An abbreviated life with pitch (3a – piano tuning)

Having begun here, and continued here, I’m continuing a personal chronicle related to musical pitch.  Since piano tuning so absolutely focuses on pitch, it seems reasonable to give this activity an entire installment to itself.


Sometime during my later high school years, my mom noticed an ad in a tech college circular, and I was soon signed up for an adult-ed piano tuning course.  In that pre-internet era, it really wasn’t possible to find and acquire one’s own set of tuning tools; you had to have a “guy” as a go-between.  The course instructor was a guild-certified technician and a good teacher, too, and he hooked about eight of us up with a starter tool set.

My parents, overly ambitious on my behalf and theirs, were thinking  I could help put myself through college by tuning on the side.  I did actually tune a few pianos for Harding University faculty and staff, but the money only bought a few textbooks (which were a tiny fraction of the cost back then).  I think I spent more time touching up both my grandmothers’ pianos and a few of the Music Department’s instruments for free than tuning for hire.  I digress.

Back to tuning a piano.  I suppose my parents knew I had a reasonable ear for pitch, but it was soon to be developed in much finer detail through the course, which I think met for eight or ten weeks.  I still have a repair/service book and a few notes.  This instructor advocated the aural method, and I still do, too.

These days, I can drive myself crazy trying to get things perfect (with finite skills, you know; more skilled, experienced tuners might not feel this way) whereas very few people would notice much difference if I were to spend just half the time.  I’ve probably tuned 200 different pianos, and add 50 repeats to that:  a few families at church in DE; the Three Little Bakers dinner theatre’s banquet room; a church building in Belfast, NY; various school pianos.  Each piano is unique, and many times I have left one in a state that was unsatisfactory to me, but only once in my time have I known of a customer dissatisfied with my tuning, and she was really unhappy.

The process of tuning a piano (here, based largely on how I learned in that tech college course) goes something like this:

  1. Check the instrument out to see how much work is ahead of you.  Play a little ditty.  Check a few octaves and chords and tenths.  (Side benefit:  you can tell the piano owner, “Naw, it’s not that bad.  I’ve heard lots worse.”)
  2. Open the lid, take off the cover, unscrew the thingies and those other whoozywhatzits (there must be 34 different designs of piano covers!) so you can reach what you need to reach.
  3. Shoo the owner away diplomatically with the admonition “this can get really annoying to listen to, so you might not want to be that close for long.”  Then hope against hope that she will not have children crying on the pitches you’re trying to tune—or worse, that she will be unloading a dishwasher (the clinking and clanking of flatware and plates are the worst distractions!  Oh, yeah—and barking dogs, especially the little yippy ones.)
  4. Install the long red felt strip in between the strings of the temperament octave (which sometimes doesn’t have very good temperament and isn’t really an octave . . . sort of like the “Holy Roman Empire,” which is none of the three).  This strip effectively mutes the outer strings of each group of three so the tuner can first tune the middle string to a standard. tuningfelt
  5. Use a tuning fork or an electronic tuner to tune the middle string to A-220 (22o MHz, just below middle C).
  6. Tune alternating fifths and fourths within the so-called “temperament,” something like this—with the first letter representing the lower note in each pairing (pianists, use one hand to simulate the playing of these notes):
    1. A and E, then B and E, then B and F#, C# and F#, C# and G#, D# and G#, D# and A#.
    2. Then A# becomes Bb in my mind, and I tune the lower Bb to the Bb (A#) I just tuned.  I check that against Eb, which is the same D# I tuned a couple minutes ago.  I then repeat a similar pattern, heading downward by a half-octave or so:  Bb and Eb, then Ab and Eb, then Ab and Db, then Gb and Db.  Now check the Gb against the upper F#, which of course is also Gb.  (Etc.  There are lots of checks and balances.  I almost always find one or more intervals out of tune.)
    3. As a double-check, compare a series of ascending thirds near middle C.  They should sound roughly the same, with each successive one beating ever-so-slightly faster than the one below.  If one sounds more “in tune” than the next lower one, you have a problem somewhere that will find you out.
    4. [See below for specifics on how the 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths are supposed to sound.]
  7. After the temperament area (defined somewhat according to the particularly piano, but never starting below D2 (below middle C) and never extending above E4 (two octaves above that) is set, begin to tune octaves outward from the middle of the piano.  I find it helpful to tune 15 or 20 tones “northward,” subsequently giving my ear tuning-mutesa break by tuning some down south, then returning to the upper stretches of the piano.
  8. As one works toward the extremes, he will run out of felt strip even if two are used.  Toward the top end, and always at the bottom end where each tone has only two strings, the use of rubber mutes, such as those pictured here, is a must.

Next:  Further key aspects yep, pun intended) of piano tuning (this has gotten too long)


2 thoughts on “An abbreviated life with pitch (3a – piano tuning)

  1. Steve 10/21/2016 / 12:51 pm

    …all of which reminds me of Dr. Opporknockity…you have heard of him? World famous for his piano tuning.

    He was asked to tune up a priceless, old Steinway for a family–which he did. But soon afterwards the family moved, and you know what happens when a finely-tuned piano is moved. So the Doc was asked to come back and service the piano–which he flatly (pun intended) turned down. After repeated requests for him to come back, they finally confronted him one day and asked why he would not provide them with another tuning….to which he said: (because) “Opporknockity only tunes once.” 🙂


    • Brian Casey 10/21/2016 / 3:27 pm

      Beautifully and succinctly put! 🙂


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