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How to Tune a Piano Yourself
Released: 11/30/2009 8:37:40 AM    Clicked: 17    Source: Singapore Piano Shop

Piano Tuning: Deceptively Simple

Piano tuning is a surprisingly simple process, though clothed in mystery by those "in the know." When I wanted to learn how to tune my piano, I could not find information on the web that clearly explained how to do it without insisting I buy a book or take a course. So after research and trying it myself, I have developed the method on this page, using the three pictured tools: mutes, electronic tuner and a tuning wrench.

mutes tuner hammer
 

 

Reality Check

Before we leap into the details, let me explain the expression "deceptively simple." At first glance piano tuning seems straightforward, but there's more you should know. While you can learn the basic mechanics of tuning piano strings quickly using the directions on this page, good piano tuning technique is very much a learned skill. It requires patience and practice. Good overall tone involves more than turning pins. Professional piano tuners and technicians spend years learning the nuances.

This page does not replace the professional piano tuner. The simplified approach given here can be useful for those who want to keep things going between professional tunings, those who wish to experiment, even performers who need to do an emergency fix before the recital. I have even heard from people who had a piano so neglected that a professional piano tuner refused to tune it. This method might at least make it playable once more.

The piano is a large and complex instrument. It can be quite a task to get all the keys in tune, and this gets worse the longer the piano has not been tuned. A piano that has been left untuned for a long time may not hold tune with a standard tuning and may need a "pitch-raise" (an extended tuning regimen requiring several passes tuning the entire piano until everything will finally stay in tune.) Beyond that, voicing and regulating the action may be required to restore the best tone. Some pianos will require repairs, like misaligned hammers or loose pins, which are beyond the scope of this page (though we do have some resources we can recommend.)

Know the risks. If you are careless in your tuning technique, you can break strings, loosen or bend pins or cause other damage. Too many loose pins, for example, may render the piano practically un-tunable and too expensive to repair.

Read this entire page! I occasionally receive remarks from professional tuners critical of this web site. Those remarks are welcome; I use them to improve the website, though sometimes it is clear that they have dismissed the site without reading it completely. Please read the entire website carefully to be certain you understand the details, risks and limitations of this simplified procedure.

This author is not a professional piano tuner; I was just willing to try piano tuning myself. I have an older student-quality piano, not a priceless Steinway. I don't think I'd risk anything expensive or precious. Still, I did it myself, and I am happy with the results. I think other piano owners can do the same. With that, let's get some tools.

 

MINIMUM PIANO TUNING TOOLS

You will need some special piano tuning tools. I used the following piano tuning tools, purchased from piano tool suppliers on the internet. I do not recommend homemade workarounds like socket wrenches or foam chunks. Get the right tools for the job. You will have better results, less frustration, and be less likely to damage the piano. A set of basic tools will cost less than a single professional tuning.

1Rubber tuning wedges or "mutes" made for piano tuning (only a dollar or two each, at PianoSupplies.com, for example) Assorted sizes come in handy. I use the ones with a wire handle most often. You'll need at least two rubber wedge mutes to get started. Several other kinds of mutes are available for muting whole ranges of strings and muting just the middle of three strings. You may find these useful as you gain skill. (A reader offers this tip about wedges for those tempted to save money here: "You cannot mute the strings with your fingers, even if you have three hands. The heat from your fingertips will make the string expand, so you'll tighten it, and it'll go sharp as soon as it cools!")

2Tuning hammer or lever or wrench (actually a specialized wrench to turn the string pins). This is the most expensive tool you'll need--and also the most important. It has a special "star" socket shape that is designed to fit piano pins. piano tuning lever hammer star headThere is a variety of hammers to choose from at PianoSupplies.com. In most cases, the more expensive, the higher the quality. Better models like mine have an interchangeable head in case you run into an odd pin size. In order to feel the subtle motions, you need a solid tool with no wiggle in the handle and a secure fit to the pin. I have received comments from people who have purchased inferior tools, and they have trouble with the head slipping, binding--even unscrewing--or a poor angle on the head that interferes with the feel. I tinkered briefly with a standard crescent wrench (I can hear you pro tuners shuddering now!), but it did not work well. It slipped easily, tended to damage the squared edges of the pins, and was too short to control the turn anyway--not a good idea. The square shape of the pins ruled out proper use of a standard hex socket. Some people reverse a 1/4" hex socket, and use the 1/4" square opening that you normally use to attach the socket to the wrench. This can work in a pinch, but it does not fit the pin as completely and a socket wrench handle is too short for fine control. Furthermore, the star socket on a real tuning hammer will allow you to attach to the pin at more angles, which can be important for maintaining the delicate control needed to turn the pin just right. I do not recommend any improvised wrenches because you do not want to risk damaging, bending or loosening the pin. Please buy a proper wrench!

Korg CA-30 Tuner for Piano Tuning
The KORG CA-30
The size of a deck of cards

3 Electronic tuner. I use a Korg Chromatic Tuner, model CA-30. This little fellow is KEY (no pun intended) to making this process as painless as possible. I tried using a tuning fork, but it was too difficult. The electronic tuner makes it much easier and faster. And it is inexpensive, less than $20.00 shipped from Amazon. (There are more elaborate electronic tuners dedicated to piano tuning, which many professional tuners use these days, rather than tuning forks, but they are hundreds of dollars. There are software piano tuning programs that emulate the electronic professional tuners, but even these are $100 to $300.) For the do-it-yourself method in this tutorial, any chromatic tuner in the inexpensive Korg lines will work. NOTE: Guitar-only tuners will not work as well, because they recognize fewer notes than a full chromatic tuner, but a chromatic Korg Tuner will tune all instruments, from guitars to brass and more! You can always upgrade your tuner, but a simple one will get you started.

4Light source to shine into the piano. It's pretty dark, and there are a lot of strings and other stuff in there. Easy to get lost...make sure a loved one knows where you are.

 

PIANO TUNING PROCEDURE

1 Clear the work area--indeed, the whole house if you can--of other humans. Lock the doors. Piano tuning requires concentration. Give yourself plenty of room by opening the lid all the way. You may want to remove several of the screwed-in cabinet members to give yourself more room. It's OK, they are made to be removed, but be careful not to remove those that hold the keys or the action in place. Position your light source.

Hammer and wedge in position to tune a piano
In position to tune.
My piano has 2 strings per
key at this octave;
most pianos have 3.

2 Start with the middle octave (Middle C on up to C'). Each piano key strikes one to three strings. Pick one string to tune at a time; if there are three strings, start with the middle. Carefully find the pin that turns the string you want to tune. Stick the rubber wedges in to stop the vibration of the other one or two strings in the set. While repeatedly striking the piano key FIRMLY, turn the pin with the tuning wrench until the electronic tuner shows that it's in tune. The Korg CA-30 automatically detects the note you are trying to reach. If you are really off, it may show the wrong note, so make sure you know what you are looking for.

Tips about this process:

  • Proceed slowly. Stretching a string too quickly can break it, especially an old string. If the string is really far out, you may want to tune it in several steps, allowing it to rest a few minutes between turns. (Thanks to a reader for pointing this out.)
  • Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey! Turning the pin right/clockwise will tighten the pin and raise the pitch. Turning it left/counter-clockwise will loosen the pin and lower the pitch.
  • Do not overwork the pin. Twist it gently, little by little, without bending it. Don't wiggle it side to side in any way. Move the pin as little as you can (you'll get better with practice.) Too much twisting and wiggling can loosen it; a loose pin will keep slipping out of tune. Rough technique may permanently loosen pins. Loose tuning pins will need to be replaced by a professional.
  • About "Setting the Pin." Setting the pin means to move it in such a way that it does not easily slip back out of tune. To set the pin your final tuning movements should be:
    1. a slight tightening/clockwise move to stretch the string just a hair above pitch
    2. followed by an even slighter loosening/counterclockwise to move into pitch.
    This is where practice comes in. The better the tuner, the better he or she is at setting the pins, and the longer the piano holds tune. As a novice, your piano probably won't hold tune as long because of this important skill.
  • Loosen the tension a little first before tightening. Better to relax the string than to overtighten needlessly, especially if you happen to be on the wrong string! Overtightening breaks strings, and is a common error for inexperienced tuners
  • Striking the key firmly is important. The vibrations this creates equalized the tension along the string. A string firmly struck while tuning will stay in tune lnger. If you tune by playing softly, the string may relax later when someone does play it hard, and it will slip out of tune. If you like, you can begin your tuning of each key with gentler hits; striking it hard all the time is exhausting and irritating to the ear. When you think you have it, hit it hard a few times as you finish the final touches.
  • As you tune with an electronic tuner, particular an inexpensive one with its jumpy LCD needle, you will find it nearly impossible to hit dead on the frequency each time. I tend to stay just a shade sharp when in doubt, as my piano generally goes out of tune to the flat, not the sharp. Tuning a little sharp also gives a brighter sound, but do not overdo it.
  • A good piano tuner may tune the middle register a little sharp on purpose, because the process of tuning the high and low registers can flat the middle sometimes. (Fast explanation: All those strings put a lot of tension on the sound board. As you work your way to the ends of the keyboard, the resulting tension changes can subtly alter the shape of the sound board, reducing the tension on the middle octaves, causing the middle octaves to flat.) If you tune the middle a little sharp, by the time you finish the upper and lower, the middle will, in theory, be in tune. I wouldn't worry about this as a beginner. This is an advanced technique that the experience of the professional can bring, and you can work toward as your skills improve. (When you really know what you are doing, then you will learn how to stretch the octaves. See Technical Sidenotes below.)

3 After the first string is tuned, move the wedges so that the first string and the second string are free, but the third, if present, is still dampened by the wedge. Ignore the tuner. Just put your wrench on the second string's pin. While repeatedly striking the key hard, turn the second pin until you can hear no more "beats"--that is, it sounds like one note, not two in disharmony. Repeat for the third string if necessary, with all wedges removed.

If you are not sure what to listen for, here is an mp3 (104k file) I recorded of a piano note being tuned. In the recording, I start with a middle A that is in tune, then use my tuning wrench to loosen one of the strings out of tune, then bring it back in tune again. Disclaimer: In order to demonstrate in this mp3, I have turned the pin much more than is healthy for the pin. Move your pins as little as possible to avoid loosening them.

Alternatively, you could tune all the strings in a key's set with the electronic tuner, but that's not as easy as you might think. Getting that little indicator to line up just right becomes tedious fast. Using your ear to tune the strings to each other is faster and will sound better (see technical note below)

4 Repeat steps 2 and 3 for each key in the middle octave.


 

5 Use the first octave as your guide to tune the adjacent octaves. Ignore the electronic tuner again. Tune the octaves above and below the middle by ear, matching them to the middle octave, e.g, A to A, B to B, etc. This is called "tuning the unisons." Tune one string in the note at a time (muting the others)--this time comparing it to the corresponding note in the middle octave rather than the electronic tuner. Then tune the other string(s) within the note to the first as described above. Repeat for all octaves, always using the nearest tuned octave to tune the next octave above or below. There you are--a tuned piano!

Alternatively, you could in theory use an electronic tuner to tune all the octaves on the piano. There are several problems with this:

  • Just as above, getting that indicator on the electronic tuner to settle down can be nerve-wracking. You will find that watching the tuner all the time will just slow you down. "Hearing it" will be more efficient and less frustrating once you get the hang of it.
  • The simple electronic tuner recommended here works best on the middle octave. It may work on a few keys above and below the middle octave, but it has trouble "hearing" once you get much further. A better tuner or maybe a remote contact mic might help. The Korg CM-100 Tuner Clip works with any tuner with an audio input jack, and is actually handy for tuning in general to help you get as close to the targeted strings as possible and thus less affected by ambient noise or the changes in pitch as the sound bounces around the piano or the room.
  • In reality, a piano is 99% tuned to itself. The different lengths and types of strings in a single piano tend to alter their resonant characteristics from the ideal. The mathematically correct pitch actually sounds out of tune for many keys, especially in the extreme high and low octaves, and moreso on smaller pianos with shorter strings. If you tune the entire piano using a simple electronic tuner, the top registers will sound flat, and the bottom registers sharp. Putting the electronic tuner aside to tune unisons by ear will get you closer to proper adjustment automatically. This also more closely approaches what a professional piano tuner who tunes by ear does.
  • If you prefer an electronic tuner to tune every octave, then you will need a professional piano tuner's electronic tuner or tuning software.

Technical Sidenotes

  • Because of the peculiar harmonicities of piano strings, the ONLY note on a piano that is precisely tuned to an outside standard is "A" in the middle octave, that being 440 Hz. A professional tuner who tunes only by ear may just tune the "A" with a tuning fork and tune the rest by ear.
  • To tune a piano exactly right, one must "stretch octaves," which is to intentionally tune the upper registers progressively sharp and the lower registers progressively flat. There is electronic equipment and software that can help a professional piano tuner calculate precise frequencies, but these are expensive. In my method, we are tuning the entire middle octave to an outside standard, which is not the best, but it's better than not being in tune at all. The middle octave is stretched the least of all the octaves, so the effect is minimized.
  • The most popular modern model for the frequency for each note is called "equal temperament." Ideally, the "perfect" piano will be tuned with mathematically calculated frequencies that have precise intervals between notes determined by the equal temperament model. Tuning the entire piano with an electronic tuner that is not specially designed for pianos will be close to true equal temperament. But, as explained above, that does not sound right. Stretching the octaves compensates for this, in effect creating a customized version of equal temperament unique to each piano. There are actually multiple temperaments, or piano tuning schemes, really, that have been developed through the years. Some were experimental; others deliberately favored certain musical intervals. Interestingly, composers of the classical period composed for pianos that were not tuned to equal temperament but to one of several other temperaments popular in their time. Today, equal temperament is by far the most common, but you could say there is no one single right way to tune a piano!

How long will this take? That's extremely variable. Make of the piano, how badly out of tune it is, how good your ear is, etc. The first time you do it, it may take an hour to get through that first octave. Once you get the hang of it, I estimate that a careful tuning takes about 20 minutes an octave. As for a not-so-careful tune up, I have found that now I know my way around my particular piano, I can whip out the old hammer for a touch-up quite quickly--just a minute or two a note.

How do you keep a piano from getting out of tune? Aside from minimizing humidity, temperature and abusive-kid extremes, the best way to keep your piano in tune is to (surprise!) tune it. Once the piano is in tune, it is easier to keep it in tune with touch-ups and regularly-scheduled tunings. Don't wait until you can't stand the sound anymore. The more strings left untuned, the more the tension changes on the soundboard, causing a cascade effect where more and more strings to go out of tune.

What is missing in this piano tuning technique that a professional tuner would do? The main part of the piano tuning procedure this method short-cuts is tuning note-to-note within an octave, that is, using A to tune C, for example. This requires counting "beats," that is the loud points in the vibrations that two dissonant strings make. (Remember that when tuning the two strings of a single note, for example, you match them so the beats disappear entirely.) In addition, a professional will know how to stretch the octaves for the best sound. A professional will also bring experience, and will be less likely cause damage such as loosening pins or breaking strings. They may also make repairs. And, of course, they will be faster and better.

 

PIANO TUNING RESOURCES

Piano Tuning Equipment Sources

Basic Piano Tuning Kit

Basic Piano Tuning Kit
Click for description

I recommend PianoSupplies.com for most of the piano tuning equipment described in this tutorial. They sell kits as well as the individual items. I got the hammer and wedges in an "apprentice piano tuning kit." You could skip the "kit" and just buy the mutes and the hammer separately. I didn't end up using some of the items in the kit, especially the tuning forks

If you want more tools, a variety of mutes is probably the next thing to buy after the hammer, tuner, and a few wedge mutes. The temperament strip is a long strip of felt with which you can mute many strings at once by weaving it among the strings. Push it between the strings in several places with a screwdriver. It keeps other strings from sympathetically vibrating; the vibrations can make it difficult for your ear to isolate strings you are trying to tune. Professional piano tuners consider it essential; it often comes in basic kits. The long mute pictured in the kit is a "treble mute," which is used to mute the middle string of a triad. If you would like to try repairs, you'll need additional tools, such as this basic regulation tool kit. PianoSupplies.com also sells piano repair parts and accessories. They have great forums, too!

Korg tuners are available inexpensively from Korg Tuners on AmazonAmazon.com

 

Piano Tuning Books

This page presents an effective but very simplified approach to piano tuning. If you really want to be good at it, or are thinking of doing this for others, there is much more to learn. Here are several books that are among the most highly regarded resources in the field.

Piano Tuning: A Simple and Accurate Method for Amateurs by J. Cree Fischer. Here's a classic piano tuning text, recommended to me by a reader of this page. Written in 1907, so some of the information is outdated, but piano tuning has not changed much. While it is not the most modern text, it is very inexpensive. Browse inside the book and read the reviews at Amazon .

Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding, Second Edition : for the Professional, the Student, and the Hobbyist by Arthur A. Reblitz. This book was recommended to me by a reader as a more recent alternative. "All the information essential to the art of restoring and maintaining a piano; from minor repairs and cleaning to major tuning and complete restoration techniques." More expensive, but it has excellent reviews. Browse inside the book and read the reviews at Amazon.

Piano Tuning Links

I have told you what you need to learn to get started with piano tuning, but when you are ready you can learn more information from these pages.

Chuan C. Chang's tutorial of aural tuning
A very, very detailed description of tuning by ear. Scroll down quite a way to get to Chapter 2 on tuning.

McCullough Tuning Tutorial
More details on tuning by ear.

David Anderson's web site
Dave is a professional piano tuner who has posted some good background info on tuning.

Precison Strobe's Tuning Page
All the technical details behind piano tuning. Not for the faint of heart!

Low End Piano Maintainance and Repair Links
More links to content-rich websites with piano information for the do-it-yourself piano owner and player, gathered and reviewed by me.

The Piano Tuning FAQ
Frequently asked questions about the general topic of tuning a piano.