What does it mean to “tune” a piano?
“Tuning” is the process of
adjusting the tension at which the strings are
stretched, using a wrench called a “tuning
hammer,” so that all the strings vibrate in
pleasing harmony with one another in accordance
with certain acoustical laws and aesthetic and
musical customs. Although the tuner may also
perform other adjustments to the piano at the
same visit, strictly speaking, only the above
process constitutes “tuning.”
2) How often should I
tune and service my piano?
It depends on how sensitive
you are to out-of-tuneness, how sensitive your
piano is to the humidity changes that cause a
piano to go out of tune, the climate you live
in, how much you play, and your budget. For
most people, one to three times per year is
about right. Professional musicians and
teachers may require more frequent service.
Concert pianos are generally tuned (or the
tuning touched up) before every performance.
3) How much does it cost
to tune a piano?
It varies geographically
and according to the reputation of the
tuner/technician. Currently it seems to be
somewhere between $100 and $200 on average.
4) Why does a piano need
to be tuned after being moved?
Mostly because subtle
differences in humidity between the new and old
locations will cause the piano to go out of
tune. Very inexpensive pianos that are
structurally inadequate may go out of tune
because of the handling of the piano, but this
is not a big factor for most instruments. The
tuning of vertical pianos may be affected by
unevenness in the level of the floor, or
differences in the level between the old and new
locations (grands are usually not affected by
5) When arranging to
have my piano moved, shouldn’t I hire a piano
mover that will also tune the piano at the same
First of all, very few
piano movers also tune pianos. Both are skilled
professions, but are quite unrelated to one
another in the kind of skills they require.
Most of all, however, the humidity difference
that makes a piano go out of tune at the new
location works its effect gradually over a
period of from several days to a couple of
weeks. The piano may sound just fine right
after being moved, but be quite out of tune a
week or so later. If the piano is tuned
immediately after being moved, it will probably
be out of tune within a couple of weeks. So
it’s best to wait a couple of weeks after moving
before having the piano tuned.
6) Where is the best
place in my home to put my piano?
The best place is where the
temperature and humidity will remain relatively
moderate and constant, and away from big drafts,
open windows, and direct sunlight. Especially
keep the piano several feet away from heating
registers and radiators, or block off or
redirect the heat from such registers and
radiators if the piano must be placed closer.
7) What is the best
temperature and humidity for my piano?
Manufacturers like to say
that the temperature should be at 72 degrees F.
and the humidity about 45 percent. However,
given climatic realities, human needs, and
energy conservation issues, this may not always
be possible or practical. In truth, pianos are
not so delicate that they require such precision
in their environment. Any temperature and
humidity that are not extreme and are relatively
constant will do. The more consistent the
8) Should I have a
humidifier system installed in my piano?
systems can help smooth out seasonal humidity
changes, resulting in better piano sound and
operation, longer life, and possibly less
frequent tunings. If you already have
whole-house humidification and
de-humidification, however, you may not need the
extra protection, though it certainly can’t
hurt. See a piano technician or piano dealer
about having a climate-control system installed
in your piano.
9) How long can a piano
go without being tuned?
I suppose a piano can go
forever without being tuned—if you don’t care
about playing it. Otherwise, it depends on many
factors. See the answer to question 2 above.
10) Why do some pianos
stay in tune longer than others?
Actually, all pianos go out
of tune continuously. It just may be awhile
before you notice it. How soon you notice it
depends on such factors as the design of the
piano (though, interestingly, not necessarily on
its quality), the various pressures and tensions
being exerted on the soundboard and structural
elements, climatic changes, your ear and
sensitivity to out-of-tuneness, and on the kind
of music you play.
11) How can I “lower the
volume” of my piano?
You can have the piano
“voiced”, which mostly involves softening the
hammers to produce a more mellow sound. You can
also change the room acoustics by adding rugs,
upholstered furniture, draperies, wall hangings,
and other sound-absorbent objects. Storing some
cardboard boxes under your grand piano, while
not very attractive, can do wonders for
softening the sound. Finally, there are some
accessories on the market in the form of
Styrofoam products, blankets, and so forth that,
when applied to the back or underside of the
piano, can reduce the volume by many decibels.
Contact a piano technician for details.
12) Can the “touch” of
my piano’s action be adjusted?
Within certain narrow
parameters, the touch can be adjusted by
regulating the action. Regulating is the
process of restoring the action adjustments to
their factory-specified defaults. Over time and
with playing, these adjustments gradually change
and must periodically be restored for proper
functioning of the piano. Each adjustment also
has a certain narrow window of permissible
variation, so by cleverly manipulating these
variations, it may be possible to make the touch
slightly lighter or heavier, or the repetition
faster, than the factory default
specifications. If changes are desired that
fall beyond what is possible through normal
regulating, then the technician must carefully
analyze the source of the problem and make more
drastic changes to the action, which may involve
rebuilding it to some extent. This was once
solely the province of trial-and-error, but
scientific principles can now be brought to bear
on these problems, with consistent and happy
outcomes. More advanced and
technologically-savvy technicians can advise you
about your options. Note: There is a
psychological connection between tone and
touch. Sometimes adjusting the tone of the
piano, or just tuning it, can make the piano’s
touch “feel” better, even though there is no
mechanical connection between the two.
13) How can I tell how
old my piano is?
Each piano is given a
serial number at “birth”. It is usually located
somewhere in the tuning pin area. If the
manufacturer is still in business, it may be
able to provide the year of manufacture from the
serial number. Sometimes the information is on
the manufacturer’s web site. For those not
still in business, a book called the “Pierce
Piano Atlas” provides dates of manufacture from
serial numbers for thousands of old piano
brands. You can find the book through a piano
technician, in libraries, or from
www.pianoatlas.com. Where dates are not
available, or the serial number cannot be found,
it may be possible for an experienced technician
or rebuilder to estimate the age of the piano
from technical features or furniture design.
14) Is there anything I
need to do before my piano technician arrives to
service my piano?
Thank you for asking. The
following would be helpful: Please remove
music, knickknacks, plants, home entertainment
systems, and other stuff from the piano. It
will save the technician time and prevent
breakage. Please sweep or vacuum a little under
a grand piano (in case the technician has to lie
under the piano to make an adjustment). Please
make a list of anything that bothers you about
the piano that you would like the technician to
take a look at. Please make sure there is
sufficient lighting and quiet. Note that the
whirring of kitchen appliances and ceiling fans
can make it difficult to tune because they
interfere with the vibrations the tuner listens
15) What is “pitch
When a piano is tuned,
first the tuner tunes one note, usually the A
above middle C, to a standard such as a tuning
fork or electronic signal. Typically, the
standard is A vibrating at a frequency of 440
cycles per second. Then the rest of the piano
is tuned relative to that pitch. When, because
of neglect or humidity changes, the pitch
standard note is no longer at the correct pitch,
the standard pitch must be reestablished and the
piano roughly tuned relative to that pitch.
This is called “pitch correction.” After the
pitch correction, a fine tuning can be done. If
a fine tuning is attempted at the same time as a
pitch correction, the piano will usually end up
out of tune because the strings have a tendency
to revert to their old tension when a large
change in tension is attempted at one time.
16) What is “voicing”?
Voicing is regulating the
tone of the piano. The primary vehicle for this
is the softening or hardening of the hammers.
Softening the hammers is usually done by
pricking the hammer felt with needles to reduce
its density. Hardening is usually done by
chemically treating the hammers or ironing the
felt. Other more sophisticated aspects of
voicing involve the leveling of the strings,
aligning the hammers with the strings, adjusting
the end points of the vibrating portion of the
strings, and adjusting the striking point of the
hammers on the strings.
17) What is
Regulating is the adjusting
of the action and keys to restore them to their
factory-default specifications. See also the
answer to question 12 above.
18) What is A=440?
This means that the A above
middle C is vibrating at 440 cycles per second.
This is sometimes also known as “concert pitch,”
although some orchestras prefer to tune to a
slightly higher pitch.
19) What is “aural
Aural tuning is tuning the
piano by ear (not by machine).
20) Why do some tuners
use an electronic device to tune the piano?
Electronic tuning devices
have become extremely sophisticated in recent
years and are used by some of the most skilled
tuners. The best tuners can also tune by ear,
which is necessary to check the work of the
machine and to do some aspects of the tuning job
that are not easily done by machine. However,
use of the machine can save the tuner time and
fatigue, allowing him or her to do a better job
and to do more jobs in a day than would be
possible by ear. The machines are also very
useful for tuning in difficult environments,
such as when there is a lot of background
noise. The machines can screen out the noise
better than the ear can. Some of the devices
can also “save” a favorite or unusual tuning so
that it can be exactly reproduced the next time
it is needed.
21) Why do my keys
Sticking keys are usually
caused by humidity changes. Interestingly, keys
can stick in both humid and dry weather. Humid
weather can cause wood and cloth to swell and
interfere with the movement of other parts. Dry
weather can cause holes to contract and bind on
guide pins. In most cases, the remedies are
fairly simple. Larry Fine
22) My piano has a
broken key. Is that a major repair?
When someone complains of a
“broken key,” usually they mean that something
is not working right. It could actually be a
broken key, or it could be that something else
in the action is broken or stuck. In any case,
it’s usually not a major job to repair it. But
neither is it necessarily trivial. If there are
many such “broken keys,” it could be a sign of a
major problem, such as wood or glue joints that
are hopelessly dried out and brittle.
23) My piano has a
broken string. Is that a major repair?
A broken string is neither
major nor trivial. If the string is a bass
string (steel wound with copper), the
replacement string will have to be
special-ordered because each model of piano, and
each string within that model, has unique
specificiations for length, thickness, and so
forth. If the broken string is plain steel
wire, the technician should be able to replace
it on the spot from a reel of wire of the proper
diameter. There are about 15 or 20 possible
wire diameters for steel piano wire and
technicians usually carry a small supply of each
in their car. In either case, it will take
several additional visits of the tuner over an
extended period of time to tune up the new
string before it will hold its tune. In the
meantime, it may be necessary to mute the new
string to prevent it from sounding sour. So,
although the replacement of the string itself is
not complicated, the whole process can end up
being expensive and a nuisance.
24) How can I clean my
It depends on what you want
to clean. The wooden furniture portion of the
piano is usually cleaned with a soft, lintless
cloth, slightly dampened with water if you
wish. If the wood has a grain, wipe in the
direction of the grain. Be careful about using
commercially available furniture polish –
manufacturers sometimes recommend against it.
There are special polishes available from piano
technicians for different kinds of piano
finishes. In any case, follow the piano
manufacturer’s recommendations if available.
For cleaning the key tops,
slightly dampen a cloth with a mild solution of
soap and water and rub the key tops, but do not
let any water run down the sides of the keys.
Then dry the key tops off right away with a dry
cloth. Especially if the key tops are made of
ivory, do not let water stand on them for any
length of time. Rarely, stain from the black
keys will rub off, so you may wish to use
separate cloths for black and white keys.
To avoid damage, I
recommend having a piano technician clean the
soundboard under the strings, the inside of the
action, and under the keys.
25) How can I find a
good used piano?
This is a complicated
subject, too long to treat here. Please read
Chapter 5 of
The Piano Book.
26) Am I better off to
purchase a brand new piano instead of paying
thousands of dollars to rebuild my old piano?
Sometimes yes, sometimes
no. It depends on the quality and value of the
older piano and how much it would cost to
rebuild it. The complete rebuilding of a grand
piano can cost from $15,000 to $40,000
(sometimes even more). Obviously this is only
worth doing to a piano of the highest quality,
such as a Steinway. For lesser pianos, however,
sometimes partial rebuilding or reconditioning
at a much lower cost can make sense. This is
something that must be determined on a
case-by-case basis through consultation with
piano technicians and rebuilders. Note that if
your piano is a cheap one that has serious
problems, in most cases you would clearly be
better off buying a new one.
27) What are the correct
names for the different sizes of grand piano?
There is no standardized
naming scheme for grand pianos. Sometimes you
will hear romantic-sounding names like “parlor
grand,” but there is nothing official about such
names. I use the term “small grand” for those
under about 5’6”, “medium grand” for those
between about 5’6” and 7’6”, and “concert grand”
for those larger than 7’6” (most of which are
about 9’). Note that piano technicians do not
usually use the term “baby grand,” even though
this is a popular consumer term.
28) What are the correct
names for the different sizes of upright piano?
There are some
semi-official names for different sizes of
vertical piano, but there is considerable
variation in how they are used. Vertical pianos
with an indirect-blow action, usually located
totally or partially lower than the level of the
keybed, are called “spinets.” They are
generally less than 40” tall. Pianos with
direct-blow, but slightly compressed, actions,
are called “consoles.” They are usually between
40” and 44” tall. Manufacturers sometimes apply
the term “console” to any furniture-style
vertical piano with free-standing legs,
regardless of size or type of action. This can
result in some confusion, but usually only for
pianos larger than 43”, since smaller ones
almost always require a compressed action.
“Studio” pianos are usually 45” to 47” tall and
have a full-size, direct-blow action.
Manufacturers sometimes apply this term to any
piano, regardless of size or type of action,
that has legs attached to the cabinet with toe
blocks, as this sort of piano is most likely to
be used in school practice rooms and similar
“studio,” as opposed to “furniture,”
applications. Finally, pianos 48” and larger
are called “full-size uprights” (or just
“uprights”) and usually have a full-size,
direct-blow action that is elevated inside the
piano with extenders. There are quite a few
pianos that do not fit this naming scheme
precisely, or fit somewhere in between two
types, so don’t get too hung up on it.