Hammers inside a piano which is part of what you'll see if you tune your own piano

How To Tune Your Piano

A Brief Overview

Piano tuning has a long tradition and history. It is considered an art form and is seen as somewhat of a magical skill-set to the uninitiated. This is because people generally don’t know much about the internal workings of their piano. If they have an upright piano, they generally don’t even know what the inside of their piano looks like. A piano owner may have a mixed reaction of awe and overwhelm at the dizzying array of pins and strings that live in their instrument. The prospect of tuning such a complex array of strings seems daunting. Therefore, people tend to be amazed when a piano tuner can get an old piano to go from sounding like a disaster to sounding like an actual instrument. This is why people pay $80 to $300 for a service depending on how out-of-tune a piano may be as well as other economic factors such as geographical location. 

Fortunately, piano tuning is much more accessible thanks to the advent of electronic tuning devices (ETDs). In fact, one does not need to be a piano player or even a musician to tune a piano. One can rely exclusively on ETDs to determine how sharp or flat a given string needs to be. A well-trained ear or knowledge of acoustics and physics is not necessary. Anyone can get a piano to sound playable with a cheap set of mutes, a tuning lever, and an electronic tuner. Tuning exclusively with an ETD with no aural checks can be called a “rough tuning.” This can be done at an affordable price 1-2 times per year. This is the recommended amount of tuning done for home purposes of practice and leisure. 

Why You Should Hire A Professional

Performing a “rough tuning” without aural checks as described above will not get a piano ready for a concert performance or studio recording session. Professional tuners use both ETDs and aural checks to tune pianos in order to really fulfill a piano’s sonic potential. Obviously, this is important when performing for a paying audience. Also, aural tuning is actually damaging to your hearing over time. If you are a performer or composer then protecting your hearing is reason enough to always hire a professional. Of course, the same goes for hobbyists as well but less so because professional musicians require more tuning services in a year. Studios require monthly services while concert pianos get tuned before each performance. Servicing for these clients as well as households is what makes it possible to make a full-time career possible in piano tuning. For the rest of us, we just need a piano to sound good enough to practice on. For this kind of purpose please read on. 

Step-By-Step Guide

1 – Gather Your Materials

The inside of an upright acoustic piano (how to tune your piano)
  • As stated you will need an ETD, some mutes, and a tuning hammer
  • ETDs can be purchased as a phone app, laptop software, or portable device. There are phone apps costing $25 (or less) and there are portable devices that can cost $1000+. The one that is recommended here is a popular app with professionals called Tunelab. This app can be purchased for $300. However, you can get a trial version for free. If you are just starting out with piano tuning and want to know familiarize yourself with the process, you should start with the trial version. Afterwards, you will have an idea of what a professional standard for an ETD looks like. Then you can choose an ETD that works for you and your budget. Note that Tunelab has both phone apps and laptop software applications. 
  • Mutes are very cheap and you only need two. You should get ones with metal handles attached to them for easy placement when tuning upright pianos. They are palm-sized, rubber, and wedge-shaped. 
  • Tuning hammers can be cheap or expensive like ETDs. When purchasing a tuning hammer, you want the hammer to unscrew along the axis of its handle NOT the head. Cheap hammers around $20-30 will unscrew along the axis of the head. This means that while you are turning the hammer on the pin, the hammer will unscrew itself which completely defeats its own purpose. You can expect to pay at least $60 for such a hammer. It’s recommend to find a hammer with a star-shaped head instead of a square one since it’s easier to find a good fit on the tuning pin. Finally, you want the hammer to not have too much give or flex since you want tightness to provide good feedback from the string. 

2 – Access The Pinblock

  • Guitars and violins having tuning pegs that you turn with your hands. Pianos have tuning pins inserted into pinblocks located inside the piano. The strings are tied and twisted onto the pins with a lot of tension. That’s why you need a tuning hammer to tune them. Accessing, the pins is very simple but differs on an upright vs a grand piano.
  • On a grand piano, you simply need to lift the lid and use the prop to hold it up. For an upright, you have to open up the lid and remove the desk. The desk is the part you rest your sheet music on. To remove the desk, you have to unscrew one screw on each side of the inside compartment. You may also need to release two latches by hand. Again, these latche are located on the left and right side. Once you remove those parts, just lift up the desk and place it somewhere it won’t get damaged. 

3 – Determine Which Keys to Tune

  • If you haven’t tuned your piano in a long time you will need to tune each key. If you notice only a handful of keys sound off then you can simply tune those keys.

4 – Place Mutes

  • Notice that the middle tones on the pin block have 2 strings on their pins and the high tones have 3 strings. This is where your mutes come in as you need to sound one string at a time when tuning. You will use these mutes to mute the strings you are not tuning. The low tones only have 1 string so no mutes are needed there. 
  • For tuning the entire piano, the order in which you tune will be beginning with the lowest note of the treble section. Then you will be moving higher or to the right. Once that is done, you will tune the highest bass note moving lower or to the left.
  • Mutes are wedge-shaped so that you can jam them between strings. So once you’ve decided which string to tune place your mutes on the other strings associated with the same key so that you only hear your target string.

5 – Place Hammer

  • Follow the string you are tuning to its proper pin and place the head of your tuning hammer onto it.
  • The handle of your hammer should be at 12 o’clock and its head should be at 6 o’clock.

6 – Determine Proper Force

  • Play the key and let your ETD tell you if it is flat or sharp. If it’s flat you will need to have the handle going clockwise and vice versa if it is sharp.
  • Before you begin tuning you want to know how much force you should apply on the hammer for your individual piano. The technique for this is to tap the hammer starting from the head at 6 o’clock and working your way up to the handle at 12 o’clock. So assuming it is flat, tap the hammer starting at the head so that the tapping force is going clockwise. When the ETD starts to show that there is a change in the tuning you will know at what part of the hammer’s length you need to apply your force on. Once you do this for a few strings you will not need to continue this step for the rest of the strings.

7 – Tune The String

  • Breaking a string is expensive and scary. SO USE TINY JERKING MOVEMENTS when tuning. If the string is flat you will want to tune it sharper than it should be at and bring it back down flat. Don’t bring it back down flat all the way to where it’s in tune. Keep it a little sharp so that when the strings settle, they will go down to where they ought to be in tune.

8 – Repeat Steps 3-7

  • Keep going moving from key to key. 
  • If tuning the entire piano, move rightwards when tuning the treble section and then go to the highest note on the bass section moving leftwards.

9 – Play Something!

  • See how good it sounds. If it needs more work follow the steps again or if you are not confident in your skills you may want to hire a tuner. If you tried your hand at tuning and decided it’s not for you at least you know that hiring a tuner is worth the cost for you.

You Can Still Do A Professional Job

As stated, you will not be able to achieve the quality of polish that a professional would get if they tuned using aural checks on top of using an ETD. However, unlike a professional who has to get their service done in an hour, you can get yours done over a period of time that is as long as you like. This means that you can perform the same process above over weeks and each time your piano would get more and more in tune to the standard of a professional tuner. Therefore, you can either pay to have your piano very polished in an hour or two or do it yourself over a period of time!

Hammers inside a piano which is part of what you'll see if you tune your own piano

This guest post is by Eric Tran who has a piano tuning service in the Los Angeles area. Thanks to Eric for providing this primer on “how to tune your piano”.

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