Who do I call to tune this thing?
Congratulations! You’re a piano owner! Maybe the piano was a “bonus” acquisition from a house you purchased or you acquired it on facebook marketplace for your children, who are starting lessons. Maybe it’s a family heirloom, passed down to you. However you acquired it, you are now responsible for its maintenance and upkeep. You might consider tackling tuning and repairs on your own. Overly positive and loquacious people on youtube assure you that you can, but a quick skim-read, of the wikipedia page on piano tuning, detailing the depth and complexity of the topic, will likely steer you toward leaving this task to the experts, which is when you call us.
What happens at a piano tuning?
Just like doctors in days of yore, the piano technician does make house calls and will come to your home at a prearranged day and time. They bring their own tools (quite a lot of them, as pianos can have over 12,000 parts).
Though the technician is primarily there to tune the piano, they are also qualified to work on the accessories and mechanical parts. They may check the piano bench, to ensure that it’s not wobbly or requiring any screws to be tightened. Your technician doesn’t want you to one day sit down to play and then keep going all the way to the floor.
They may check the pedals. Often pedals are improperly assembled after moves or misadjusted, especially on grands, which cause them to make unnecessary noises or feel sloppy. Technicians also adjust the pedals to ideal sensitivity. Checking for and making these adjustments does involve crawling on the floor under the piano.
After the technician has determined that the bench is not going to collapse underneath them, they will sit down and play the piano. This gives them a sense of the piano’s current state and establishes a good “before” picture. The technician will be able to determine whether the piano needs “just” a tuning or further adjustments to address mechanical issues like clicking action parts. Depending on how out of tune the piano is, these further adjustments can often be addressed at the same appointment, or they may be noted to be addressed at another time.
Will it be loud?
Tuning a piano can get a little loud, so you might want to give the technician some space for an hour or so, unless you aren’t bothered by the sound of a note played very loudly and repeatedly. Some people may find the process interesting and may wish to stay and observe. The technician will need to focus and listen carefully while tuning but will be happy to answer your questions at the conclusion.
How do they know it’s out of tune?
Technicians measure tunings in cents (or hertz). If a piano is more than 6-7¢ out of tune, the piano needs a pitch raise (officially known as an “overcorrection”). In these cases, it is most efficient to perform the tuning with the aid of an ETD (electronic tuning device). If the piano does not require an overcorrection, the technician may perform the tuning by ear. Either method requires extreme concentration and a quiet environment and are very difficult to accomplish if there are competing sounds like vacuum cleaners or dishwashers running.
tuning a grand piano
Tuning with an ETD
Piano technicians use piano specific ETDs, which operate very differently than guitar tuners and have sophisticated settings and formulas that go into producing the tunings. (The ETD that Alaska Piano Service technicians use is an industry standard and the most advanced and heavily researched and tested ETD on the market.)
The technician starts by measuring the piano’s inharmonicity, which relates to the harmonic partials of the notes, and differs by piano model. At that point, they’ll note the stringing pattern (string scale and breaks), which also differs by model. This information gets input into the ETD.
The ETD uses its calculations to determine how far over and under each pitch needs to go. If any of the initial measurements were inaccurate, the ETD calculations will be off, so attention to detail and knowledge of piano technology is required.
The technician first tunes the unisons (one by ETD and the rest by ear). Unisons are strings that play the same note. The ETD establishes where the pitch of one string needs to be, and the technician listens to that established pitch and brings the unisons to that standard using their well-practiced ear to listen for frequency differences between the notes. These show up as a beat, and the technician uses their tuning lever to move the pins holding the strings until the beat becomes a bloom. During this process, the technician plays the notes hard to make sure the string is stable.
After completing this part of the process, the technician will play the piano again to listen for a soundcheck. Then they’ll do aural checks, which involves playing a series of intervals to test for the sound or the intervals. This also differs by piano.
Once the piano has passed these tests, the technician plays it again to make sure it sounds good musically.
If the piano was 20-25¢ sharp or flat, the tuning stability may not hold as long, and another tuning may be required in 2-3 months to stabilize the strings.
tuning upright piano