The art of piano tuning – Part One
You might be wondering about the title of this post. Is piano tuning really an art? If you check out piano tuning on the internet you’ll find many posts and videos that tell you anyone can tune there own piano. All you need are a few simple tools and a free tuning app on your phone and your off and running. Turn a few tuning pins until your app tells you the pitch is correct and you’re done. In a couple of hours your piano will be perfectly in tune and you will have saved yourself all that money you would have paid a professional piano technician.
Brimming with enthusiasm you set off on this grand adventure and then reality strikes. The first thing you notice is that there are a lot of tuning pins on a piano, somewhere between 200 to 230. Then you discover that it’s almost impossible to get the pin set just right as even a small adjustment results in a dramatic pitch change. And finally, after many painstaking adjustments to get the pins set, many of them simply will not remain in tune. So what went wrong? What does the professional piano technician know that you don’t?
Arthur Reblitz, in his book “Piano Servicing, Tuning and Rebuilding”, talks about two skills that a piano technician must master in order to tune a piano properly. The first is setting the pins. When a tuning pin is turned it will bend or twist slightly as a result of the tension holding it in place. When the tension is released the pin will relax back into shape and cause the string to go out of tune. Because of this the pin must first be turned a little to far and then eased back into a position where it will stay.
Additionally, the piano technician must learn how to settle the strings. The string passes over a number of bearing points, dividing the string into different segments. The pressure of the strings at each of these bearing points creates friction. This friction causes a greater degree of change in the tension at the upper end of the string. When the string is played loudly the vibration from the hammer blow will cause the string to equalize a little. If the note was being raised then the string will go sharp and if the note was being lowered then it will go flat. Consequently, the tuner must play the note loudly during each movement of the tuning lever in order to equalize the tension.
These two skills are the building blocks that every competent piano technician must master in order to tune a piano. However they are only the first step in creating a tuning that will remain stable and produce a pleasing sound. Stay “tuned” for future posts that will examine additional topics such as inharmonicity, tuning devices and apps and false beats.