Yesterday’s more procedural post about piano tuning might have been interesting to a few groups of people, including mechanics and those who produce how-to videos on YouTube. (I don’t think I’m very good at writing instruction manuals.) Today’s follow-up is somewhat more conceptual and might interest such groups as acoustical physicists, ensemble instrumentalists and conductors, and anyone whose piano I’ve tuned who wondered what in the world I was doing, why some of the intervals sounded different from others once they started listening intently, and why it all took so long.
Here are some key (!) aspects of piano tuning
Intervals on a piano are these days tuned in “equal temperament,” which more or less means they are equally “out of tune.” The human ear has grown accustomed, during the last two or three hundred years, to hearing things this way. Most non-keyboard-instruments musicians (winds, strings, the human voice) can adjust their pitches on the fly and are taught to tune intervals “beatless.” However—and this is a big however—when a piano or organ or marimba, for instance, is brought into the mix, what we have is a collision of pitch worlds.
When an older piano has not been tuned for many years and has dropped by more than a 1/4-step overall, the tuner must consider whether or not to bring the piano up to “concert pitch” or just to tune the piano to itself, leaving the overall pitch level as is. This is something I was never taught; I just came to understand it in my worlds, so I don’t truly know what other tuners think about it. Generally, I do not bring pianos up more than a 1/4 step unless I know the owner either has absolute pitch herself or will be using the piano along with a fixed-pitch instrument such as a wind instrument. (Guitars and other strings can always tune down to match the piano.) Increasing the tension too much on 200-some-odd strings can have a drastic effect on the pin block, and in any event the tuning job is unlikely to have much staying power. For concert pianos, fixing on an absolute standard is important, but for home pianos, the main thing is tuning a piano to itself.
The only intervals tuned “beatless” (i.e., no out-of-tune “waver” that one only hears when really paying attention to pitch) are the octaves near the middle of the piano. (See two paragraphs down for more detail.) All other intervals are to have some “out of tuneness.” For instance, the fourth from A to D (straddling middle C) is to “beat” roughly one time per second. Thirds and sixths near the middle of the piano should beat roughly 6-7 times per second.
Fifths are tuned “narrow,” or just inside “beatless,” and fourths, “wider” than beatless. If you take one of these the wrong way and don’t realize it, before you extend into the outer octaves, you’ve got yourself a tuning mess. It’s more difficult to fix that than to tuna fish. (Yep, pun intended.)
This paragraph should be notable for all serious musicians and maybe a bunch of others, too. . . . Octaves that are some distance from the middle can be (for me, at least) much harder to tune, believe it or not, than thirds, fourths, or fifths. Although from an acoustical vantage point the frequency of the upper note is exactly double that of the lower note and an octave is assumed to be “beatless,” the ear in our era (that was phonetically awkward) hears relatively high “perfect”octaves as flat in the context of actual music. Therefore, the octaves must be stretched by a cent or two in order to make them sound in tune. Incidentally, this aural issue also manifests itself in the tuning of, e.g., flutes and piccolos in an ensemble. Flutists who spend a lot of time with electronic tuners must often reorient their ears to listen to pitch in an ensemble context.
The physical technique of using the tuning hammer is an acquired skill and cannot be described easily in writing. The “hammer,” by the way, is used mostly as a wrench but also can, in uncommon circumstances, double as a hammer to tap a slightly loose pin into the block. This is a bad idea for a novice.
Humidity control and temperature control are important for a piano’s health. Rust is the weapon of a piano’s mortal enemy. If a tuner breaks a string, it’s a major event to put a new one on. (It’s like 25 times harder than a guitar string. I have sworn off ever installing a piano string again, so I am very careful to loosen any possibly rusted strings before tightening them, thus reducing the chance of breakage. I think I would sacrifice my entire tuner fee to pay someone else to put on a new string before I would ever do it again.)
Old pianos may or may not be more difficult to tune. It depends on factors such as the make, the humidity quotient, the quality of the pin block, whether some hack has yanked obliquely on the pins instead of gently loosening and tightening. Some pianos seem to be open to the tuner’s nudgings, locking in fairly easily, whereas some instruments are stubborn, requiring more muscle and a lot of stick-to-it-iveness.
Yes, the blind piano tuner is a cliché, and I was acquainted with one of those (who also rode a motorcycle and was a water-skier, I heard). For my part, as my eyes age, it’s becoming somewhat difficult to see the groups of two and three strings as I need to insert the rubber mutes here and there. If my sense of touch were as good as a blind tuner’s, it might be easier.
It’s not a good idea to tune a piano when you have a headache or a sore shoulder or elbow.
A tuning technique that relies heavily on the ears is to be preferred over a solely electronic method. It’s not just a matter of tuner pride, either. In my estimation and experience, the few who tune exclusively with electronic devices are more likely to end up with a lifeless instrument. (See octaves paragraph above.) Technologies devices may certainly be used. I use both a tuning fork and an electronic tuner at some points. Still, the able human ear is probably the best at hearing pitch-producing strings that will later be used in musical sounds.
Next in series: intonation and ensembles