There has been some talk over in the audition room about tuning a piano and I thought it might be a good idea to share some thoughts.
I pay my tuner 85 Euros (~ 112 $) for each tuning. I understand that there are others who may ask for less but he is an Austrian guy who has worked for the maker of my pianos in the past and is quite experienced with the brand. Considering that I have two pianos and that the instruments hold their tuning at a professional level for about 2 weeks, you can imagine how much I would pay to keep them perfectly tuned at all times. Yes, I know that for home use I demand too much but I don't find anything wrong when musicians want their instruments tuned. After all a guitarist, a violinist, a trumpetist, a harpist and so on, all keep their instruments in tune, why shouldn't I? (my tuner says I'm spoiled but that's another story).
Some years ago, I decided to get into action and try to do it myself. Apart from the usual tools (tuning hammer, rubber or felt mutes etc.) I got a Korg chromatic tuner, you can see specs and reviews at the following links:
This is a very helpful device, accurate and inexpensive. I still call my tuner twice a year, because besides tuning, the pianos may need some regulation or general professional care but I have saved a lot and at the same time I have a perfectly tuned piano at all times.
Now, I am well aware of all the controversy around the matter as professional tuners, in a perfectly understandable effort to keep their business, are trying hard to present piano tuning as a kind of black magic scaring potential DIY's away without second thought. Piano tuning is a skill and an art all right, but this should not prevent the pianist from asking that their piano is always well tuned to play and practise on. Our fellow member, Andreas (musicusblau), is a great example of a pianist tuning his own piano and doing a hell of a job, if you pardon me the phrase. Others might also want to delve into this 'forbidden' activity.
That's why I've assembled a small FAQ based on my personal experience which of course is entirely subjective but it may prove useful to some, clearing up murky points while it reflects a pianist's view on tuning rather than a tuner's.
Does piano tuning require a professional?
Yes, it certainly does. But let's not forget that we don't talk about becoming professional tuners, at least I know I don't. We just need to fix some sour notes here and there, line up some unisons, that sort of thing. Don't expect to fully tune an out-of-tune piano in the first sitting. But wouldn't it be great to be able to touch up the tuner's work two or three weeks after he's gone and not have to wait until his next visit?
Does piano tuning take time?
If you are just starting it's better to do only touch-ups. A beginner might need the better part of the day or more to do a full tuning, so take it easy at first. After you've become more experienced and since you'll always tune the same instrument and know how it sounds better than anyone else, the time needed will decrease. But still, don't expect to go out and tune every friend's piano, you'll become experienced for your piano only. You still need to get official tutelage to become a tuner for other pianos out there.
What is the easiest touch-up I can get involved with?
Fixing a unison. Most pianos have 3 strings per note (Blüthners have 4 but only three are hit by the hammer). These have to be in perfect unison, otherwise the note sounds detuned (like in a honky tonk). There is no need to get into technical details as you can find information on unison tuning on the Internet or better yet by reading a book about the procedure. Fixing unisons will teach you the most important skill, listening to beats.
Beats, what are they?
Two strings pulsating in different frequencies create a periodic effect that's heard of as a beat. You need to listen for yourselves as the phenomenon cannot be adequately explained with words. If you have a tuning hammer and some rubber mutes (and the necessary motivation), you can try it on 2 strings of a note of your piano. The beat frequency increases as the two strings go out of unison and it decreases while they reach unison. In perfect unison no beat should be heard and the tone must be full as the two strings sound as one.
Can I use the tuning device to tune unisons instead of having to listen to beats?
I'm afraid not. While you can tune the centre string with the help of a tuning device, the left and right ones should be tuned by ear. This is due to the fact that piano strings have mass and size so they are not perfect strings (as we learned in school physics). Sorry.
What is the next touch-up I can try?
Fixing octaves. Equal temperament (it's what we usually tune our pianos to) requires perfect octaves. As in a unison, we want to eliminate beating between two octave notes. Of course, you should isolate the centre strings of both notes and tune these two. Then, you should take care of the unison of the octave note.
What if I want to try and tune the whole scale? Can I just use my chromatic tuner for this?
Again, I'm afraid not. Professional tuners tune one note only (usually an A) to the tuning fork and then all other notes of an octave relatively to this. This is called 'setting the temperament'. Of course, this is quite difficult to achieve and takes a lot of experience (tuners ask for a lot of money also). You can imagine that with relative tuning, the beginner can easily lose their bearings. An easier way is to trust the tuning device and tune the middle octave with it. The remaining notes above and below can be tuned in octaves. A still easier but not so accurate way, would be to trust the tuning device and tune the three middle octaves with it. Remaining notes present less octave work to be done by ear.
I used the chromatic tuner to tune five or six octaves but I am not satisfied with the result, what gives?
Unfortunately all pianos, even the longest ones, suffer from 'inharmonicity'. This basically means that octaves away from the middle one are not tuned to the first order harmonic. The farther away from the middle and the smaller the piano, the more pronounced the effect. If you tune high or low octaves with the chromatic device, then the sound will be dull with the piano not quite in tune. That's why these are always tuned by ear discriminating between beats that set the actual tone which might be of the second order harmonic or higher. It sounds difficult but it really is not so for someone who has spent some time. Feel free to experiment and fail as a beginner.
There is this special device, the AccuTuner, why not use this to releave some burden?
AccuTuner is a tool aimed at the professional tuner, the one who deals with many pianos every day. It is an overkill for a home pianist and at nearly 1500 $ it seems even more so. But if you can afford it, why not? It claims to be very accurate and I have no reason to argue that.
Beware however, that AccuTuner is only a tuning aid device. It does not do the actual tuning for you. You still have to handle the tuning hammer, place the mutes, spend time etc.
Have you come this far? Ok then, this means that you are motivated enough to try. There is an Internet link with excellent information on piano tuning but I am not sure whether it would be ok to publicly endorse it. There are also books on the subject, some of which are really informative and useful.
Feel free to comment, correct or argue on the above but please understand that I'm not an expert on piano tuning and my points are coloured with personal experience rather than real, solid knowledge.