This article is the second article in a series on piano service. Before you read on, we recommend reading “What Causes a Piano to Go Out of Tune.”
Easily the most popular question my acoustic piano clients ask me is how often they should tune their new or used piano. Understandably, folks who spent the money to purchase a quality instrument want to make sure the value of their investment won’t diminish due to neglect or their own lack of experience. It’s no different from a first-time car buyer asking the dealership how often (s)he should change the new car’s oil. Most people understand the importance of protecting their investments. Unfortunately, while it’s considered common knowledge that a car requires an oil change every 3000 miles, most people have absolutely no idea how often they should tune their piano.
Unfortunately, pianos don’t have “service engine” lights to warn their owners that something might be wrong. So, players continue to play while pianos continue to slip out of tune and – unless players have perfect pitch, play-a-long CDs or duet partners – nobody notices the gradual detuning. Eventually, the “frog” “boils to death” and the piano becomes un-tunable. Even worse, most churches, schools and (yes) piano teachers fail to properly maintain theirinstruments. It’s hard for piano students to develop their musical “ears” because all they ever hear are out-of-tune pianos!
Growing up, my dad told me that – by the time my “oil light” comes on – I am already in serious trouble. As the car’s owner and operator, I am responsible for properly maintaining my vehicle. Otherwise, I will have to shell out a ton of cash for preventable repairs. Pianos work the same way.
It makes no sense to buy a nice instrument and then fail to maintain it.
Piano Tuning Guidelines
Thankfully, pianos don’t require multiple tunings per day like guitars do (They used to, but that’s another blog for another day.). However, there are some basic guidelines for piano tuning that piano owners should keep in mind:
- New or newly restored pianos require four tunings in the first year. This is to remove the “stretch” from the metal strings, to help the strings seat themselves firmly around the hitch pins and to keep the piano at proper pitch while the instrument’s wood components are adjusting to the room’s climate.
- After the first year, acoustic pianos must be tuned a minimum of twice per year. Pianos go out of tune primarily because of seasonal changes in temperature and humidity that cause the soundboard (and other wooden parts) to swell and shrink. Due to the slow and steady process of detuning, a piano owner may not recognize that his/her piano needs to be tuned. Regular, bi-annual tunings should be scheduled regardless of what the player’s “ear” tells him/her. A piano may “sound great” to the player and still be horribly out of tune.
- Minimum maintenance (four tunings in the first year and two per subsequent year) is required to maintain the piano’s value, sensitivity and longevity – regardless of how often the instrument is played.
- Pianos that receive heavy use (in the case of piano teachers, universities, churches and player piano systems) should be tuned a minimum of once every three months.
- Performance and/or recording pianos should be tuned prior to every performance.
- In cases of heavy temperature or humidity fluctuation (and only in cases where such a system is necessary), humidity control systems may help to maintain the piano’s tuning stability.
- Pianos made out of lower-quality materials or with “cheaper” designs will require more frequent tuning than well-built pianos in the same location. Shoppers should consider this when purchasing a new instrument. The cost to own a lesser-quality piano will be much higher in the long-run than the cost to own a better-quality piano.
- Pianos should be tuned to the standard frequency (which calls for the A above Middle C to resonate at 440hz). When a piano loses the ability to stay in tune, some tuners may elect to tune it “to itself.” This should not be allowed. Once the piano loses the ability to hold pitch at A 440, it should be replaced or restored. Tuning a piano to different frequencies will cause its player to adjust his/her ear to improper pitch.
- In addition to tuning, acoustic pianos require adjustments to their touch (or “action”). This is called regulation. While actual regulation adjustments are much less frequent than piano tunings, they may be necessary from time to time and a good piano technician will recommend them.
- Some pianists prefer a “bright” sound from their pianos while others prefer a more mellow sound. Regardless of the original tone color (or “voicing”) of the piano, every piano will acquire a somewhat brighter tone with time because the hammer felts will be compacted as they repeatedly strike the strings. Therefore, depending on the pianist’s ear and the amount of use the piano gets, a periodic re-voicing might be necessary. A good piano technician will recommend this when it is appropriate (usually once every few years).
Finding a Good Piano Tuner
Tuning is an art practiced by skilled professionals and under no circumstances should a piano owner ask anyone other than a professional to tune his/her piano. Especially in this electronic age where there is “an app” for everything, it’s important to remember that – though anyone with a tuning hammer and an iPad can tune a piano – it takes a truly skilled professional to properly diagnose and maintain the instrument.
Finding a gifted technician, however, can be tricky. Piano technicians are as diverse as the people they tune for. Each is a small business owner and many are skilled in selling their services to the public. Technicians vary greatly in experience, disposition, diligence and reliability. Unfortunately, even popular certifications or guild memberships can’t ensure that a technician is good at what (s)he does.
The only way to find a good technician is to ask the organizations that most often contract their services: Performance venues, universities and local symphonies. Unlike piano teachers or churches (who often tune their pianos once a year at best), these organizations recognize the necessity of proper piano maintenance and can give good, informed recommendations regarding top-grade service personnel. In addition, the local Steinway & Sons dealership typically has a number of strong relationships with top-grade technicians as Steinway pianos require a very specific and specialized maintenance technique. It’s a good idea to contact all of these establishments and see who they most recommend. Then, it’s a good idea to interview their recommended candidates before hiring someone.
A good “tune and check” should cost between $100 and $200 dollars. Though it’s always possible to find a cheaper price, the relatively small amount of money one saves using a “discount tuner” is money (s)he would gladly have spent to get the job done right.
The most important thing to remember about piano maintenance is that it must be scheduled regularly. It’s important to find a good technician and to maintain a stable climate for the piano, but without regular maintenance, the instrument will fall into disrepair (and, eventually, become un-tunable). The answer to “How often should I have my piano tuned?” is “as often as possible.” It’s impossible to tune a piano too much. However, it’s critical to the piano’s performance quality, value and longevity that a minimum bi-annual tuning schedule be maintained. Otherwise, it’s better to own a digital piano, which is always in tune.