November 28, 2023

Why some pianos don’t stay in tune

Why some pianos don’t stay in tune (after you tuned them)
You have done what looks like a good piano tune, but after a few days or even hours the piano is out of tune, again !!?? Does it sound familiar to you? Two hours of work wasted. What went wrong?

This is one of the most popular topics in the world of piano tuning. Why some pianos don’t stay in tune. What can we do to properly fix a tune so that the piano stays tuned for a reasonable period of time.

This nuisance may be due basically to two main  reasons. The first one, to an improper use of the tuning hammer. The second one, to the fact that the piano that you are trying to tune could be simply “not tunable”. Yes, some pianos are not possible to tune for a number of reasons.

Very old pianos, specially if they still have wooden frames are in the vast majority of circumstances impossible to tune. The pin-block, far too old can’t hold its grip on the pins, and therefore the tension falls and the strings flatten down very soon, sometimes at the same time as you tune.

Also, a piano that doesn’t stays in tune may be due to structural problems. For example; a broken pin-block. Also a cast-iron plate can be broken or just fissured, even the frame can be damage. In any of those cases the repair can be very costly, and only worth in prestigious expensive brands.

Now, if the piano is fairly new, chances are that the reason for don’t staying in tune is due to a faulty tuning lever manipulation. In my opinion, a good technique with the tuning hammer, accounts for at least half of the success of a piano tune. What to do then? Obviously improve your skill with the tuning hammer.

Have in mind something very important. For a piano to stay in tune is utterly important to properly set pins and strings. My advice; strike the keys solidly “staccato” stile, don’t be afraid. Also, move the tuning hammer a bit too far while playing the keys with firm blows till in tune. I am convince that by following these two simple recommendations, you will improve the quality of your piano tunings. Good luck.
© copyright Juan Olalla 2010  


Tuning a piano with an electronic tuner

This free guide will show you how to “really” tune a piano with an inexpensive tuner. If you want to tune your own piano and have a decent chromatic tuner, this articule is for you.

Reality check:  Most piano tuning tutorials you see on the internet that pretend to show you how to tune a piano with an ordinary cheap tuner are fundamentally wrong, misleading at best, that is a fact. If your idea is to tune your piano armed with a chromatic tuner and a chart of the 88 theoretical piano pitches, sorry to dissapoint you, but things do not work that way. I know you probably dont believe me, so I encourage you to try (as they say, seeing is believing) anyway that will be a good exercise!

Before going any further let me point this out; A piano (any piano) can not be properly tune at least a “temperament” is set in advance either by aural or electronic means.  Ok, but what is the “temperament”? The temperament could be defined as a group of notes in the center of the keyboard (approximately one octave) that are tuned in a certain way. Once the temperament is set we will use it as a reference to tune the rest of the keyboard. Really what this articule is all about is to show you how to set a temperamente with a chromatic tuner.

Given that every note at the piano has a theoretical perfect pitch (for example A4 = 440 htz) it could be assumed that to tune a piano all you have to do is to tune each note to those theoretically perfect pitches. Unfortunately this is not true and whoever has tried that way, will agree that the outcome is rather disappointing. 

So,  can you tune a piano with a low cost electronic tuner? The answer is Yes, but also No!! It all depends on how you do it. There are specific electronic piano tuners and software, but the cost of these  are quite high.  Unless you are going to tune many many pianos they are not worth buying, so if you have an old Chromatic Tuner anywhere, rescue it, maybe you can give it a second life. Let me say that those for tuning guitars are not useful, also better if the tuner is of a certain quality. the one at the pic works quite well. Incidentally,  I dont sell electronic piano tuners neither have any commercial interest in them.

As far as I know, this is the first time on the internet that a method for setting the temperament and by extension to tune a piano with a simple Chromatic Tuner is clearly exposed. So, patient readers and friends hold your breath, the secret is going to be revealed….

Using the procedure that follows you can set a basic and could we say “acceptable” temperament. Let me warn you that the process is slow as you must recalibrate the tuner at each note. I would recommend  nervous and impatient people better to abstain.

Step one:
First thing you have to do is to calibrate the Chromatic Tuner to A-4 440 (standard tuning pitch). This means that  the A4 ( A above middle C) should vibrates at 440 htz (pulses or beats) per second.

Step two:
Now using a felt strip mute each side string of the unisons ranging from F33 to F45 (the temperament range). Look the picture below.

Step three:
Tune F33  to its theoretical frequency (174, 614 htz) then select the tuner to F45 (F just one octave higher). Again strike on the keyboard F33. You will be measuring the
second partial of F33. Now, what we read we subtract from the original theoretical frequency (174,614) and the result that we get we divide by 12 ( The 12 notes of the temperament that we are about to set) 

You have already determined the exact amount of stretch that requieres every note at the temperament. Now just add that little portion to the theoretical frequency of each of the 12 notes, recalibrating the tuner apropriately. Complicated? not really, please read again. As with many things, this is harder to explain than to do.

Step four:
 Tune the temperament (F3 – F4) starting  at F3 (key number F33) moving upwards one note at a time to F4 (note F45). Remember to recalibrate the tuner at each note as we explained earlier.

Step five:
Once you have finish setting the temperament, tune by octaves the upper part of the keyboard, then the bass section. At this stage I would recommend to tune by ear as the chromatic tuner doesn’t work too well on the low and high section of the piano.

This system of tuning a piano with an electronic tuner although not perfect is far superior to just “tune” by replicating the theoretical notes of the piano. Do not forget the importance of a good tuning hammer technic and properly setting  pins and strings. By the way, in case you care to know the cromatic tuner at the header is the “korg OT-120?  priced at about 50 US dollars.

If you are really serious about tuning pianos I would reccomend you to take your time and learn proper aural tuning, or as a second best, to invest in a dedicated electronic or software pro piano tuner, there are some good ones in the market. Calculate and expenditure of about 1000 USD.

©  copyright Juan Olalla 2010 

What do you think about this article, has it been helpful to you? Got some questions? You are welcome to leave a reply. Your opinion and/or suggestions are highly appreciated. Thanks


Tuning a piano in noisy environments, tricks from the pro

They called you to tune a piano for a concert at the last hour. The time available is ridiculously short, about half an hour, and to top it up is very noisy. What to do?

This is one of the tricky situations a piano tuner might encounter, when tuning at a concert.  Just imagine the situation; it’s terribly noisy as sound engineers and musicians are testing the sound. To make matters worst they ask you to hurry up as the concert will start in half an hour. How can you properly tune the piano in those circumstances?
You complain, but the answer is a typical “sorry, we understand you but you have to make do with what you’ve got”.  

You feel like swearing at them and walk away. Why haven’t they call me with time in advance? you rightly think. Reality check: in the real world this kind of situations are far from rare. Tuning a piano for a concert, ideally should be done in the morning or early afternoon, just before the sound engineers and musicians arrive, alone and in silence. Anyway, cool down and don’t panic, above all DON’T RUN AWAY.

What to do then? As I say before, keep yourself cool. After all is not your fault they called you with such a short time notice. You are not responsible for the lack of foresight of the organizers. Well, as it is materially impossible to do a full standard piano tuning you will concentrate on the unisons, specially the middle ones, also the middle upper section if possible.

Why to concentrate specifically on the middle and upper section unisons? Because this is the most played part of the piano and therefore bound to be out of tune.  Also, a unison out of tune can be really very conspicuous. So if you manage to get them right, the piano, although not perfect will have improve quite a big deal.

So, you will produce a makeshift piano tuning which I personally refer to as “cowboy emergency tuning” !! Play a chromatic scale up and down the keyboard and try to identify the keys that are out of tune, or at least the keys that are worst, then write them down on a piece of paper or make a little sign on the keys so you don’t forget.

Make sure there isn’t any key in the bass or treble section wickedly out of tune. If there is one or two, tune them, if not, don’t waste time and move quickly to the middle section, more or less from A25 to C64. Tune those unisons the best you can. To finish the job, check again by doing another chromatic scale up and down the keyboard. The whole job wouldn’t take you more than 20 minutes (the time available).

Maybe this procedure doesn’t look very orthodox, but the purpose is not to execute a work of art piano tuning, but to overcome a particularly exceptional situation, just trying to do the best with what you’ve got. They can ask you to do your best, but nobody can compel you to produce miracles !.

©  copyright Juan Olalla 2010 

Has this article been useful to yout? Got some questions?  Your opinion and/or suggestions are highly appreciated. Please leave a reply. Thanks

“The piano tuner” by Daniel Mason (reviewed by another piano tuner)

I don’t consider myself a compulsive reader but every now and then I find the time to relax and read, even if it is only for a few minutes. Sometime ago while visiting a book-shop at my home town I found a book that catch my eye “The piano tuner” by Daniel Mason. Out of curiosity I bought it.

The story takes place  in Victorian England and is about a piano tuner living in  London that went to “do a job” to Birmania, in those days under the British Empire (I figure out, at that time probably was quite difficult to find a local piano tuner). The man had to leave his new wife and his peaceful existence in London to undergo an adventure that changed his live and indeed ended it.

 What surprised me about the book, apart from the good written story was the excellent documentation. The author describes the job of a piano tuner in quite a convincing manner describing things like the tools for tuning a piano, changing and replacing broken strings, the technique of tuning a piano, the terrible effect that the humid weather and the rain forest had on the piano and so on.

I also found quite interesting the reference to Erard pianos as that was the piano he had to mend. Erard pianos for those of you who don’t know was one of the biggest and most prestigious piano brands, mainly because they were the ones that invented and pioneer the repetion lever (the repetion lever has been one of the most important innovations in the history of piano building and at the time considered as a major breakthrough). I have tuned a handful of Erard pianos and found them very refined with a very pleasent and precise action Nowadays the modern piano is not too different from the one describe in “The piano tuner”

Looking the credits at the end of the book I found where Mr Mason got most of his  documentary material from. The book  “Piano tuning and allied arts”  by William Braid White. Incidentally that was the first piano tuning book I ever had, edition 1946 and although quite old and batter I still keep it. 

“The piano tuner”  by Daniel Mason  is highly recommended.  Quite interesting and pleasent to read, but just in case anybody had a job for tuning a piano in Birmania and think of me as a suitable candidate, please look in another direction, I am busy.

©  copyright Juan Olalla 2010

Has this article been helpful to you? Got some questions? Please leave a reply, your opinion and/or suggestions are highly appreciated. Thanks