Why Do Pianos Need Tuning?
“If I move my piano to another room, does it need to be re-tuned?”
“My grandmother had a fine old upright that she never got tuned. Why does my piano need regular tuning?”
“Back home we always kept a jar of water in the bottom of the piano. Does this help keep the piano in tune?”
“How often does my piano need tuning?”
Piano technicians hear these questions every day. Tuning is the most frequent and important type of piano maintenance, but it’s often the least understood. Here we’ll look at why pianos go out of tune and how you can help yours stay in better tune between visits from your technician.
First, new pianos are a special case; their pitch drops quickly for the first few years as the new strings stretch and wood parts settle. It’s very important that a new piano be maintained at proper pitch (A=440) during this period, so the string tension and piano structure can reach stable equilibrium. Most manufacturers recommend three to four tunings the first year, and at least two annually after that.
Aside from this initial settling, seasonal change is the primary reason pianos go out of tune. To understand why, you must realize that the piano’s main acoustical structure, the soundboard, is made of wood (typically 3/8-inch thick Sitka spruce). And while the wooden soundboards produce a wonderful sound, they also react constantly to weather. As humidity goes up, a soundboard swells, increasing its crowned shape and stretching the piano’s strings to a higher pitch. During dry times, the soundboard flattens out, lowering tension on the strings and causing the pitch to drop. Unfortunately, the strings don’t change pitch equally. Those near the soundboard’s edge move the least, and those near the center move the most. So, unless it’s in a hermetically sealed chamber, every piano is constantly going out of tune!
The good news is there are some simple things you can do to keep your piano sounding sweet and harmonious between regular service appointments. Although it’s impossible to prevent every minor variation in indoor climate, you can often improve conditions for your piano. Start by locating the piano away from direct sunlight, drafts, and heat sources. Excess heating causes extreme dryness, so try to keep the temperature moderate (below 70 degrees) during the winter heating season. Get a portable room humidifier, or install a central humidification system to combat winter dryness in climates with very cold, dry winters. A portable dehumidifier or a dehumidifier added to your air-conditioning system can remove excess moisture during hot, muggy summers.
If controlling your home’s environment is impractical, or if you want the best protection possible, have a humidity control system installed inside your piano. These are very effective in controlling the climate within the instrument itself. Besides improving tuning stability, they help minimize the constant swelling and shrinking of your piano’s wooden parts. The critical part of such a system is the humidistat, a device that monitors the relative humidity within the piano and adds or removes moisture as needed. Jars of water, light bulbs, or other “home remedies” have no such control and can actually do more harm than good.
Does a Piano Need Tuning After it’s Moved?
It depends. The piano is a complex instrument, with over 200 individual strings and thousands of moving parts. Each string must be painstakingly adjusted to put the piano in tune. Even the tiniest change in a string’s tension can be heard by a practiced ear.
You might think, then, that trucking a piano down the highway or even rolling down a hall could “knock it out of tune.” However, pianos are actually quite tough. They’re built to withstand up to 20 tons of string tension and decades of heavy usage, so the physical movement of a piano usually has very little effect on its tuning or other adjustments.
It’s the climate change associated with the move, rather than the actually move itself, that makes pianos go out of tune. A substantial difference in humidity between its previous location and its new home will change the shape of the piano’s soundboard, changing tension on the strings. For instance, a well-tuned piano moved fifty miles from a heated, dry apartment to a cool, humid home will sound fine immediately after the move. But a week later, after adjusting to the higher humidity, the piano will sound out of tune. Even moving a piano from one room to another in the same building can affect it if heating or air-conditioning patterns are different.
An exception is the vertical piano. Because they have four casters (grands have three), they occasionally flex enough to distort the tuning pattern immediately if moved to an uneven floor. Moving the piano back to a flat surface will return the tuning to normal. This is most noticeable with lighty built spinets and consoles, and can occur simply by moving the piano a few inches if one caster rolls off the carpeting or into a low spot on the floor.
So, do you have to tune your piano after moving it? Pianos need periodic tuning anyway, whether they are moved or not, so it’s likely that a piano that has just been moved was already due for tuning before the move. If so, it’s best to let the piano adjust to its new environment for a week or two, then have it tuned. On the other hand, if the piano had been recently tuned before the move, you might just hold off and see how the piano sounds after a few weeks. If the climate of the new location is similar to the old, your piano will probably sound fine until its next regular service date.
Does it Hurt My Piano When Kids Pound on it?
Because it’s so annoying, the racket of keys struck at random may rattle your nerves, but it won’t damage the piano. Most pianos are built to withstand very heavy use. Next time you see a serious pianist perform a flamboyant classical piece, notice how forcefully he or she attacks the keyboard. Or listen to how hard your tuner pounds each key when tuning your piano. In comparison, a child’s small hands couldn’t possibly play that hard. The real danger of children playing with, as opposed to playing, a piano is that they often can’t resist dropping small toys inside, slipping coins into the slots between the keys, or running toys across the finish. But remember that music exists to give pleasure. Encourage your child to have fun with the piano, not to be afraid of it. Don’t worry if young children play haphazardly and loudly. If you teach respect for the instrument and they discover how enjoyable playing can be, they’ll treat it properly. And if your children learn that playing the piano is fun, you won’t have to plead with them to practice when they’re older.
How Long Will a Piano Last?
Pianos are among the most durable of personal possessions. Admired for their fine cabinetry and treasured for their beautiful sound, pianos usually lead a pampered life in the best room of the house. They’re often thought of as permanent family fixtures, passed down to children and grandchildren. Their large size and weight give them the illusion of being able to last forever.
While pianos do last a long time, remember they’re really just large machines made of wood, felt and metal. Over the years, seasonal changes take their toll, stressing the wooden parts and straining glue joints. Felt hammers are pounded flat after thousands of collisions with the piano’s strings, and metal parts corrode and weaken. Years of friction wear out the one thousand felt bushings in the action. How long a piano will last varies greatly, depending upon maintenance and repair, usage, climate, and quality of manufacture.
Here’s a sketch of the life cycle of a typical home piano:
The pitch of a new piano drops considerably, as the new strings stretch and the structure settles. If the piano receives the manufacturer’s recommended three to four tunings during this time, it will stay at the correct pitch, allowing strings and structure to reach a stable equilibrium. Without these important first tunings, any later tuning will involve a large pitch raise, leaving the piano unstable.
Two to Ten Years
The pitch stabilizes, assuming regular tunings (and additional climate control devices if needed). The mechanical parts of the piano’s action wear and settle too. This causes two changes: first, the touch of the piano becomes less responsive as the parts go out of adjustment. Secondly, the tone changes as the hammers flatten and grooves develop from repeated collisions with the strings. Periodic regulation and voicing, important parts of a complete maintenance program, correct these changes.
Ten to Thirty Years
Wear of action parts continues, the extent depending upon how hard and how often the piano is played. Normal regulation and voicing will maintain good tone and touch if usage is moderate. If the piano suffers wide temperature and humidity swings, it will being to show permanent deterioration during this time: loose tuning pins, rusty strings, soundboard cracks, and aging of the finish.
Thirty to Fifty Years
After years of playing, the hammers and other action parts will be quite worn. Years of seasonal changes cause bass strings to sound dull and treble tone to lost clarity. Eventually, adjustment alone will not correct these problems, and some parts will need replacing to restore the original tone and touch.
Over Fifty Years
A few geographic areas with mild climates have older pianos still in good condition. Well-built, well-designed pianos can still be playable at this advanced age if they’ve had good care and moderate use. However, at some point in a piano’s life, an important decision must be made: Should the piano be replaced? Is its life over? Should it be reconditioned or rebuilt (made functionally new again)? Should it continue to limp along with an ever worsening tone and touch? The needs of the pianist are the real variable in judging a piano’s useful life. Good performance requires a piano in good condition.
Older, high-quality instruments can often be rebuilt to like-new condition for less than the cost of a new piano. Even economy grade instruments can often be dramatically improved by judicious reconditioning. Your piano technician can help you make this decision.
Eventually, it becomes less and less practical to continue maintaining a very old piano. The undeniable end of a piano’s life comes when the repair cost exceeds the value of the repaired instrument. Medium-quality old uprights reach this point sooner than do high-quality large grands. Rare and historically important instruments may never reach this point unless totally damaged in a fire or other disaster.
Happily, almost any piano that has received reasonable care will have served the art of music for decades by the time its days are over.
Positioning a Piano in Your Home
“Is it wrong to place against an outside wall?”
“How far from the fireplace must it be?”
“Can I keep my piano in an unheated room?”
These are all common questions posed by piano owners. The answers lie in two important criteria: temperature and humidity. Pianos are mostly wood and are greatly affected by seasonal change. Variations in the air’s relative humidity, and to a lesser extent temperature, cause a piano to go out of tune. In the long run, repeated swings in relative humidity can cause damage to the finish, cracking of the wooden soundboard, and even structural failure. So, when locating your piano, try to choose a spot with the fewest drafts, no direct sunlight and stable temperature and humidity.
How to Safely Move a Piano Around a Room
Standard piano casters are only meant for occasional small movements, such as rolling the piano a few feet on a smooth floor. Pianos moved often, such as those on stages, in school buildings or in churches, must be mounted on special dollies to prevent damage to the original casters and legs. To safely move your home piano to a new spot in the room, here are some tips:
If the piano is sitting on carpeting, or if the floor has any obstacles like thresholds, furnace grates, etc., you need to be very careful to avoid straining the legs. First, lower the lid. Then position three people around the piano, one near each leg. (Remove belt buckles, rings, etc. that could scratch the piano’s finish.) It’s not necessary to lift the piano off the floor, but just to take some weight off the casters so they will roll more easily. Move the piano slowly, a few inches at a time. Caution: Never roll a caster over any bump in the floor; always lift it over, one leg at a time, using extra help.
The same cautions for grands apply here. Use two people, one at each end of the piano (two at each end for large uprights), and always lift the casters over the bumps in the floor. Caution; Beware that most of the weight is located toward the back of an upright piano, making it prone to tipping over if leaned too far back. When moving an upright out from a wall, never allow anyone, especially children, to stand behind the piano. Most spinet and console pianos have unsupported front legs. These take extra care, since they can easily break off if caught in a crack or dragged across soft carpeting. To avoid damage, carefully tip the piano back slightly as you roll it to reduce weight on the front legs.
Nailing Down the Definition of a Hammer
There are hammers and then there are hammers. We all know about the kind that pound nails, but many people don’t know that the piano wouldn’t make a sound unless a felt-covered hammer struck the string. Piano hammers are made from a piece of dense felt, glued under tremendous pressure onto a wooden molding. After the glue dries, the long strip is cut into 88 individual hammers. Good hammers felt must have a combination of density and resilience so that the piano will have a beautiful, singing tone. The hammer’s tone can be adjusted by a process called voicing.
Left Feet, Left Pedals
Ever wonder how that soft pedal on the left really works?
On a grand piano, when you depress the una corda pedal (also called the shift pedal), the keyboard moves slightly to the right. This causes the hammers to strike fewer strings on each note. (Most notes have more than one string.) The result is a softer tone, and a different tone color as well. On vertical pianos, the left pedal doesn’t change the number of strings that the hammer strikes. Instead, the pedal pushes all the hammers half way to the strings. Since the hammers have a shorter distance to travel, they hit the strings with less force and therefore less volume. So on a vertical piano, the left pedal is like an off-and-on switch – press the pedal and the volume drops. But on a well-regulated grand piano, you can use techniques such as half pedaling to get not only a difference in volume but also subtle variations in tone color.
Keyboard Trivia: Who built the first piano in the United States?
It was probably John Behrent, who lived in Philadelphia. Early in 1775, he advertised for sale an “extraordinary instrument by the name of pianoforte, in mahogany in the manner of the harpsichord.” This instrument, currently preserved in the Smithsonian, is rectangular, has only 54 keys, and resembles a German clavichord. It appears to have had a long and useful life.
What Does “A=440” Mean?
Sound occurs when air is set into motion rapidly. Humans can hear sound if those cycles of compression and uncompression occur anywhere from twenty times each second to about twenty thousand times each second. When a piano string is set into motion, it vibrates up and down repeatedly. If the note A above middle C is properly tuned, that string will vibrate 440 times in one second. That’s what A=440 means. Every note on a piano is tuned using A=440 as the starting point. A=440 has been accepted as the universal standard for most of the century. Before that, it varied as much as a semi-tone higher or lower. And even farther back in time, there was no standard at all. Every village used a prominent local instrument, such as a church organ, as the standard for tuning its musical instruments. Pity the wandering minstrel!
The camera sweeps the concert hall, where the piano is positioned center stage. The raised piano lid reveals a large, shining gold-colored surface. What is this mass of metal? It’s the plate of the piano, and its purpose is to allow the strings to be stretched to 18-30 tons of tension without buckling the wooden frame. A plate has to be strong to do its job, so it’s made of cast iron. The strings need to be under high tension to produce a powerful piano sound. The plate may be bulky and heavy, and no friend of a piano movers. But without the plate there would be no concert!
Reprinted by permission from The Piano Technicians Guild.