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TUNING TECHNIQUES & TOOLS

Position of the tuning hammer

Some piano tuners are rabidly insistent on the correct position of the tuning hammer – I’ll just tell what works and is comfortable for me.

For an upright piano, I tune with the hammer anywhere between the 12 and 2 o’clock position. For grand pianos, I generally have the hammer somewhere around 2 o’clock, depending on how I’m sitting comfortably. I usually only stand while tuning full-size upright pianos; it just isn’t comfortable for me to stand all day. Call me lazy, but I’ve got many years of tuning ahead of me, and I don’t want to get carpal-tunnel or back problems – I’ll go with what’s comfortable.

Push-pull vs. torque tuning

This is one topic I haven’t seen discussed much in the books I’ve seen on piano tuning. This is another arguable topic that I’ll just explain what works best for me.

I’ve noticed many tuners pulling the tuning hammer and pushing it away to raise and lower the pitch. I was taught a method of torquing, or ‘bumping’ the hammer in either direction instead.

The concept of torque tuning makes practical sense to me. Picture a tuning pin being gripped tightly by the pin block. Half of the tuning pin is above the pin block and is free to move. Trying to turn the entire pin with a tuning hammer is difficult. The top half of the steel tuning pin wants to twist, while the half in the pin block is more reluctant to move. The tuning pin, which is twisted, will soon correct itself and become straight again, affecting the tuning stability. Now imagine a lag bolt that is stuck tight in wood, barely able to move. Pushing on a crescent wrench or ratchet to loosen the bolt is not working and runs the risk of breaking/twisting the head off the bolt. Using a torquing or ‘bumping’ motion with the ratchet to loosen the bolt is more effective at loosening the bolt and is less likely to twist the head of the bolt off. The analogy works for the tuning pin, since the pin is actually a finely threaded screw set tight in wood. Torquing or ‘bumping’ the pin in either direction is more likely to move the entire pin and leave the pin in an untwisted position, which improves the tuning stability. Tuning hammers and pins are sensitive to small motions, so no great cranking motions are necessary in either direction.

Setting the tuning pins

The idea of setting the tuning pins to be at rest and completely stable seemed an almost mythical task when I first started learning how to tune. I was told that explanations could take it only so far, that learning the feel and control necessary to set the pins was something that only could be learned from tuning over and over again. My teachers were not exaggerating. I wish there was a profound suggestion I could make that would instantly make it more attainable. Until then, I have a few suggestions using my own techniques for setting the pins.

Raise the pitch of the note slightly over where it should be, and carefully lower it back to the right spot. IF the pin didn’t get twisted while tuning, and IF the movement up over then slightly back down was small enough, the pin should be set and in a stable position. It sounds sooo easy, doesn’t it? As a beginner, I tried raising a note right up to the correct pitch and leaving it there, without bringing it slightly over and lowering it back. This did not and still does not seem to work for me. I was taught to ALWAYS end with a slight lowering motion – yet another rabidly argued position. I actually find that if the pitch is very close and I am making very small incremental movement above or below where I want it, I can end on an upward or downward motion. This is IF the movements are very small and IF the piano is new enough so that the strings don’t get caught on the bearing points and are capable of these small movements. Until a beginner gets down the control of the hammer and tuning pin, it is probably better to try making the last movement be a slight downward motion.

Tuning down then up

Unless I’m making very slight raises in pitch on a newer piano, I usually drop the pitch a little, and then raise it to the point where I can start setting the pin. This technique has several advantages. First, it acts as a precaution against raising the wrong string by accident and breaking it. I think it is safe to say all piano tuners, at least once, put the hammer on the wrong string and pulled, expected to hear a change, pulled some more, figured the string just hadn’t moved yet, pulled some more, and hopefully realized before it was too late that they had the wrong string. A small initial downward motion all but eliminates that from happening.

Another advantage of a small downward motion is that it greatly reduces the chances of breaking strings, especially on rusty tuning pins and string coils. The string has been at rest with gradually lessening tension for some time, and all of a sudden the tension is pulled up from tuning. It’s not just on older, rusty pins I’ve broken strings by just coming in and pulling up the tension; this has happened to me on pianos only a few years old. I believe that starting with a small downward motion relieves the tension (and breaks up rust) and decreases the “shock” to the string by raising the pitch higher than it was. Again, tuning pins are sensitive, so only a small motion downward is necessary.

False beats

No way around it, false beats are a pain in the …er ..neck. What is a false beat? Remember how unison strings at slightly different pitches will cause the wow wow wow sound? False beats sound like unison strings being tuned slightly off, but the sound is only coming from one string!

Leave it to the physics geeks to explain how this can happen, I just know that it happens occasionally and is a minor nuisance. The PTG newsletter has run three-part articles complete with charts and diagrams explaining this phenomenon, but I fell asleep somewhere near the beginning of part one. I find it much more fascinating that there are people out there who actually care enough to read the three-part article and find it interesting, but I digress.

I encountered a false beat during the recording session for this tutorial, and made note of it. Behold, the devilish false beat. So how do you tune that? The simple answer is, you just make it sound the best you can, and you move onward. There are several tricks to try with manipulating the string and making sure it is seated properly at its various bearing points, but I use these tricks with pretty limited success. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t be tried, just don’t get your hopes too high that they will work and remain a permanent fix.

Initially I would get stuck on a false beat and keep trying to make it better, hitting my head against the wall over and over again. With experience (and many head bandages later) I learned to identify the false beats quickly, hear their beating rate, and tune the unison knowing that I will never tune it more accurately than that beat rate. It only gets to be really annoying when there are many false beats, some on each string of the same note. This is one of the problems with tuning accuracy in many spinets – there are false beats all over the place and the finished tuning sounds like it’s riddled with bad unisons. I sometimes try to walk the fine line of pointing out and explaining the false beats, so my customers know it’s not my fault the piano doesn’t sound in tune, while trying not to make their piano sound like a useless junk pile, or P.S.O. (piano-shaped object).

That’s enough on false beats, just tune them the best you can and move on. Don’t waste your time trying to tune something that will never sound better than a bad unison.

Test blows

A test blow is a sharp, concise key blow that is meant to equalize the varying tensions of the string between bearing points. Once the tuning pin is set, I use the middle and ring fingers, with the index finger as support, to sharply play the key as a test blow.

There are several bearing points each string passes over or through: agraffe/capo bar, front bridge pin, rear bridge pin, aliquot bar or plate ridge, and hitch pin. Test blows ensure that all sections of the string along these bearing points have equalized tension.

In my first experiences using test blows, I made the usual rookie mistake: I hit the key VERY hard. I shouldn’t say mistake really; it’s a common learning stage that beginners go through. It’s a wonder I have any nerves left at the end of my fingers! I went through a period in my training when I was breaking 3-5 treble strings each week with my overzealous test blows. Incidentally, I learned a lot about replacing treble strings! Not to worry – rest those red, bruised, cracking fingertips and know that it will not always be like this. Tuning a piano should not be a painful experience (at least for the tuner).

I’ve learned through experience and demonstration that the more control you develop with the tuning hammer, the less force you need to put into a test blow. I’ve worked with tuners that have a lifetime of tuning experience who use only minimal force for test blows. They don’t have to hit hard – their control with the tuning hammer is that good.

It seems to me a good thing not to tune like a bull in a china shop. I occasionally get new customers who complain that their last tuner just hit the keys too hard. Besides that, aggressively striking the keys on an older piano with brittle parts, glue joints, and rusty strings is just an invitation for trouble. This is another situation where learning in a school and tuning showroom pianos helps – it gives a tuner the chance to develop the hammer control so they don’t have to tune so aggressively.

One mistake that can be easy to make is getting into the habit of actually using the test blows to tune a note. This usually involves pulling the string slightly over, then whacking the key with test blows until the note is in tune. Unfortunately, this is actually a fairly common tuning technique. It is called a test blow for a reason – it is not a tuning blow. It may take a while to develop the hammer control, but the goal is that when you use a test blow, nothing changes. This can be a difficult goal to achieve, but believe me, your fingertips will thank you!

Tuning stability

Like setting the pins, tuning stability is something that can only be developed with practice over time. I really wish there was a magic answer to share. Ideally, a customer’s piano should stay in relatively good tune for six months. Ideally, a concert tuning should make it through two hours of Liszt without sounding like the piano was pushed out a window. Ideally. Though circumstances are often not ideal, these are good standards to aim for.

One of my favorite tuning stories happened in May 1995, when I took a bus to NYC to apply for a job at Steinway & Sons. I tuned and was interviewed at Steinway Hall in the famous Concert & Artist basement with Ron Connors, the head tuner-technician for C&A. Ron is a big man. His size and the fact that he is one of the best piano tuners on the planet was more than intimidating – I was terrified! Ron is actually a great guy; I just didn’t know that at the time.

When I had finished the tuning, Ron came in to check it over. After listening to the temperament, octaves, intervals and unisons, he checked the tuning stability of the temperament section with the most punishing set of test blows I’ve ever heard. Needless to say, my temperament, along with my confidence, was completely obliterated. Ron grinned and said, “I think you need to work on your tuning stability.” I felt like I was about an inch tall. I weakly told him, with all humility and respect, that I couldn’t imagine anyone’s tuning holding up to that kind of punishment. He sat down and tuned four or five of the unisons in my destroyed temperament, then invited me to hit the keys as hard as he did. A minute and several almost broken fingers later, those unisons didn’t budge. THAT is why Ron Connors is THE MAN. He encouragingly told me not to worry, that tuning stability comes with practice.

As an addendum to this story, last year I tuned for a concert where the first hour was all Liszt, and stayed through to intermission to clean up the tuning as needed. I ended up having to fix a few unisons that were starting to stray, but essentially everything was still in place and holding. Ron would have been proud.

Tuning’s 50-50 rule

With all that I’ve ever read or heard about tuning, this is probably one of the most important and least mentioned concepts: what you have the ability to hear is only half of the skill required to tune a piano.

The other half is what you do with what you hear. The most accurate tuning in the world is useless if five minutes after it’s done the piano is out of tune again. Of course, the reverse is just as true with good tuning stability and poor tuning accuracy. Having strength in both areas is key to the success of any tuner. Mastering what you hear and how you control the tuning of the piano gives tuners the advantage in circumstances when hearing or controlling the tuning is difficult. There have been many challenging circumstances where I have been grateful for my past experience to guide me through.

rt bass stings is tuning accuracy. On the worst of the low-quality spinets especially, the tone can be so poor and muddled that it can be hard to tell what to tune. In these cases, don’t go too crazy trying to tune a piano with such limitations.

Stretching the tuning

Oh what a world, what a world. A tuning that sounds perfectly tuned is technically not in tune. If a piano were to be tuned to be mathematically perfect, meaning all the octaves were pure and beatless, it would sound out of tune. The treble would sound progressively flat and the bass would sound progressively sharp. Therefore, in order to achieve tuning nirvana, we must use imperfection to achieve perfection. (PianoTuningHowTo NOTE: we don't agree with this statement. If you tune all octaves beatless, they WILL be tuned and stretched anyway.)

At the root of the problem is the principle of inharmonicity. The strings on a piano are pulled to incredible tensions, much more so than other stringed instruments. The stiffness of the piano strings cause the overtones/partials to be slightly sharp. Tuning a piano so that it sounds right to our ears means stretching the octaves. How much? Well, that is where tuning gets a bit more relative. How much to stretch the tuning is really a matter of taste. Some people prefer more, some less. I just tune the stretch to what sounds right to me. Probably the most important part of stretching the tuning is to make sure it is an even and consistently linear stretch. After all, the idea is to make the tuning imperfectly perfect.

A lot to listen to, a lot to ignore

Sonically speaking, when an individual note is played on a piano, there is a whole lot going on there. In addition to the fundamental note, there are harmonics, unisons and sometimes varying degrees of false beats. And that is just one note! It is hard initially to learn how to listen selectively and filter out the extraneous noises. This is a good reason to get access to a good quality piano while learning to tune.

When I was enrolled in the tuning program at New England Conservatory, I went to the local Steinway dealer to practice on the showroom pianos every Thursday. At first, we were allowed to tune only the entry-level pianos, which were a step up from the pianos in the school program. As we improved each week we were allowed to move onto the mid-level instruments – the Boston pianos. This was a very ear-opening experience! All that I had learned about tuning was suddenly right in front of me, clear and accurate. Even more so when I was able to start tuning the Steinways. It was like the fog had finally lifted and I could finally hear what my teacher had been talking about!

Major pitch changes

Pianos can be very stubborn when it comes to tuning! When there is a major change in pitch (and tension), the downward pressure of the strings over the bridges (downbearing) will change. While raising or lowering the pitch substantially in a section, the changes in downbearing affect the rest of the tuning and makes for a rough-sounding result. The tendency is for the pitch of the piano to shift back somewhat in the direction of where it was previously.

In most cases where a major pitch change is necessary, it is usually a pitch raise. Pianos that haven’t been tuned for at least a year often drop in pitch over time. A pitch raise is usually a very fast, rough tuning which is done to raise the tension of the piano to the correct pitch. A second, more precise tuning can then be done.

Occasionally, pianos will be too sharp and will need to be tuned down to A440. Once again, the piano’s stubbornness raises its ugly head! When the pitch (tension) is lowered significantly, it has a tendency to move back up in the direction where it was at rest before tuning. Like a pitch raise, it is impossible to tune accurately when doing a pitch lowering. After the first rough tuning, a fine tuning is then possible.

Knowing the pitch will shift back in the direction where it was before tuning, you can compensate by tuning the pitch beyond where you want it to end up. How much beyond to tune is more of an educated guess than exact science. I generally tune beyond by about half as much as it took to bring it to the correct pitch.

Something to consider when doing a pitch raise is not to raise the pitch too far over A440. If the piano is ½ step flat (1 note flat) and you raise the pitch ¼ step over A440 to allow for wire memory, that is far too high. Pianos are not designed to be tuned ¼ step above A440. Tuning too sharply could damage the piano. Bringing the pitch too far over A440 on an older piano is just asking for broken strings, not to mention a host of possible structural problems. If the pitch is very flat, it may be necessary to do several pitch raises incrementally.

Minor pitch changes

Unfortunately, changes in downbearing aren’t just limited to major pitch changes. Unless the general pitch level of the piano is close or right on, it is very common for a tuning to be affected by the downbearing. This is one reason why running through the checks at the end of the tuning is so important.

Rough tuning the temperament with rubber mutes first is a good indicator of how much compensation for downbearing will be needed for the rest of the piano. When I am done a rough tuning with mutes, the temperament should be pretty close; I shouldn’t need to do much more than make minor corrections once I insert the strip. If things are not close by the end of the rough temperament tuning, I know I may need to stretch the tuning a bit further knowing there will be a tendency for the piano to move back in the direction it was in prior to tuning.

There are a lot of things to take into account when tuning a piano – I never said it would be easy! Like many other aspects of tuning, compensating for downbearing became more automatic for me over time. Tuning can be a lot like driving a car; there is so much mental and physical skill involved in driving, yet we do it every day and it soon becomes second nature. Based on experience, I listen to how much the pitch is off, and I know how much I have to stretch the note to get it to end up where I want it.

Removing the case parts for tuning

If you are new to tuning, this is your first test! Books on tuning usually assume that you already know how to remove the case parts of the piano. Hundreds of piano makers were either trying to avoid patent lawsuits or were just trying to make life difficult, because there seem to be hundreds of different ways for removing case parts.

Whether held in by screws, hinge pins, guide pins, springs, or swivel blocks, all models are different and present a good first challenge! To prepare an upright piano for tuning, prop open the top lid and remove the upper case panel. The fallboard, which closes over the keys, may also have to be removed. For grand pianos, open the lid to full position, and remove the music desk. Music desks don’t always just slide out; sometimes they are attached by screws or need to be pulled forward then up. Whatever the case, panels are meant to be removed for service, and most of the time they should not need a lot of muscle to remove.

Some tool recommendations

My tuning hammer - The tuning hammer I use is a Schaff rosewood handle extension hammer, with a 15 degree head, and a 1-inch, #2 star tip. I personally prefer wooden handles to nylon because they are more attractive and it feels better, especially in the summertime.

Free online piano tuning tutorial

Get it on AMAZON (Affiliate link, you won't pay more and I will get a reward)

I recommend purchasing the Professional Tuning Kit TM w/ satin rosewood handle from International Piano Supply (PianoTuningHowTo NOTE: please don't go to pianosupply.com for they have closed and somebody got the domain name and put a very dangerous website). Each kit includes a professional-quality rosewood, non-extension tuning hammer, 8 rubber mutes (2 wire-handled), a tapered temperament strip, and professional quality A440 tuning fork. Most tuning kits for sale elsewhere are more expensive, are of lesser quality, and often include tools which are unnecessary clutter to a beginner.

Please note – the quality of the tuning hammer is vital to the success of anyone attempting to tune a piano. Any low-cost beginner’s hammers I have tried were very difficult to control. A gooseneck hammer is about as useful for tuning as a real gooseneck! A quality tuning hammer needs good weight and balance. The hammer included in this kit I have tried with good result. Using a hammer of lesser quality is courting frustration. Spend a little extra and buy something that will do the job properly!

Rubber mutes – I know some tuners who use up to a dozen rubber mutes, in addition to the temperament strip. I generally only use two 6-inch tapered rubber mutes and one wire-handled mute to insert the temperament strip and to reach places in the high treble where space is tight.

Glue and liquid graphite – I keep these in my tool case, but usually need these two items in small quantities. I emptied two fingernail polish bottles and filled them with PVC-E glue and liquid graphite. The brush tips in the bottle covers are great for applying both evenly.

The following is a list of tools I use infrequently, but when I need them, they are essential and irreplaceable:

The mother of all screwdrivers, aka Big Bertha – I’m a big fan of using tools which are ridiculously overqualified for the job. For tight screws, this is the best tool I’ve used. Try using the standard plastic-handled screwdriver from Sears on a tight keyblock screw, and your hand may never work right again! Big Bertha is a professional quality electricians’ screwdriver which took me several months to find, and has been well worth the cost. (PianoTuningHowTo NOTE: you can also use a big screw driver that has a square rod so you can tighten with a wrench)

Damper guide rail bushing tip – This is the permanent solution to swollen damper guide rail bushings. I had this tool machined to fit into an electric key bushing iron. I’ve encountered several pianos with which this tool has saved me many hours of labor.

Digital hygrometer – This is useful to use as a reference for humidity-related issues. I recommend that my customers buy a digital hygrometer from Radio Shack to monitor the humidity changes where the piano is located.

Small ‘C’ clamp – attach to side of tool case and !presto! - instant bench vise.

For those who dabble in the dark arts of repairs that “just keep it going” (see the need to improvise), here is a short list of materials to improvise with: wooden matches, extra hammershanks, masking tape, a hacksaw blade, 6” lengths of heavy gauge music wire (size 18), center pin lubricant and hypo-oiler, other tuner’s business cards, extra screws of varying size, and an extra temperament strip to cut.

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