Why do you need to frequently tune a piano?

March 11, 2021

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Having an instrument that is in tune is important at ALL times. The COVID-19 pandemic, in some paradoxical way,  has really revealed how crucial it actually is to frequently tune a piano. Back in March 2020, when our piano lessons suddenly switched to all virtual, the teachers started seeing into many students’ homes and hearing their personal pianos for the first time ever. Month after month, the acoustic pianos (not the players) were sounding worse and worse. This was not because the players were bad but because – for obvious safety reasons – nobody was having their pianos tuned!

What happens to a  piano when it is not regularly tuned?

If an acoustic piano is not maintained, it goes “out of tune.” When an instrument is not in tune, it does not produce the correct sound frequency for each individual note. This means that in a slightly out of tune piano, the sound you hear when you press a key may be slightly too high or too low.

There are 88 total keys on pianos. The tuner has to make sure that each key produces the proper sound frequency by adjusting the tension on the strings with a tuning hammer. More pressure means higher frequency while less pressure means lower frequency.

Sound frequency is measured in Hertz. For example, the frequency of the “middle C” on the piano should be 261.63Hz, the frequency of A above it is the famous 440Hz, and so on for each individual note of the piano keyboard.

When you press a single piano key down in a low register (bottom keys of about a third of a keyboard), the piano hammer strikes one or two strings, and in the middle and higher register (two thirds of the keyboard roughly) each hammer strikes three strings. So for most piano notes there has to be 3 strings perfectly in tune with each other to produce the accurate frequency. 

Additionally, pianos are made out of wood which shrinks and expands depending on the changes of temperature and humidity. Wood is the only material that is suitable for making pianos – it gives the sound the needed depth and color. During World War 2, when wood supplies were in shortage, some piano makers tried to use other materials such as cement, for example. We salute the ingenuity of these piano makers but those instruments sounded truly awful! Think about all other instruments that are made out of wood: guitars, violins, cellos. There is a reason we use the wood for them. The downside, however, is that, unlike steel or cement, wood shrinks and expands. As a result, we need to tune all of these instruments.

What happens if you don’t tune your piano?

You can say, “I don’t notice any bad sounds, all my keys work, so I think I am good!” Even if you don’t “think” that your piano is out of tune, you can still sense that there’s something wrong with it and react to it. The experience of playing the piano becomes unpleasant on a subconscious level. We work hard to make the music sound good. If you’re dealing with an out of tune piano, there is no situation where the music will truly sound good. It’s important to frequently tune a piano so that you can fully enjoy the sound of the instrument!

Un-tuned pianos gradually destroy our own sense of pitch

There is both a perfect and relative sense of pitch and we usually have one or another. Basically, if you are able to hear that a singer on an American Idol, for example, is singing some “funny” notes, then you have a good sense of pitch. If you do not frequently tune an acoustic piano and keep playing on it, your sense of pitch becomes destroyed over time. It is particularly bad for children to practice on un-tuned pianos, as it could really instill bad habits and make piano lessons more difficult.

There is no doubt that maintaining your acoustic piano is an added cost. Without doing so you are undermining your musical experience.If you have a car, you want it to be in shape and run properly. It’s the same for acoustic pianos – you just have to get them tuned!

So, how often should you tune a piano? We recommend hiring a piano tuner to come twice a year to be able to fully enjoy its beautiful sound!

You will love playing your tuned piano! Contact us for best piano tuners recommendations if you are located in NYC.

 



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