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 G3 to 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.