"An actor is like a piano. It should be well tuned, but shouldn't be hit too hard." — Monica Bellucci
An actor should also play his role properly, like the notes on a piano should be accurate.
Whether you have an upright piano or a grand piano, keeping a piano in tune can seem like an impossible mission if you don't have the proper tools or if you don't take the necessary precautions while using them.
When you're buying a new or a used piano, you aren't thinking about the factors that put it out of tune: humidity, temperature variations, movements, time (this musical instrument gets out of tune quickly, so the tuning must be done at least once a year).
It's commonly said that to tune a piano, you need help from a professional tuner, a craftsman called a piano technician.
And yet, accomplishing this task with your own hands is well within your reach if you, as a beginner, pay close attention to what you're doing, but it can be complicated by the fact that beginner pianists don't often have prior musical training.
Tuning your new piano—whether it's a Steinway, Kawai, Yamaha Clavinova, a Disklavier upright, a Bechstein, a baby grand, a spinet, or anything else, used, new, or restored—requires time, patience, agility, practice, proper tools, and above all else a perfect ear.
You have to be a tuning fork, as they say.
In this article, the Superprof team offers beginner pianists, like you, the information you'll need to tune a piano yourself.
Do You Need the Services of a Piano Technician?
In the Internet 2.0 era, help from a professional, for something like this, is becoming less and less necessary.
Because you can do everything yourself thanks to the Internet, tutorials, videos, and specialized web sites. You can learn French for free online, as well as Chinese, Arabic, how to cook, knitting, yoga, plumbing, car repairs, etc...
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On the web, you can find, for example, Scott Detwiler's helpful resources for tuning a piano yourself.
So it's not absolutely necessary to call a professional piano technician for his services.
At the same time, doing it yourself requires a perfect ear, a deep understanding of harmony, the octaves, and the chords of an acoustic piano, as well some practical know-how.
In fact, tuning your own piano is more a matter of personal challenge than one of cost, because the personal investment will be more significant than the financial costs of a piano technician's services.
First, you'll need to buy the necessary tools, which can be expensive.
Then undefined costs will begin to mount: the time spent tuning 220 strings and 88 notes on the piano!
Having a piano tuned, will cost between $100 and $150 per hour, and can take a couple hours of work.
So it's not very expensive when you know that for an expert technician's services, it can cost up to $200 an hour for a Steinway or antique!
A beginner pianist hoping to get started learning to tune a piano will certainly spend more than three hours doing it, because you have to master the intervals of the notes and musical theory—minor and major chords, first and third degree, fundamental notes, third, fifths, sevenths, ninths, etc.—as you go, but it's enriching training!
Piano teachers are fond of this tip: to learn more quickly, why not ask the piano technician himself to share his knowledge, for a fee of course, like a private lesson?
Discover our best advice for learning how to play the piano...
What Tools Do You Need to Tune a Piano?
You don't tune a piano the same way you tune a guitar: the piano has 220 strings for its 88 keys, whereas a guitar has just six, twelve at maximum...
To face the challenge, head to the nearest music store to get the specialized tuning materials.
Do not use homemade tools.
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A professional technician can spend several years training to tune pianos, including the use of professional tools.
Using wrenches or screwdrivers that are made specifically for the job could damage the machinery and the tuning pegs of the instrument.
These are the tools you'll need to buy a music store in order to tune your piano when you're still a beginner:
- One intangible and crucial tool: time! Adjusting the tuning pegs requires a special touch.
- A chromatic tuner: better than a tuning fork, an electric tuner gives you the perfect A440 frequency.
- A tuning fork.
- A tuning chart.
- A tuning wrench—or tuning key—with sockets of corresponding diameter for the tuning pegs on the piano (whether square, rectangular, or star-tipped). Choose one with interchangeable sockets.
- Tuning wedges, or felt strips: pieces of rubber used to block two strings of a note while tuning the third in the same note.
- Plastic clamps to slide into the mechanics, to muffle two strings simultaneously.
- A good source of light to illuminate the many dark places inside the piano.
When you've obtained all of these accessories, you can get to the heart of the matter: doing the prep work to tune your piano.
You can also discover how to improvise on the piano...
What Precautions Should Be Made to Tune a Piano?
To get through the tuning process, a certain number of precautions should be scrupulously implemented, so you don't hurt yourself, damage the tuning pegs, the mechanics, or the strings.
Here are a few:
- Protect your new piano from sunlight, humidity, or any source of heat, like radiators. (Piano movers are notoriously expensive, so put it in the right place when you first get it delivered from the piano company.)
- Clear the room, close the windows and doors: you don't need anyone else around, there should be as little noise as possible, and no nuisances or distractions to your concentration.
- Wear gloves to avoid injuries: some of the metallic parts of the piano's frame and structure could be sharp and cut you.
- Practice before you start tuning: set the wedges—or blocks of felt—between the strings, look over the soundboard and fixtures.
- Don't touch the strings too much: even if it's rare for a string to break, it can happen on older, used pianos, and too much tension on a string can cause it to snap and injure you.
- Be careful not to damage the hammers, the tuning pegs, the damper, and the mechanics.
- Be astute and concentrate: quick movements could be counter-productive, as moving quickly could cause you to improperly tune a string in the wrong tone (A flat instead of A sharp, for example).
- Know which direction to turn the tuning pegs in: to the right increases the tone, the left diminishes it.
- Know which string you're working on.
Why should you take these precautions?
It's obviously because piano tuning requires a calm approach, the gap between certain notes can be very small—this is why you need a tuning chart—and it needs high-quality sound to be achieved perfectly.
You should also have a look at the best books on playing the piano...
Steps for Tuning a Piano
Now that you have everything you need to tune a piano, you can get started!
Check for online piano lessons on Superprof.
Here are the 10 steps to tuning a piano:
- Depress the strong pedal (the one on the right, that allows to play the full note) and repeat the operation before placing a wedge between the strings.
- Place two wedges or one plastic clamp to immobilize the neighboring strings.
- Begin by tuning the A in the middle of the instrument, A440.
- First tune the middle string of the three-string group by turning the tuning peg gently but firmly (a twelfth of a rotation, one hour on a clock dial).
- Play the note firmly by releasing the strong pedal (to avoid vibrating the other strings on the soundboard).
- Observe the tonality with the help of chromatic tuner: is the note too high or too low?
- Tune all the notes within this octave at the center of the keyboard in this way.
- Move on to the higher octave, then to the lower.
- Compare the tuned notes of one octave to those of another: low E and E sharp can't produce low E and F or G sharp.
- Tune the following octaves by ear.
Some advice as you tune:
Before tightening a string to modify the tonality of a note, relax it a bit before tightening: in case you make a mistake with the string, you won't risk breaking it under too much tension!
Strongly press on the key as you adjust the note to tune it: a tap that's too weak could mean you knock the instrument out of tune as soon it's strongly later on.
Some specialists suggest that it's necessary to tune your piano at least once every three months, so four times per year.
Others advice adjusting one or two strings every two months.
Whatever you decide, one thing is clear: precision is the key to having perfect sound and achieving a high-quality tuning.
Discover how to learn to play the piano as an adult...
Can You Break a Piano String?
Breaking a piano string is very rare, but possible. And it can happen on older, used pianos if a string is worn out.
If the tuning peg is turned too far to the right, then the string, too taut, can break. The tension is so strong that it can cut the hand or face of the tuner as it happens.
So be careful!
If it happens, you'll need to entrust the instrument to a piano technician and their expert services.
For those hoping to embark on this challenge on your own as much as possible, you could learn how to change a string online.
But it's a slow and delicate job.
When you tune a guitar, the instrument gets out of tune in a few seconds, just by changing the set of six strings.
On the piano, it's the same thing: to keep it tuned, the best way is to play, play, and play again.
Discover how to learn to play the piano quickly...