Questions, Answers

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers about Pianos

Q: I want to acquire a used piano.  Which pianos should I avoid?

A: 1)  A piano with action problems.

Don’t take on a piano that has repair issues with the keys you will be playing.  Some repair parts for a particular piano may not be available at all. Also, the repair cost could be very high. You want a piano that has been maintained, with all the keys working properly. The only exceptions are the bottom three notes and top three notes, which typically seize up from prolonged lack of use.

2)  A piano that is old and may be near the end of its useful life.

You don’t want a very old piano if you can help it, because piano actions wear out. Strings wear out too: if the bass notes are thumping instead of producing a clear tone, reconsider your options. You want as recent a vintage as you can find.

3)  A piano that hasn’t been tuned in many decades.

That means the pitch has probably dropped dramatically below A-440. This may or may not be an issue for you. Bringing it back up to A-440 may break strings, so tuning at its current pitch is the best option. Pianists playing along with other musicians will need a piano that has been maintained close to concert pitch of A=440.

Every piano is unique in its sound and action touch. Try out pianos until you find one you are really happy with. If you can’t decide between two pianos, go with the newer one. The highest quality brands are Baldwin and Steinway.

Q: How soon after moving a piano should I have it tuned?

A: If the piano is moved from a similar climate, you can tune it right away.  It’s best to wait three to four weeks after moving a piano from a completely different climate.

Q: How can I tell if my piano is out of tune?

A:  It can be hard to determine if a piano is out of tune.

Here is a simple test: With your right foot, depress the pedal on the far right, the sustain pedal. Then play three keys of the same note, each an octave apart. Try this at various points on the keyboard. Do they sound like the same note? Do the notes blend together? If not, your piano needs to be tuned.

The very rich sound of 225 strings vibrating in a piano can totally mask when it goes out of tune. If your piano hasn’t been tuned in over a year, then it is definitely out of tune. An electronic tuning meter will demonstrate that most pianos go out of tune in six months. Even if it isn’t noticeable to the human ear, the piano is likely dropping in pitch over time. The notes with 2 or 3 strings are always out of unison after a year’s time. Your technician will be happy to demonstrate on the meter the actual variation from perfect tune that your piano is.

Q: Is there anything I can do to prepare for a tuning?

A: All objects need to be removed so that the technician can open the piano for access to the tuning pins.

Good lighting and a quiet environment are helpful.

In most upright pianos, the tuner will prop up the lid and remove the front board for access to the tuning pins; grand pianos will be opened and the music desk removed.

Q: What can I do to maintain my piano?

A: The lowest and highest five keys don’t get played very much, so try to play those notes on a regular basis.  Lack of playing makes piano actions degrade over time and is the main cause of sticking keys.  Have it tuned every six months to a year, and play the entire keyboard on a regular basis to keep the action parts working smoothly.

Q: How often should I have my piano tuned?

A: A piano likes to be tuned every six months to a year, to keep the pitch at the concert standard of A-440, and to maintain tuning stability.  Otherwise, the overall pitch keeps dropping lower.

Piano manufacturers recommend tuning every six months, because that is the maximum amount of time that most pianos can hold a fine tuning.

A piano which has gone a very long time without tuning will require extra work, and some tuning instability should be anticipated.

Regular tunings are important because it makes sense to protect your investment.

Pianos typically go out of tune the most when heaters are turned on in the fall and off in the spring, and when there are dramatic humidity changes.

All of the pianos strings are attached to a wooden soundboard, and humidity changes make the board shrink or expand.  When the board expands, it stretches the strings and makes them go sharp.  When the board shrinks, the strings relax and go flat.  However, each string goes flat at a different rate, causing the piano to sound out of tune.

Indoor winter humidity is around 30%, spring humidity is around 50%, and summer humidity is around 70%.  These seasonal changes are why some piano instructors have their pianos tuned three times a year.

Old pianos that have loose tuning pins are more likely to go out of tune before six months is up.  This can be remedied by hammering in all the pins, or replacing them with new, wider pins.

Q: How can I tell if my piano is out of tune?

A:  It can be very hard to determine if a piano is out of tune.  The very rich sound of 225 strings vibrating in a piano can totally mask when it goes out of tune.  If your piano hasn’t been tuned in over a year, then it is surely out of tune.  An electronic tuning meter will demonstrate that most pianos go out of tune in six months.  Even if it isn’t noticeable to the human ear, the piano is likely dropping in pitch over time.  The notes with 2 or 3 strings are always out of unison after a year’s time.  Your technician will be happy to demonstrate on the meter the actual variation from perfect tune that your piano is.

Q: How can I clean my piano?

A: Use a very soft flannel or terry cloth just slightly dampened with water, followed immediately with a dry flannel or terry cloth to pick up any residual moisture.  Always wipe lightly, and in straight lines following the wood grain.  Never wipe with a circular motion.  A very light application of a high-quality carnauba wax is safe for most piano finishes.  Try to avoid cleaning products that contain fluids, because they will penetrate to the wood and disrupt the finish over time.

Q: How are pianos tuned?

A: Each piano string is attached to a steel pin mounted in the multiple-ply wooden pinblock.  Some notes have two or three strings and each must be tuned.  A piano typically has 220 to 240 strings.  A tuning lever wrench is used to turn each steel pin, to adjust the pitch up or down.

Q: Why do pianos go out of tune?

A: Humidity changes are the main cause of pianos going out of tune.  The strings are mounted on a wooden soundboard that absorbs moisture and expands during humid weather, and shrinks during dry weather.  This stretches and relaxes the strings at different rates, changing their pitches and making the piano sound out of tune.  Also, the action of the hammers hitting the strings throws them out of tune.

Q: Should I air-condition my piano room during the summer?

A: If possible, yes.  Reducing humidity swings will help keep your piano in tune longer.  It’s best to have your piano placed away from heating vents for the same reason.

Q: How long does it take to properly tune a piano?

A: It can take 2-3 hours because most pianos have 220 to 240 strings and every string must be tuned individually.  If a piano is extremely out of tune, more time will be required.  A second tuning is sometimes required to achieve tuning stability due to ‘string memory’: piano strings slowly move back towards their original pitch.

Q: What are False Beats?

A: Old piano strings degrade over time, becoming brittle with an altered tone.  When you pluck a piano string, it makes sound by vibrating side-to-side.  It also has waves or pulses of vibration that travel from one end of the string to the other end, and back again.  These end-to-end vibrations are more noticeable in old strings, and they are called False Beats.

When two waves of false beats meet while traveling along the string, that phenomena is known as Wave Interference.  It interferes with the sound of a string, and it interferes with piano tuning meters.  It also makes unison strings sound different from each other within the same note.

If your piano has a poor tonal quality, that is probably the main reason.  There are two types of Wave Interference: Constructive Interference, which increases the sound volume, and Destructive Interference, which causes a decrease in the sound volume or total silence.

We recently tuned a two-string note on a 1910 upright piano, and the false beats in the two strings interacted in a way that caused the perfectly tuned note to go in and out of total silence repeatedly when you played it.  Amazingly, the sound waves were totally cancelling each other out.

Q: What’s a Pitch Raise?

A: It’s a preliminary tuning of the entire keyboard to bring strings to their correct tension levels in a piano that is very out of tune or needs to be brought up to concert pitch.  This ensures that the second, final tuning will be stable.

Q: What is Inharmonicity, and How Does Stretch Tuning Compensate For It?

A: An ideal piano string would produce upper harmonics (or overtones) of the main note that are all in tune with that main note.  However, real piano strings are very thick and stiff.  This makes the upper harmonics sharper than theory would predict.  This is called Inharmonicity.

We perceive the sharp upper harmonics as the actual pitch of the note. Therefore, a piano must be tuned to those sharp harmonics.

This would be fine, except that inharmonicity varies across the entire keyboard, increasing as you go up to the treble.

Since the shorter piano strings have a higher inharmonicity as one goes up in pitch, we stretch the tuning sharp as we go up to compensate for this.

If one were to tune a piano without stretching the octaves, the harmonics of the low bass notes would clash noticeably with the harmonics of higher keys.

To make the thick low bass strings sound in tune with the very high treble notes, the whole piano tuning must be stretched by making the octaves slightly wider than pure. This means that the notes above the starting pitch (F-3) will all be a slight but precise amount sharp, and the notes lower than the starting pitch will be slightly flatter. This is called a Stretched Tuning.

O.L. Railsback performed detailed experiments on stretch tuning in 1938, and published the Railsback Curve graph.  See the graph at this link: 

Top of the line electronic piano tuning devices, such as the Sanderson AccuTuner, can analyze the inharmonicity of individual piano strings to mathematically calculate an ideal stretch tuning.

The effect is to bring out a beautiful, unified voice from the instrument.

Q: Why Are Pianos are Tuned in Equal Temperament?

A: The term Temperament refers to the method used to tune pianos: we ‘temper’, or adjust, the interval between each note in a scale to make them sound evenly spaced.

Equal Temperament was developed by mathematicians in both China and Europe in the 1500′s.

The development of Equal Temperament enabled composers to vary the key within one piece of music, taking advantage of the fact that the new temperament made it possible for the piano to sound identical in all of the keys at the same time.

We are consumer advocates, happy to answer any questions on any piano-related issues.