HOW OFTEN SHOULD I TUNE MY PIANO?
by Steve Jackson © 1999-2013
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How often should I tune my piano? This is probably the most asked question a piano tuner/technician has to answer. Almost everybody knows when to have the oil changed in their car or when to go to the dentist, but most people do not know when to tune a piano...or why it even needs to be tuned.
The answer is that pianos should be tuned every 6 months or twice a year. New pianos need to be tuned 4 times during the first year until broken in (See end of article for the tuning recommendations of various piano manufacturers). People always ask piano tuner/technicians why they recommend 6 months as the magic number? Before answering that question, the piano owner should realize why pianos need to be tuned at all. It is because the strings have very high tension on them, and they just plain stretch as time passes.
Most people think pianos do not need tuning if they are not played. This is not true. Once a person realizes that it is the extremely high string tension that causes strings to stretch and the pitch to go flat, and that this tension is always there, they can understand that the piano's pitch will go flat even if it isn't played at all! Basically, the amount of tuning needed is based upon how far the string tension and pitch drop, not how bad the piano sounds – the latter being the criteria most people use in determining if their piano needs tuning. Indeed, if all the strings drop approximately the same distance, the chords played on the piano may still sound good in spite of the fact that the pitch level may have dropped too far to get back to pitch in a tuning alone.
Generally, 6 months is the longest time most pianos can go between tunings before an interaction between strings starts occurring when the piano is tuned. That is, whenever the tension on any one string is increased too much, the tension and pitch of strings near it that were just tuned will drop so that the tuning is being destroyed right in the process of being tuned!
The way to deal with this tuning-destructive string interaction is for the tuner to first assess if the piano is too flat to be stabilized in just a tuning. This is done by measuring how flat the piano is by comparing its pitch to a tuning fork, strobe tuner or some standard pitch source. Then pitch raises are given if needed. A pitch raise is simply bringing up the string tension one string at a time until they have been brought up in tension and pitch far enough for the piano to be stable enough to tune. In a pitch raise the string tension is brought up a much greater amount than what can be done in a tuning. This throws the piano out of tune more, but this is not important because, at this stage, the pitch level needs to be brought up high enough to give the piano a stable tuning.
More than one pitch raise may be needed if the piano is still too flat. Since pitch raising requires more time and work by the tuner, there is an additional charge. So then the piano owner may not save money by leaving the piano go untuned for long periods of time when not playing it.
A new piano requires tuning more often because the steel strings never had tension on them at all and will stretch flatter faster during the first year. That is why the National Piano Manufacturers Association recommends tuning new pianos 4 times the first year unless the tuner finds that it needs less. Most piano manufacturers have brochures, which come with their pianos that state that the National Piano Manufacturers Association recommends tuning pianos 4 times the first year and then every 6 months thereafter.
In addition to the possible need for pitch raising, there could be more bad news. If a piano is left too flat for too long, the piano may not be able to take the stress of increasing the string tension back up to Standard Pitch (defined internationally as A440 so that all pianos could sound the same and people could train their ears to the proper pitch). There are usually about 231 strings for most pianos (1 string per key in the lowest octave approximately, two strings per key for about the next two octaves, and finally about three strings per key all the rest of the way up the keyboard) and at Standard Pitch each string will have about 170 pounds of tension. If you take out your calculator, you will find this is about 39,000 pounds or over 19 tons of pressure across the cast iron plate and frame of the piano! It is because the piano has to be built ruggedly to withstand all that pressure that it is so heavy. No wonder you just about killed yourself and your friends (who may no longer be your friends now!) the last time you moved it. Many times older pianos especially can not take the strain of pitch raising, and the tuner may warn about the damages that could occur like many costly strings breaking or condemn the piano because of serious frame or pin block deterioration.
What are the effects of humidity on your piano? Pianos are 85% wood and are affected by changes in humidity. Without getting real technical, let it suffice to say the piano’s pitch will go up when the indoor humidity goes up and down when the humidity goes down. Outdoor temperatures cause your furnace and air conditioner to run in such a way as to maintain a stable indoor temperature. How much or little either run determines the indoor humidity level. For example, the longer the furnace runs, the drier the air in your home becomes…lowering the piano’s pitch accordingly. Incidentally, this extremely dry air in your home in the winter dries out your skin, causes those nasty static electricity shocks and dries out your respiratory system (giving you nose bleeds). It also contributes to your piano going out of tune. Obviously, the seasons do not change abruptly, so the humidity in your house changes gradually over time - dropping during the time the furnace or air conditioning is being used and rising over the time neither are being used.
People ask when is the best time of the year to tune. The answer is to tune it when you want it to sound the best. The tuner will take into account, as much as possible, where in the humidity cycle your piano is at and compensate for it accordingly so it will continue to sound good. If your piano refuses to keep a reasonable tune between 6 month tunings because of a radically changing humidity, you may have to have your tuner install a humidity control system to humidify the piano in the winter or dehumidify it in the summer. This can help your piano to be more stable between tunings.
Concerning moving your piano, you may have heard that pianos need to be tuned whenever they are moved. Not necessarily so! While extremely severe bumps may knock it out of tune, the real culprit is the humidity changes just talked about. Primarily, it is when the piano is moved through environments of greatly differing atmospheric humidity...like from a 75 degree furnace-dried-out 25% indoor humidity to 20 degree, damp 85% outdoor humidity and back inside again. This will mess up your tuning greatly unless you keep the piano outdoors only for a very short time. Obviously, moving the piano in the summer does not hurt the tuning near as much...even if at all. For anyone who is afraid to move their piano when remodeling, cleaning or just creating a new floor plan: Don't worry about it! Since the humidity and temperature is basically the same anywhere in your house, you can move any time you want or often as you want and not affect the tuning.
Concerning the old warning that pianos shouldn't be put on an outside wall – Don’t worry about it! This used to be true before about 1930 when there was no insulation in the walls and no central heating, but is no longer a problem. Just don't put the piano where there is a hot air vent behind the piano to dry out the wood and knock out the tuning. Close it or block it off if there is no other place to put the piano.
Pianos can last for a hundred years if tuned regularly, taken care of reasonably, and repaired as needed. What else do you own that can last that long? It certainly isn't your car! While a technician can't make you play better, he or she can at least make you sound better, and that's worth something!