So, you haven’t tuned your piano in years…so what’s so bad about that?


What’s the point of regular tunings?

So…I was thinking today what my first choice of topics should be for this Blog, and decided that we’d start with trying to answer a basic question that I “hear” all too often, either directly or indirectly from customers, and that is basically “so what’s the big deal if I haven’t tuned my piano in years”.  I’ve never been asked that directly, of course, but you could read it all over the customer’s faces when I told them that, in so many words…they were in for some real expenses to get their piano back in shape.  The reality is, that any piano (spinet or grand piano, Wurlitzer or Steinway) needs regular tuning and servicing in order for it to function as a musical instrument.  While many pianos come in a variety of cabinet styles and finishes, which make them very attractive and desirable as pieces of furniture, that is not their main purpose.

Your piano is much more than JUST a piece of furniture!

Contrary to some popular beliefs…a piano is much more than JUST another piece of furniture in the house.  I truly believe that some people believe that their piano is like any other piece of furniture in the room, like their couch or desk…except this one’s really cool…it makes noise when you bang on it!  You smile at the silliness of that, but in reality, I believe many people truly believe that once you buy it, it just sits there and nothing ever needs to be done with it.  After all, they don’t have to do anything to their couch, desk, table, chairs, etc. except use them until they no longer function (or until their tastes change and they exchange it for something else).  If you want just a piece of furniture, then do nothing to your piano and in time that’s exactly what you will get!  Why is this, you ask.  Well, glad you asked.  We’ll try to explain a little about that today.

Shouldn’t a good “master tuning” last for several years?

I have customers call months after a tune, shocked that their piano didn’t hold a tune, and sometimes it sounds like they’re implying that I must not have tuned it well if it sounded so badly now.  My immediate thought is that apparently they’ve never seen a guitar, violin, trumpet, clarinet, tuba, saxophone, or any other number of musical instrument players tune their instruments each and every time they pull it out of its case.  I’m honestly surprised that many very bright, intelligent people often don’t make the connection that a piano is really, in many ways, no different than any other musical instrument that you pack away in a case and tote around to band class.

Those of you that play other instruments know exactly what I mean.  I played trumpet in my High School marching band, and on those cold November football game nights, I just hated marching.  Yes my fingers were freezing, my mouthpiece nearly stuck to my lips because of the frozen moisture in my breath, but the band always sounded wildly out of tune.  You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever been there.  Temperature affects brass instruments, especially, causing them to actually change size…which in turn changes pitch.  Cold air is heavier than warm air and behaves differently than hot air.  The moment you bring the instrument back into the warm band room, it warms up, and immediately, the pitch begins to change.  If that is so for many instruments, why then are we surprised that our piano goes out of tune days, weeks, or months after a good tuning?  For one, we don’t take our pianos out in the cold and bring them back inside very often.  If you did, I guarantee you would notice pitch differences similar to other instruments.

So, since you don’t haul your piano in and out of the cold, why does a pianos pitch seem to change when it’s inside all the time?

Basically, the piano is made of wood, felt, plastic, and metal, and even though you keep your piano indoors and your A/C on to keep you comfortable in the summer and winter, there is more going on in the air around you that affects the wood the makes up the majority of your piano.

Let’s take a closer look at how the wood inside your piano reacts to the air around it.

Below you see two pictures.  The picture on the left shows a piece of wood, and we see some sides are smooth, but the end of the board is rough.  Have you ever tried painting the end of a 2×4?  It literally sucks up the paint and it takes many coats to paint it.  The reason is because, if you remember what you learned in your 5th grade science class, that 2×4’s are cut from trees, trees were living organisms made of cells, and they have tube like structures that allow the sap to flow up and down the tree giving it nourishment.  The straws you see sitting on the board are an example of those tube like structures inside the wood.  Now, look to the picture on the right.  This clearly shows those tubes magnified.

2x4 end grain (inner structure of wood is hollow and tubular like soda straws)

Wood End Grain - Under microscope

Ok, with that thought in mind, now think what would happen if all those little tubes filled with water…naturally the block of wood would swell.  When the wood dried out again, and the tubes empty, the wood in turn would shrink.

BINGO, that is why pianos go out of tune so often.  Humidity!

As temperature changes, the air can hold more or less water (humidity).  In the summer, there is lots of moisture in the air, more humidity, the piano wood absorbs some of that, the wood swells, and……we’ll talk about what happens in just a minute….!

Similarly, in the winter, there is little moisture in the air, less humidity, and the wood in the piano dries out, the wood shrinks, and…..again, we’ll talk about what happens in just a minute…!

Humidity changes cause pianos to go out of tune.

Changes in the Soundboard:

In a nutshell, the back of a piano (in an upright) and the bottom of a piano (in a grand) are called the soundboard.  This board is very thin and has a crown built in so that even though it “looks” flat, it really is bowing in (in uprights) and up (in grands.  The strings are strung across a bridge and there is pressure pushing down on the bridge and on the soundboard, and the crown of the soundboard is curved toward and putting pressure back on the bridge.   If humidity stays constant, these two pressures stay in good relationship and the piano will hold a tune.  If the wood swells because of high humidity, the soundboard will swell, causing more crown, placing more pressure on the bridge and strings, causing the pitch of the strings to go sharp.  If the wood shrinks because of low humidity, the soundboard will also shrink, causing less crown, placing less pressure back on the bridge and strings, causing the pitch of the strings to go flat.

Soundboard/Bridge/Strings - High Humidity - Pitch goes sharp

Soundboard/Bridge/Strings - Low Humidity - Pitch goes flat

This doesn’t take years to happen, it can take hours, days, weeks depending on the  moisture in the air.

That’s why, if you tune your piano during times of stable humidity, your tuning will last much longer than if you have it tuned right before you turn the heat on for the winter….humidity will change quickly causing the piano to change pitch quickly.  Seriously, because of that simple fact, I am amazed that a piano can stay in tuned as long as it does following a tuning.

In fact, it is a well known fact that Concert Pianos will be tuned before every concert.  Recording studios will have their piano tuned before each recording, or at least as often as weekly.  So, while your preferences and frequency of piano use will determine how often you prefer to have your piano tuned, the fact is that your piano is in a constant state of change, and therefore, can benefit greatly from regular tunings.

The Pin block:

To a little lesser extent, but still highly affected, is the pin block.  Because of it’s thickness, the pin block may take a little longer to take on or give up humidity than the thinner soundboard.  Swelling and shrinking of wood in this area will either swell and exert more pressure on the tuning pins, causing them to be tighter in the pin block, or shrink and exert less pressure on the tuning pins, causing them to loosen their grip.  When they loose their grip, the pitch falls.

So…why do pianos need REGULAR tunings….?

Years of no tunings will usually result in the piano loosing tension and pitch.

So, over time the changes in humidity can cause the tuning pins to slip which will cause the overall pitch of the piano to continue lowering.  This happens anyway to a small extent between tunings, which is normal, however, the change is so small, that the next tuning brings it back to “normal” tension.  BUT, what happens if you go years without regular tunings?  Those small amounts of tension and pitch lowering now add up to result in a large net loss in tension and pitch. (If the pin block really dries out, cracking can occur and then you are looking at replacement, which is quite costly).

Pin block High Moisture (pin kept tight)

Pin block Low Moisture (pin loose in pin block)

Dry Cracked Pin block

This is reason that regular tunings are so important.  Regular tunings are vital to the health of your piano, and the tuning fees you “saved” through the years will not really have been saved since you will likely need much more work done to bring your piano back to pitch and to keep it at pitch in the future.

More reasons to avoid delays in having your piano tuned:

1) Besides the expense, large tension changes are very hard on the structure of the piano.  The piano is designed to be at a certain tension, and anything other than that is harmful to the integrity of the structure.

2) Regular tunings mean the technician is seeing your piano more often, and therefore will be able to find minor repair and regulation problems before they become more serious and costly issues.

3) It’s musically more fun, more inspirational, and practice becomes a joy when the piano is kept in tune.  Even if mom and dad don’t have an ear for music, little Suzie usually knows that her piano doesn’t sound like teachers.

Well, I hope this information has been beneficial to you.  As you can see, it really is in your best interest to keep your piano tuned.  In the short run, you keep your piano in great musical condition, and in the long run, you will likely save money and protect your investment.

Most of my Blogs likely will not be this long….we’ll see…but for next time, we’ll talk about the differences between Tuning, Repairs, and Regulation.  Seems simple enough, but often confused.  We’ll clarify it then.

Until next time…make a joyful noise!

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