By Carl Radford,
What is Tuning?
Why Do Pianos Go Out of Tune?
Often Should a
Piano Be Tuned?
Should a Piano That's Not Played
Very Much Be
Tuned as Often?
Piano Be Damaged by Not Having it Tuned?
What is a Pitch
What is the Best
Location for the
How Can I Control the
Piano Life Saver
How Should I Clean
What is Well
How to Help Your
Technician Do His
The Piano Technician's Guild
The Structure of a Piano
The Piano Parts
What is Tuning?
Tuning involves tightening and
loosening the tension of the steel strings in a piano, so
that they are organized to sound beautiful, or in harmony,
together. The higher the tension of a string the higher the
pitch of the sound, and conversely, the looser the string
the lower the note of that string will be.
Each string is attached to a steel tuning
pin which is embedded into wood (pinblock). The piano tuner
uses a tuning lever on these steel tuning pins to raise and
lower the tension.
In most pianos there are more than 230
strings and all must be properly tuned to each other to
Why Do Pianos go Out of Tune?
The primary reason pianos go out
of tune is due to fluctuations in the amount of moisture in
the air; in other words - changes in humidity.
Trees accept moisture and food from the
ground along small tubes which contract and expand with the
amount of moisture available to them. These tubes are what
make up the growth rings, and later what we call the grain
of the wood in sawn lumber. The moisture in the air still
causes some expansion and contraction of the wood, even
after the the wood has been cut and finished into a piano.
Since about 80% of a piano is made out of wood, changes in
humidity can sometimes have a large effect. If you've ever
had difficulty opening a sticking door on a particularly
damp day, you get the idea.
When the heat in the house comes on in
the winter, the air can be very dry and causes the wood in
the piano, and hence the soundboard, to shrink a little.
Since the strings are attached indirectly to the soundboard
(via the bridge), as the wood shrinks the strings lose some
tension and consequently the pitch of the piano drops. This
is why a piano may go down in pitch, but still seem to be in
tune with itself, without the pianist even knowing it. Too
little humidity can also cause other problems over time such
as loose tuning pins, which could render the piano
untunable, irreparable cracks in the soundboard, and
On the other hand, during the rainy
season in the spring after the heat goes off the soundboard
can swell up, cause extra tension on the strings, and the
pitch of the piano will rise. Excessive humidity can also
cause sticking keys and rusty strings.
New pianos will tend to go out of tune faster than pianos that have
been around for a while. This is because the strings are new
and still stretching. If you've ever put a new string on a
guitar, you know it takes a while for the new string to stop
stretching and blend in with the old ones. This is why most
piano manufacturers recommend at least four tunings in the
Playing the piano can have some effect on the tuning. The harder
and more frequently the piano is played the more it will go
out of tune, but overall humidity plays a much greater
Level pianos will stay in tune better than wobbly ones. Grand
pianos have three legs and cannot wobble, but if you have a
vertical you can make it stay in tune better by making sure
all four casters are making solid contact with the
direct heat and direct sunlight should be avoided as these
will also affect the moisture content in the wood and cause
Moving a piano can flex the soundboard and cause a piano to go
out of tune. Moving it to a different room, house or
environment where there is a different humidity level can
sometimes also causes changes, which is why a piano that has
held its tune very well for many years, when moved to a less
stable environment, may suddenly not hold a tune as
Should a Piano be Tuned?
Most piano manufacturers
recommend at least four tunings in the first year and two
tunings per year thereafter for a typical home piano. This
is because of the changes in humidity, and hence tuning due
to the changes in season.
Some people like to go as long as a year
between tunings. This should be considered minimal and
certainly should not go any longer than that. On the other
hand, some people who have more sensitive ears, and consider
themselves artists, have their piano tuned four times a year
or more. Concert halls and recording studios usually tune
Should a Piano That's Not Played Very Much Be
Tuned as Often?
Yes. This is one of the most
common misconceptions. Playing has less to do with knocking
the piano out of tune as does the humidity. The humidity
keeps changing whether anyone is playing the piano or not.
So the piano should be tuned whether anyone is playing it or
Piano Be Damaged by Not Having it Tuned?
To keep a piano untuned for many
years could do permanent damage to the piano. The strings
are under a great deal of tension and tend to loose their
tension over time. If the piano is kept untuned for too long
you run the risk of the total pitch of the piano dropping.
To bring the piano back to standard pitch may cause, at
best, the necessity for several tunings over several weeks
(at a higher cost) or, at worst, string breakage, and split
bridges. Not only that, but playing on a poorly tuned piano
can cause a potential musician to subconsciously not enjoy
playing and hence, not wish to play.
Many piano owners don't realize that not
having a piano tuned regularly may also invalidate the
warranty. That is why it is a good idea to keep the tuning
receipts your technician gives you after each tuning, to
prove that you've kept the piano maintained in case of a
When a string on a piano is struck it vibrates back and
forth. The faster it vibrates, the higher the sound. The
slower it vibrates the lower the sound will be. The lowest
note on the piano vibrates about 27.5 times a second and the
highest about 3520 times a second. The number of vibrations
per second is called cycles or Hertz and is also the
frequency of the tone. Sometimes you will hear this referred to as the 'pitch'.
The "A" stands for the A (or the ninth
key) above middle C. The 440 refers to the sound frequency
of 440 vibrations per second. This means that when the A
above middle C is tuned to 440, that string is vibrating
back and forth 440 times a second.
Most technicians tune the first A at 440
using a tuning fork, or electronic device, and then they
tune the rest of the piano to this note.
Long ago there were many differing ideas
as to what frequency pianos and orchestras should be tuned.
(That is why some very old pianos and organs still need to
be tuned to a lower A-435.) To avoid confusion A-440 was
accepted, after the first world war, as the international
What is a Pitch Raise?
If a piano is kept untuned for
too long, or undergoes dramatic humidity extremes, the pitch
of all the notes of the piano may drop significantly below
A-440 (see above). The entire piano may be one, two or more
notes low. When the piano is under pitch like this, other
instruments or singers may have difficulty tuning with the
To rectify the problem, the technician
must roughly tune the piano once to "get it in the ball
park". By the time he is done with the first tuning, the
strings will have stretched out of tune again and the piano
will then need one or more finer tunings. A pitch raise is a
fairly radical procedure, and the piano will tend to wander
out of tune again faster than normal at first, until another
tuning some months later. After that the piano will become
more stable with consistent tunings.
Some older pianos cannot be brought up to
proper pitch, because the strings are rusty or old and may
break if too much tension is put suddenly on them, or the
wooden bridge may split, causing buzzing notes.
The bad news is that since this requires
more time and effort, the technician is likely to charge
extra. The good news is that, if regularly tuned thereafter,
the piano will not be likely to need a pitch raise
What is the Best Location for the Piano?
from direct heat such as
radiators, heat ducts and fireplaces. Leaving a piano next
to one of these over several years will do irreparable
2. Away from
direct sunlight. The light will
discolor or crack the finish and the heat will make the
tuning less stable. However, diffused sunlight is usually
3. Away from
outside walls, outside doorways
and drafts. Outside walls tend to be colder and wetter and
cause tuning instability. However, if you have to make a
choice between an outside wall and a heating duct, the
outside wall is preferable.
4. Out of the
basement or garage, if possible.
Basements tend to be too wet and may, over time, warp and
rust the parts. Also, many basements flood. If you must have
the piano in the basement, proper humidity control is
essential. Never store a piano in a garage. The humidity
extremes in a garage that is not climate controlled will
quickly render the piano unusable.
Think of a sponge in a dish of
water. The more water in the dish, the more the sponge
expands. The less water, the more the sponge shrinks until
it becomes dry and brittle. The sponge, of course, is the
wood in the piano. The dish is the room, and the water is
the humidity in the air of the room.
Now attach a string from the end of the
sponge to the side of the dish. As expansion or contraction
of the sponge takes place, the string becomes taught or
slack; just like the stings in the piano. As this happens
the tuning goes up and down in pitch. Obviously, the more
consistent one can keep the moisture level, the more
consistent the tuning will stay and also the longer the
piano will last. It is not too much or too little humidity
which causes problems, but the extremes of going back and
forth when the heat comes on and off in seasonal climates
such as the northern United States. A constant high or low
humidity is in actually easier to deal with than these wide
swings. On a rainy day the humidity can get up to 100% and
on a dry winter day it can get down to 20 or 30% in a heated
house. The ideal humidity for a
piano is 35 to 45% (or 42% with a
temperature of 68 degrees, if you want to get
Hygrometers are devices which measure the humidity. These can be
purchased at a hardware, department or electronic store.
There are needle and digital types and some are more
accurate than others, so you need to beware of the really
cheap ones. Also, be sure to get one that measu
relative humidity (humidity relative to the temperature).
Your technician may be able to recommend a good one.
Humidifiers are used mostly in the winter to add moisture to the air. An
adequate humidifier is the kind that is a part of a forced
air system, however be aware that these can be quite
inaccurate. Many, unbeknownst to the owner, aren't working
If you don't have forced air, the next
best humidifier, is the portable type of which there are many sizes and styles available. Although they can be quite noisy, they can be placed in the
room near the piano and monitored for a while until you get
a fairly constant humidity level. It is best to get a large
enough tank for when you go out of town. It's also a good
idea to get one with a humidistat, which automatically turns
the humidifier on and off when it reaches the proper
humidity level. Avoid ultrasonic humidifiers, as they can
cause health problems and white dust. Clean your room
humidifier once a week or so with bleach to avoid health
problems and add bacteriostatic solution (easily obtained
from your local hardware store) to keep down bacteria
Air Conditioners and
Dehumidifiers are a good idea
during the Spring and Summer to keep the moisture down if
you have a problem with excessive humidity. Again,
consistency is the key.
Piano Life Saver- a complete humidity control system. (shown
How can I Control the Humidity?
I highly recommend the Piano Life Saver (Dampp-Chaser) humidity control system. It is the ideal solution
to the humidity problem. This device works year-round on
grands and verticals and keeps the piano at a constant 42%
humidity. The unit is silent, hidden, easy to care for, and
works better than anything else available.
The system is placed directly into the
piano and consists of three basic parts:
1. A low
wattage heater, which comes on
when the moisture in the piano is too high, and keeps the
piano from getting too wet.
2. An humidifier, which distributes
moisture at the proper amount when the air around the piano
becomes too dry.
humidistat, which measures the
current humidity level and automatically regulates the
heater and the humidifier.
The climate control system is endorsed by
piano manufacturers, the Piano Technicians Guild, and many
experienced technicians throughout the country. This product
is the most effective way to care for your piano while
saving yourself hundreds of dollars in unnecessary repair
and maintenance costs. The Piano Life Saver system will allow
your instrument to give you its best in performance and
sound for many years to come.
More information about the Piano Life Saver system.
To have one professionally installed by a Piano Life Saver Certified Installer email us or call 773-761-KEYS (5397).
A PIANO LIFE SAVER SYSTEM INSTALLED IN A
Piano Life Saver Care is easy.
1. Always leave
the system plugged in year around. This is very important! Unplugging the system
will cause the piano to quickly go out of tune and defeats
the purpose of the system.
2. Whenever the light blinks, fill it
with water. Fill it with distilled or filtered
water if possible. Add 1
capful of the Humidifier Pad Treatment, which comes with the system or can
be obtained from your piano technician. Always water the
piano when the light blinks, even when the piano technician
is about to come for a tuning.
3. The pads should be replaced about once
a year. Your technician will do this for you.
How Should I Clean the Finish?
Don't use waxes, furniture polishes, oils or dust
cleaners, unless one is
recommended by your technician. Some oils, especially
silicone, cannot be removed when put on a finish. Others can
darken the wood or damage the finish.
On most new pianos you can use some soft cloth (such as cheese cloth
or a cotton diaper). Take two pieces of the cloth, put a
little tap water on one, just enough to lightly moisten it,
and leave the other dry. Clean the piano with one stroke of
the wet cloth, then wipe it dry with the dry cloth. This
works especially well for the high gloss finishes. You may
also use a little diluted glass cleaner on the cloth if the
piano becomes especially dirty. Just make sure you use glass
cleaner without ammonia.
To clean the keys, use the same procedure as above. Avoid spraying
water or glass cleaner directly on the keys, as moisture may
get in between the keys causing warping and sticking
For yellowed ivory
keys, consult your
For inside the piano it usually best to let your technician do the
cleaning, for an inexperienced person may do minor damage.
However, if you insist and your technician agrees, you may
do some interior cleaning.
To clean the inside of
verticals, open up the bottom
board and the top lid and vacuum, being careful not to touch
the strings or suck up any parts which may have broken and
fallen from the action. If you find a part and are in doubt
- save it for your technician. You may dust with a moist
cloth, again being careful not to touch the strings, as
moisture will cause them to rust.
your technician has a special method to clean underneath the
strings and it is best to consult him for a thorough
cleaning. You can, however, blow the soundboard area out
with the exhaust end of a vacuum cleaner from time to time,
but be prepared for a large dust cloud. Be careful to avoid
touching the strings with moisture or your hands, since
moisture and the oil from your hands causes rust.
After several years of playing,
the felt and cloth parts in a piano will wear down or
compress from normal usage. Parts become out of alignment,
loose or wobbly, and because of this, the touch of the piano
may become inconsistent from key to key. It may feel sloppy,
not as responsive as it used to, or no longer as comfortable
to play. Other signs are excessive noises such as clicking
and squeaking sounds.
The remedy for this is called regulation.
The technician will clean and lubricate the action parts. He
will also tighten, and align and all the parts to original
specifications to optimize repetition and
The amount the piano is played and the
ability and sensitivity of the pianist will dictate how
often this procedure is needed.
A poorly regulated piano can severely
hamper and frustrate a beginner as well as an advanced
player, and the player will be amazed at how a little
regulation can breathe new life and enjoyment into a piano's
Voicing means changing the tone
of the piano by sanding, needling or applying chemicals to
the felt of the hammers. There are three reasons for
1. After several years of playing the
felt on the hammers will wear down, and grooves will form on
them from striking the strings. When the grooves become too
deep, the resilient shape of the hammers is lost and the
tone becomes less pleasing. This happens so gradually, that
the pianist will probably hardly notice the change.
To remedy this, the technician will sand
the hammers to the original shape and remove the grooves.
This process can dramatically enhance the tone, restoring it
to its former richness.
2. Another aspect of voicing involves
making the tone of the entire piano brighter or more mellow.
Making it brighter is done, either by ironing or fine
sanding the hammers, or by applying a chemical felt
hardener. Making it more mellow is usually done by sanding
the hammers, or pricking the hammers with needles, which
softens the felt.
3. Sometimes some individual notes stick
out as too bright, or not bright enough compared to the
rest. In this case some fine voicing is required, which
involves sanding and needling, to even out the tone so that
it is consistent throughout the piano.
Whereas voicing can sometimes make large
changes in the quality of the tone, it should be kept in
mind that only so much can be done, given the inherent
nature and tone of each individual piano.
When voicing a piano, the technician will
probably want the pianist nearby to listen and tell him
which type of tone they prefer.
A TECHNICIAN NEEDLES THE HAMMERS TO SOFTEN THE FELT AND EVEN OUT THE TONE
What is Well Temperament?
Well Temperament is a type of
tuning that all the major composers from Bach to
Rachmaninoff composed upon. During the last century this
tuning has been all but lost to us until just recently.
Well Temperament gives music more color
and depth, because each major and minor key has its own
unique flavor. What Well Temperament does is make the music
come alive in a way that is really unbelievable. The major
keys sound happier, more pure and the minor keys sound
sadder, more tragic, more melancholy. And each key is
different and unique unto itself. The music sounds the way
the composers meant, and when one hears it that way, one is
astounded at the brilliance of some of the composers usage
of this tuning in their compositions.
Tuners and pianists the world over are
quickly realizing that changing to Well Temperament is like
hearing in black & white your whole life and suddenly
changing to color. Well
Temperament may open up an
exciting new door to the enjoyment of music that you never
before knew existed.
When moving a piano always use a piano mover, who specializes
in pianos, and not a furniture mover, who says they also
move pianos. Almost everyone who has had their piano moved
has horror stories of broken lids, scratches and ineptitude
by unqualified movers. The piano mover may cost a bit more,
but they'll do it right and it always pays off in the long
run. Your technician usually will be happy to refer you to a
tried and true piano mover.
The flexing of the soundboard while
moving a piano, and the change in humidity from one
environment to another after a move, may cause a piano to go
out of tune. After moving, you should wait a week or so
before scheduling a tuning so the piano has a chance to
adjust itself to the new humidity.
How to Help Your Technician Do
There are several things you can
do to make the technician's visit faster, easier and in the
process receive a higher quality tuning:
Noise is by
far the worst enemy of piano tuners. When a tuner tunes, he
listens to very high frequencies, most untrained ears are
not even aware of, called overtones. Anything else that
produces these high frequencies, such as music, television,
running water, vacuum cleaners, clanking dishes, yelling
children and loud talking, makes it much more difficult to
tune accurately. The technician can still tune a piano
through all of this, but it will take longer and be a poorer
Adequate Light in the area of the piano is greatly appreciated,
as it can be difficult to make proper repairs without good
Clearing off the top of the piano before the tuner's visit is also
greatly appreciated. The top must be cleared so the tuner
can open the lid and get into the piano to tune. Not only
does this save time, but technicians are always fearful that
they may break some knickknack of importance if they have to
Consistent humidity about 35 to 45%, as discussed earlier, will make
the piano more stable and it will not go as far out of tune
between tunings. Each time the technician returns, he will
be able to achieve a more detailed, higher quality, more
stable tuning, because the piano will not have fluctuated as
notes can be a problem, because
that sticky key that had been sticking for months isn't
sticking when the technician arrives (of course!). It's a
law of nature; just like the squeaky brakes that don't
squeak once you finally get the car into the shop for
The best thing to do when there is a
problem key, is to write down the number of the particular
key(s) in question on a piece of paper. Also, note the
problem with each key, and put the paper in the piano bench
until the technician arrives. He/she will then know exactly
which key to look at during the next service call.
Missed appointments can be very
exasperating for technicians, because they schedule their
appointments very tightly together and often drive large
distances only to find no one home.
If a cancellation or postponement of an
appointment is unavoidable, it is a good idea to give at
least twenty-four hours notice. If even that is not
possible, it should be expected that there will be a minimum
service call fee, even if there was a good reason to
If there is a complaint or
question about the work that was done on a piano, the best
thing to do is go to the source; call the technician and
consult him. He will probably want to know about it, rather
than wonder why he never heard from you again. Usually
complaints revolve around failed communication between
technician and customer, as they sometimes have different
ways of saying the same thing. A "wobbly note" to the
pianist may be "insufficient aftertouch" or an "out of tune
unison" to the technician. In any case, the technician would
rather talk to you and/or make another appointment to
rectify the problem, than lose you as a customer.
It is usually best to use a piano
technician, as opposed to a piano tuner. The difference is
that the technician not only tunes, but also understands the
maintenance, repair, regulation and voicing of pianos and is
able to carry out these services, as well as tuning.
Whereas a few tuners are hobbyists, most
are professionals and support themselves and their families
solely as piano technicians. It can take three years or more
to become adept at piano tuning and maintenance, and several
years beyond that to build up enough clientele for a
business. Many people do not realize the level of skill
involved in doing a fine piano tuning, which is why many
consider piano tuners "unseen artists".
There is no licensing for piano
technicians. Anyone can say they're a tuner, and hang out a
shingle. The best way to find a qualified technician is by
referral from a piano store, pianist, teacher or friend. The
other way is to seek out a registered member of the Piano
Technician's Guild (explained in more detail below). Of
course, if you just bought a piano from a store, the
technician who first serviced your piano after delivery
hopes to keep your business for many years to come; so if
you are happy with him / her, you need look no further.
Here is a list of services you can expect from Radford Piano Services,
The Piano Technician's Guild
The P.T.G. is an international, non-profit organization of
piano tuner / technicians, who meet regularly to learn more
about their craft from each other.
The guild also offers testing for its
members to set standards and prove competency in tuning,
repair and regulation. There are three rigorous and
comprehensive tests, which when passed, entitles the member
to use the title of Registered
Piano Technician or R.P.T. Only
R.P.T.'s are entitled to use the logo displayed below, and
if you see these logos, you can be assured of a qualified
technician, who has passed these examinations.
The Structure of a Piano
The pianist plays the KEYS. The
KEYS, which are basically levers, push up on a complicated
series of other levers and pivots, called The ACTION.
SIDE VIEW PHOTO OF A GRAND PIANO
SIDE LABELED VIEW OF A GRAND PIANO
The action then transfers
the pianist's blow to the hammers, which are made
out of felt, and they then strike the strings. The strings
vibrate and create the pitches (notes) at various
frequencies. The strings are held in place by steel tuning pins driven into a thick piece of wood called a pinblock. It is important that the pinblock grips the
tuning pins tightly enough that the strings stay in tune,
but it must also allow the pins to move enough that the
piano technician can turn them and tune the piano. The
strings are connected at one end by the tuning pins and
pinblock. The strings pass over the bridge transferring the
vibrations of the strings to the soundboard and are
attached at the other end to the cast iron plate.
GRAND PIANO VIEWED FROM ABOVE
The soundboard is usually made of spruce
and acts like an amplifier, enhancing the tone of the
strings. The cast iron plate holds the tremendous tension of
all the strings. Finally, the case contains all the
parts and keeps the soundboard taut.
GRAND PIANO STRUCTURE
It's amazing to me how many wonderful and
talented pianists spend much of their lives in front of a
piano, yet have no knowledge of what is inside a piano or
how it works.
You can learn the nomenclature and structure of the
piano's case and actions parts or test your knowledge by
taking the Piano
The following books should be
available at your library, piano store or from your piano
Book, A Guide to Buying a New or
Used Piano by Larry Fine
The Wonders of the Piano by Catherine Bielefeldt
Artwork courtesy of: Steinway and
Sons, Samick Piano Corporation, and Piano Life Saver Electronics
© 1992-2015 by Carl Radford. All rights
reserved. No copies or reproductions may be made without the
permission of the author.