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What’s the difference between Tuning, Repairs, and Regulation?

Today’s topic will attempt to answer what may seem to most like a silly question, as the answer seems so obvious. However, I get asked this question from time to time, so let’s try to sort it out.  Keep in mind that we could write books about each of the three processes, so today we’re going to keep to the basics.

 

A few months ago, just after I had finished tuning for a client, I was loading my things in my truck when their neighbor greeted me and kindly inquired about what exactly “regulation” meant.  He had seen these three words on the side of my truck, Tuning, Repairs, and Regulation, but wasn’t sure what the real differences were.

It was a very good question which gave me “cause for pause”.  Not because I didn’t understand what the differences were, of course, but because of the fact that here I was advertising something that people may have to guess what the services were that I was advertising.  I could have just as easily printed “adjustments” or something of that nature on the side of my truck.  (Well, maybe not! I think I’ll stick with “regulation”).

Anyway, I’ve run across this on several occasions where especially Tuning and Regulation were confused.  Really, not too surprising when I think of the times the A/C guy has come to repair my furnace…all I really cared about is that he knew what he was doing, and that it was working properly when he left.  So, it makes sense that my piano customers pretty much feel the same way. We come in, greet them, do our thing, and wallah…it sounds good again.

So, the gentleman’s question led me to believe that “Tuning” in many people’s minds is associated with everything involved in the service call, rather than realizing that Tuning refers to one type of process, and that Regulation refers to an altogether different type of process.  Let me explain.

Tuning refers to the adjusting of the strings to proper musical pitch, Repairs refer to either fixing what’s broken or replacing parts, and Regulation (or regulating) is moving, bending, turning, shimming, etc. all the parts in the piano to make them work together properly.

 

Tuning:

Tuning (according to me !) is the act of turning the metal tuning pins in order to either tighten or loosen tension on the strings in order to place them at a correct musical pitch.  There are over 200 tuning pins, each attached to a string, on a typical piano, so this is why your technician can take nearly 1.5 – 2 hrs. tuning your piano.

So when you schedule a “tuning”, that is all you are purchasing…so to speak.  Granted, I always try to do little things here and there for no extra charge (tighten bench, adjust (regulate) pedals, fix a sticky key…those seemingly small things are things that I, and most tuners, like to do as part of their general tuning service call.  A 3-5 min. repair or adjustment doesn’t take a lot of time, they add a great benefit, and it is great for customer relations.  However, that is not what the tuning fee is generally for.  Specifically, a tuning is primarily for just bringing the piano to pitch (given that it’s close to pitch already….and doesn’t need a significant pitch adjustment…sometimes called a pitch raise or lowering).  We’ll save that topic for another time.

 

Just for fun, consider the fact that if you removed all the keys, action (including hammers, dampers, etc.), pedals, and leave nothing but the strings strung across the plate, that the “harp” could still be tuned…although you couldn’t do descent sounding or stable tuning by just plucking the strings. But TECHNICALLY it could be “tuned” with the action out of the piano, just as you see in the photo below (however, no one ever would…I hope!)

So, you can see that tuning is really just the adjustment of the string’s tension by turning the tuning pins only.  Yes we use the keys to make the hammers strike the strings during tuning, but the adjustment has nothing to do with the keys or internal parts other than the tuning pins.

Tuning is a very different process than regulation which is the adjusting of all the other parts of the piano that make up what we call the action and pedal works.  Let’s first talk about repairs and then we’ll get to regulation in a bit.

Piano Without its Action

Repairs:

Repairs are generally fixing or replacing what’s broken or damaged.  A repair, (according to someone who’s just broke something!) usually means several things…1) it’s going to usually cost something, usually unexpected, 2) it usually is necessary to fix in order for the instrument to function without further damage, 3) it always begs the question…”what caused the damage?”  There are lots of reasons parts need repair…neglect, misuse, accident, or just normal wear with age, and 4) smiles from happy customers when the repair is done correctly.

Broken Key

We all know all-to-well that things just don’t last forever, parts break and need repaired or replaced.  The good news is that most pianos are built to last a good long time if treated properly.  So, again, referring to yesterday’s post, regular visits by your piano tuner can catch things that may need repair before the problem gets worse. A broken hammer, like you see above, may not only fail to work properly, but if not repaired, it’s flopping around in the piano can damage other parts as well.

Examples of common repairs in a piano might be a broken hammer shank that either needs to be mended or replaced, loose glue joints are common on older pianos (or those who have been exposed to extremely low humidity over time), squeaky pedals that need felt replaced or lubricated, broken keys, and the list could go on.  We’ll save some of that discussion for another post on repairs someday.

 

Piano Regulating

Regulation:

Regulation is one of those words that can mean a number of different things.  In law, a regulation is a rule or something to abide by.  A regulation sized basketball means the “official” size…the size that an “official” game must use according to the rulebooks.  So it is in pianos, well sort of.  Regulation basically refers to all the many, many adjustments that can be made throughout the piano to make all the parts function and interact properly. If parts are “in regulation”, or “well regulated” we mean that they are adjusted to function well.  If the parts are “out of regulation” or “poorly regulated” we mean that the parts are out of adjustment and may not function at all, or marginal at best.  Technicians can change the regulation of your piano to affect how your piano plays and feels to you (heavy touch vs. light touch, loud vs. softer, clickety-clackety sounding parts (bad) vs. quiet and smoothly functioning parts (good)).  Many things can be regulated in your piano, and over time, they will need to be.

Note: Broken parts cannot be adjusted or regulated to other parts because they must first be repaired.  That being said, many adjustments cannot be made, at least not well, until the piano is at least in good repair.

So, why do we use the word Regulation when referring to the adjustments in the piano. I think it’s because it sounds more sophisticated!  Well, maybe not.  I believe it is really referring to the fact that a piano is designed to function a certain way, and for that to happen, all the parts must be at certain distances from each other, so that when they are moved, they will engage the other part at the correct spot.  When a piano is built at the factory, it is built to a designed plan with certain specifications.  Specifications are numbers, distances, tolerances, or whatever you want to call them, that they have decided work best for a particular piano. They are saying that for this piano to work properly, all these adjustments need to be made “just so…”  (the rules, for that piano and how it works best).  Now, over time, felt wears, hammers get filed down to shape them better, wood swells and shrinks, thus moving the screw adjustments that were once tight in the wood.  NOW, the adjustments are not according to regulation (the rules for that piano regarding where those parts need to be to function correctly). So, it is the technician’s job to “Regulate” the piano, or in other words, systematically place all those parts back in regulation (or proper adjustment). There are some regulation process that can be done in a couple hours that will help to improve your piano’s playability, but to properly regulate a piano, it can take between 10-15 hours. It can very tedious work, but the musical payoff is well worth it.

 

Just for the record, since my fellow technicians are biting their tongue right now wanting to say this,…the factory specifications are just a guideline for the technician, and what actually works best for a particular piano may be slightly different from the “rule”, so to speak.  Your technician is trained to make it function properly.

 

Here’s a little example that might help with understanding the need for repairs and regulation, and in that order.  Suppose you played baseball.  Picture yourself selecting a bat, stepping up to bat, you stand slightly outside of the batters box, you hold the bat incorrectly (grain going the wrong way), you hold your hands the wrong way on the bat, here comes the pitch.  As you swing, you have to reach in to connect with the ball, your momentum is interrupted because of your awkward stance, and the ball doesn’t hit the sweet spot of the bat, and since the grain was the wrong direction, the bat breaks.

 

Now, let’s look at the situation.  We know the bat will HAVE to be replaced (repair won’t do in this case) before going on, but why did it break in the first place?  You weren’t standing according to “regulation”, what we know works.  So, by “adjusting” your stance, and adjusting the hold on the bat so the ball would hit the sweet spot, all of that could have been avoided.  With a new bat and the proper stance, you are ready to hit that home run.

At some point all analogies fall apart, but I think you get the picture, that repairs must be done before regulation will do any good, and at the same time, proper regulation of your piano can prevent many unnecessary problems in the piano that can lead to costly repairs.

 

So, in summary: Tuning is the adjusting of the strings to proper musical pitch, Repairs are fixing what’s broken or replacing parts, and Regulation (or regulating) is moving, bending, turning, shimming, etc. all the parts in the piano to make them work together properly.

 

If you enjoy what’s here or want my take on a particular topic, please let me know.  You can subscribe to my blog at the top right of your screen.

 

Until next time…make a joyful noise!

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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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