to work on. (Approximately 3 hours.)
Keys that wobble a lot, either side to side or front to back on their pins, need to have their mortices re-bushed with new felt. (Approximately 6 hours.)
Experience has shown us that the easier an instrument is to play, the more pleasure people derive from playing it, and vice versa. At David’s Fine Tuning, we don’t just want to tune your piano. We want you to be able to get the most enjoyment you can out of it. Please contact us and ask us about the benefits of a well regulated piano.
By taking advantage of our Full Service appointments, regular minor adjustments become “preventative maintenance”, reducing the need for a complete regulation.
Congratulations. You are now the proud owner of the “King of Instruments”.
It might sound a little out tune or like it came out of a honky-tonk. You may have just moved someone else’s dust into your home or something much more unseemly. Maybe a couple of keys are crooked or hard to press. Maybe the foot pedal makes noises. You know the piano market is depressed, you just got a “free” piano. What is it worth to put into this instrument?
Why do stores still sell used pianos? Because they have taken care of all of the problems mentioned above. By taking care of many pianos at a discount they can still make a small profit margin selling a console or spinet for seven or eight hundred dollars.
That is essentially the difference between your “free” piano and a store bought used piano. I will sometimes “flip” pianos because I can do all of the work myself and compete with the store selection.
You have a “free” piano. You really cannot look at resale value except for as mentioned above, selling it as a “cared for and well maintained” piano. You are investing in the instrument for your own benefit, for the pleasure of playing on a well working instrument that makes musical sound. You are investing in your own life and the life of your family, a musical experience, not a marketable object.
Of course you will need to tune the piano, and most likely precede the tuning with a pitch raise, a rough tuning that over stretches the strings so that when they relax, they remain close to the correct pitch. This increases the stability of the tuning and will help it last longer.
Years of dust, and dirt, and foreign objects accumulate under the keys, in the action, and in the cabinet of the piano. Start fresh. A thorough internal cleaning is highly recommended.
There are approximately 5,000 parts to a piano. Most are never touched or even looked at during its lifetime. Hundreds of screws may have worked themselves loose over the years. While taking out the action to do an internal cleaning, all of the action screws should be tightened and all the parts examined for excessive wear or breakage.
Corrosion is an enemy of all things with an extended lifespan. Corroded parts should be cleaned and lubricated.
There are 6 major adjustments (other than tuning) that can be made for each note. This is called “regulation”. A poorly regulated piano with poorly aligned parts can cause excessive wear and make the instrument feel difficult to play.
Things to look for:
Over time, the hammer felt becomes compressed and hard. Often you can see grooves in the hammers where they come into contact with the strings. Very deep grooves can even mute the strings’ sound production. Usually hard hammers cause a loud, bright tone with a sharp articulation. The hammers can be reshaped and the felt can be worked with a needle to adjust the tone of the piano. This procedure is called voicing.
Once done, many of these procedures will not need to be repeated for years, if ever again in the piano’s life time. Think of it like a car that not only missed it’s oil changes, but its 5,000 mile, 12,000 mile, and 25,000 mile maintenance work.
You have a “free” piano. What a great world we live in that we can have free pianos, I suppose. Now the investment is in the experience. I would suggest that it is worth investing in a half day or a day’s work from a professional craftsperson to create years of pleasurable music making experience, as opposed to having an instrument that is a chore to play and ends up just taking up space. Why did you take the piano in the first place?
Talk to your piano technician. They can give you an assessment of the piano’s condition, realistic expectations about what can be achieved with the instrument, and recommendations as to how to prioritize the service and maintenance of your instrument.
Be sure to read the article on how often you should tune your piano. Regular maintenance can extend the life of your pianos and help the piano to stay more in tune longer between tunings.
Most people don’t know. That’s OK. It’s not one of those memorable dates on the calendar.
The thing to remember is that regular tunings can extend the life of your piano and increase its tuning stability.
By spending time with the piano on a regular basis, the technician can find small problems that can be fixed with minor adjustments before excessive wear turns what was merely an adjustment into a much more expensive repair job. There are an estimated 5,000 parts to a piano, many of which wear with use and with exposure to the environment. In addition to over 220 tuning pins, there are 6 major adjustments to the action for each note, thats 528 possible points to go out of alignment. The better the technician knows your instrument, the better they can care for your instrument.
Anyone who has tuned a guitar knows how often a guitar string can go out of tune. They may even be aware of how much humidity and temperature can affect intonation. There is a general impression that pianos, since they are so much bigger and heavier, don’t go out of tune that easily. Unfortunately, that is not quite true. The intonation of a piano is constantly changing. Generally, however, it is more or less homogenous in the way that it changes, everything mostly changes in the same way, making it less noticeable. Over time, these fluctuations leave more and more differences behind, accruing and multiplying until the instrument becomes noticeably out of tune. The bigger the fluctuations, the bigger the differences that are left behind. The smaller the fluctuations, the longer it takes for the smaller differences to accumulate and become noticeable. This is the general idea behind tuning stability. By tuning the piano regularly and keeping the fluctuations small, the more stable the piano becomes over time, keeping it more in tune longer between tunings.
An average piano lifespan is about the same as a human, more or less. Just as regular checkups and care can affect the quality and duration of your life, so can it be said for tunings and piano care for your instrument’s life.
In northeast Ohio, it is highly recommended to do biannual, seasonal tunings. The extreme differences in humidity between the summer and winter season can cause wide variations in intonation.
Schedule regular tunings with your technician, or ask your technician to schedule regular reminders by mail, e-mail, phone, or text.
Good question. The short answer is: “physics”.
The longer answer:
The Greek philosopher Pythagorus discovered the natural intervals created by different string lengths. A 2:1 ratio creates an octave. A 3:2 ratio creates a 5th. A 4:3 ratio creates a 4th, and a 9:8 ration creates a whole step, a major second. The “major 3rds” are dissonant.
If I start on the lowest note on the piano, A and go up in Perfect 5ths, I will end up on A again in the 7th octave, just below high C. I need to add the 3:2 ratio 12 times (3:2)^12 = 129.7463 times the original frequency. If I start on the same A and go up by octave to get to A7, I will have added the ratio 2:1 7 times (2:1)^7 = 128 times the original frequency. They are not the same A. If I start on the low B or low C, I end up with even a completely different set of frequencies or notes. The solution for this is called Tempering, where one note is set to specific frequency, usually A-440, and all of the other notes are made to sound good together regardless of what their theoretical frequency should be. It is common today to use Equal Temperament, where the distance between each successive note is the same, regardless of their theoretical frequency. - A guitar tuner uses theoretical frequencies and does not offer a tempered tuning.
There is also something called inharmonicity in the strings themselves. The theoretical overtones of each string are exact ratios: 2:1, 4:1, 8:1, 4:2, 3:2, 6:4, 4:3, etc. Because of the physical properties of the metal wire, as the harmonics get higher, the part of the string that vibrates to make that harmonic gets stiffer, vibrates faster, and the harmonic goes sharper. For example, the harmonic that should match the note two octaves higher is too sharp, and the notes do not sound good together. The solution for this is called stretch. As one gets higher or lower on the keyboard, the octaves are stretched to be just a bit wider than theoretical so that they sound in tune with the rest of the keyboard. - A guitar tuner uses theoretical frequencies and does not offer frequencies for stretched octaves.
If a piano is severely flat, it may take two or three passes to get it to pitch and stabilized. This is called a pitch raise. The strings are all tensioned, from lowest to highest a certain percentage just above the target pitch, knowing some of the tension will be immediately lost and the pitch will immediately go flat. Some tuners do a half-way pass with old and rusty strings. - A guitar tuner is no help for pianos that need a pitch raise, which many “inherited” pianos do.
On a neglected piano, a solid tuning would take anywhere from an hour and a half to over two and a half hours for a professional. With more than 220 strings and tuning pins, a do-it-yourselfer may be making a commitment of anywhere from a half of a day to maybe 2 days or more.
I have met several people who have tried the DIY method of piano tuning who were happy to commiserate about their learning experience. One gentleman watched the Youtube videos, bought a tuning kit from Amazon, and after breaking two bass strings, decided it was time to call a professional before he did any more damage.
If you are adventurous, give it a shot. For the most part though, this is one best left to a professional.
Support your local craftsperson.