Tuning a piano is one of the most important things you can do for your piano. It’s one of the key aspects of owning and maintaining a piano, but very few actually understand what it does and why do it. So why do you need to tune a piano?
Tuning a piano doesn’t just involve making it sound nice. In fact, tuning a piano will make it last longer. Over time, strings within the piano can stretch and move, causing the piano to go out of tune. This means that the tension exerted on the frame is not even, as the strings have moved slightly.
This is accompanied by the unpleasant sound of an out-of tune piano. Tuning the piano will equalise the combined string tension against the frame and soundboard. This will make the piano last longer and easier to tune in future and preserving the value of the instrument.
Of course, the secondary reason for tuning a piano is to make it sound nicer. A non-tuned piano will not only sound pretty horrible, but in fact it can also inhibit your musical development. Playing at the wrong pitch all the time can impede your aural development, as your piano doesn’t play the same pitch as everyone else’s piano.
Now, buying an acoustic piano is one of the best things you can do for your musical development, but a digital piano will never need to be tuned. If this is something you’d prefer, you can check out my top digital piano brands of 2020 here.
Why do pianos go out of tune?
Pianos go out of tune for a number of reasons. Environmental factors, moving the piano, and over-playing can all cause a piano to de-tune itself. Let’s go through each of these in-depth.
Environmental factors are the number one reason why pianos go out of tune. The reason for this is that most pianos are made primarily out of wood. Wood is a porous material, and will expand and contract based on the humidity of the environment the piano is in. As humidity rises, the soundboard expands, which will stretch the pianos’ strings to a slightly higher pitch. When humidity falls, the soundboard contracts, which lowers tension on the strings and causes the piano to decrease in pitch.
You might notice this if you live in a very humid environment, such as near the coast, for example. You’ll unfortunately have more issues with keeping your piano in tune than someone who lives in a very dry environment, such as in the middle of a desert.
You probably won’t notice this happening on a day-to-day basis. However, over time, and because all strings don’t change tension in unison, you will find that this expansion and contraction of the parts within your piano can cause the pitch to change quite considerably.
Moving the piano
This is another common cause of a de-tuned piano. This risk unfortunately can’t be minimised, and is one of the reasons you should never tune a piano before it’s due to be moved; you’ll just be wasting your money, because it will need another tuning after it’s been moved.
The reason for this is twofold; humidity and environmental factors can play a part here, especially if the environment is radically different between the place where the piano was and the place the piano was moved to. Even subtle changes (perhaps the new location is ever so slightly closer to a heater, or the insulation in the new building is slightly better, etc) can induce a de-tuning.
The other reason is that moving a piano can twist or bend the piano ever so slightly. No piano will stay absolutely solid when you’re moving it, unless it’s made of concrete. As a result, the very slight twisting or bending of the piano itself can cause parts inside the piano to move ever so slightly, which can have an impact on the string tension. Think about it; pianos weren’t built to be moved, they were built to stay in once place all the time. Of course, we need to move them from time to time, but most pianos don’t enjoy being moved too much.
This is one of the reasons pianos de-tune themselves, but it’s much less common than the other two reasons. You generally won’t notice this if you own your own piano, because it’ll just be you playing it. However, if you’ve ever gone into a conservatory or a music school, some of those pianos get played upwards of 14 hours per day by practising piano majors, accompanists, teachers, etc.
Constant playing (especially loud playing) can make the piano more sensitive to humidity changes, which will knock it out of tune, as well as the fact that again, it can make some of the parts inside bend and twist slightly. With a private piano, this happens, but on a much smaller level and is usually not noticeable. However, when a piano is played constantly, this method of de-tuning is accelerated.
Can you tune a piano on your own?
So, technically, the answer to this is yes. It’s possible for you to go onto Amazon, buy some equipment and tune your own piano. Should you? Probably not. However, I've picked some stuff out for you if you decide to go against my advice and do this yourself.
Tuning your own piano? Start here!
Koing and Meyer 166/1 Piano Tuning Hammer
German engineered, this high quality and durable tuning hammer was designed for the professional. And you, if you're insane enough to want to tune your own piano.
A440 Tuning Fork
This tuning fork will enable you to tune the A below Middle C to A440, standard concert pitch. You'll then have to use this note as a reference to tune the rest of the piano.
Uflizogh 16pcs Piano Tuning Toolkit
Designed for professionals, this toolkit includes everything you'll ever need to tune (or break) your own piano.
Again, do I recommend doing this? Absolutely not.
Piano tuning is a skill. Believe it or not, people go to school to get certifications to learn how to tune a piano. It’s a very skilled profession that doesn’t just involve getting a note in tune. There are numerous things that go into a proper piano tuning, and sometimes these are things that are only learnt through the process of tuning hundreds or thousands of pianos over the course of a piano tuning career. Sometimes you can tune a note, and as soon as you hit the note hard, it will go out of tune again. Subtle intricacies that I don’t fully understand are what separate some guy with a tuning fork and a desire to save $100 from an experienced piano tuner.
Think about it; you need to get the string to set properly (which involves different points of tension on the string and how they even out when the string is struck) and to hold its tune after being struck repeatedly. And then, you have to do that 229 more times for every string on the piano. (Each note has three strings, sometimes only two.)
So, in theory, yes, you can do it. Should you? No.
How much does it cost to get a piano tuned?
Having a piano tuned doesn’t generally cost too much money. An average just for a tuning would be about $100, but this will depend on the area that you’re in. For example, you can expect to pay more in a large city than in a small town. However, you will have more choice in a large city.
What’s important to note is that a piano that hasn’t been tuned in a while may also require other work done to it besides a tuning. Common work that needs to be carried out on pianos that are well-used include regulation of the action, which involves adjusting the keys and the action mechanism to ensure all the keys are tight and even (as you play certain keys and not others, they get worn out more easily) and voicing, which involves shaving small bits of the piano hammers to make the piano’s tone brighter or warmer, depending on your preference.
This extra work can sometimes add up to several hundreds of dollars, depending on the amount of time it’s been since it was last carried out. Sometimes a tuning is not worth doing unless these other bits of preventative maintenance are done. If you’re thinking about having your piano tuned, you should get a tuner or piano technician to come and look at your piano and give you a quote for the work required.
How often should you tune a piano?
This depends on several factors. However, the ideal answer is twice a year, or every six months. This assumes that the piano is several years old, is played regularly and is never moved.
If your piano is new (and I mean not just new to you, I mean fresh-from-the-factory new) it will need to be tuned more often. This is because sometimes a new piano can take a while to adjust after being manufactured. Parts inside are more likely to shift as the piano adjusts itself from a storage/manufacturing environment to a home environment. Most manufacturers recommend a tuning every three months, or four times per year, for a new piano. Some manufacturers like Yamaha will even give you a voucher for a free tuning if you buy a new piano.
You will also need to tune a piano more often if it’s recently been moved, I’d recommend with any move to wait at least a month after the piano’s been moved for it to adjust to its new environment, and then getting it tuned.
How long does a piano tuning take?
Generally a piano tuning might take an hour to an hour and a half if the piano has been regularly tuned and there are no major issues. However, if your piano has been neglected, be aware that it might take longer. If a tuner needs to battle with a severely out of tune piano, you might find that it takes several hours. To regulate a pianos’ action takes several hours, as does voicing a piano. Just bear in mind that this may be the case if you require extra work done to your piano.
In extreme cases, a tuner might not even be able to complete a tuning in one go, and might have to come back at a later time for the piano to adjust to its new tuning so they can fine-tune it. This is a worst-case scenario, however, and you can usually expect your piano tuning to take at most a few hours.
What happens if a piano isn’t tuned?
As mentioned before, not tuning a piano can have adverse effects on the piano’s health. It can make future tunings more difficult, and can even cause the piano to become damaged if left long enough. If this happens, then the value of your piano may be affected, which is bad news if you ever want to sell it at any point in the future.
An important bit of advice; spending the hundred dollars every few months or so to keep your piano in tip-top shape is definitely worth it. Prevention is always better than cure, and it’ll always be cheaper and better for your piano to keep your it in tune regularly.