Photo by bedbug/iStock / Getty Images

What is tuning?

Tuning is the adjustment of all of the pianos 230 plus strings to standard pitch, A-440 (the A above middle C vibrates at 440 cycles per second). Your piano is designed to sound its best when tuned to A-440. Almost all pianos today are tuned using equal temperament tuning, unless called for otherwise. Maintaining your piano at standard pitch allows you to play along with other instruments which are designed to this same standard. It also is an important that a piano be at standard pitch to assistant in ear training. 

How often should I have my piano tuned and why does it go out of tune?

The recommended minimum for a household piano getting moderate use is tuning once a year. However, there are several factors that may necessitate more frequent tuning; the environment, the mechanical condition of the piano, frequency of use and performance requirements. Variations in the relative humidity is generally the most important criteria in determining how often a piano needs to be tuned. Extreme changes in humidity levels, as occur in the North East, can drastically affect tuning stability. The pianos soundboard, upon which the strings are attached via the bridge, is 3/8" spruce wood. The soundboard will expand and contract with seasonal changes in temperature and humidity and the string tension will fluctuate accordingly. You can reduce the severity of these climatic effects by placing your piano in the room, so that it is away from windows or doors that are opened regularly. Avoid heating and air conditioning vents, fireplaces and areas receiving direct sunlight. Because of these seasonal variations, many piano owners opt for tuning their pianos twice a year, once in the summer and once in the winter. An excellent option for controlling tuning stability and protecting your piano from the harmful affects of excess humidity, is to install a humidity control system inside the piano. (See my detailed answer on this subject below.)

The age and mechanical condition of the piano is also an important factor in how frequently a piano needs to be tuned. For new pianos, most manufactures recommend four tunings in the first year to compensate for the elasticity of new piano wire.

Pianos with a compromised pin-block (the pin-block is a block of hardwood laminate that holds the tuning pins) can also be a source of tuning instability. In some cases, the pin-block must be repaired or replaced. Cracked bridges are also a source of tuning instability and may need repair. These conditions usually occur in old or neglected pianos.

Frequency of use will also determine a pianos ability to stand in tune. Pianos in performance venues or that are used for teaching and serious practice will all need more frequent tuning and service.

If I haven't had my piano tuned regularly, how can I get it back in good playing condition?

If your piano has gone without tuning for an extended period of time, its pitch may have dropped well below standard pitch at which it was designed to perform. It may require a procedure called a "pitch raise"or "pitch correction". This is a necessary procedure before a fine tuning can be achieved, for the following reason. When the tension of each string is raised back up to pitch, the additional load on the piano's structure causes the pitch of the previously adjusted strings to change. The only way to achieve a fine, accurate tuning on a piano is to have the tension of all the strings so close to proper pitch that altering one string will not affect the others. Therefore, a piano must be already fairly close to standard pitch to be finely tuned. 

Why not just tune the piano to a lower pitch?

Tuning the piano to anything other than the international standard of A-440 is seldom appropriate. However, if a very old piano has been allowed to remain appreciably below pitch for a long time, some strings may break if the piano is restored to A-440. This will also be an unstable tuning due to the sudden, large increase of tensile force placed upon the structure. This may be justification for tuning a piano to a lower frequency but is not desirable. Conversely, lowering the pitch far below A-440 will also result in significant adjustments made to the tension of every string, resulting in an unstable tuning. It is much more reliable to bring the piano up to standard pitch and then proceed with fine tuning. 

Photo by Dashabelozerova/iStock / Getty Images

What is regulation and how does it affect my piano's performance?

Regulation is the adjustment of the mechanical aspects of the piano to compensate for the effects of wear, the compacting and settling of cloth, felt and buckskin, as well as dimensional changes in wood and wool parts due to changes in humidity and use. The three systems involved in regulation are the action, trap-work and damper system.

The action is the mechanical part of the piano that transfers the motion of the fingers on the keys to the hammers that strike the strings. Because it is comprised of thousands of working parts, the action requires adjustment to critical tolerances to properly respond to a pianist's performance. And because the piano's action will go out of adjustment slowly over time, you may not notice accumulating sluggishness or unevenness as it occurs. No amount of practice will compensate for a poorly maintained action. Poor legato touch, chord playing where all the notes of the chord don't speak clearly, a gradual loss of subtlety in phrasing and an inability to execute quick passages or note repetitions evenly, may be the fault of the piano - not the pianist. Smooth, even playing is as much a function of a well maintained action as a well-practice pianist.

The trapwork and is the assemblage of levers, dowels and springs that connect the pedals to the action. The damper system is the mechanical part of the piano that stops the motion of the strings and is controlled by the keys and pedal system. Incorrect pedaling techniques may be related to poor regulation of the trapwork or damper system. Fine adjustment is essential here if you are to achieve the nuances of pedaling.

What is voicing?

A piano may require periodic voicing. This work can be included as part of the regulation procedure or done independently of regulation work. However, the process of regulation will invariably affect the tone or 'voice' of the piano. The process of voicing alone can adjust the relative brilliance of a piano and provide an even gradation of volume and tone over the entire range of the keyboard. Voicing procedures may involve reshaping the hammers, the use of needles on the hammer felt and/ or the application of special softeners or hardeners in order to produce the best sound possible. It should be noted that voicing can only be accomplished after the piano has been recently fine tuned.    

What happens to a piano as it ages?

In the short term, leather and felt compact, affecting the adjustment (regulation) of the parts. The action becomes uneven and less responsive and the piano's tone loses dynamic range. Squeaks and rattles may develop. Routine maintenance, such as hammer filing, regulation, voicing and tuning will help correct these problems and keep the piano in top condition.

After extended or heavy use, action parts become severely worn. Leather and felt wear thin, keys become wobbly, hammer felt becomes too thin to produce good tone and the action becomes noisy. Regulation adjustments reach their limit. In addition, piano strings may begin breaking and the copper windings of the bass strings lose resonance. Decades of exposure to seasonal changes can cause the wood of the soundboard, bridges and pinblock to weaken. This causes loose tuning pins, poor tuning stability and further loss of tone.

When does a piano need reconditioning or rebuilding?

Most pianos can be played for many years without significant reconditioning or major repairs. However, the touch, tone and appearance will continually decline with age. When regular maintenance such as cleaning, regulating, voicing and tuning no longer provide satisfactory performance, a piano may require reconditioning or rebuilding. Exactly when a piano needs reconditioning or rebuilding depends upon its original quality, the climate, usage and performance requirements.

What is reconditioning?

Reconditioning is the process of putting a piano back in good condition by cleaning, repairing and regulating, along with replacing parts where necessary. This is appropriate for a piano with only moderate wear or those of medium value or average performance requirements. Reconditioning does not involve replacing major components such as the soundboard, bridges, pinblock and most action parts. This means the performance and life span of an older piano will not be restored to new. Instead, reconditioning is designed to improve a piano's performance, keeping in mind both costs and benefits.

What is rebuilding?

Complete rebuilding involves the pianos entire structure, including soundboard, bridges, pinblock and strings, as well as the action, keyboard and case refinishing.

Partial rebuilding includes only one or two of these areas. For example, only rebuilding the action and structure but not refinishing the case. Often, it is a combination of rebuilding and reconditioning.

How does humidity affect my piano?

Swelling and shrinking of the piano's soundboard is the most immediate and noticeable effect of humidity change. The soundboard, a sheet of wood approximately 3/8" thick, is made with a slightly crowned shape. The strings pass over the soundboard and are connected to it by a wooden piece called a bridge. The upward crown of the soundboard presses the bridge tightly against the strings.

As the moisture level in the soundboard increases during periods of high relative humidity, the crown expands and pushes the bridge harder against the strings. The strings are stretched tighter and the piano's pitch rises. Because this increase in crown is greater in the center of the soundboard than at the edges, the pitch rises more in the middle octaves than in the bass or treble registers.

During periods of low relative humidity the soundboard shrinks, reducing crown and decreasing pressure against the strings. The pitch drops, again with the greatest effect noticeable in the center of the keyboard. When relative humidity returns to its previous level, the average pitch of all the strings will return to normal, although the exact pitch of individual strings will be slightly changed from their original settings. Thus, a piano will only stay in tune as long as the relative humidity in the air surrounding the soundboard remains constant. Extreme humidity changes require making greater changes in string tension to bring the piano into tune. This upsets the equilibrium between the string tension and the piano frame and tuning stability is compromised.

What can be done to minimize humidity problems?

Keeping the humidity level around your piano as constant as possible will help it stay in tune longer, as well as slow damage such as soundboard cracks, loose tuning pins and glue joint failures. The first and simplest precaution you can take is to position your piano away from areas where it would be exposed to extremes of temperate and humidity such as heating and cooling vents, stoves, doors and windows. Direct sunlight is especially damaging. If your home is not well insulated, an interior wall is preferable to an outside wall. 

Controlling the humidity within the home is another step you can take to preserve your instrument. In most areas of the country, the relative humidity level is very low during the winter and very high during the spring and summer. To monitor humidity changes in your home, you may wish to purchase a hygrometer. Use of a room humidifier during dry seasons will help somewhat, although it is difficult to completely control the relative humidity of a piano by controlling the room environment alone.

A very practical and effective answer to humidity problems is to have a humidity control system installed in the piano itself. These systems consist of three parts: a humidifier for adding moisture to the air, a dehumidifier for eliminating excess moisture and a control unit that senses the relative humidity of the air within the piano and activates the system to add or remove moisture as needed. The components are installed out of sight, inside the case of a vertical or under the case of a grand. They are easy to maintain and can be serviced by a qualified piano technician during the course of regularly scheduled tunings. These systems help preserve your piano through the years as wood parts, glue joints, metal parts and the finish will all last longer, if not subjected to excessive humidity swings.

How do I take care of my piano's finish?

  • Locate your piano to avoid direct sunlight, as well as excessive temperature and humidity changes.
  • To avoid scratching, always remove dust first with a damp cloth or feather duster before wiping with a dry cloth.
  • Never place drinks, plants, etc., on the finish. Make sure lamps have a felt padded base.
  • Avoid placing vinyl or rubber in direct contact with the piano.
  • Avoid touching piano strings with fingers or damp cloths.
  • Delicate parts inside your piano should be cleaned only by a qualified technician.
  • Use polish sparingly, if at all. Avoid aerosol products and any product containing silicone.
  • Before playing, wash your hands to prevent staining of the sides and tops of keys.