The Piano Space

Learning How to Tune a Piano

Piano tuning is not for the faint of heart, though it certainly can be learned if you are so inclined. However, it will take a great deal of patience and a willingness to study the principles of tuning. To our knowledge, an accurate and complete guide to tuning a piano properly doesn't exist on the web.  There are many incomplete and inaccurate methods around though.  If, in the future, a definitive guide is found on the web we will certainly post a reference to it here. 

In the meantime, the absolute best resources for learning how to properly tune a piano yourself are Affleck's Piano Tuning Course and Floyd Stevens' Complete Course in Professional Piano Tuning.  More resources and books are also listed to the left.  If one can't dedicate the time to properly learn how to tune a piano then the best option is to hire a qualified piano tuner.  It isn't advisable to dive into such an endeavor lightheartedly, because it will end up costing you more money in the long run. To understand why tuning a piano is fraught with difficulties please read the information below.

The Difficulties of Piano Tuning

The internet is awash with incorrect advice about tuning a piano. Typically, one is advised to use an electronic tuning device, like those used for a guitar, to tune each note to an absolute pitch.  Piano tuners often do use electronic tuning devices, but these aren't the $20 chromatic guitar tuners.  These are sophisticated devices that measure a piano's inharmonicity and render accurate temperament tuning models (and cost upwards of $1,000!).  Furthermore, many of these internet articles make it sound like it's an easy process to learn, which it isn't. Guidance like this is wrong for two primary reasons:

  • A piano is tuned to equal temperament rather than a fixed set of absolute pitches. Only one note, usually A-440, is tuned to its absolute pitch. After this note is set the rest are tuned according to their relationship with that note. Setting each of the piano's notes to their theoretical absolute pitches assumes that the instrument's strings vibrate according to theoretical mathematical principles, but they do not. For a piano's strings to vibrate according to these mathematical principles the instrument would need to be inordinately large. As this is not practical, pianos are shortened and employ strings of varying thickness to emulate these theoretical properties. This, however, causes what is known as inharmonicty (for more information on inharmonicity visit this wikipedia page).  So, all pianos exhibit inharmonicity due to the properties of string tension and thickness. Furthermore, every piano has it's own degree inharmonicity, with larger pianos showing less of it and smaller pianos more. This makes the process of tuning something that is peculiar to each individual instrument. To account for inharmonicity the notes of a piano are not tuned to their theoretical pitches, but instead are stretched or "fudged" a bit across the full range of the keyboard. If it were not so then harmonic intervals along with modulation from one key signature to another would sound horrible. As can be imagined, this requires a well trained ear, which is usually acquired through many hours of tuning practice.
  • Another difficulty with tuning a piano is the sheer amount of work required. A piano has over two hundred tuning pins, a far cry from tuning the four or six strings on a violin or guitar. It is rare that all of the strings will need to be adjusted, but once again, unless your ear is well trained it is difficult to determine which strings need adjustment and which do not (and as explained above an electronic tuner won't help in this regard). Furthermore, adjusting the pitches also requires considerable skill with the tuning hammer and in the process of acquiring this skill a novice WILL break some strings. Once this occurs replacement piano wire (of the proper gauge) must be purchased from a piano supply company. Replacing the string is not easy either since one must open up the piano and feed it behind the other strings and around the hitch pins without kinking or bending it. Lastly, to tune a piano yourself you will be obliged to purchase a tuning hammer, muting felt, and muting wedges; without them a piano cannot be tuned properly.

These issues are raised, not to deter the serious-minded novice from learning how to tune a piano, but to alert the casual tinkerer to the difficulties and dangers of tuning a piano themselves. If one earnestly wishes to learn how to tune a piano it can certainly be accomplished - just be aware of the complex nature of such an endeavor. The best recommendations we can give to this person are to study a few good books on tuning in order to prepare yourself.

Tuning Software

Another option for the do-it-yourself tuner would be to try some tuning software. One example is the excellent software offered by TuneLab, which can be run on a number of devices: laptops, PDA's, cell phones, etc. They offer a limited trial version and a commercial version, which costs around $300.00.  The trial is similar to the commercial version except that there are annoying timed pauses after a set number of notes are tuned, which gets very annoying after a few notes.

TuneLab uses your computer's microphone and shows a visual meter to help you tune each note accurately, much like an electronic tuner does. What makes TuneLab different than a regular electronic tuner is that it first measures your piano's inharmonicity by taking samples across the keyboard. Then, using your piano's specific inharmonicity, it plugs it into whichever tuning temperament method you choose. This gives you an accurate and well-tempered tuning for your piano.

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