A piano represents a considerable investment so it makes good sense to take care of your instrument. This can include basic tasks, such as cleaning, dusting, and polishing to keep the piano in great condition.
However, one of the more important tasks is tuning to ensure that your instrument will have the best quality sound. This is especially important when new players are learning to play because it’s hard to play when the instrument is not in tune. One of the more obvious questions asked about tuning is, how often do you need to tune a piano?
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How Does a Piano Go Out of Tune?
Most people believe that the primary factor for an out of tune piano is the frequency of playing. But, this is not true, the more common reasons are the humidity and temperature fluctuations.
Remember that an acoustic piano creates sound due to the actions of a hammer on a string and the resonance created on the soundboard. Initially, this is a mechanical process of a hammer hitting the string, but the soundboard is made from wood.
The soundboard supports each string, it resonates as each note is struck and that is the source of the deep rich piano tone.
The soundboard is not completely flat, at the center there is a slight rise or “crown” that helps to shape the sound. As the humidity and/or temperature rises and falls the soundboard expands and contracts.
When an expansion occurs, extra pressure is placed on the strings, which can cause played notes to be sharp. During each contraction additional strain is placed on the string and eventually, the tension is compromised.
Even in ideal conditions, a piano would still go out of tune eventually because the strings stretch over time. Every piano string has a tension of approximately 38,000 lbs of pressure and when the stretch the pitch of a played note will be flat.
The Piano Location
One of the more important aspects of piano tuning depends on the location of the instrument. As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to get the piano tuned at least twice per year or every six months.
But, if your piano is exposed to humidity changes and/or temperature extremes, it will be necessary to tune more frequently. In extreme cases, you may need to tune your piano four, five, or even six times per year.
A prime example of an extreme temperature shift would be a piano located next to a sun-facing window. Throughout the day, the piano would be gradually heated and then cooled again and this can cause it to go out of tune faster.
The situation is similar in an environment where the humidity is higher or lower than average. If you have a piano in a professional location such as a music room, studio, or stage setting it will need more frequent tuning. This is because hot stage lights, more frequent playing, and other factors can cause the piano to go out of tune quickly.
When you purchase a used or new piano it’s a good idea to tune the instrument at least four times during the first year of ownership. This extra tuning is a good way to account for any humidity or temperature adjustments as you get used to using the piano.
How Will I Know if My Piano Needs Tuning?
The easiest way is to establish and stick to a schedule for a twice-yearly piano tuning. But, if you notice that the tone or pitch of your piano is changing it’s time to arrange a piano tuning session.
Many musicians have a good ear for the pitch of their instrument and they often notice when sharp or flat notes are produced. Another sure sign is a twanging or buzzing noise when a note is played due to a change in string tension.
If you’re unsure about your ability to notice these changes, you can always use a smartphone tuner app or tuning device to double check.
Get into the habit of checking the tuning every three months, and you will notice when the piano starts to wander out of tune. If you move home, wait at least three weeks before you tune your piano. This will give your instrument time to adjust to any changes in temperature or humidity in the new playing environment.
How is an Acoustic Piano Tuned?
A full-sized 88-key piano has 230 strings; each treble and tenor note has three strings assigned to each key. Every bass note is connected to a pair of strings and at the very lowest bass notes, only a single string is used.
Every string is twisted around the tuning pin, which is used to adjust the tension of the string and extend the pitch. When the piano is tuned, the tension of each string is adjusted with the turning of these tuning pins.
This can be a complex process and that’s why many people choose a digital piano. A digital piano is always in tune. They can have great sounds and you don’t need to worry about humidity or temperature fluctuations. But, for many piano players there is no substitute for the rich sound of a traditional acoustic piano.
Q: Can I Damage a Piano by Playing it Out of Tune?
A: Playing an out of tune piano isn’t a good idea, but any damage caused can usually be repaired with string tension adjustments. If the piano is left out of tune for too long, you can adjust to the lower tension settings and this can cause issues.
When the strings are adjusted back up to the correct pitch it can take a few days or weeks for the piano to settle down. In fact, a piano that hasn’t been tuned for a year or more would need at least two tunings to become stable for playing. But, a piano that’s regularly tuned can hold the tuning better and for longer in many cases.
Q: What Does the Term “Pitch Raise” Mean?
A: If a piano is significantly out of tune, it can cause a change in pressure inside the instrument. A technician may begin the tuning of each string and discover that the last string adjustment changes the tension so much that the first string is out of tune again.
This is known as a “pitch raise” and it can be fixed when the technician adjusts each string individually. The pitch is raised to a level closer to the eventual tension and each string can be tuned more precisely.