Piano Tuning Essentials & DIY
What is piano tuning? Do you need special tools? We answer this and more in this guide.
Everybody gets cranky now and then – no? So does your piano, about twice a year. It goes out of tune and starts to make distressing sounds.
Tuning is the process of adjusting the tension of its strings. This alters their frequency of vibration or pitch.
Over the years, musicians and instrument makers have established the customs and aesthetics about which frequencies create perfect harmony. Piano tuners learn the art of turning the pins attached to the strings until they resonate in this perfect harmony with each other.
Is tuning a piano hard?
Tuning a piano may seem simple — just turning pins on strings. However, there are over 200 strings, each under a lot of tension. The procedure must be done delicately, with a firm but gentle touch.
The other complexity of piano tuning is the rabbit-hole of harmonics. These are fainter vibrations whose frequencies have a specific mathematical relationship to the fundamental frequency at which the string is vibrating.
In other words, the tuner needs the strings to resonate harmoniously on both the harmonic and fundamental frequencies for a piano to sound right. (Like that clears it up).
The stiffness of the steel strings makes their harmonics slightly higher than the theoretical ideal. The human ear tends to hear higher pitches than they are. To compensate, the tuner must stretch the octaves a bit sharper and flatter in the bass. How much sharper or flatter is an art and science.
Tools you need for tuning a piano.
Aside from a supersonic ear, these are the tools you need for tuning a piano:
- Tuning lever: A piano tuning lever is sometimes knowns as a tuning hammer, a tuning wrench, or tuning key. It is a small tool that allows you to tighten or loosen each tuning pin individually. Substituting a lever with any other device could damage the instrument.
- Mutes: Sometimes, you just need a string to shut up. Mutes are cheap rubber wedges that you put on piano strings to dampen their sound to isolate a single string for tuning.
- Electronic chromatic tuner: This small digital instrument helps you identify what note a key is playing and how far off it is from the target frequency. Before we had these electronic devices, piano tunes used tuning forks. Simple guitar tuners are not accurate enough for piano tuning.
- Screwdriver: Most upright and grand pianos have a door protecting the strings and soundboard. If your piano has this extra hardware, you will need a screwdriver to remove the external pieces.
- Dust cloth: For cleaning out any built-up dirt.
- Light: Some kind of hands-free torch to see the inner mechanics of the piano.
You can read more about these tools here.
Tuning a piano.
We do not recommend trying this on your own. But if you insist or maybe just curious, here are the basic steps.
1. Set the stage
Make the room as quiet as possible. Turn off any humming appliances. Take off the piano’s cabinet doors and gently dust off the strings. Switch your light on if necessary.
2. Preparing middle C
Find the strings of middle C; most pianos have three, but some have two. Use your rubber mutes to mute the outer strings (or just the left one if your piano has two strings).
3. Tune the middle strings from middle C
- Turn on your tuner.
- Play the middle C key loudly and listen to the single unmuted string. See what note the tuner picks up. Prepare for lots of flat notes–the piano tends to get flatter as time passes and the strings loosen.
- Place the tuning lever on the head of the pin of this single string. Gently turn the lever counterclockwise to loosen the pin, then clockwise to tighten it up to a tuned middle C. Be soft to avoid over-loosening or over-tightening.
- Play the note continually as you tune until you’re ready to “set the pin” on the final pitch. Usually, a piano tuner does this with one final tightening of the string to slightly above the pitch, then a single swift loosening to the exact correct pitch. Once your center middle C string is in tune, repeat the process for each center string in the notes from C4 to C5.
4. Tune the unisons
Now we tune the outer strings that play for those same notes. These are called the unisons.
- Unmute the tuned center string of middle C–this will be your reference for the left string. Put away the electronic tuner for this–you can more reliably tune unisons by ear.
- Play the note loudly, listening for disharmony, and turn the new string’s pin until the two strings resonate clearly and in unison.
- Repeat this process for each left string from C4 to C5 — then again for each right string in the octave. You should now have an entire middle octave on your piano that is in tune. This is setting the temperament.
5. Tune each octave to the temperament
Using the temperament notes as your guide, begin tuning a new octave (like C5 to C6). Compare each note with the tuned note you have in your temperament. Continue tuning one string simultaneously, using your mutes to silence the other strings until you’re ready to tune them. Tune the piano “to itself” during this step for the most harmonious sound, rather than using an electronic tuner.
Tune in to what you really need.
Don’t rush to tune your piano. It is a respected and complicated practice and an industry you should support.
Before you call a professional, listen to the sound of your instrument. Sometimes a piano moves slightly out of tune, adding beautiful character, depth, and interest to the sound. Bringing the piano back into equal temperament could take away from this.
The Simply Piano app can listen to your piano too.
If it just sounds plain old wonky, call your local professional tuner–they will get your baby grand back to its sweetness.