BLUEBOOK OF PIANOS

PIANO TUNING GUIDELINES

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THE TRUTH ABOUT STAYING IN TUNE:

You know, a fine piano is a work of art. Therefore, to treat it rough, carelessly or negligent it is to commit a crime against a beautiful piece of expensive craftsmanship. To pay a lot of money for a fine piano and then allow it to go to ruin for lack of expert care is not merely aesthetically wrong it is bad business. If a piano is neglected, if it be allowed to go through from one season to another, say, from Spring to Winter, without tuning, it will probably, at the end of that time, be considerably lower in pitch than it was originally. It will have gone through a rise, followed by a fall, and the fall will be greater than the first rise.

No matter what any salesman may say, no matter how well the piano may be made, no matter, in fact, what the physical circumstances or the price or the domestic conditions may be, there is no such thing as a piano standing month after month in tune. The better the piano, the more frequent and careful tuning it should have.

In order to understand why a piano goes out of tune, it is first necessary to remember that the whole instrument is always under a varying stress. The strings are stretched at an average tension of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds apiece; so that the iron plate, together with the heavy wooden framing, carries a strain totaling from eighteen to twenty tons. The soundboard is merely a thin sheet of spruce a three eighths of an inch in thickness. If it is properly constructed, the whole board becomes something like a highly elastic spring. The more elastic it is, the freer and more agree able will he the tone emanating from the piano.

From the layman's standpoint, two tunings a year should be sufficient. The tuner knows, however, that if he had time to tune his own piano as often as his ears tell him, he would tune it once a month at least. From a strictly scientific point of view, it is probably true to say that no piano ever made has stood in tune, without a drop or a rise, for more than twenty four hours, unless it were maintained at constant temperature and at constant barometric and hygroscopic conditions.

SENSITIVITY TO ATMOSPHERIC CHANGES

The very construction is extremely sensitive to all changes of temperature and barometric pressure. In summer time, throughout the greater part of the country, there is much moisture in the air most of the time, and rain is frequent. Wood, under these conditions, swells up; nor will any kind of coating protect a wooden soundboard from these influences. On the contrary, when the heat is on during the colder months, the air in rooms becomes much drier, owing to the evaporation of moisture and failure to keep on hand open vessels of water, flowering plants or other moisture retainers or evaporators. Consequently, the moisture in the soundboard rapidly passes off, the board shrinks, the strings slacken down, and the pitch drops.

Now, it is perfectly evident that even where conditions are not extreme, and even in climates which have only a comparatively short range, this process is continually going on. "Every change of a degree in temperature, or of one tenth of an inch in a barometer, has its effect. The soundboard of the piano, then, is always slowly rising and falling through short distances, and constantly, therefore, suffering variations in its ability to hold the strings up to proper pitch. On the other hand, if the piano be neglected and unless it be tuned at least once every change in season, say four times a year, during Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, it will not stay in tune

The most common cause of a piano going out of tune is fluctuations in temperature and of humidity changes. The best temperature for a piano is the same as the comfort of a person. Inside each case is an enormously complex piece of machinery, you have up to 12,000 parts that are incorporated into an elaborate assembly of a precision engineered musical instrument. In addition to the usual factors of friction, wear, and tear, add more than 40,000 pounds of string pressure and the adverse cumulative effects of climatic flux of temperature and humidity.

When a piano is tuned, it begins to go out of tune, and each time it is played the strings stretch a little more. Pianos of lower cost are more likely to be made out of lower cost materials and will be more difficult to service or keep in tune, because is the quality and construction of the piano itself.

Pianos made of cured hardwoods with sturdy construction and quality parts and stringing design will resist the adversities of humidity, in fact buying the next grade up of any particular piano line would more than pay for itself in a very short period of time in a piano's life, and you would enjoy playing on an instrument that is acclimatized, with superior tone qualities. Direct sunlight is the biggest problem today, both for the finish of the instrument and the tuning stability.

TONE QUALITY

The three essentials to a good piano are tone, touch and durability. The average ear may distinguish tone and know when the instrument pleases. Tone is the medium of the pianist's art. It is to the musician what color is to the painter, language to the poet. Hence it is all important that the tone you produce should be beautiful in quality, and as far as possible overcome the one great inherent defect of the piano by cultivating a good singing tone. Yet the majority of people are curiously vague on this subject; if asked how they set about getting tone, few can give a clear or rational explanation.

While the electronic keyboards and digital pianos have made great strides into tone and touch duplication with sampling and weighted actions, but the "luster" is still missing. If we want a digital to more perfectly emulate a real piano we have to have the digital piano go slightly out of tune on a regular basis and have the timbre of the piano get brighter as the hammers got more compacted and the strings stretch. The older the strings, the less flexible they become. When piano wire is new it has irregularities in its diameter and has more 'stretch' potential. As it stretches, the diameter becomes more uniform, producing better tone because the overtones ring more precisely. Therefore, a new piano requires more tuning.

Additionally, the increased tension may cause the tuning pins to slip or the string to seat on a new spot at the bridge pins. In winter, when the humidity is reduced, the board shrinks, resulting in an out-of-tune piano. If you live in a tropical area that is always humid, or a desert that is always dry, your piano will be more stable with regard to its tuning. The tighter the grain of the soundboard, the less susceptible it will be to changes in humidity. Air conditioning dehumidification and furnace humidifiers will help, but will not completely eliminate the effects of seasonal changes in humidity. Tuning also pins slip. If the wood holding the tuning pins (called the 'pin block' or 'wrestplank') has dried out and constricted, Or if the pins have been turned very many times, the tuning pins will not be able to hold the proper tension on the string and the pitch will go flat shortly or immediately after tuning.

TUNING STABILITY AND MOVING YOUR PIANO

Moving a piano with loose pins may cause it to go out of tune, but the problem wasn't caused by moving. It was caused by the defect in the piano. Unlike the old saying, you have to tune a piano if you move it just isn't true. Moving a piano in the same room, house, city, and state will not effect the tuning very much. Pianos go out of tune due to the weather much more than from being moved. Sure if you bounce it around on a pick-up truck long enough or often enough it will go out of tune. By not so much as to effect the pitch like the changes in humidity. Humidity in the summer, causing the board to swell. Because the board is crowned, additional tension is forced on the strings causing them to go "sharp," or up in pitch

If a new piano has received a good tuning at the store, it will still sound harmonious after being moved to the home for about 3 months. Even if a piano is moved long distance in a truck, it would depend on how much temperature and climate change such as from Miami, Houston or Seattle to Phoenix, Denver or Las Vegas for example. In which case, some tuning and regulation would be needed.

In high humidity climates such as Miami, Houston, Seattle or near a large body of water, a piano can be helped by the use of a climate-controlled system. In very dry areas, a number of large green plants in a room will be of help. Pianos from dry climates may have a history of problems such as loose tuning pins and split or broken wood parts such as the soundboard. Pianos imported from wet climates may have sluggish keys and action joints. There are many controls and fixes available for this and it should not cause concern.

ACTION REGULATION

Regulating a piano takes place when a tuner/technician must raise the pitch of an instrument. This means the piano may have to be tuned more than once. The reason can be the fact that the instrument has not been tuned in a long time, or in some cases it is because the instrument is new. The "true" tone of a new piano is only developed some nine months to a year after the date of manufacture. During this period the strings and wooden parts have continued to stretch, the varnish on the soundboard crystallizes, and the pressure on the soundboard through the bridge settles down to its natural and final state. There is also a subtle quality of freshness about the tone of a good piano in new condition which can only be described as "luster." The same quality may be found in pianos fifty to sixty years old, which have been carefully used and expertly renovated. This quality is entirely lacking in instruments which have had heavy wear, or suffer from a "tired" soundboard. Once completely dissipated, the freshness cannot be re-created even by the most expert manipulation. It costs more to regulate a piano than to simply tune it.

Before you or your technician can fully evaluate then tone of your piano, it must be well-tuned. Tuning is the first step in improving the sound of any piano and may actually provide the tone you desire. If the tone is still not satisfactory. For a tone that is too weak or too mellow, hardening of the hammer felt may be necessary. This is usually done by filing away soft outer layers of hammer felt or by applying a chemical hardening solution. Once the overall tone is correct, individual notes are voiced to make the tone as even as possible from one end of the keyboard to the other. In some pianos certain notes still may sound different from their neighbors, no matter how skillfully the technician voiced the piano. This most commonly occurs about an octave below middle C, where the strings change from steel wires wrapped with copper to plain steel. Such irregularities are a result of design compromises, and usually cannot be corrected by voicing.

Your technician will inspect the action, hammers and strings. If these components are severely worn, major repairs may be required before an improved tone is possible. Moderately worn hammers can be re-shaped with sandpaper to remove string grooves and restore their original rounded shape. Next, the hammers are aligned to strike each string squarely. Action regulation should be checked or adjusted. This ensures an even, powerful response from each key. If tuning, hammer shaping and regulation are correct, the tone probably will be balanced but still may be too bright or mellow for your taste. If so, your technician might recommend voicing the hammers. For a tone that is too loud, too bright or seems to die out too quickly, softening the hammers felt often is recommended. This is usually done by inserting needles into specific areas of the hammer to increase flexibility.

Renner Virtual Action Model
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The word "touch" applies to the performance of the piano as well as to the performance of the musician. When we say a piano has a good touch, we mean that the action has been so well made and so perfectly regulated that it responds instantly and accurately to any demands the most expert performer can make. When, in his later years, Beethoven played the piano, he could not hear the music at all. Pianos have been used and have been played well by people with almost every other type of physical handicap, but all who play must possess one thing in common: the ability to press down the keys. They have to have a sense of touch which tells them how hard to strike each note. The selection of notes and the tempo are determined by the composer. These are fixed and can be readily grasped by the performer, but the composer can only indicate in a general way what force is to be applied through using such symbols as "pianissimo" or "forte". These, however, are broad terms; the many shadings of volume in between the marked signs on the music are left to the intuition and skill of the pianist, subject to the capacity of the piano to respond.

To begin with, each key, or note on a piano can be played or expressed in twenty-five degrees of touch or volume if you wish. Otherwise the sound of the piano would be expressionless, with no degree of loud or soft, an absolute contradiction to the purpose of the instrument. In the following remarks, therefore, I intend to examine the theoretical as well as the practical aspects of tone reproduction. It will not matter if anyone fails to accept my views; I shall be fully satisfied if only they inspire reflections of their own on the subject.

I cannot emphasize enough the impossibility of learning to play piano unless you have a piano to practice on. My reasons for this are based on the fact that strong muscles in the finger can only be developed through exercise on the piano. When playing the twelve major scales and twenty-four minor scales through five octaves ten times, which can be accomplished by a good pianist in about forty minutes, the thumb is used 7,200 times, the second finger is used 7,440 times, the third finger 7,200 times, the forth finger 3,460 times, and the little finger only 180 times. The purpose of playing the scales in this manner is to strengthen the fingers through exercise, in no case can the amount of weight it takes to depress each key be duplicated on any electronic keyboard.

A player-piano can produce every note exactly as written by the composer and do it in perfect tempo, but it still sounds mechanical because it lacks the third dimension of. interpretive touch. A capable performer can strike a piano key with about twenty-seven different degrees of force. Since there is no way for the teacher or composer to communicate to the pianist just what force is to be applied to each note, it is clear that "touch" must be sensed, must be regarded as an art rather than as an exact science.

WHAT IS THE RIGHT TOUCH FOR A PIANO?

There is a tendency to place too much emphasis on piano actions being made extra light so that small children can play without risk of tiring. Children do not remain children very long and if they learn on a piano with an abnormal light touch, they will have to readjust themselves later to a standard touch which is not easy to do. Though there is not too much that can be done to change the touch after a piano has been manufactured, it is not difficult or expensive to design a piano with a very light touch. It is impossible, however, to make one that way and have it responsive enough for really good performance.

There is a common belief that a performer can produce tones of different quality by some special skill or technique in the way a piano key is struck or in the way it is manipulated after it has been depressed. This is not true, as no skill in required to play a single note. if the force of the blow on the key is the same, the tonal result will be the same whether the force is applied by a concert artist or a child. Once a key has been depressed, the performer loses all further control over the volume and quality of the tone of that note.

While the manner of striking or holding down a key makes no difference in the tonal effect, the force with which a key is struck can make a difference. Tests have shown that the character of tone, as well as the volume, is often affected by the force of the blow on the key. In other words, the harmonic mixture of the tone may vary with the volume; therefore, the overall tonal pattern of an entire chord can be affected by varying the force used on just one note in the chord. This explains why one artist might produce a more appealing effect than another artist playing the same composition on the same piano. The word "touch" applies to the performance of the piano as well as to the performance of the musician. when we say a piano has a good touch, we mean that the action has been so well made and so perfectly regulated that it responds instantly and accurately to any demands the most expert performer can make.

"Learn to play this one, then we'll get you a better one"

There is a tendency to place too much emphasis on piano actions being made extra light so that small children can play without risk of tiring. Children do not remain children very long and if they learn on a piano with an abnormal light touch, they will have to readjust themselves later to a standard touch which is not easy to do. Though there is not too much that can be done to change the touch after a piano has been manufactured, it is not difficult or expensive to design a piano with a very light touch. It is impossible, however, to make one that way and have it responsive enough for really good performance.

If the touch is too light, the action will feel shallow and unresponsive because the keys, after being depressed and released, will tend to flutter and not return to playing position fast enough for good repetition. That is why professional musicians almost always want a definitely heavier touch than would be used if we were making pianos just for children to play, and why most piano makers compromise by having a medium touch so that the usefulness of the instrument will not be limited to just one type of performer.

The ideal touch is one that is capable of handling the fast repetition demanded by all good performers, yet light and elastic enough so that a child will not find it too difficult to play during his first year or two at the piano. It is better to have the action a little too heavy for perfect comfort the first year or two, in order to be right for the next fifty years.

HOW IN TUNE IS YOUR PIANO TEST
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TONE QUALITY


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Copyright (c) 2014 by The Bluebook of Pianos. This information  is provided "as is" without express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the  information contained in this article, the maintainer assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.