3 – Tuning Your New Piano
— by Wes Flinn RPT
“My piano is brand new – why should I need to tune it?”
The straight answer is that a brand new piano will not hold its tune well until after 7-10 tunings. Sorry!
What is “in tune” for a piano, anyway ??
A piano is a physical, acoustical instrument and has to have its strings adjusted, or “tuned”, regularly — it’s not like an electronic device that more or less stays adjusted always. The physical piano naturally and gradually goes flat over time, due to the tension on the natural steel strings, and has to be re-tuned like other stringed instruments such as a guitar.
Most of us think of “in tune” as meaning an instrument that makes tones which are pleasing, and not “twangy” or rough sounding. This is true, but…
“in tune” also means sounding tones at the proper pitch, which is the international standard frequency of A4 = 440Hz. (All various instruments are built to sound and play correctly at this frequency so that everyone world-wide can use their instruments to play the same music). If an instrument does not sound its tones “up to pitch”, it sounds just plain bad to a musician, and to the rest of us it sounds kind of “thumpy” or “dull” if the pitch sinks too low. This doesn’t hurt the piano as much as it hurts our ears.
Continued neglect, however, can lead to internal damage to a piano, and the owner needs to be diligent to maintain the tuning level of a piano on a calendar basis. When the pitch sinks like this, after a short while, the piano cannot be used to play with other instruments, or to make recordings at all, and in fact can sound horrible when tried. So. we always try to keep pianos “up to pitch” in the first place.
Further, a new piano has to be “broken in” before it holds its pitch any reasonable length of time. Its strings have to be stretched again and again by tuning and playing, the hammers have to become adjusted to the strings, the action has to become flexible through use, etc. before it settles down and begins to really perform well. During this break-in period, tuning is the only method for thoroughly “breaking in” a new piano, even though playing is of course helpful during this process. The reason for this is that there is no kind of music or practice pattern that plays each and every note on the piano the way a tuning does, through pounding and flexing all the piano keys and parts equally again and again and again — only the procedure of tuning a piano will get this “break in” job done effectively.
This “break in” process takes 7-10 tunings:
If you bought your piano from a quality dealer, the “break in” experience for a piano goes something like these steps, depending on the sale negotiations and contract:
(1) It is taken out of the shipping box;
(2) It is given a pre-tuning “tensioning” to set it at correct pitch;
(3) This is followed by its first tuning or “fine” tuning at A=440 Hz;
(4) It is then given some time to get adjusted to its new surroundings, temperature and humidity. This first tuning will not hold more than about a week;
(5) Then, before it is delivered to your home, it is given a second tuning, lasting about 30 days;
(6) The third tuning is usually scheduled to be performed in your home by the dealer — this tuning must wait, however, to be done about a week or so after delivery to the new location, so that the piano has chance to respond to the new temperature and humidity of your home — and this tuning needs to be done before 45 days after the second tuning in order that the piano not go too flat again, thus needing to be double-tuned to restore the pitch as it was in step two above. If the new owner delays scheduling this third tuning, he usually has to pay for a re-tensioning adjustment, like step (2) above, although some dealers may pay for the third tuning as part of the purchase – with the cost figured in the purchase price.
(7) The fourth tuning is scheduled and paid for by the owner, and it is at this point where the owner needs to schedule regular tunings to take advantage of the tunings and break-in process that has preceded the fourth tuning. This fourth tuning should be scheduled no more than about 90 days after the third tuning, because a lot of playing activity could also cause the piano to drop in pitch again at this point in its break-in process, requiring again that the pitch be restored, like Step (2) above, as in the beginning when taken out of the box.
(8) The fifth tuning will usually hold up to 90 days or so, with average use, but the owner is best advised to schedule this tuning about 3 to 4 months after the fourth tuning;
(9) The sixth tuning can be scheduled according to need — see the suggested tuning cycles according to use in my Article “Tuning Your Used Piano” — and your piano will hold agreeably several months, according to and depending upon the environmental conditions where it is located, and whether it has a Dampp-Chaser climate control system installed, as well as according to how heavily the piano is being used.
(10) Now! Your piano is ready for its seventh tuning in about another 90 days, and then we can say it has graduated from ‘prep school’. It is now ready for most any use you have planned for it, except major concert work — if you are going to give a concert on it this soon, you better play that concert on your piano many times, and then have the tuner give you a “concert grade tuning”, which is an extra hard and very exacting tuning that takes about twice the time as a normal tuning, in order to check and stabilize every single note on the piano for extra heavy duty work during that concert. Basically you are now set to use your piano like you want. Future tuning cycles can be scheduled mainly depending according to use, and suggestions for frequency are found in my article “Tuning Your Used Piano”.
Speaking of “school”:
Here, I want to share 3 concepts about pianos that I have gained over the years:
(1) An impression of the many pianos in general that I am familiar with or have tuned:
I find that a piano I spend time with as a tuner, from taking a new piano from its box and carrying it through these successive tunings, or considering most any piano that I tune regularly, behaves very similar to a trained animal like your pet at home. This is to say that the more attention and time given to this “pet” piano, the better it performs, and the better it seems to “like” me. When I tune them regularly and frequently, they just seem to start “remembering” their “tricks” — they seem to “want” to be tuned and to play more beautifully with each tuning.
(2) Another interesting point here is that our “piano pets” really do behave very much like animal pets!! When pianos are neglected, that is, not tuned and played very often or regularly, they act just like our animal pets when they don’t practice their tricks, and thus literally start forgetting these tricks. Like animal pets, pianos literally have to be re-taught their “tricks” (or tunings) when these tunings have been delayed or forgotten by the owner, in the same manner as a trained animal must be re-taught its tricks if it is neglected.
(3) And, this observation I noticed about piano tone in general over many years:
My mother was a splendid concert pianist and piano teacher. Her studio was on a waiting list basis for 50 years. She used two Steinway pianos and two Chickering pianos in her teaching studio. I was exposed therefore to piano maintenance as a child, and I had the unique experience of listening to pianos that were tuned very often, ranging within 30 to 90 days each piano, due to their constant use — she was either teaching or practicing on these pianos many hours daily. Pianos that are tuned often like this develop a different tone quality than pianos treated any other way. The tone becomes extremely clear and ringing and resonant — there are technical reasons behind this, but for the little story here, perhaps you will accept that this phenomenon is true. If you are a real piano music lover, and would like to hear your piano at its most beautiful performance and tone quality, try tuning your piano every 90 days for a year, and see what you think! Pianos truly develop what can only be described as a “gorgeous” tone when they are “trained” this way — it will amaze you how such constant care and attention brings out their best, and treated this way, they just seem to glow and shine and almost beg to be played!
Piano Maintenance Overview:
Here are the main elements involved in piano maintenance:
Tuning is the basic, repetitive step of maintaining a piano — it is equivalent to changing oil in your car. Tuning involves adjusting string tension for proper pitch.
Regulation is the adjustment and lubrication of all the moving parts inside a piano, called the “action” — there are 10 to 12,000 parts and pieces total in a piano, and about 90% of these parts make up the action mechanism — and, there are about 1500 different adjustments of all these action parts.
In addition, all these action settings must be correct for the piano to play properly. This “regulation” procedure is first done before a piano is delivered to an owner; then, for a home piano, it is needed again when the piano is “broken-in” after about 1 to 4 years of service, and again later on whenever needed, depending on how a piano is used — which is not often on home pianos.
Voicing involves the proper adjustment of the piano hammers to the piano strings, and for the purpose developing the most efficiency of tone and volume a piano is capable of delivering — “Voicing” necessarily includes both the tuning and regulation procedures (see above) before and as a part of any specific “voicing” project for the piano hammers and strings, whenever and each time voicing procedures are performed.