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.
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.