The following series of questions were asked of Larry Fine; author of ‘The Piano Book’.
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What does it mean to “tune” a piano?
“Tuning” is the process of adjusting the tension at which the strings are stretched, using a wrench called a “tuning hammer,” so that all the strings vibrate in pleasing harmony with one another in accordance with certain acoustical laws and aesthetic and musical customs. Although the tuner may also perform other adjustments to the piano at the same visit, strictly speaking, only the above process constitutes “tuning.” Larry Fine
How often should I tune and service my piano?
It depends on how sensitive you are to out-of-tuneness, how sensitive your piano is to the humidity changes that cause a piano to go out of tune, the climate you live in, how much you play, and your budget. For most people, one to three times per year is about right. Professional musicians and teachers may require more frequent service. Concert pianos are generally tuned (or the tuning touched up) before every performance. Larry Fine
How much does it cost to tune a piano?
It varies geographically and according to the reputation of the tuner/technician. Currently it seems to be somewhere between $100 and $200 on average. Larry Fine
Why does a piano need to be tuned after being moved?
Mostly because subtle differences in humidity between the new and old locations will cause the piano to go out of tune. Very inexpensive pianos that are structurally inadequate may go out of tune because of the handling of the piano, but this is not a big factor for most instruments. The tuning of vertical pianos may be affected by unevenness in the level of the floor, or differences in the level between the old and new locations (grands are usually not affected by these issues). Larry Fine
When arranging to have my piano moved, shouldn’t I hire a piano mover that will also tune the piano at the same time?
First of all, very few piano movers also tune pianos. Both are skilled professions, but are quite unrelated to one another in the kind of skills they require. Most of all, however, the humidity difference that makes a piano go out of tune at the new location works its effect gradually over a period of from several days to a couple of weeks. The piano may sound just fine right after being moved, but be quite out of tune a week or so later. If the piano is tuned immediately after being moved, it will probably be out of tune within a couple of weeks. So it’s best to wait a couple of weeks after moving before having the piano tuned. Larry Fine
Where is the best place in my home to put my piano?
The best place is where the temperature and humidity will remain relatively moderate and constant, and away from big drafts, open windows, and direct sunlight. Especially keep the piano several feet away from heating registers and radiators, or block off or redirect the heat from such registers and radiators if the piano must be placed closer. Larry Fine
What is the best temperature and humidity for my piano?
Manufacturers like to say that the temperature should be at 72 degrees F. and the humidity about 45 percent. However, given climatic realities, human needs, and energy conservation issues, this may not always be possible or practical. In truth, pianos are not so delicate that they require such precision in their environment. Any temperature and humidity that are not extreme and are relatively constant will do. The more consistent the better. Larry Fine
Should I have a humidifier system installed in my piano?
Piano climate-control systems can help smooth out seasonal humidity changes, resulting in better piano sound and operation, longer life, and possibly less frequent tunings. If you already have whole-house humidification and de-humidification, however, you may not need the extra protection, though it certainly can’t hurt. See a piano technician or piano dealer about having a climate-control system installed in your piano. Larry Fine
How long can a piano go without being tuned?
I suppose a piano can go forever without being tuned—if you don’t care about playing it. Otherwise, it depends on many factors. See the answer to question 2 above. Larry Fine
Why do some pianos stay in tune longer than others?
Actually, all pianos go out of tune continuously. It just may be awhile before you notice it. How soon you notice it depends on such factors as the design of the piano (though, interestingly, not necessarily on its quality), the various pressures and tensions being exerted on the soundboard and structural elements, climatic changes, your ear and sensitivity to out-of-tuneness, and on the kind of music you play. Larry Fine
How can I “lower the volume” of my piano?
You can have the piano “voiced”, which mostly involves softening the hammers to produce a more mellow sound. You can also change the room acoustics by adding rugs, upholstered furniture, draperies, wall hangings, and other sound-absorbent objects. Storing some cardboard boxes under your grand piano, while not very attractive, can do wonders for softening the sound. Finally, there are some accessories on the market in the form of Styrofoam products, blankets, and so forth that, when applied to the back or underside of the piano, can reduce the volume by many decibels. Contact a piano technician for details. Larry Fine
Can the “touch” of my piano’s action be adjusted?
Within certain narrow parameters, the touch can be adjusted by regulating the action. Regulating is the process of restoring the action adjustments to their factory-specified defaults. Over time and with playing, these adjustments gradually change and must periodically be restored for proper functioning of the piano. Each adjustment also has a certain narrow window of permissible variation, so by cleverly manipulating these variations, it may be possible to make the touch slightly lighter or heavier, or the repetition faster, than the factory default specifications. If changes are desired that fall beyond what is possible through normal regulating, then the technician must carefully analyze the source of the problem and make more drastic changes to the action, which may involve rebuilding it to some extent. This was once solely the province of trial-and-error, but scientific principles can now be brought to bear on these problems, with consistent and happy outcomes. More advanced and technologically-savvy technicians can advise you about your options. Note: There is a psychological connection between tone and touch. Sometimes adjusting the tone of the piano, or just tuning it, can make the piano’s touch “feel” better, even though there is no mechanical connection between the two. Larry Fine
How can I tell how old my piano is?
Each piano is given a serial number at “birth”. It is usually located somewhere in the tuning pin area. If the manufacturer is still in business, it may be able to provide the year of manufacture from the serial number. Sometimes the information is on the manufacturer’s web site. For those not still in business, a book called the “Pierce Piano Atlas” provides dates of manufacture from serial numbers for thousands of old piano brands. You can find the book through a piano technician, in libraries, or from www.pianoatlas.com. Where dates are not available, or the serial number cannot be found, it may be possible for an experienced technician or rebuilder to estimate the age of the piano from technical features or furniture design. Larry Fine
Is there anything I need to do before my piano technician arrives to service my piano?
Thank you for asking. The following would be helpful: Please remove music, knickknacks, plants, home entertainment systems, and other stuff from the piano. It will save the technician time and prevent breakage. Please sweep or vacuum a little under a grand piano (in case the technician has to lie under the piano to make an adjustment). Please make a list of anything that bothers you about the piano that you would like the technician to take a look at. Please make sure there is sufficient lighting and quiet. Note that the whirring of kitchen appliances and ceiling fans can make it difficult to tune because they interfere with the vibrations the tuner listens to. Larry Fine
What is “pitch correction”?
When a piano is tuned, first the tuner tunes one note, usually the A above middle C, to a standard such as a tuning fork or electronic signal. Typically, the standard is A vibrating at a frequency of 440 cycles per second. Then the rest of the piano is tuned relative to that pitch. When, because of neglect or humidity changes, the pitch standard note is no longer at the correct pitch, the standard pitch must be reestablished and the piano roughly tuned relative to that pitch. This is called “pitch correction.” After the pitch correction, a fine tuning can be done. If a fine tuning is attempted at the same time as a pitch correction, the piano will usually end up out of tune because the strings have a tendency to revert to their old tension when a large change in tension is attempted at one time. Larry Fine
What is “voicing”?
Voicing is regulating the tone of the piano. The primary vehicle for this is the softening or hardening of the hammers. Softening the hammers is usually done by pricking the hammer felt with needles to reduce its density. Hardening is usually done by chemically treating the hammers or ironing the felt. Other more sophisticated aspects of voicing involve the leveling of the strings, aligning the hammers with the strings, adjusting the end points of the vibrating portion of the strings, and adjusting the striking point of the hammers on the strings. Larry Fine
What is “regulating”?
Regulating is the adjusting of the action and keys to restore them to their factory-default specifications. See also the answer to question 12 above. Larry Fine
What is A=440?
This means that the A above middle C is vibrating at 440 cycles per second. This is sometimes also known as “concert pitch,” although some orchestras prefer to tune to a slightly higher pitch. Larry Fine
What is “aural tuning”?
Aural tuning is tuning the piano by ear (not by machine). Larry Fine
Why do some tuners use an electronic device to tune the piano?
Electronic tuning devices have become extremely sophisticated in recent years and are used by some of the most skilled tuners. The best tuners can also tune by ear, which is necessary to check the work of the machine and to do some aspects of the tuning job that are not easily done by machine. However, use of the machine can save the tuner time and fatigue, allowing him or her to do a better job and to do more jobs in a day than would be possible by ear. The machines are also very useful for tuning in difficult environments, such as when there is a lot of background noise. The machines can screen out the noise better than the ear can. Some of the devices can also “save” a favorite or unusual tuning so that it can be exactly reproduced the next time it is needed. Larry Fine
Why do my keys sometimes stick?
Sticking keys are usually caused by humidity changes. Interestingly, keys can stick in both humid and dry weather. Humid weather can cause wood and cloth to swell and interfere with the movement of other parts. Dry weather can cause holes to contract and bind on guide pins. In most cases, the remedies are fairly simple. Larry Fine
My piano has a broken key. Is that a major repair?
When someone complains of a “broken key,” usually they mean that something is not working right. It could actually be a broken key, or it could be that something else in the action is broken or stuck. In any case, it’s usually not a major job to repair it. But neither is it necessarily trivial. If there are many such “broken keys,” it could be a sign of a major problem, such as wood or glue joints that are hopelessly dried out and brittle. Larry Fine
My piano has a broken string. Is that a major repair?
A broken string is neither major nor trivial. If the string is a bass string (steel wound with copper), the replacement string will have to be special-ordered because each model of piano, and each string within that model, has unique specifications for length, thickness, and so forth. If the broken string is plain steel wire, the technician should be able to replace it on the spot from a reel of wire of the proper diameter. There are about 15 or 20 possible wire diameters for steel piano wire and technicians usually carry a small supply of each in their car. In either case, it will take several additional visits of the tuner over an extended period of time to tune up the new string before it will hold its tune. In the meantime, it may be necessary to mute the new string to prevent it from sounding sour. So, although the replacement of the string itself is not complicated, the whole process can end up being expensive and a nuisance. Larry Fine
How can I clean my piano?
It depends on what you want to clean. The wooden furniture portion of the piano is usually cleaned with a soft, lintless cloth, slightly dampened with water if you wish. If the wood has a grain, wipe in the direction of the grain. Be careful about using commercially available furniture polish – manufacturers sometimes recommend against it. There are special polishes available from piano technicians for different kinds of piano finishes. In any case, follow the piano manufacturer’s recommendations if available. Larry Fine For cleaning the key tops, slightly dampen a cloth with a mild solution of soap and water and rub the key tops, but do not let any water run down the sides of the keys. Then dry the key tops off right away with a dry cloth. Especially if the key tops are made of ivory, do not let water stand on them for any length of time. Rarely, stain from the black keys will rub off, so you may wish to use separate cloths for black and white keys. Larry Fine To avoid damage, I recommend having a piano technician clean the soundboard under the strings, the inside of the action, and under the keys. Larry Fine
How can I find a good used piano?
This is a complicated subject, too long to treat here. Please read Chapter 5 of The Piano Book. Larry Fine
Am I better off to purchase a brand new piano instead of paying thousands of dollars to rebuild my old piano?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the quality and value of the older piano and how much it would cost to rebuild it. The complete rebuilding of a grand piano can cost from $15,000 to $40,000 (sometimes even more). Obviously this is only worth doing to a piano of the highest quality, such as a Steinway. For lesser pianos, however, sometimes partial rebuilding or reconditioning at a much lower cost can make sense. This is something that must be determined on a case-by-case basis through consultation with piano technicians and rebuilders. Note that if your piano is a cheap one that has serious problems, in most cases you would clearly be better off buying a new one. Larry Fine
What are the correct names for the different sizes of grand piano?
There is no standardized naming scheme for grand pianos. Sometimes you will hear romantic-sounding names like “parlor grand,” but there is nothing official about such names. I use the term “small grand” for those under about 5’6”, “medium grand” for those between about 5’6” and 7’6”, and “concert grand” for those larger than 7’6” (most of which are about 9’). Note that piano technicians do not usually use the term “baby grand,” even though this is a popular consumer term. Larry Fine
What are the correct names for the different sizes of upright piano?
There are some semi-official names for different sizes of vertical piano, but there is considerable variation in how they are used. Vertical pianos with an indirect-blow action, usually located totally or partially lower than the level of the keybed, are called “spinets.” They are generally less than 40” tall. Pianos with direct-blow, but slightly compressed, actions, are called “consoles.” They are usually between 40” and 44” tall. Manufacturers sometimes apply the term “console” to any furniture-style vertical piano with free-standing legs, regardless of size or type of action. This can result in some confusion, but usually only for pianos larger than 43”, since smaller ones almost always require a compressed action. “Studio” pianos are usually 45” to 47” tall and have a full-size, direct-blow action. Manufacturers sometimes apply this term to any piano, regardless of size or type of action, that has legs attached to the cabinet with toe blocks, as this sort of piano is most likely to be used in school practice rooms and similar “studio,” as opposed to “furniture,” applications. Finally, pianos 48” and larger are called “full-size uprights” (or just “uprights”) and usually have a full-size, direct-blow action that is elevated inside the piano with extenders. There are quite a few pianos that do not fit this naming scheme precisely, or fit somewhere in between two types, so don’t get too hung up on it. Larry Fine