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As a new piano owner, you must know how to tune a piano. A piano is typically tuned twice a year. In this article, you’ll be guided through some simple steps to tune your piano.
I’ve worked with pianos for over three decades, and in my experience, tuning them requires patience and skill. Piano tuners develop specific skills over time, and while the process may seem straightforward for beginners, it takes a while to get used to.
Let’s go over how to tune a piano in more detail, including alternative methods and a little bit of music theory to help you understand the subject.
How To Tune A Piano?
Tuning a piano involves turning and holding pins connected to a wire (also known as the ‘strings’). There are several strings attached to most keys. A rubber wedge is used to mute the next string you’re tuning. Turning a tuning pin clockwise loosens it while an anticlockwise motion tightens it.
A basic principle of tuning a piano is silence. You’ll want to be in a quiet place and eliminate other objects that make a humming sound. Don’t forget to put your cell phone on silent!
You’ll also need specific equipment before you get started. Ensure you get a tuning lever (sometimes called a wrench or tuning hammer) for pianos; don’t try using a different tool. Get an electronic tuning device, or ETD, to ensure the strings are actually in tune.
You’ll also need a ‘mute’, which is a little rubber hammer used to dampen/silence strings. You could technically use a cloth, but I recommend a mute to ensure you’re doing a proper job. A cloth is still useful, though, if you need to clean any parts of the piano as you tune.
Lastly, a screwdriver might come in handy if you need to remove any parts of the instrument to access the strings. Make sure you’re in a well-lit room, too, if possible; otherwise, keep a flashlight to hand to better see what you’re doing.
Step-by-Step Procedure to Follow When Tuning Your Piano
From my experience, it takes 45-90 minutes to complete a routine tuning on a piano that has been tuned regularly. So set aside enough time to go through all the steps outlined below. Most piano tuners ask for two hours of silence to complete their work.
It might be necessary to repeat some of the steps depending on what you’re hearing when you press the note key (this is the key you ‘measure’ all other tunings by).
Method 1: The Common Way
- Check your piano strings and pins for any visible damage. Do not attempt to repair major damages yourself; consult a professional instead.
- Get the strings that play the middle C note. Typically it’s three strings, but older piano models have two. Mute the outer strings if there are three, or the left one if your piano has two.
- Loudly play the middle C key with your ETD turned on. Flat notes are common because the string tension weakens over time.
- Find the pin that is wound on the string you did not mute, and gently place the head of your tuning hammer over it.
- Turn the hammer counterclockwise to loosen the pin slightly. Slowly turn the tuning hammer clockwise, tightening the pin to get a true middle C.
- Continuously play the middle C key until the ETD registers the correct note. Try to avoid over-loosening or over-tightening by turning and twisting as little as possible.
- Set the pin by doing a final tightening swing with the tuning hammer, making the pin above the pitch slightly. Then do one more gentle loosening turn to get an exact pitch.
- Repeat the process for every middle string in the octave.
- Next, move to tuning the outer strings. Unmute the tuned string of middle C, because it is easier to tune a note to the already-tuned string.
- This part of the procedure is called tuning the unisons and is better done by ear, so switch your ETD off and listen carefully.
- Play the note loudly and pick out any disharmonic, out-of-sync sounds, etc. Gently tune the string’s pin, as mentioned in step 5, until there is unison with the already-tuned string.
- Repeat the process for the entire middle octave. By this point, you should have set the temperament (which means there’s an equal distance in pitch between notes).
- Keep this temperament in mind, as it now becomes your set guide as you repeat the process of tuning one string at a time through all the octaves in your piano until they’re pitched equally apart and in tune.
This is the most straightforward way of tuning your piano.
Method 2: Listen carefully
Tuning a piano is delicate and time-consuming, but seasoned professionals have come up with certain other ways to do it and get optimum results.
This method requires a basic knowledge of piano notes and octaves. As with the first method, you need the quietest environment possible.
A degree of trial and error goes into a method like this, so due diligence is recommended.
- Mute the left and right strings on each group of three by placing a felt strip across the strings and pushing it between the strings using a screwdriver, leaving only the middle string with sound.
- Pitch your ETD or tuning fork to A440, so the A above the middle C is 440hz.
- Use the tuning hammer to loosen and tighten until that A is in line with the electronic tuner at 440.
- Compare and adjust all the notes F3 to Bb4, so there’s no resonance (i.e., one string vibrating doesn’t trigger another to vibrate).
- Make sure A4 to A3 doesn’t resonate with D4 to A4. Also, F3 to A3 should get a measurement of around 104hz on the electric tuner.
- Tune your way down, starting at E4 to E3, then Eb4 to Eb3, and so on. Then tune up the piano from Bb4 to Bb5, then B4 to B5 all the way up.
- Pull out the felt strip and tune the outer strings individually, going from octave to octave.
- Repeat the process two or three times. Keep hitting the keys firmly and loudly to get a good and familiar sound in your ear.
This method requires a bit more time and listening skills. Your piano should also have consistently tuned at least twice a year for this to work well.
There aren’t really any true alternatives to the above methods, as there are limited ways to actually tune a piano.
However, professional piano tuners sometimes add theories and techniques to the basic piano tuning procedure. These include inharmonicity, major thirds, fourths, fifths, equal temperament model, and hand stretching octaves.
If you’re still getting your head around how to tune a piano, I recommend sticking to the basic procedure outlined as ‘Method 1’, as the repair cost could outweigh the cost of tuning.
You may also have heard about how different musicians have been known to get their piano keys to sound “tougher” or “softer,” but this is related more to velocity (key volume) than actually tuning it. But, if you’re a pianist, you may wish to explore this option as it can help you develop a finer, unique piano sound (depending on what style of music you want to play).
There are a couple of frequently asked questions on pianos that we can now look at and give answers to.
Are pianos tuned to 440 or 442?
What is the 80/20 rule in piano?
Should I tune my piano to 440?
Check our article on How to Get Rid of a Piano
While professionals have done a lot in evolving the techniques and theories of how to tune a piano, the basic method remains the same.
The requirements for tuning your piano are a silent environment, good tools, and an excellent ear for listening. Two hours is normally enough to do a routine tuning of a piano that has been tuned regularly. If you’re not ready to spend the required time on your piano, consult a professional piano tuner instead.
I recommend you buy your piano tuning tools at reputable outlets. A below-average tuning hammer or wrench will cause expensive damage to pins and strings because of the delicacy of these parts. If you have the listening skill, tools, and silent environment, then piano tuning can be a do-it-yourself activity that fulfills more than just your musical needs.