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Piano Service Questions & Answers

Today people are influenced by living in an electronic age. The materials electronic devices are made of and the way they work are completely mysterious. Things either work or they don’t; and if they don’t work they are frequently replaced rather than being serviced or repaired. The idea that there are things that need and benefit from regular maintenance, and that can last a very long time with care, is hardly considered anymore. Pianos are made of simple, natural materials – wood, iron, cloth and steel – transformed into a highly sophisticated machine for producing music. These materials respond to the environment and will change over time, but pianos have been designed to be stable and produce high quality musical sound over a very long period – decades! – if they are properly maintained.

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How often should I tune my piano?

All piano manufacturers recommend that their pianos be tuned at least twice a year. More tunings are needed when the piano is new (a fact that the piano sales person probably did not communicate) in order to stabilize the string tension across the piano as it adjusts to its environment. Keep in mind that most new pianos were shipped halfway across the world in a container. Although pianos get a number of tunings at the factory and when being prepared for sale at the store, it is never enough.

What about long-term? The function of the piano is to produce beautiful music. This is something that it can do best when it is in the best condition. Studios and concert halls may have their pianos tuned every week, and tuned again before every concert or recording. Music professionals have their pianos tuned every month or every other month. For home use, especially when the piano is being used regularly, three or four times a year is recommended. As a well-known tuner-technician expressed it, a piano tuned twice a year is only in tune twice a year; a piano tuned once a year is basically never in tune.

Why does my piano need tuning?

A piano frame is made of thick wooden beams and cast iron. These have to support the tension put on them by the approximately 220 highly tensioned steel wires that are struck to produce the piano’s sound. Altogether, the tension placed on the piano by the strings is around 20,000 pounds, or ten tons! A piano is designed and built to carry this tension, and its structure has been specifically engineered to be properly balanced at the range and distribution of tension that corresponds to being on pitch and “in tune.”

Over time, the strings will gradually lose tension and the piano will go flat. Day to day, the wooden and metal components of the piano frame undergo minute changes as the temperature and humidity change in their environment. These changes may cause the tension in different parts of the piano to fluctuate, increasing tension in some areas and decreasing it in others.

The tolerances that a piano technician works within to put a piano in tune are extremely fine. We divide the distance between each note of the piano into 100 parts, called cents, and then further divide these into tenths of a cent.

Each piano has individual and unique characteristics, even among pianos of the same manufacturer and model. The beautiful sound of a freshly tuned piano is the result of the technician’s work to balance all the unique and individual characteristics of each piano to produce the best possible sound from that instrument.

My piano does not sound out of tune.

The human ear is very forgiving. Your sense of hearing will often mask the sound of the piano’s notes drifting out of tune. By the time the piano has gone out of tune enough for you to hear it immediately or noticeably, the piano will be very out of tune. By that point, the technician tuning the piano will be playing “catch-up” and the tuning will not be stable. For both musical and mechanical reasons, the piano should always sound in tune, and should never be allowed to deteriorate to the point that it sounds noticeably out of tune.

No one is playing the piano – why should I keep it in tune?

A piano has been manufactured to maintain its sound at the amount and distribution of tension that corresponds to being “in tune.” Allowing the piano to go untuned for more than a year will cause the balance of tension to change. Temperature and humidity changes cause the tension to shift in different ways in different areas of the piano. The overall high tension of the strings (20,000 pounds) will start to go down, and the piano strings will shift in their positions.

In order for a piano to produce its best sound, the part of the wire struck by the piano hammer to produce a tone must be straight and true. Any bend or kink in the wire causes it to produce a distorted sound that cannot be corrected by tuning. Each piano string takes a path through the piano that takes under, over and through a number of contact points from the tuning pin, across the open length that makes the sound, and to its termination point. The string makes a bend at each of these points of contact. Piano strings are made of a heavy steel wire, in order to withstand the high tension needed to produce its sound. The bends that are put into the wire when the piano is strung at the factory become “set” into the wire. When a piano is not tuned regularly, the wires can shift to new positions where these bends have moved a small amount from their original position. The tension on the wire will over time work to partially straighten these old bends and put new bends in the wire at the new point of contact. This can result in kinks in the wire that will degrade the sound of the piano. This condition cannot be corrected by tuning the piano. In many cases the piano’s proper sound can only be restored by rebuilding the instrument and installing new strings; a very expensive project that may cost more than the piano is worth.

The piano is only used for the children’s lessons.

Young children are at the stage of maximum growth and development, and at the maximum stage of sensitivity as well. The better the instrument they use plays and sounds, the more it will help their development and influence their appreciation of music throughout their lives.

What can happen if I do not tune the piano? Can the piano be damaged?

The steel wires that provide the sound for your piano are quite think and heavy, and are under high tension – around 20,000 pounds! This is why the piano is made with such a heavy frame of cast iron supported by thick wooden beams (look behind [upright] or under [grand] your piano to see the wooden support beams). Over time, the natural movement of the piano structure with changes in weather, as well as the sheer tension of the strings, will cause the strings to loosen, move and shift. The pitch of the piano will change, and the strings will sit in a different position than when the piano was made. Each string of the piano goes under, over and around about 6 contact points where it changes direction. Because the strings are thick, over time they will develop a kink or bend at these contact points. If the bends are at the correct contact points for the string when it is in tune then all is well. If the tuning is neglected and the strings move, they will develop kinks at the new contact points, but the existing bends will not completely go away – they will now be in the “speaking length” of the string, the part that makes sound when struck by the piano hammer. These bends or kinks in the wrong part of the string can make the piano difficult or impossible to tune, and the sound will never be as good as a similar piano that has been properly maintained.

     

     
  
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