Tuning a Piano

This page is an introduction to how to tune a piano. Why would I share this information when I get paid for piano services? Because the piano trade worldwide is in desperate need of more piano tuners, technicians and restorers. Good ones.

In London there are enough to go around, but in other parts of the country they are scarce, and in some countries there are none at all. Most pianos are left unattended to suffer years of neglect, so hopefully this text will give some one confidence to have a go.

I take no responsibility for injury or broken pianos as a result of this article. You tune pianos at your own risk. When you learn to tune pianos you’re highly likely to snap a few strings and break other components. This is a normal part of the learning process so please ensure that you practise on pianos that nobody cares about. Here in England you can pick these up for free second-hand.

Note that piano tuning is only a small part of piano maintenance – if you ever want to sell your services you must learn how to correctly repair and regulate a piano mechanism. There are so many different piano designs that it takes years to become efficient in every possible scenario. But don’t be overwhelmed by it all, if you’re keen enough you just start with something simple like tuning and go from there.

Tuning a piano is like tuning your guitar, the difference being that on a guitar you’ve got six strings to perfect whereas an average piano has about 230 strings and each string must be as perfect as possible. I tune my guitar almost every time I pick it up to play, whereas a good piano tuning should last for at least a year. There are normally 88 notes but about 230 strings because the treble strings have three strings each to add richness of tone and volume, the bass notes only having one or two thicker strings per note.

A440 is a common term amongst musicians – it means that middle A (ie. A4 on a standard keyboard) has been tuned to 440Hz, which means that air pressure waves pass a fixed point in space at a frequency of 440 waves per second. This is standard concert pitch to which most instruments in the western world are tuned.

Traditionally, European concert pitch is slightly higher at A=444Hz, but to most people this small difference is difficult to notice at all. My father used to tune the Steinway concert grand piano in the Portsmouth Guildhall where they had both English and European orchestras giving concerts on a regular basis, the English insisting on A440 and the Europeans on A444. The constant pitch-raising and pitch-lowering of the piano was potentially bad for the piano, and in the end my father had to put his foot down – from then on the piano was always kept at a compromise of A=442Hz to try and please both the British and the visitors.

The average domestic piano, however, is not tuned before every concert, but once or twice a year. For this reason when a piano hasn’t been tuned for several years, it’s probably gone flat so it’s customary for the tuner to leave it slightly sharp, expecting the piano to settle back into concert pitch over the next few months or years. For example, if the piano was found to be ¼ semitone below concert pitch, most piano tuners would try and leave it about 1-2 Hz sharp; if the piano was a whole tone flat then it might be raised to 4 Hz sharp. Yes there are many neglected pianos that are a whole tone flat!

What you will need

You will need a tuning lever (tuning wrench in North America), at least one wedge to mute strings, and an accurate reference of pitch such as a tuning fork, electronic tuning gadget or a smartphone tuning app. If you use electronics, do check with a tuning fork that they are accurate – correct tuning of the whole piano relies on your initial reference of pitch.

I recommend the Heckscher Piano Parts Company of Camden Town, London for every tool or component you’ll ever need. You can just walk in and buy stuff or alternatively they do ship world-wide. Note that quality piano tools are not cheap but they can last a whole lifetime, even several generations.

Tuning a piano – essential steps

  • Remove external panels.
  • Observe that in the mid-treble there are 3 strings to each note, whereas in the bass section there are only two or one.
  • In the treble you can stick a wedge between two of the strings to mute them so you only hear the third string. After the first string of a note has been tuned, the other two are tuned to the first string to create a perfect unison. The tool of choice is a pap’s wedge which is cheap.
  • Compare a mid-treble note to the pitch of a standard tuning fork (commonly top C or middle A).
  • Begin to tune other notes relative to the first note tuned. The most pure musical interval is the 8ve, followed by the 5th, the 4th then the major 3rd. So, for example, once you’ve tuned top C to a standard C tuning fork, you can use top C to tune middle C, then use middle C to tune the note one 5th above (middle G), then use middle G (G4) to tune G3, use Gto tune D4, use D4 to tune D3, use D3 to tune A3, and so on.
  • Check major third intervals. In my example the next note would be E, which you can compare with C to see if the interval of a 3rd also sounds right – this is the way tuners check their progress.
  • The sequence of 5ths is a cycle – in my example: C G D A E B F# C# G# D# A# F returning to C. If all the 5th’s were tuned perfectly, when you return to C you’d find you were very sharp. Let me pause the bullet points and explain…

When the first keyboard instruments were developed, this didn’t matter because people only played in two or three different keys and these instruments only had one or two ‘black notes’ per octave. Renaissance music typically modulated to the dominant and perhaps sub-dominant and then back to the tonic and finished – no compromise had to be made in tuning perfection.

Music became more complex through the C17-C18th and the other black notes were added so that keyboards had the full chromatic scale as we have today. A compromise had to be made and fifths were tuned ever so slightly flat (about ½Hz in the mid-treble) and major thirds sharp so that they sounded nice in every key. This is how I tune pianos, it’s called equal temperament and was first put to practical use five hundred years ago by an Italian lutenist and composer called Vincenzo Galilei (father of Galileo Galilei).

  • After the mid-treble section (known as the temperament) has been tuned, the rest of the piano can be tuned relative to the mid-treble using ascending and descending intervals of an 8ve.
  • It’s customary for a tuner to give the piano a quick checking over afterwards, to check 8ves especially round the bass-treble break-point, and to check that none of the unisons have moved.
  • Put the piano’s external panels back on. The panels trap the sound so soft and quiet pianos might benefit from leaving them off. However this leaves the fragile mechanism exposed to curious children, pets, coffee, beer, and leaves you with nowhere to stand your sheet music.

The first piano I tuned took my about five days. The second one took me one day but it was so bad that I had to tune it again four times over! It was a wooden-framed John Broadwood upright made in 1850 that had been left untuned for so long that it was five semitones flat. My dad wanted it a concert pitch and it made it in the end. After this thorough introduction to piano tuning I got faster and I now tune a piano in anything between one to four hours depending how bad it is to begin with.

Piano tuning is a great job, I heartily recommend it. The actual tuning part is very long and repetitive – you can’t talk to anyone or think about anything else for several hours, just deafen yourself by playing each note at maximum volume and point-blank range. But it’s the rest of the day that makes it so much fun.

The repairs and regulation are varied and more relaxed, the clients are interesting to meet and the best part is cycling around seeing different areas of the country. It’s not necessary to pollute the environment with a motor vehicle because the tools required for the average job could probably all be squeezed into my pockets. They key is to relax the schedule and not try to pack too many jobs into one day.

49 thoughts on “Tuning a Piano

    • If the piano is tuned regularly and kept in a stable environment that’s not too dry, it should take between one and two hours.

      However pianos are rarely kept in this way, so there are large deviations from this average – anything from one hour to two days for a more involved restoration.

  1. Could one tune the entire middle treble section using an electronic tuner that displays an accurate frequency count for each note, similar to how one uses an electronic tuner to tune each string on a guitar? In that case, could you tune the piano strings in ascending order instead of fifths?

    Another question: I find it very difficult to compare the sound of notes at the lowest and highest bass and treble sections when tuning. Do you have any advice for those sections?

    • Hi Chris, it is possible but I doubt the end result will be as accurate as doing it by ear. However the chromatic tuner can be a good tool to boost your confidence – for example when tuning a note, after getting the correct reading on the device you can perfect it by ear.

      The only problem is you may have to re-calibrate it for different pianos as some pianos need to be left in tune but slightly sharp or flat on average, depending on the history of the instrument and the needs of the client.

      The top treble and lower bass are difficult to hear clearly, but not just for the piano tuner – the pianist and whoever’s listening will have equal trouble, so the important thing is not to be sure it’s mathematically perfect but instead to just listen to the overall sound as if it were music – tweak it until it just sounds pleasant. But don’t waste much time on these sections because they won’t get played much – I always leave them until last.

  2. I’m a professional pianist that does lessons and play in piano bars, weddings, etc… Very interested in becoming a piano tuner – I have looked at Home study Piano Tuning Cousres, but most seem USA based. I’m interested in knowing more – please could you contact me

    Regards

    • Curious, I wonder if I was one of the subjects? I went to Holborn a few times to do brain scans and aural tests for a research project.

      With my lifestyle of tuning pianos and exploring London by bike I must have an interesting hippocampus!

  3. I’m 28 and french, I play piano since I’m child, self learned. I travel since 2 years around Europe, 60 000km so far, playing sometimes where I find a piano. Several times it was on very distuned one, nobody played it since long time, so 6 months ago I surfed on internet to see if I can tune a piano myself. I also met piano tuners in Estonia and France, I learn how to change a string in Warsaw. Step by step, I tuned some piano, slowly. Now, I already tuned 50 pianos so far, but still I feel unexperimented today, so I don’t ask money for now. I want to make it my lifestyle, nomadic piano tuner. I’m still young in this world, have to learn everything, and since I discover you today, I’m double inspired now. My biggest dream is to build a rain/water-proof piano to play it in streets and live like that. Thank you, and very hope to meet you. Guillaume Ohz on facebook.

  4. 1. Join PianoWorld, look on the Internet, where you will find stacks of advice.
    2. Go to your local library and borrow a book on piano tuning.
    3.If you have any mechanical interest or experience,e.g. motor car repair or other DIY you will find pianos fascinating.
    4. You may find that you have no time left to actually play!

    • Perhaps, I don’t know ^^ I’m alone :/ I’m in France, travelling around for now… I’m going to hitchhike through the Balkans…

  5. I’ve recently been given an old piano, this is the first piano I’ve ever owned and I’m 61 this year, quite exciting! I’ve repaired a broken hammer and with help from your page I’m tuning it, its mostly 1 – 1’1/5 semitones flat, hasn’t been tuned for a long time. I figured I can tune a guitar by ear so why not have a go.. The most difficult thing at the moment is blocking the strings to listen to one at a time, I bought a star tuning tool and some wedges but the mechanism is in the way so it’s difficult to use them, do you have any tips?
    Thanks

    • Hi John, you need a Papps tuning wedge, you can get one from Heckscher Piano Parts Company in Camden Town, London. They deliver internationally. See http://www.pianotrade.co.uk/category/tuning-tools

      Well done for giving it a try. Before raising the pitch, make sure you lubricate all points of friction on the strings near the top with motor or vegetable oil, and release the tension on each string before you increase it, to break all the bonds of corrosion and get the strings moving freely.

      It’s ok to go four or five semitones flat on each string before you go up to the desired pitch. (Only take one string down then up at a time, don’t lower the whole piano by four semitones!) This is especially important in the bass section as bass strings are more expensive to replace.

      I take no responsibility for broken strings/pianos/injury resulting from your DIY attempt, but good luck! Let us know how it goes.

    • PS. If it’s an old over-damped (aka ‘birdcage’) mechanism you won’t be able to see where you’re muting the strings. That doesn’t matter, you just pluck the strings with the Papps wedge instead and listen for the right place to put it. In this case the wedge can go in just above the hammer rail, just below the hammer heads.

      At some point I really must upload some photos…

  6. Thanks for the reply :-)

    Good tip about the oil (like using graphite pencil on the nut of the guitar) I’ll do that before doing any more tuning and I’ll slacken before tightening in future. I’ve now got it in the ballpark apart from the top octave, which is taking more time as the pitch changes radically with a tiny movement of the tuning tool. Also I’ve noticed that when I go back to the notes I first tuned they are now all a little flat and need re-tuning, I guess this is normal as it would be on a guitar tuned from scratch. I’ve got a Cleartune app on the iPhone which I’ve set to “Equal Temperament” so I’m using that as a reference but really trying to do it by listening and hearing the beats. Quite a few hours spent on it today, I can see that 4 days could be quite easy!

  7. The piano is a “Regent”.
    I see the type of mute tool you’re suggesting, very neat, I just have the rubber wedges on wire that came with the tuning tool kit. I can see that on some of the notes I can work one in below the hammer though..

  8. I’ve put a couple of pics of using a Papps wedge on my Facebook page, as I had an enquiry from a tuner in Malaysia, who is not experienced with Overdamper actions. http://www.facebook.com/DavidBoycePiano#!/DavidBoycePiano?sk=messages_inbox&action=read&tid=id.173794936117254

    My A tuning fork turned up in Kuala Lumpur! I tuned a piano in Glasgow, left the fork in it (rare for me to lose a tool in that way), and the family moved and took the piano with them to Malaysia.

    • Thanks David, excellent photos on your Facebook pages, well worth a butcher’s – not just the piano work, also the stunning Scottish landscape!

      Do give us a shout if you ever visit London again

  9. A fascinating read for me and so many unwanted pianos about these days that you can,t give them away.Obviously the piano tuners do still find work.Great job.

    • Hi Luca,

      You should apply to as many piano shops and workshops as you can. Unfortunately it will be difficult to find a good apprenticeship.

      Alternatively you can buy some books on the subject and collect a few old pianos to start learning. All you need is a dry and relatively quiet space to work in, old pianos you can get for free. Good luck moving them around though!

      You also need a lot of patience and perseverance.

  10. HI, i have already started my apprenticeship to repair Pianos, but i am not confident that much to do tuning. the man who taught had travel to the States and left me with no tools to start with, no credit card to purchase tools online, no parts like strings, center pin & its remover just to mention a few. this are things that create fear in me and does not give me confidence to go on with the Job so i hang up on the job. What in your opinion can i do to get back to this job. I love to do this work because it is one of the amazing things that has ever happened to me. Thanks

  11. Thanks so much for your website. I would love to have a go at this! I’ve got a good ear and am quite practical – do you think I’m barmy to have a go at tuning my own small upright? It’s 7 octaves, not full height. (I totally appreciate your point about not taking responsibility for injury/broken pianos, of course.) Thanks. Mary

    • You might break a few strings while you’re learning, but this is normal. Ideally a few old pianos that no one cares about to practise on, you can pick these pages for free.

      Good luck!

  12. Hello,
    My name is jidee mike Am hearing impaired i have 2 piano’s, 1 Steinway grand piano, and 1 upright piano in my home in New York, and I have stop using them some years back since I heard my ear problem, So I have 2 nephew I want to pass it to because they have a music group So i want to service them, before giving them as gift, But they are relocating here in Same State with you soon so I want the piano’s to be a surprise so by the time they settle I will present it to them as a surprise, so it would be better for me to service the piano’s here, that’s why i am contacting you for the service, so can you do the servicing for me,
    It will have to be shipped from New York, to your shop if you can do the servicing for me as I’m currently recuperating from an ear surgery so i am paying with my credit card and i would have the piano’s shipped to your workshop for the servicing, let me have your info also i want a full service for it okay and i hope if i get it to you then you. Can estimate me the amount it will cost, so i need your tel number, fax number and your workshop address and your name.

    THANKS

    • Hi Jidee Mike,

      Sorry for the slow reply, I’m wintering abroad. Unfortunately I can’t help you with this job. You could try contacting my father’s piano workshop in Oxford via robertspianos.com as he is a specialist in Steinway restoration, he can also arrange shipping and storage.

      Regards

  13. Hi, I’ve been tuning my piano for a few years now and have tuned a couple of pianos locally. Just tuned a piano newly rebuilt by a retired plumber and in the local pub. Had to raise it by two semitones to get to 440Hz and broke a string near the top, but replaced this without any difficulty. I really want to do this professionally – I love tuning pianos. Is there any way I can legitimately set myself up as a tuner without formal training? I am 53 and I’m not in a position to spend 3 yrs in Newark. I am also repairing free reed accordians, which includes tuning. Any advice would be welcome.

    • Hi Roger,

      I wrote you a long reply last week that seems to have disappeared, most annoying. Anyway well done for attempting the pitch raise.

      I don’t have any qualifications except my apprenticeship with Dad which is not certified in any way. Perhaps this reassures some of my clients but no one ever asks me for qualifications. Indeed I often get work through recommendations and the client has no idea who I am or where I learnt my trade.

      Something you could work towards is a membership to the Piano Tuner’s Association. They have strict ability tests for new members so if you pass them you’ve got a good well-rounded craft, and they’re the only official body in the UK. Testing and membership is cheap as chips and they include personal liability insurance. Visit their website for more information: pianotuner.org.uk.

      It’s important you find out what’s required for membership now because from the moment you fulfil their criteria it will be five years before you can present yourself for examination. Contact them, they’re friendly and helpful.

      But no need to wait five years, the world is desperate for good piano tuners. If you’re honest and thorough in your work it will build up. Even if you advertise in a heavily populated area, expect to do it as a hobby and then part time for a few years until the local client base and reputation builds up.

      To speed up the process I highly recommend getting yourself a garage or a dry workspace as a temporary workshop where you can aquire pianos for free or very cheaply and practise at your own leisure. If they turn out nice you can sell them cheaply or give them away.

      I also recommend the Piano Servicing book by Arthur Reblitz – my dad used it when he got started (just beware some of the nomenclature is exclusively American).

      You could also look for an apprenticeship but you’d have to ask far and wide and be very persistent and lucky because they’re few and far between.

      Which area are you working in? And just out of curiosity what trade do you come from?

  14. Hi Richard,
    Thank you for your reply, it is very encouraging and helpful. I hope you are enjoying Israel (I was there in 1979, but that’s another story).
    I’ll check out the piano tuners organisation – it looks like there are various routes in.
    I’ve held down various job. I started life as a draughtsman but also worked as a programmer and project manager for a long time. In the background however I’ve always dabbled with music, sang in choirs from the age of 7, played piano and various instruments, latterly button accordions. I don’t have perfect pitch but I have a very sensitive ear and find tuning intuitive and enjoyable. I recently tuned a 3 voice accordion and have another 5 accordion projects on the go. When I get the chance I’ll tune pianos too, for instance old pianos that have sat unused for a while, like the one in the pub and also my neighbour’s heirloom piano.
    I am based just north of Andover, Hants, an hour’s drive south of Oxford.

    • Dad’s old piano shop in Hampshire is still going under the name ‘Venn Pianos’ on Albert Road in Portsmouth. Steve Venn used to work for my dad and he’s still there. You’re welcome to visit, also dad’s shops and workshops in Oxford, see robertspianos.com

      It sounds like you have the skills and the patience… it’s just a matter of time and experience. Let me know how you get on!

  15. it’s muppetts like you that keep real fully trained (at an acredited college) piano tuners constant work with your bumbling, cowboy approach to tuning a piano. . if you want to destroy a beautifully tuned piano with a (at best) a novice’s attitude and approach with an electronic POS, then go right ahead. Otherwise use a small amount of common sense and get a proffesional (who knows what they are doing) to tune it.
    p.s: (YOU CAN’T LEARN TO TUNE A PIANO FROM THE INTERNET). . .

  16. Thanks for your kind words. One of the problems in the UK now is that there is only one place to gain formal qualification (Newark). In the case of free reed instruments there is nowhere in the UK to get formal training (i repair these and tune them) and I can tell you they are much more complicated to tune than a plain old piano. Of course you have your interests to protect, because you can’t stand any competition. And what’s more I’d probably take your comments more seriously about professionalism if you knew how to spell it. And you can’t even spell muppet either, so I wouldn’t let you near my piano.
    You will also note that the blog owner received no formal training, so your comment applies to him as well. Anyway, as I said, thanks for you encouraging words.

  17. Ah, Mr Martyn Goddard! My great grandfather used to tune pianos and organs in your area. You’d better watch out, I’ll be in Devon myself this Summer with my ‘bumbling, cowboy approach to tuning a piano’!

    Jokes aside, I do agree with you that a well-tuned modern piano will not usually benefit from the amateur hand. However I specialise in restoring old, neglected pianos that are semitones flat and so out of tune that it’s difficult to recognise a melody. These pianos are often acquired for free, and a really keen amateur, aware of the risks, might be forgiven for learning on the job.

    In fact I have known professional musicians who learned to tune on their own piano, even keeping modern Yamahas bang in tune.

    If there were a surplus of piano tuners I would agree with you, however there is a serious shortfall in number, availability, skill and professionalism of piano tuners and technicians in this country, and especially abroad. I have seen some towns in my travels where the only ‘piano tuner’ has charged an arm and a leg to make a piano worse.

    Because of this I believe that keen and honest amateurs, if they have a good ear, tons of patience, and deft fingers, should be encouraged to learn on the job, but start with old pianos that belong to them. Not in a client’s house!

  18. I have a question. If we were to adopt the 432 A tuning as standard, other than giving you more employment, what would be the overall effect? Was there a sound scientific reason they set 440 Hz as the standard…thanks, Will

  19. Hi,
    Is it always possible to tune a piano? We have a piano where all notes sound when pressed. Some notes do however sound out of tune. It is only used for family entertainment. A friend told us it was 5 pitches out so don’t even bother trying to get it tuned as it was impossible.
    Is this correct? We are not looking for perfection but would like to get the piano sounding nicely again.
    Would really appreciate some expert advice.
    Many Thanks
    Judy

    • I have raised 150-year-old pianos more than six semitones up to concert pitch and they work just fine. Sadly, most piano tuners will tell you that it’s not worth it. But in most cases it is worth it, in half a day or maybe a day’s work even a piano that sounds disastrous can be tuned and made to sound sweet again. I would have to inspect the piano to confirm this.

  20. Ah ha! Advice from a robot on how to let a robot write for you, Douglas Adams would have loved this stuff :-)
    The piano is sounding good btw, still some work to be done, repairs and tuning, I have the parts and tools just need to find the time.

    • Thanks John for pointing that spam comment out, must have slipped through the net. I’ve deleted it now. I get so many spam comments these days, such an annoying and selfish activity, wish there was a way to send them a nasty computer virus.

      Well done on the piano do ask or send photos if you get stuck.

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