A quality tuning requires refined physical and aural skills. Not only must the string and tuning pin be adjusted with precision to achieve the desired pitch, but it must be done in such a way as to be left in a stable condition. That way the piano will remain in tune through the most vigorous playing. I have performed hundreds of tunings, received continuous feedback from some of the nation’s top tuners, and become my own worst critic to ensure the quality of my work. I prefer to tune by ear as it keeps my mind and ears engaged in the tone of the piano, as well as for my own personal satisfaction.
How often does a piano need to be tuned?
The answer to this question depends on its demands, environment, and age. For instance, a concert instrument is typically tuned before every performance, while an in home piano requires a minimum of two tunings a year. If the piano is in a climate where there are large seasonal changes, the pitch of the piano will change significantly, and will even go out of tune with itself. This happens regardless of how good the previous tuning was. Yamaha and Kawai recommend that a new piano is tuned a minimum of four times within the first year due to the stretching of new strings and because it is a period of adjustment into a new environment.
Why does a piano go out of tune?
Humidity level and change in humidity is the most common cause of a piano going out of tune. The piano’s main acoustical structure–the soundboard–is made of wood, which continuously reacts to changes in the climate. As the relative humidity increases, the wood expands, increasing the crowned shape of the soundboard, putting more tension on the strings causing them to go sharp. In dry weather, the soundboard contracts and flattens out, putting less tension on the strings causing the pitch to drop. A change in humidity will not only alter the overall pitch of the instrument, but cause it to go out of tune with itself, including the unisons.
In a new piano, there is an initial stretching of strings that occurs over the first couple of years, causing the pitch to go flat. It is especially important to maintain a new piano at standard pitch during this time to create a state of equilibrium and long-term stability. This is the reason why most manufacturers and rebuilders recommend 4 tunings in the first year and a minimum of 2 per year beyond that point.
Temperature can also be a factor. A cool breeze or a hot light can cause a piano to go flat or sharp very quickly. Luckily this problem can be reversed in a short period time when the source of heat or cold is removed.
Regulation refers to the adjustment of the mechanical parts of the piano, known as the action, so that they will function as they were designed. The goal of regulation is to give the piano uniform touch and response from key to key, as well as dynamic control, fast repetition, and power. A piano that is out of regulation may feel unpredictable, sluggish, uneven, and may also be difficult to play softly. The result is a hindrance in artistic expression due to a lack of control and uniformity. Pianos are regulated during the manufacturing process, but this is temporary. Over time, the felt and leather used between parts in the action compress. The wooden parts are also subject to wear and may twist and warp as well. This aging process is accelerated by heavy playing and significant fluctuation in humidity.
Voicing is the term piano technicians use to refer to tone regulating. Are tuning and voicing the same thing? Voicing is the adjustment of the piano’s tone or quality of sound. Tuning, adjusting the tension of the strings to achieve a desired pitch, has an effect on the tone of the piano, making it an integral part of the voicing process. A stable tuning with clean unisons is a preliminary step in a good voicing job. After tuning, voicing is primarily accomplished by working with the strings and the texture and density of the hammer felt. The strings should be seated on the bridge in order to get the upmost power and clarity from them. I prefer to use a bubble gauge to make all three strings of the unison as level with each other as possible. Then I shape the hammer felt so that the hammer strikes all three strings at the same time. At that point, needling the hammer felt can be done to achieve a more mellow tone, or hardener can be added to increase brightness. Some people prefer a bright, singing tone while others like a warm, mellow sound. Most quality pianos are capable of both. Hammers that are worn will have deep string grooves resulting in a bright, tinny sound. Significant filing will be needed to restore its original tone. A solid regulation is a prerequisite to a good voicing job.
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