Frequently Asked Piano Questions

Do you recommend humidity control devices inside a piano?

No.

An electric heating bar inside a piano is designed to drive away excess moisture. The problem is that these devices dry out a piano too much.  When the pinblock dries out, the wood pulls away from the tuning pins and they loosen. A piano with loose tuning pins can’t hold a tuning very well. I recently tuned a Yamaha U2 upright in which a drying bar had been used a lot, and every single tuning pin was loose.

If the glue in a piano dries out too much, the piano will split apart along the seams. I once tuned an overly dried-out upright in which the entire back of the piano had splintered away from the front.

The devices that add moisture inside a piano during the dry winter months are even worse. They distribute water vapor unevenly, so one side of the interior will have a baby thunderstorm, and the other side will remain dry. Also, they add way too much moisture. And they always need maintenance. I tuned a beautiful Kawai upright that had water stains everywhere on the inside from one of those overactive contraptions. The outside of the piano looked perfect.

So, I always advise unplugging these devices if you have one. Piano salesmen use these to upsell customers and make more money. To me, one of the wonderful things about an acoustic piano is that you don’t to ever have to plug it in!

Just keep your piano room comfortable for humans, and your piano will thrive. The organic materials in a piano, wood and felt, do best at normal room temperature and humidity. That includes using room air conditioning, room dehumidifiers, and room humidifiers whenever you feel like improving your own comfort level.

 

How often should I have my piano tuned?

Once a year is usually sufficient.

A piano can hold a tuning about 6 months, but you might not notice that it is going out of tune. Regular 6-month tunings provide the best tuning stability, and they keep the pitch at the Concert Pitch standard of A=440 cycles per second. Otherwise, the overall pitch keeps dropping lower.

But tuning every 6 months can strain schedules and budgets. The piano may not sound out of tune at that time, so we usually recommend tuning a piano once a year.

If a piano goes more than a year without tuning, the pitch may drop too much to be able to achieve a stable tuning.

It’s true that a piano that has not been tuned in decades may need to be tuned twice to achieve stability in the tuning. But we always take a wait and see perspective on this because it’s hard to predict how the piano strings will behave after a single tuning.

Pianos typically go out of tune the most when heaters are turned on in the fall and off in the spring, and whenever there are dramatic humidity changes. Every thunderstorm throws a piano a little out of tune.

We’re happy to send yearly or 6-month tuning reminders to you.

 

Piano Price Point has an entertaining article on tuning frequency:

https://pianopricepoint.com/how-often-should-i-tune-my-piano/

 

How long do pianos last?

75 to 100 years.

After 100 years, most pianos are ready for piano heaven.

A piano lasts as long as its pinblock can hold the tuning pins tight, and as long as the action parts have not deteriorated.

Steinway states on their website that pinblocks last 40 to 70 years.  As decades pass, the wood dries out.  This pulls the wood away from holding the pins tight. A piano with loose tuning pins in unable to hold a tuning.

There are some temporary fixes:

Apply very thin superglue to the pin, pound in the pin with a hammer, or replace it with a larger diameter pin (which is expensive to do).

When a Steinway piano is rebuilt, the pinblock is always replaced with a new one.

 

Why do old pianos sound so different from new pianos?

There are five main factors that contribute to the “old piano sound”:

Worn action parts

Compacted felt on the hammers

Dried out, warped, or cracked soundboard wood

Loose tuning pins

Fatiqued and non-elastic strings with false beats and wave interference

 

How can we prepare for a piano tuning?

If possible, provide a quiet environment so that we can do our best work.  External noise makes it hard to hear the piano strings for fine tuning.  We appreciate your not running the dishwasher, vacuum, or laundry machines, or having any other noisy home services done at the same time.

All objects on top of the piano will need to be removed so that the technician can open the piano for access to the tuning pins.

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.

Good lighting will help you play better, and it aids in tuning as well.

 

How can you tell if a piano is out of tune?

You can tell if a piano is out of tune if some of the notes sound twangy or buzzy, or if the piano produces a wavering or wobbling tone.

To test if a piano is out of tune, you can try playing a simple scale. Start at middle C and play all the white notes until you hit the next C. If a note is particularly twangy, that note is out of tune.

Most notes above the bass section in a piano have three identical strings, and they must be tuned in unison with each other. When certain unisons are out of tune, there will be a wavering or twangy sound instead of a steady single tone. This wavering will distort the note creating an uncomfortable sound that may hurt your ears. The note will  sound wrong if you play it along with other notes in a chord.

 

Why do pianos go out of tune so often?

All of the pianos strings are attached to the 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. So, every time we have a thunderstorm, all of our pianos go out of tune a little. After enough periods of high humidity, the dissonance becomes more noticeable and the piano sounds harsh. Also, the action of the hammers hitting the strings throws them out of tune.

Average indoor winter humidity is around 30%, spring humidity is around 50%, and summer humidity is around 70%.  These seasonal changes are why some of our clients have their pianos tuned every four months.

New pianos may need to be tuned more often because the new strings are still stretching.  At a piano factory, new pianos are tuned up to 10 times before shipping to showrooms to compensate for the inevitable stretching of strings.

Institutional pianos that are used for concerts need to be tuned the day before and the day of a concert. This is because these institutions are not heated or air conditioned at night, and the wide temperature fluctuations throw a piano out of tune quickly. Also, concert pianists are rightfully exacting and finicky that their performance instrument be as close to perfect tuning as possible. We applaud this committment to high caliber piano tuning.

 

How soon after moving a piano can I have it tuned?

We recommend waiting at least ten days before tuning to allow time for acclimation to the new environment if the piano is being moved from a similar climate.

If the piano is being moved from a completely different climate, it’s best to wait three to four weeks before tuning it.

 

Can you provide guidance on acquiring a used piano?

Yes, please avoid these pianos:

1] A piano with action problems.

Don’t take on a piano that has repair issues with the keys you will be playing, such as sluggish and sticking keys! This means that the piano has not been maintained and played on a regular basis. The problem is probably not fixable, and action issues like this are always likely to get worse and will appear on other keys. Some repair parts for a particular piano may not be available at all. Also, the repair cost could be very high, more than the value of the piano. You want a piano that has been maintained, with all the keys working properly. The only exceptions are the bottom five notes and top five notes, which you may never use. They 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 an old piano if you can help it, because piano actions wear out and can get very noisy. Strings wear out too, and bass notes can sound thumpy without producing a clear tone. Worst of all, most old pianos have loose tuning pins. When a piano has loose tuning pins, the notes will go out of tune much sooner than they should. When the tuning pins are very loose, the piano may not hold the tuning at all. Old pianos with loose tuning pins are ready for piano heaven. 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. Bringing it back up to the standard of A-440 may break a lot of strings, and so it will need to be tuned at its current pitch. If the placement of the pitch is of importance to you, it’s a very good idea to check the pitch with a portable electronic tuner.

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.

 

Q: How do we achieve a perfect piano tuning in 2024?

A: By using today’s most advanced piano tuning techniques:

Every single piano is unique, with individual design characteristics and scaling that determine how it needs to be tuned.

Instead of imposing a preset piano tuning on an instrument, I measure each piano’s inharmonicity with the new Sanderson Accu-Tuner IV. This state-of-the-art professional technology does the math to solve the physics puzzle within the tension-compression system that is a piano. The result is a custom calculated tuning specific to your piano for an absolutely perfect fit. For those who are interested, this technique is easy to demonstrate in person.

If you watch me tune, you’ll see that I use the piano factory tuning method of plucking the strings, instead of banging on the keys. In piano factories, the strings are tuned before the action is installed. This plucking technique is called ‘chipping’, and the name derives from the wood chips used to pluck the strings for tuning in early piano factories. Today, we use a plastic guitar pick for the same purpose. Tuning this way is more accurate and is gentler on your piano than banging the keys repeatedly. A single sharp strike of the key, called a ‘test blow’, is sufficient to test the unisons and do the final ‘setting’ of the tuning pins.

 

What can I do to maintain my piano?

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 once or twice a year, and play the entire keyboard on a regular basis to keep the action parts working smoothly.

 

How can I clean my piano exterior?

Most pianos just need light dusting.  The finish is soft and scratches easily, so use caution.

To remove stains, use a soft flannel cloth just slightly dampened with water, followed immediately with a dry flannel cloth to pick up any residual moisture.  Soft flannel cloth is the best material to use because the surface has been combed to raise soft fibers.  Other fabrics have exposed weaves, which are abrasive on the soft finishes of pianos and automobiles. Always wipe lightly, and always in straight lines following the wood grain. Never wipe with a circular motion, because circular swirl marks will appear.  This phenomenon is obvious on many cars.

A thin application of a high-quality carnauba wax is safe for most piano finishes.  Carnauba waxes need to be lightly buffed with soft flannel immediately, before the wax dries. Therefore, just do a small section at a time, in straight lines.  Never use cleaning products that contain water or other fluids, because they will penetrate to the wood and disrupt the finish over time.  Never use old t-shirts because the weave is abrasive and will leave swirl marks or scratches.

Professional furniture refinishers can usually repair bad exterior stains.

 

How can I clean my piano interior?

Piano soundboard sweepers are available online.  Be sure to wrap it with soft flannel cloth.

 

What are False Beats?

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. It’s the same priciple as noise cancelling techniques used in headphones and automobiles.

 

What’s a Pitch Raise?

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 and final tuning will be stable.

 

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

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.

Stretch tuning is used to make pianos sound more in tune by sharpening high notes and flattening low notes. The human ear doesn’t sense pitch accurately at high and low frequencies, so stretching the higher octaves makes them sound correct. Octaves must be stretched beyond their normal pitches in order for the human ear to hear them correctly. In stretched tuning, two notes an octave apart are tuned slightly farther apart, which is called a stretched octave. The precise raising or lowering of the pitches are by a few cents out of a hundred.

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. He discovered that most piano tuners stretched tunings sharp in the treble and flat in the bass.  He found so many examples of this that he was able to publish the Railsback Curve graph:

You can also see the graph with more information at this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_acoustics#The_Railsback_curve

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.

 

Why Are Pianos Tuned in Equal Temperament?

We tune pianos in Equal Temperament so that the chords in every single key will always be in tune everywhere on the keyboard.

The term Temperament refers to any 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 is the mathematical equation we use to space the 12 notes in an octave to be precisely equidistant from each other.

Before Equal Temperament, pianos tuned to older temperaments would be in tune in some chords or key signatures, but would be out of tune in other chords or key signatures.

Equal Temperament was developed by mathematicians simultaneously in China and Europe in the 1500′s to solve this tuning problem posed by fixed-pitch instruments with a 12-note scale, like the piano. All the tuning methods up to that point always had a single “wolf note” that would be so out of tune, it was said to howl like a wolf.

The mathematical formula for Equal Temperament achieves the goal of dividing each octave into twelve equal notes:

Each note, or ‘interval’, is the twelfth root of two (approximately 1.0594630943592953) times the frequency of the previous interval.

This means that all of the notes in the scale are equally out of tune with so-called ‘perfect’ tuning, but they are all equally out of tune, so the overall effect is consonant.

The end result is that in Equal Temperament, all chords that are thirds are ever so slightly sharp, and all chords that are fifths are ever so slightly flat.

What? Yes! But the entire piano sounds perfectly in tune with itself, which is the ultimate goal in piano tuning and playing.

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 in tune in all key signatures.

Bach’s title, ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’, suggests that he had written the music for a 12-note tuning system in which all keys sounded in tune.

 

So how do you incorporate both Stretch Tuning and Equal Temperament when you tune a piano? It sounds like a lot of math.

It is a huge amount of math. The Sanderson Accu-Tuner is a powerful computer that makes these custom calculations in seconds for any piano. The technician will first take sound measurments of a variety of the strings in a piano, and these get keyed in to the Accu-Tuner.

 

Repair Prices

Repair and piano string replacement prices are at the technician’s discretion. We always try to charge a reasonable price for repairs. The action in your piano may need to be removed and brought to the repair shop. Please include phone number, location, and the condition of the piano with your request for a quote.

 

Piano Moving

Distance and the number of stairs will determine the price of moving a piano. The mover we recommend specializes in pianos, and is bonded and insured. Please contact us with information about what you need.

 

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