“Is there an easy way to tell if my piano needs to be tuned?”

How can one tell if a piano needs to be tuned? This is another post answering a series of questions about pianos given to me by  students of Doug Hanvey.

I do have some real practical suggestions, but I’m afraid my primary answer won’t be very satisfactory:
It Depends.
It depends on you! Different people have different abilities to hear, notice, or be bothered by an out-of-tune piano. Depending on your experience, how you grew up, your native language, any other instruments you may have played and your innate sense of pitch, your ability to determine how out of tune your piano is will drastically vary!

To make things even more confusing, there are several ways a piano can be “out of tune,” which I elaborate on here.

Steinway_Grand_Piano_Iron_Plates_and_StringsIn an effort to actually be helpful, here are some practical tips.

Testing Unisons
Start at middle C and play every note moving up the keyboard. Listen for the notes to sound “clean,” “pure” and “steady” (these are words that I use, but it is surprisingly difficult to describe abstract sound with a common vocabulary). If notes sound “complicated” or “shimmery” or “twangy,” then your unisons (the three individual strings that make up one note) are out tune with each other. Also listen for continuity and uniformity of sound. If one or two notes sound very different or stick out from the ones around them, that’s also a pretty good sign your unisons are out and your piano should be tuned. Out of tune unisons are usually easiest thing to hear when checking a piano and the first thing to go out after a piano is tuned.

Here you can easily see the "break" between the bass strings which are diagonal from left to right. They actually pass over the treble strings that have a right-to-left angle.

Here you can easily see the “break” between the bass strings which are diagonal from left to right. They actually pass over the treble strings that have a right-to-left angle.

Testing Temperament
Testing octaves can also be helpful. I would start with the E’s on either side of middle C (E3 and E4 in the piano technician world). Then walk that octave down the keyboard chromatically and evaluate how clean, pure and consistent the octaves sound. If a piano has gone through a change in temperature or humidity the octaves in this section often go out of tune. This section seems most susceptible because of the transition from the bass strings on one bridge, to the regular treble strings on the other bridge. If the soundboard absorbs moisture out of the air, it expands raising the “bridges” at the bottom of the sounboard, but it usually changes one bridge slightly more than the other, making the bottom third of the piano out of tune with the rest of it.

tuning fork

Testing Pitch Level
You can also test your piano against a tuning fork or electronic tuner. Tuning forks usually are set to A440, which is the A above middle C. Strike the fork against your knee or something firm, then place the “handle” of the fork against the wood right under the keyboard. Touching the piano will help the tuning fork amplify its vibrations. Then play the A above middle C and listen for precisely the same pitch. If the unisons are out, you might notice its hard to compare the tuning fork with the note (because you may have 3 slightly different pitches coming from the piano!). If you have a high quality electronic tuning machine you can check it against A440. Most pianos go flat over time if not tuned, but they can go sharp as well if exposed to a humidity increase.

The Time Test
If it has been more than 6 months since your piano was tuned, it will certainly benefit from a tuning. If it has been more than a year since it was tuned, it probably really needs a tuning.

How often should a piano be tuned?

Over the next few months I will be writing a series of articles answering questions about pianos from piano students. My piano teacher friend Doug Hanvey gathered questions about the piano from some of his students and I will trying to answer them!

Doug keeps up an active blog on piano teaching on his piano teaching website, Portland Piano Lab.

The first question he gave me is:

How often should a piano be tuned?

Short answer: Every 3-12 months. Every 6 months is generally a very good schedule.
Long answer: It depends on a lot of factors! It depends on the quality and eccentricities of your piano, the environment around the piano, and the needs of the people playing the piano.
Some pianos stay in tune better than others. The quality and condition of the pianos pinblock is one of the most important factors. The tuning pins for all 200 strings on a piano are driven into a block of laminated rock maple. If

Each string has about 160-200lbs of tension on it. A temperature change will slightly change the size of the string, changing the tension and putting it out of tune.

Each string has about 160-200lbs of tension on it. A temperature change will slightly change the size of the string, changing the tension and putting it out of tune.

the pinblock is good quality and has not been split or damaged, the pins will stay tightly locked in place and the piano will stay in tune longer. The quality and age of the piano’s strings and various friction points the strings pass over also effect the stability of a tuning. As a string vibrates thousands and thousands of times over its life in the piano, and as very small portions of the strings are worn over the several pressure points (v-bar, bridge etc), the steel strings gets worn and loses its “elasticity.” A worn and tired string will tend to be harder to get into tune and will not stay in tune as long.

The environmental stability around the piano also plays a large role in how often a piano needs to be tuned. A piano is made of primarily wood and metal. Wood will expand and contract with changes in humidity and the strings and other metal parts will actually interact with the temperature, shrinking when it’s cold and expanding when it is warm. I have a grand piano go sharp while I was tuning it just because it was right below an AC vent! The strings got chilled and shrunk increasing the tension and raising the pitch.
A piano near a drafty window or door, or in a drafty area is going to have a much harder time staying in tune. If a piano sits in direct sunlight for an hour, it can put it noticeably out of tune!
Placing your piano in the most environmentally stable part of your house will go a long ways in keeping the tuning stable. I have a customer with a nice 7′ Steinway grand that should stay in tune very nicely, but it’s next to some old windows and they don’t air condition in the summer. The piano is constantly going out of tune.
The last major factor in determining how often a piano should be tuned is the needs of the people playing the piano.
If the piano is in the home for the grandkids to play their pieces on twice a year, it probably only needs to get tuned every 1-3 years. If regular practice is happening on the piano, it’s more important that it stay more precisely in tune. One of the disadvantages of the piano as a starting instrument is that it does little to develop a good sense of pitch (compared to stringed or wind instruments where you have to adjust the pitch you are producing). If the practice piano is always in tune, just by the sheer repetition, a player will develop a feeling for what “E” sounds like. If their practice piano is at one pitch and their teacher’s piano is actually in tune, a young pianist will ne hearing different things depending on what instrument they are playing and will not develop that sense of pitch.
Pianos used by performers, teachers and recording studios usually need to be tuned at least twice a year if not more! They need to be at a consistantly high quality if sound all the time and the truth is, a piano is constantly wanting to get out of tune! As soon as I walk away from a piano after tuning, that 40,000 pounds of pressure on the piano and the law of entropy begin working on getting that piano out of tune again.
Some people are just more picky too! Precise tuning matters to some people more than others! Even professionals! I’ve tuned for very good pianists who said “it just needs a little touch up,” and I play the piano and it’s a horrible mess. And the then someone calls me telling me that their piano is massively out of tune, but when I get to tune it, it’s actually very close, but they are just more sensitive.
So how often should your piano be tuned? It depends on a lot of factors. The average piano will be kept happy getting tuned every 6-12 months so that’s my general recommendation. If the piano is used a lot, or is having a lot demanded of it, it may need it more. Every time I tuned a piano for someone, I calculate all these factors to the best of my ability and give them a reminder/discount card with a suggested date they get it tuned again by. If they keep it up and tune by that date, I will deduct $15 from my normal fee.

Buying a Used Piano

Buying a used piano from a private party is risky business, but can be very rewarding if you know what you are looking for. I have served many people who have purchased, or picked up a free piano off Craigslist and sometimes they got a fantastic deal, and sometimes the piano is a horrible wreck and free was too high a price.

It is safest to hire a piano technician to inspect a piano before you purchase, but if you choose not, or cannot, please educate yourself a little and seriously look through the piano before committing time, space and money to a piano. Most of the things you need to inspect are inside the piano, so don’t be afraid to open the lid and take off any case panels that are easily removable. (Here is a helpful article on taking a piano apart)

Here are some things to look for as you consider buying a used piano.

broken hammer shank

A note that isn’t sounding may just have a coin stuck under the keys, or it may be broken and need repair.

1. Are all the notes working?

Play each note starting at the bottom and take note of continuity of tone through out the keyboard and make sure each note moves up and down freely without sticking or continuing to ring after the note is released. Sticking keys are often an easy fix, but they are never a good sign. If many keys are slow or sticking when depressed, you could be looking at a large repair bill.

If you can slide your credit card into the crack, it will probably be a real problem.

If you can slide your credit card into the crack, it will probably be a real problem.

2. Is the soundboard cracked?

The soundboard amplifies the vibrations of the strings and produces either pleasing or poor tone. The soundboard can be easily viewed by lifting the lid in a grand, or looking at the back of an upright. Look for cracks running with the grain of the wood. Sometimes a small crack won’t affect the tone much, but if you are considering spending much money on the instrument, or if the cracks are numerous or very wide, stay away. In addition to decreasing the quality of tone, cracks can also produce very annoying buzzes and decreases the overall volume of the piano. Repairing cracks in the soundboard is possible, but it is often expensive. If it has to be replaced, you are really looking at a large repair bill.

 

These hammers have moderate wear and should be resurfaced.

These hammers have moderate wear and should be resurfaced.

3. Are the felt hammers heavily worn?

You can get a good feel for how much a piano has been played by looking at the hammers. If they are deeply grooved, the will need to be resurfaced, or replaced. Resurfacing a set of hammers will run $150-$300 and replacing a set is often more expensive than many used pianos are worth. If the hammers are extremely grooved from striking the strings so many times through the years, that also tells you other parts are probably worn out as well.

If the keys are all chipped like this, they will likely need to be replaced.

If the keys are all chipped like this, they will likely need to be replaced.

4. Are the keys and case in good shape?

This is usually a good clue as to how well the piano was maintained. Cabinets can be refinished or touched up and keys can be resurfaced, but it all adds to the cost. If the keys are ivory and only a couple are chipped or missing, that is usually an easy repair to replaced the few missing or damaged pieces, but if they keys are in bad shape throughout, you are looking at another $300 repair.

This bridge is severely cracked and will make these notes buzz. The bridge is at the opposite end of the string as the keys.

This bridge is severely cracked and will make these notes buzz. The bridge is at the opposite end of the string as the keys.

5. Are the bridges cracked?

Cracked bridges are not easy to see unless you are really looking for them, but they produce horrible buzzes that are very expensive to repair. Bass bridges are the most common, especially in smaller uprights. If several bass strings buzz when you play through each note, take off the panel underneath and inspect the bridge for cracks. Stay away from cracked bridges!

It's going to cost you extra...

It’s going to cost you extra…

6. Where is the piano situated?

If you are paying movers to transport your piano (which I recommend), or even if you are moving it yourself, consider the distance and logistics of transportation. Movers charge extra for travel distance, all stairs, and spaces that are hard to navigate. Just don’t pay for a piano before you figure out how to get it out of that basement! I have seen houses that were remodeled while the piano was downstairs and it no longer fits through the hallway to get out of the house!

7. Is the piano close to A440 and when is the last time it was tuned?

This is often not a deal breaker, but you should always check. You can download a free or cheap guitar tuning app on your phone to check with. Play the A above middle C and see how close to pitch it is. Usually a piano is flat, or below pitch if it has been neglected for a long time. Anything below 30 cents (1/3 of a pitch) flat is getting dangerous. If it hasn’t been tuned for that long, its very possible that strings will start to break when it is brought up to pitch. At best, it will take an extra tuning to really get it to stay in tune.

8. Does it have plastic pieces (especially if its a spinet)?

The plastic used in piano from the 30′s-80′s was not durable and will shatter and be expensive to replace. Avoid small spinet pianos that have these plastic elbow pieces if you can. You can read more details on this here.

9. What brand is it?

Yamaha, Kawai, Mason & Hamlin, Sohmer, Knabe and Steinway are all solid well built instruments that have few problems and high resale value. Baldwin, Hamilton, Acrosonic, Chickering and Wurlitzer are commonly found on the used market for reasonable prices and while not as solid as the first names mentioned, they are American made will usually be good solid pianos. Young Chang and newer Kohler & Campbells tend to look very nice but usually have more maintenance issues.

I’ve talked to many people who find out that a free piano isn’t really free. Here is a list of possible costs when buying a used piano:

Mandatory:
Moving: $150-$400
Tuning, possibly a second tuning: $110-$200

Optional:
Case touch up: $100-$300
New set of keytops: $300
Cleaning: $100-$200
Regulation: $150-$400
Small repairs: $50-200

Total: $1,360- $2,000

 

Hopefully this gives you a better idea of what to look out for when looking to buy a used piano. Feel free to give me a call or email if you have any questions!

“Monster Piano Concerts”

I recently had the opportunity to go back to my alma mater and perform again! Dr. Kenn Willson, the piano professor at George Fox University coordinated a massive 6 piano, 18 pianist concert. I participated in a 4 piano concert while I was a student there several years ago and I was pleased to be invited back for a bigger and better “Monster Piano Concert“!

We had three 9′ Bosendorfers, two 9′ Yamahas and one 7′ Yamaha on the stage at once. I was happy to just play the pianos instead of tuning all 6 of these beasts in one day! Classic Pianos provided 5 wonderful pianos for us and Clark Forster (no relation to myself) prepared and tuned the instruments.

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Different combinations of the 18 college students, high school students and alumni performed ensemble pieces by Bach Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Vandall, Poulenc and Mozart.

I’ve been tuning pianos a lot more than I’ve been practicing or performing in the last 6 years. It felt good to actually play the piano seriously again. I got to play this Mozart two piano sonata with a fellow GFU alumni and we had a great time with this great piece (the video here is a little weird, but a great performance of the piece).

This Schubert military march was huge with 6 massive pianos and 12 pianists playing! It was the loudest “piano experience” I’ve had.

Participating in this concert has renewed my interest in the annual “10 Grands” concert in Portland. I know people who perform in the concert, I know piano technicians who tune for it, and I tune for some of the performers, but I’ve never actually gone to one of the concerts. Preparing this concert gave me an appreciation of the work and coordination that goes into this kind of event.

I encourage you to attend a big piano concert like this sometime if you have the chance.

The “10 Grands” concert will be on March 26th at the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall this year. Tickets can be found here.

Piano Anatomy

Pianos are complicated machines with many parts, but unlike most instruments, everything is closed up behind the case so we hardly ever see what a piano really is. Here are the major parts inside a piano.

The Plate: This keeps the piano from imploding. Made of cast iron, the plate holds the 30-40,000 pounds of pressure from the strings. The plate is what makes a piano really heavy. The plate is easily visible on a grand, but you have to remove case parts to see it on an upright.

The plate is visible in this upright with the action and case parts removed.

The plate is visible in this upright with the action and case parts removed.

The Sounboard: The soundboard amplifies the vibrations produced by the strings. Piano soundboards are made of spruce wood. Boards 4″-6″ inches wide are glued together to make large board about 1/2 thick that sits right under the strings. The back of the sounboard is reinforced with perpindicular wooden “ribs” that strengthen the soundboard and help maintain “the crown” of the soundboard (the soundboard is supposed to be slightly arched to get the best tone).

A grand soundboard

A grand soundboard

The Strings: piano strings are made of tempered high-carbon steel. The bass strings are steel wound with copper wire to increase the diameter and make the pitch lower. The strings do the vibrating which the soundboard will amplify. There are about 200 strings on the average piano.

The bass strings over the plain wire strings in a grand.

The bass strings over the plain wire strings in a grand.

The Action: This is where most of the moving parts are. Uprights and grands have very different actions, but they accomplish the same goal: throw the felt hammer into the string to begin the vibrations.

A grand piano action

A grand piano action

upright piano action

The Hammers: The hammers are part of the action, but they are important enough they get their own paragraph. The hammer is what starts the string vibrating. Piano hammers are made of felt, layered and pack over a wooden core. The quality and condition of the hammers has a huge impact on the quality of sound your piano produces.

Hammers in an upright piano

Hammers in an upright piano

Pinblock: The pinblock holds the tuning pins tightly in place to the piano can be finely tuned and hopefully stay in tune! The pinblock is made over several layers of laminated rock maple.

A cross-section of the pinblock

A cross-section of the pinblock

piano aprrt

“The Felts”

I’ve heard a lot of my customers refer to “the felts” in their piano. I’m never exactly sure what part of the piano they are thinking of and usually after a little more conversation, it turns out they aren’t exactly sure either. What are “the felts”?

There is actually a lot of felt throughout the action of a piano, which is what leads to the confusion. It’s used in three primary ways:

piano hammer

Hard felt hammers.

First, and most importantly, the hammers are made of hard, packed felt. The hammers produce the tone, so their quality and condition are very important in how your piano sounds. As the hammers strike the strings thousands of times over the life of the piano, the felt wears off the hammer and the hammer changes shape, becoming flat instead of round at the tip. These felt hammers need to be re-shaped several times over the pianos lifetime to maintain good tone. You can read more about reshaping hammers here.

The second felt part in a piano is the damper. The dampers keep the string quiet when you want it quiet. Each note (the lower 60+ notes at least) has a felt damper that is pressed against the string to stop vibrations until you play the key. As you play the key, the hammer launches forward to hit the string and the damper lifts at the same time to let the string actually sound. As you let go of the key, the damper drops and quiets the string again.

Bass string dampers. New on the left, old,dirty and crusty on the right.

Bass string dampers. New on the left, old, dirty and crusty on the right.

Dampers are made of soft and “fluffy” felt compared to the hard, packed felt of the hammers. The dampers don’t wear our nearly as fast as the hammers, but they can get hard and crusty if they are exposed to damp conditions. Then the dampers will make vibrate against the string and make an unpleasant buzzing noise when they break contact or come back into contact with the string.

The hammers are made of hard felt, the dampers are made of soft felt and the “bushings” are made of felt cloth strips. There are lots of moving parts inside a piano and the felt bushings help many of the parts move easily and noiselessly. There are two felt bushings inside each key that help the wooden key stay in the correct place, and help it move up and down without rattling against the metal pins that hold it in place. There are tiny felt bushings in the “hinge” mechanisms in all the hammers and whippens. Thin but dense felt is put between wood and metal parts so parts can move, but be stable and quiet.

Flange

The felt is between the flange and the flange pin.

There are also tiny pieces of felt below the keys to keep the key at the right height and regulate how deeply the key can be pressed down. I just looked through all the pieces on my upright piano action model and there are generally 25 pieces of felt for each note. That’s nearly 2,200 pieces of felt in one upright piano action! All of these pieces of felt will wear out over time. When the key bushings wear, the key will start wobbling and wiggling instead of moving straight up and down. Sometimes they will even click. The flange bushings will usually get tight around the metal pin rather than loose. Then the felt has to be treated with chemicals, or eased by hand to make the hammer or whippin move freely again.

 

Key bushings looking from the bottom of the key.

Key bushings looking from the bottom of the key.

So, to recap, “the felts” is not a very useful term. When customers use the phrase, I usually assume they are talking about either the hammers or dampers because those are most obvious. But since there are so many felt parts inside a piano, it’s helpful to be more specific.

 

 

How Many Ways Can a Piano Be Out of Tune?

I was talking to one of my customers and he was explaining to me that he had downloaded a guitar tuning app on his phone and had been checking the piano to see if it was out of tune. He had delayed getting it tuned because the guitar tuning app didn’t indicate it was very far off. I checked the piano and it was severely out of tune, but in such a way that the free tuning app wouldn’t really tell the user what he needed to know. The end effect of this was the brand new Kawai grand piano wasn’t tuned for more than a full year after it was purchased and moved into the home. It was probably very out of tune most of that year and hindering rather than helping the young student practicing on it to develop a good ear and sense of pitch!

Here is the piano that the guitar tuner found no fault in:

IMG_2710

In piano tuning, there are three important factors that all need to come into place: the temperament, the unisons, and the basic pitch level. All three need to be correct for the piano to actually be “in tune.”

If a piano hasn’t been tuned in many years, or is brand new and hasn’t been tuned for a year or two, it will usually be very “flat.” The strings won’t be tight enough to vibrate at high enough speeds to play the correct notes when played. I’ve come across pianos so flat the that when I play the A key, what actually sounds is G#, or even a G natural in some cases! This is the “basic pitch level.” A piano can sound pretty good, and even be “in tune” with itself, but out of tune with the rest of the world. Drastic changes in humidity and temperature can also make the basic pitch of the piano go up or down without ruining the temperament and unisons.

The “temperament” is the most difficult part of tuning. This area of tuning covers how all the different notes relate to each other. Once A440 is set perfectly, how should the F below A sound compared to it? How should A220 sound compared to it? All 12 tones of the octave must be set perfectly to that first A440. There are many complications and there have been many theories and methods to setting a good temperament over the years. Basically, one must divide up the 12 notes of the octave into 12 equal and pleasing intervals for the temperament to be correct in the modern world of music (many temperaments through history have not been equal, but that’s what we generally used today). Many modern tuners use computer programs on a device to help set a really good temperament while tuning.

Measurements in Hz for some historical temperaments vs today's Equal Temperament

Measurements in Hz for some historical temperaments vs today’s Equal Temperament

The third element of tuning, which is the element the guitar tuning app completely failed to pick up is the purity of unisons. Most notes on a piano have more than one string. The lowest bass notes have one string, the “tenor section” has two per note, and the rest of the piano has three strings for every key. If those strings aren’t tuned exactly the same, that key will sound out of tune all by itself. If one string is off even a little bit, the sound of the note will have an audible “roll” or “shimmer” to it. This is usually the first part of the tuning that will go out. I tune pianos that are rented for concerts and events. Sometimes I end up tuning the same piano a week or only a few days apart and usually the temperament and overall pitch of the piano is fine, but the unisons will have to be corrected.

Here you can see the strings in a grand grouped in 3's. Three strings for each key.

Here you can see the strings in a grand grouped in 3′s. Three strings for each key.

I come across pianos with all sorts of combinations of tuning problems. Sometimes it sounds in tune with itself (the temperament and unisons are fine) but the basic pitch level is way off. Sometimes the unisons and pitch are fine, but the temperament is really bad so extended chords sound really jarring and ugly. The new Kawai I mentioned above was “at pitch” but the temperament was basically gone and the unisons were atrocious. All three elements need to be there for a piano to be “in tune”: the basic pitch level needs to be based on A440, the temperament needs to be even and appropriate to the piano, and the unisons need to be precise and clean for the piano to sound its best.

Pictures from My Summer Work

I’ve been very busy lately and haven’t written here much. My wife and I had our third child join us at the end of May and we’ve been very busy ever since!

I’ve run into a lot of interesting and odd instruments over the summer, so I thought I’d share some pictures of some of them here.

First, I’ve been working hard on a harpsichord that I bought this summer and got into my teaching studio. My alma mater, George Fox University wasn’t using their instrument and they gave it to me for a very good price! I worked on this instrument while I was in college, but it has been very gratifying to have more time to get it playing really well. I have also been experimenting with historical tunings, specifically the Lehman-Bach tuning which sounds awesome on the harpsichord.

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The week after I picked up my harpsichord, another harpsichord came into Portland Piano Company and I’ve been working at getting it back into shape. It was extremely dirty, and I found that cleaning the delicate harpsichord is much more time consuming than cleaning a modern piano! One of the two courses of strings had no tension on it at all, so it has taken a lot of tunings to get it stabilized.

IMG_4378I got to tune an interesting Grotrian piano from the 1950′s again this summer. I’ve worked on these pianos before, but I always enjoy coming across them.

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And inside the piano….IMG_4712

I’ve been tuning at Reed College all week and they have 3 harpsichords along with around 25 pianos in their music building. I just tuned a vintage Bosendorfer there this week:

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This little harpsichord was very entertaining. Harpsichords were often custom painted for the owners, inside and out. This tiny instrument has a painting of Reed College buildings inside the lid with “The Swing” in one corner and tonsured monks playing Frisbee in the other corner!

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Those are some of the interesting instruments I’ve run into this summer. I hope you enjoyed those pictures and have a good remainder of your summer. I hard at work getting school pianos in shape before school starts again in a couple weeks!

 

 

 

Tuning Stability

You wish that once you get your piano tuned, it would stay in tune! (I don’t wish that because I’d be out of a job, but I do wish pianos would stay in tune longer!) Why do pianos go out of tune? And why do some pianos hold a tune so much longer than others? Here are three main factors that contribute to a piano’s tuning stability:

portlandpianotuning

  1. The Environment
  2. The Piano
  3. The Technician’s Skill/Technique

The environment is the most important factor in helping most pianos hold a tuning. Humidity changes are a piano’s worst enemy. Pianos are 80% made of wood which absorbs and dissipates water as humidity fluctuates. Piano soundboards have a “crown,” being higher in the middle than they are on the edges. When the soundboard absorbs moisture, the wood gets bigger, and since the soundboard is locked within the cast-iron plate, the crown will rise. When the crown rises, it raises the bridge the strings pass over increasing the tension on the string, raising the pitch and putting the piano out of tune. If the air dries out, the opposite will occur. Pianos often go flat in the winter as we turn our our heaters.

The temperature of the room makes a difference as well. I was once tuning a grand and the air conditioning came on. It was blowing straight on the strings. The cold air chilled the steel strings, shrinking the metal and made the piano go sharp as I was working on it!

On the other extreme, I tuned a piano in a second story music studio that had no air conditioning. It easily got up to 90 degrees during summer days and cooled down to mid 50′s at night. Even a wonderful piano with a very careful tuning won’t stay in tune for more than 24 hours in those conditions!

Climate control is very helpful in keeping your piano in tune. If you can keep the humidity between 45% and 55% and the temperature fluctuating no more than 10 degrees, your piano will have a much better chance of staying in tune.

 

Heavily rusted strings on an old upright

Heavily rusted strings on an old upright

2. The quality and condition of the piano are major factors in tuning stability as well. Quality factors include the style and make of the pinblock, the quality of the steel used in the strings, the precision taken in manufacturing brass wound bass strings, the care taken in making the piano’s bridges, and the angles and precision in the various pressure bearing points along the string.

Example of a pinblock and tuning pins

Example of a pinblock and tuning pins

A brand new piano will be unsteady for a couple years just due to the elasticity of  new steel strings. The steel will stretch for at least 18 months. After 2 years a new piano has reached “maturity” and will be at its most stable for the next 10-20 years, depending on its environment. As a piano gets older, some parts may begin to wear and make the piano’s tuning less stable again. The steel in the strings wears over the pressure points, the strings grind into the”v-bridge” in the treble, the strings may get corroded so they no longer slide smoothly over the pressure points, and eventually, the pin block could wear out or crack so the tuning pins themselves won’t stay tight. Other major problems that don’t routinely come up can completely destabilize a piano. The cast-iron plate which holds the piano’s 40,000lbs of pressure can crack (very bad!), the soundboard could crack, or the bridges which the pins pass over could crack.

A severely cracked pinblock

A severely cracked pinblock

The current tension on the strings plays a factor as well. If a piano hasn’t been tuned in many years, the stings usually stretch bringing the piano very flat of A440. If the pitch is raised (or lowered) more than a few “cents” (there are 100 cents between each tone), the pressure load on the piano’s plate and soundboard is drastically altered. It’s quite easy to add 500 lbs of pressure to a piano’s plate while tuning a long-neglected piano. Over the next weeks and months, this pressure will redistribute over the instrument and knock your piano out of tune again!

 

 

A cracked upright bridge

3. The skill of the tuner/the quality of the tuning is the last factor in how long your piano’s tuning will last. Tuning a piano is tricky and complicated! Some technician’s tunings last longer than others. Some of this difference is observable technique, and some is just a tuner’s touch! Understanding how the piano works, how the string is divided into several (usually 4-5) different tension bearing sections, and how the tuning pin can be manipulated will help in getting a solid, long-lasting tuning. I use firm key blows while tuning to help equalize the tension over all four distinct sections of the string. The more intensely the string vibrates on a strong “test blow,” the better those several segments will equalize. If this isn’t done well, the first time a strong player plays something loud on the instrument, the strings will equalize, and it will go out of tune.

piano pin diagram

The manipulation of the tuning pin itself is also very important. The tuning pin is a round, ridged steel rod about 2.5″ long driven into the hard pinblock. Since it is steel, it can bend a good bit, side to side and forward and back. If you use the wrong technique, its possible to twist the pin’s tip outside the pinblock so the note is in tune, but as that steel bends back, the note will go out of tune in a few days.

I hope this was helpful to you and if you have any questions, feel free to give me a call!

Piano Moving

Moving a piano is a pain. I’ve moved a lot of pianos myself, and I’ve paid people to move pianos for me and here are some tips I have on the subject.piano_moving

1. It’s usually worth it to hire professionals

It is spendy, but I think hiring professionals will be be faster and cheaper (if you count your time) compared to doing it yourself. If you’re moving within the Portland area, most movers are going to charge $150-$250 (depending on location, situation and number of stairs involved).

Here are some numbers for when I moved a piano last:

  1. Rent a U-Haul Truck – $100
  2. 2 hours to pick up and return a piano dolly from a friend
  3. 3 hours of my time and 2 hours of a friend’s time moving the piano
  4. $5 for donuts to thank helpers

Valuing time at $20 per hour, that comes to $245 and a lot of pain (imagine two 150lb guys pushing a full-size upright out of a basement and up a frozen hill on a sheet of plywood)! I could have paid movers $150 and they would have done it faster, safer and and I wouldn’t have had to spend my Saturday morning working on it! If you make a mistake and the piano lands on your leg or arm, you pay the doctor bill and 8 weeks of productivity!

 

2. If you’re going to do it yourself, do your research and prepare well.

Know your piano. Measure it and compare those measurements with the space you will be moving into or through. Know approximately how much it weighs and how many people you will need to lift it. Two strong men can handily lift a spinet or small console, but you’re moving anything bigger, or moving it far without a good dolly, you will want four men.

If you have steps to move it up or down, have a plan for getting through them. Don’t rely on the piano’s wheels to roll it. Most piano wheels are very small and not made for rolling more than a few feet at a time. Use a dolly whenever possible. It is much easier on the piano and on the movers. A run-of-the-mill furniture dolly will work for many uprights, but try to get something bigger with larger rubber wheels if possible. The small wheels on furniture dollies don’t go over doorways very well, and are not very easy to turn accurately. Securely cover and protect your piano. You can very easily damage your piano and the repair bill for a couple dings or scratches can easily be higher than what you might have paid professionals to move your instrument. Cover the piano with thick blankets if you can, leaving gaps to reach important handles and handholds.

Don’t use a pickup. Lifting a piano into the bed of a pickup without a ramp is not only very difficult, but unsafe. If not tied down very securely, the piano can tip out of the bed which is not good for the car or piano!

pianopickup

3. Don’t move a grand yourself.

Grand pianos are even harder to move since you have to take the legs and pedal lyre off and turn the piano on its side to move safely. Grand pianos should be wrapped in blankets or shrink wrapped for protection and strapped tightly so the lid doesn’t open while moving. If you have to navigate any stairs with a grand, a “piano skid board” is a necessity. I strongly recommend you hire professionals to move a grand piano, but if you want to do it yourself, here is a video that shows how to break down and move a baby grand piano.

 

grandpianomoving

 

Here is a list of the professional movers in the Portland area in order of my recommendation:

  1. West Coast Piano Moving  -  I have worked with them several times and they do great work. West Coast does the moving for Portland Piano Company
  2. A to Z Moving  - A to Z Moving works closely with Classic Pianos in SE Portland and I have had good moving experiences with them as well.
  3. Big Al’s Specialty Movers  -  These guys are big! And friendly! I haven’t worked with them, but I’ve only heard good things about them
  4. Michelle’s Pianos  -  In addition to selling pianos (Michelle’s is currently the Steinway dealer in Portland), Michelle’s also moves piano in the Portland area.