Archive for the ‘Ongoing Maintenance’ Category

What Is Piano Tuning?

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

It sounds so simple.  Just tighten the strings until they sound good, right?  Ahh, well, if it were only that simple.  The piano is one of the only instruments that the pianist doesn’t personally tune.  It’s up to the piano tuner to get it right.  And it has to last through several seasons before it gets another tuning.  It’s a lot to ask for, but that’s why we need to call a qualified person to do the job.

Technicians have a way of saying, “The piano will tell you how it needs to be tuned”.  Every piano is different, and they need to be tuned slightly differently.  The fact is that the pianist can’t affect the pitch of the strings directly, as a guitarist or violinist would use intonation to hone their pitch by finger placement.  The pianist can only press the keys, softer or louder.  Since the strings are all open, the technician must use the overtones from each string to set the proper pitch.

The pitch of the strings is raised in the upper section of the piano, and conversely, the pitch of the bass strings is lowered.  This is known as “stretch”.  It is a natural consequence of the fact that the overtones in steel strings appear at a slightly higher frequency than would be expected.  Suppose you measure the middle A in the piano.  It should be 440 cycles per second.  Theoretically, the A above it should be 880 cycles.  If you were to tune it to 880 and play both notes together, you would notice that it doesn’t sound right.  The lower string actually produces a vibration slightly above 880.  Because strings in a piano are free to vibrate, they produce many different pitches at the same time.

Make this experiment:  Slowly press any key and hold it down while you hit the same note an octave higher.  If you continue to hold down the first key, you’ll notice the lower note is making the sound at the same pitch as the higher one.  Let go of the key, and you’ll hear the sound disappear.  If you play it by itself again, you’ll hear it at the lower pitch.  The string of the lower note actually contains an overtone an octave higher.  The lower note also contains many more pitches within it, too.  Try this: Play a middle C note without making a sound, like you did before.  Now play an E note above the upper A, while you continue to hold the lower A.  Notice that the lower A note is actually making the sound of E !

This illustrates the complex sound of a piano.  Every string  has overtones , that appear as harmonically related notes within the sound.  When you play a chord, you are not only mixing the fundamental notes together, but you are also mixing all of the overtones of all the notes together.  And, when you press the sustain pedal, all of the strings start to vibrate with their overtones too!  WOW!

Piano tuning takes into account all of these overtones, and tries to make them match as closely as possible.  Even though most tuners use an electronic device to assist in tuning the piano, he or she also needs to understand all of the complex relationships of the overtones and how they fit together to make a piano sound in tune.

I hope this helps you to understand a little more about the fascinating sound of pianos, and what piano tuning is all about.

When It’s Time to Let Go of the Piano

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Rarely do I have the mis-fortune of advising a piano owner that there’s no more life left in the piano, and that one needs to think of getting another one.  But, these are machines that have a definite life span, just as we all do.  There are core parts of a piano that must work and be in some kind of order, or the poor pianist will have to improvise and struggle to play it.  Especially for beginning students, trying to play a worn-out piano is an exercise only in frustration!

The first part of the piano that is critical is the soundboard.  It is constructed to be in a constant state of tension and compression so that it will transmit sound properly.  It has, in fact, a warp built into it.  We call it “crown”.  As the years go by, the crown begins to disappear as the board flattens out.  When this happens, you get a very percussive sound, but little sustain.  Also, the ribs, which you can see under a grand piano by looking at the bottom of the piano, sometimes come unglued from the board.  It’s also possible to have cracks in the soundboard.  These are not necessarily a death-knell for the piano, and often are just cosmetic.  But the ribs often separate where there are cracks, and this causes buzzing when certain notes are played.  Cracks are a sign that the board has been under too much strain, likely due to large swings in humidity.

The next part of the piano is the one you’re familiar with- they keys and the action inside the piano.  The keys need to be level, and set at a certain height to make the action function correctly.  In course of time, the keys will sag, especially in the middle where they’re played most often.  Tiny doughnuts of felt hold up the keys, like a teeter-totter, in the middle.  Silverfish and other bugs are fond of eating the felt, so this causes the keys to sag.  Inside the action, thousands of wooden parts are used to make the mechanism that hits the strings.  Every part of the action is resting upon felt, including the bearings and bushings.  When the bearings wear out, parts get loose, and the function of the action is compromised.  Even the wood itself becomes brittle after a very long time, and often things break.  At a certain point, the wood cannot take the pounding like it used to do.

Then, there are the strings themselves.  Obviously if they break, they need replacement.  Over many years, the steel wires get brittle.  If the piano hasn’t been tuned regularly, adding a lot of extra strain by tuning them causes them to break.  If more than one or two break, it may need to have all new wire installed.  Then there’s the tuning pins that hold the tension of the wire.  The tuning pins are driven into a thick piece of plywood called a pinblock.  After many years, the pinblock may dry out.  This causes the tuning pins to loosen, sometimes to the point where they will no longer hold the tension of the strings.  In that case, the pinblock may need replacement, or some remedy may be applied to make them hold again.  The newest technique is to drip very thin SuperGlue into the wood surrounding the pins, which will increase the holding power of the old pinblock.

And, of course, there’s the cabinet.  If the poor old piano looks to beat-up to put in your living room, the end is near.  You may need to have it refinished.

Now, if this piano belonged to your great Grandmother, the concert pianist, or it’s an heirloom that you can’t part with, old pianos can certainly be rebuilt and refinished.  But be aware that nearly all the money you spend may not come back to you when you sell it.  The exception is a Steinway, Baldwin, Mason-Hamlin, Chickering, Knabe, or other famous name piano.  It is sometimes possible to get a lot of residual value from these pianos.  But, for most pianos, refurbishing or rebuilding them is only worth it for the current owner.   It’s a judgement call whether it is worth spending money on.  Having a qualified technician inspect your piano is a sure way to find out whether you have a gem-in-the-rough, or a disaster that couldn’t wait to happen.


How Often Do I Need To Tune My Piano?

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

This question is one I get most often.  The answer easy answer is- at least once a year.  There’s more to this than it appears, however.  There are factors that will affect the tuning that might make it necessary to tune it more often.

First, if you intend to use the piano for performances, such as a concert on a stage, the piano will need tuning much more often.  Often, pianos on a stage are tuned several times before the performance, and during the intermission also. 

Second, if the piano is moved, or subjected to changes in temperature or humidity, the piano may go out of tune.  That’s why one should wait until the piano has acclimated to a new position if it has been moved.  The piano sits in it’s own microclimate, and over time it will become stable in that climate.  Even moving it across the room may possibly cause it to change.

Third, if you have a particularly discriminate ear, or have perfect pitch, you may be irritated if it drifts out of tune even slightly.  If it bothers you, maybe you need to tune it more often. 

If your piano seems like it needs tuning more often, a humidity control system, called a “Damppchaser” may be helpful.  It works by adding a gentle heat inside or under the piano so that it isn’t affected so much by atmospheric changes. 

The bottom line is, it depends…   How good is your ear, and how fat is your wallet?  And what are you using the piano for?  If you can answer these questions, you can make your own decision.

Touchup and Scratch Removal

Monday, September 5th, 2011

If you have scratches, dings, or other finish problems on your piano, you’ll need someone to repair the finish or do a complete stripdown and refinish job.  There is a vast difference.

  • Touchup is a method of hiding finish defects by repairing the existing finish.  Often, a few dings and scratches can be repaired for comparatively little cost.  Chips can be filled, scratches can be sanded out, and other minor problems can be remedied by a good touchup person.  (OK, that would be me!).  This type of repair is often done in the home, or parts of the piano may be removed if necessary to be repaired in the shop.  The final result should be in the 90% and better range, though most repairs and touchups can be spotted if you know where to look.  The alternative is refinishing.
  • Refinishing is the process of completely stripping and refinishing of the entire piano, or at least parts of it.  This should result in almost factory-new appearance.  You have a choice of open pore finish, or completely smooth grain-free surface.  The open pore finish allows the grain of the wood to show, and the closed pore finish fills in the grain.  Open pore finishes are less expensive than closed pore, since it requres less labor and materials.