What causes my piano strings to break, or keep breaking?

Why do my piano strings break, or keep breaking?  Here’s a question that I don’t hear that often, but one that may have an answer you may not have thought of.  Until I studied piano technology, I wouldn’t have thought of it either.  There are the obvious reasons, that we’ll discuss, but there are a couple that I would have not thought of had it not been brought to my attention.

So, what are some of the things that can cause a string to break? 


If you think of anything that’s under tension, like a taught rope, a stretched rubber band, and things like that, we know that if the material is compromised in any way, that is the most likely reason for failure.  For instance, we see in the movies the hero, (I’m thinking of Wesley from The Princess’ Bride), climbing the rope up the Cliffs of Insanity, and the villain is at the top feverishly cutting the rope to send the hero to their certain death.  He’s not using an ax, but with a knife…strand at a time…weakening the rope until it finally cannot take the tension any longer.

While a single plain piano string doesn’t have strands, it can weaken to the point of breakage when things such as rust (from excessive moisture in the air) or mouse/cat urine that corrodes the metal on the string.  Each of these are common reasons for string failure.  Unless the damage is very localized, rust throughout the piano can cause many strings to begin breaking, either during tunings, during normal or excessive playing, or even during the day/night when no one is even playing it.   That’s always a joy to hear when you’re not expecting it.


Rusty Strings and Tuning Pins

Another way strings fail is excessive tension.  Just like a rope or rubber band, each can only take so much tension before it gives way.  Have you ever pulled a rubber band back…just a little further to get the best flight distance…..just a little further……….snap!  Yes, we’ve all done it, and it always surprises us when it happens.


A piano string can fail if excessive tension is placed on it, just like that rubber band.  It can happen by playing excessively hard, or maybe by someone that tries to tune the piano but doesn’t know whether he is above or below pitch, gets disorientated, and before you know it, has raised the string too far leading to a broken string.  Also, a common thing to happen to less experienced tuners, and sometimes to even experienced tuners, is for the tuning lever to be inadvertently placed on the wrong tuning pin, and thus raising the tension of a string that is muted off.  Pitch doesn’t change, so they keep turning the pin and snap!  Oops, only to find that they were turning the wrong pin.  Sometime a loose tuning pin will cause a tuner to accidently apply too much pressure too quickly, raising the pitch too far and breaking a string.  This happens usually when most of the piano has normal or tight tuning pins and the tuner’s muscle memory is used to applying a  certain tension in order to get the tuning pin to move.  Then when the tuner gets to a loose pin, that same tension will be way too much for that pin, causing it to raise quickly.  Here’s a funny and practical example to illustrate that.  My mother used to have a plastic bowl that we used for serving popcorn, however, it looked like cut glass.  We had company over and everyone is passing the bowl around the table.  When it came to our guest, they were expecting a heavy leaded crystal bowl, so they prepared their muscles to counter act the weight.  Needless to say, their upward force was MUCH more than necessary for the light, plastic bowl, and popcorn went everywhere!  Same thing happens sometimes to tuners.


Less common, maybe, are causes dues to defects in the string, or a defect in how the piano was built.  Maybe the pressure or capo bar has too much “V” to it where the string passes over/under and when the string is hit hard with the hammer, that “V” acts like cutters on a pair of pliers, weakening the string at that spot over time until it finally gives way.  Again, this is not very common, but on some models of pianos, I’ve heard that this was a problem.


Now to the reasons that I think piano owners should be aware of that maybe aren’t as obvious as those mentioned already.


There are two things that can contribute to string breakage beyond what was mentioned already, and that is worn or hard hammers, and a piano out of regulation (adjustment).


Hammers that are worn can get very flat on the crown where the string contacts the string.  A properly shaped hammer has a sort of tear drop shape that is very symmetrical and the point that contacts the string is relatively small.  The hammer hardness should allow for a good rebound off the string, kind of like a super ball…but definitely not hard like a marble or a soft like a cotton ball (forgive the extremes).  When the hammer is flat and worn on the crown, there is more surface area, and more force applied to the string which can cause breakage.


It is VERY important to keep the hammers properly shaped and voiced, not only for the better tone it provides, but for the very health of the strings and other action parts that may be affected.

Another contributing factor is a piano out of regulation.  When a piano is badly out of regulation, it throws many things out of whack, including how much force it takes to throw the hammer to the strings.  You should not have to pound the keys to get a medium loud sound.  If you do have to, this is a good sign that there is (what we technicians call) lost-motion.  In plain english, this means that your key is moving downward a bit before the jack ever contacts the hammer to start the hammer’s movement toward the string.  The more lost motion (slop as some call it), the less power you have, and the more you feel you need to bang the keys to get it to play.


Worn hammer vs Properly Shapped Hammer

Let-off is a VERY important adjustment that if not correct can lead to broken hammer shanks and sometimes broken strings.  Let-off adjusts exactly how close the hammer can get to the string while being forced there by the key (pressing up on the jack, which presses on the hammer). As soon as let-off occurs, the jack trips out from under the hammer butt, or knuckle and the hammer finished it’s travel (about 1/16″ or so)  to the string by inertia alone.  If this setting is incorrect, the hammer will either let-off too soon, losing power, or it will not let-off soon enough…or not at all and the key then is slamming the hammer all the way to the string, full force and the hammer is not allowed to rebound by itself.  This is called blocking, and usually will sound more like a “thud” than allowing the string to ring freely.  This is because the hammer is being slammed, and held against the string for as long as the key is held down.  This needs to be corrected immediately.   


So, any one of these factors can cause string breakage, but in reality, it us usually a combination of several of these factors that cause strings to break.  I am continually amazed at the number of 100+ year old pianos out there that still have their original strings and are tuned up making very acceptable music for their owners!  I guess that I am amazed that more strings don’t break than do.


As long as we have strings, we will have strings that break…so go easy on your tuner if a string breaks while they are tuning.  It does happen, and it’s usually not their fault.  However, if you are having an issue of broken strings, you may need to talk with your technician to see if there are any repairs or regulation that needs to be taken care of.


Until next time…..make a joyful noise!

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What do the Left and Center pedals do on my piano?

Here’s another good question and the answer will vary slightly depending on what type piano you have and who the manufacturer was.



Typically, on a grand piano, the left pedal is a soft pedal, the center pedal is usually a sostenuto pedal, and the right pedal is always the sustain pedal.


Soft Pedal.  The left pedal is typically a soft pedal.  On grands, it most always works by shifting the entire action to the right just a fraction of an inch to the right.  This allows the hammers to hit only 2 of the 3 strings in the treble, and one of the two strings in the tenor.  The bass, having only one string, will still sound since they are wider strings and the shift isn’t enough to move the hammer off the string.  It will hit the hammer striking surface a little off center, but that allows the string to contact the hammer at the part of the hammer head that should have softer, less compacted felt, resulting in a softer sound.

Note: some lesser expensive grand pianos may not have this feature.

Interestingly enough, I’ve been asked by customers to remove that extra space at the far right end of the keyboard between the last key and the cheek block, (not knowing of course what it’s purpose was) but this space is there on purpose in grands so that your shift pedal (soft pedal) will work.


Sostenuto pedal. The center pedal is usually the sostenuto pedal, and found mainly on good quality grands as well as professional grade uprights.  It is a pedal that is not often used except maybe in certain types of classical music.  It sustains ONLY the notes you just played, but not the ones after.  So, for instance, if you played a C E G major chord and held the keys down, then press the sostenuto (left) pedal and hold it, the chord you just played will still be sounding while all the other dampers are down on all the other notes of the piano.  Now, while that chord is sounding, you can go on and play the piano as usual, even using the sustain pedal, and even playing the notes of that same chord.  What it amounts to is that it holds up only the dampers of keys that were played, and will keep only those up as long as the pedal is depressed.  The regular sustain pedal will still operate all the other dampers as usual.

Note: some lesser expensive grand pianos may not have this feature, even though they have a center pedal.  In that case, it will likely just raise the bass dampers which mimics a sostenuto, but really it’s not a true sostenuto (like you find on most uprights, as will be explained later).


Sustain Pedal. The right pedal is the sustain pedal and is the most used pedal on the piano.  Simply, this pedal raises all the dampers off the strings to allow them to resonate freely, even after the key has returned to it’s rest position.  Any number of notes can be sustained at the same time since all the dampers in the piano (using this pedal) all lift at once.




Typically, the left pedal is usually a soft pedal, the center pedal is either a “faux” sostenuto pedal (will explain later) or a practice pedal (extra soft lock-on), and the right pedal is always the sustain pedal.


Soft Pedal.  The left pedal is typically a soft pedal.  On uprights, it works by either lifting the hammer rest rail closer to the strings to shorten the distance the hammer must travel, thus softening the blow, or it will lower a felt rail between the hammers and the strings to muffle the sound.

You may notice that when the hammer rail is moved forward, lost motion is introduced in the action making it more difficult to play and control.  This doesn’t happen with the felt rail mufflers, although, they will certainly wear over time.


“Faux” Sostenuto Pedal. The center pedal is usually a “faux” sostenuto, or fake sostenuto.   That’s what I call them, anyway.  True sostenutos, like you would see on most grand pianos and some more professional model uprights, are too expensive to include in most uprights.  Therefore, they opted to make a split damper system that would mimic a real sostenuto (although it doesn’t do well at it at all, in my opinion).


Most upright center pedals will lift only the bass dampers off the strings, allowing you to play the rest of the piano (mid to upper section) as normal. This causes the chord tones you play while pressing the pedal to ring sympathetically in the bass.  Again, this is not a true sostenuto.  Refer to the grand sostenuto function above.


Some of your more expensive uprights DO have a true sostenuto systems.  To check, lift the lid and watch your dampers as you press the left pedal.  If the bass dampers lift off the strings but the other half of the dampers in the piano don’t, then you do not have a true sostenuto.


On other uprights, the middle pedal is a practice pedal (with a locking option) which makes the sound extremely quiet beyond the standard soft pedal. This is often achieved by dropping a felt cloth between the hammers and the strings when the practice pedal is depressed.  So on these pianos, you would have two soft pedals, the left pedal (probably which moves hammers closer to strings) and the center locking pedal (which lowers a felt rail between hammers and strings).


Sustain Pedal. The right pedal is the sustain pedal and is the most used pedal on the piano.
Simply, this pedal raises the dampers off the strings to allow them to resonate freely, even after the key has returned to it’s rest position.  Any number of notes can be sustained at the same time since all the dampers in the piano (using this pedal) all lift at once.



My Pedal doesn’t seem to do anything!


You may be absolutely right!  Sometimes you will have a pedal that actually is for looks and has no function.  Really.  Less expensive pianos sometimes put “dummy” pedals on for looks and selling appeal.

If one or more of your pedals doesn’t seem to work, it could a “dummy” pedal, as mentioned, or it may have been accidentally disconnected, or maybe it was forgotten to be reconnected when the piano was serviced or moved. You may be able to remove the lower board on your upright and visibly see if any of the pedal dowel rods are disconnected.  They aren’t hard to reconnect.  Or, mention it to your piano technician and they’d be happy to fix it for you, probably for no charge if done at the time of a regular tuning.


If you still have questions about the function of your pedals, have your technician explain to you how your pedals function on your particular piano.


Until next time….make a joyful noise!

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Are “free” pianos really free, and are they OK to learn on?

Are those “free” pianos that are offered to you really free, and are they usually OK instruments to learn on?  That’s the questions I’d like to address in this segment.


The answer to both is typically “no”, however, there are always exceptions.  First let’s look at why those seemingly good bargains, those too good to pass up offers are sometimes just not worth it.


Free pianos are not always free!


So, you’re considering getting that free piano to fix up…or maybe you just got that free piano anyway and want to fix it up because you know that your child needs a good piano to practice on.  Well, in short, unless you really get lucky and receive a piano that is not terribly old and is still in good shape, that “free” piano might likely wind up costing quite a bit of money by the time all is said and done.  I’d recommend instead, save up the money that you would be using towards pitch-raises, repairs, rebuilding, regulation work, and put it toward a piano that does not needs as much of that at this stage of it’s life.  Yes, all pianos need those things from time to time, but older pianos usually need much more work done on them than younger pianos usually do.


Think you’re getting a great deal?  You might be….great deals are out there, I’ve seen them.  On rare occasions I’ve found myself commenting to a client on the good shape their piano is in, only to hear from them, with a great big smile on their face, that they got the piano for free.  Really?  It does happen, however, that is usually the exception…not the rule.

Many times I’ve had to tell a customer (after they’ve spent hundreds of dollars to move an old upright piano to their home, up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, around the corner…well you get the picture…) that this old piano that had been graciously given to them for free was virtually beyond repair, (at least as was practical or feasible for them).  I always feel terrible for them since I know that not only were their hopes of getting a great deal dashed, but so was any thought they may have entertained of saving money!

My goal here is not to knock free pianos or make anyone feel bad for having taken one home, but my goal is really to try and prevent someone from going through the frustration and letdown of going through all the work and effort of moving a piano only to be told it has no real value left in it. 

To be quite honest, I’m a bit baffled, but also kind of chuckle at the thought of just how many free pianos get passed around, like the unwanted Christmas fruitcake!  It’s interesting to me how someone who would never consider accepting a free car that was on its last leg would say “yes” to a free piano with the same type issues.  Why, I’m not really sure, although I have some ideas about it.

I don’t have any numbers to back this up, so this is just my speculation, but something I find interesting is that millions of cars have been produced worldwide, and millions of pianos have been produced world wide, we see junkyards for cars all over the place, but I’ve never seen a piano junkyard.  Per million produced, in comparison, I would bet that a much higher percentage of cars get ditched after they wear out than pianos.  There are lots of reasons for this, and that could spark a whole other discussion, but I think the point here is that people, for whatever reason, just hold on to pianos as long as humanly possible.

I’m sure much of it is because people seem to bond with their pianos like it’s another member of the family.  This makes sense if you stop to think about how the music that comes from a piano moves our spirit, unlike ordinary furniture in the room.  It seems to sing to us, speak to us, it stirs us emotionally….so we become emotionally attached…therefore, we cannot bear to see it go to the landfill, even when we know that it’s at the end of it’s life and that”s exactly where it needs to go.

With that said, that brings up another issue, where to take it…how to get rid of it when it does die?  So…rather than facing the music (no pun intended), we send the old piano down the road for someone else to babysit for a few years.

Let’s go back to the free car analogy for a moment. We all know that there are a lot of free, or cheap, cars floating around out there that you, or I, wouldn’t dare take ownership of, for any reason…even as a gift….because we know that if it’s free…it probably has some issues that are gonna cost….big time!  It may need new brakes, a new motor, it may have leaking oil issues, it may have a rusted out frame, it likely needs new tires, the radio may not work, etc, etc, etc…..you know the ones.  You may have one of them.  I guess there’s nothing wrong with an older car if it gets you from one place to another without breaking down or costing too much money, but by the same token, I’d never purchase an old Ford Model T to commute down the highway to work. Forget for a moment it’s historical value and just consider it’s function.  It may get me from place to place, it may have been cheap to purchase from a junk yard, it probably will take some money to get it at least running, but it will never perform like the rest of the cars on the highway.  It was great for it’s day, but it’s day is gone.  Similarly, an older piano that can’t be sold, but is usually given away may need similar things done to it. It could have a bad pin block (loose tuning pins), a cracked bridge, loose glue joints, broken and misaligned parts, mice chewed and/or stained wood, felt, and rusty strings.  A piano with one of these issues may indeed be a candidate for fixing up, but often times an older piano may have all these problems and is just too costly to repair.  In addition, an old piano, like the Model T, even fixed up sometimes has a difficult time comparing to a modern piano in sound, tone, and function.

My point is, most times that things are given away for free, there is a good reason….it’s too costly to own, impractical, low quality, or whatever…or they’d keep it themselves.

I’m not saying that all free pianos are bad news.  Not at all.  If you wanted to give me a free Steinway B in perfect shape, very well…I accept!  Probably not going to happen, though! Why, because it still has a lot of value, both musically and monetarily.  Most free pianos have very little value left of their own without putting something in to them to bring back some of their value.  Most pianos, can be reconditioned or rebuilt, for the right price, but just like a “totaled” car…even though it might be brought back to working order in the hands of an expert rebuilder…new doors, new motor, new frame, new tires, new this, new that….the next thing you know you have spent near what a good used or new car costs…but you still have an old car with new parts.  Pianos work a lot the same way.  Once they’re “totaled” you can put money into them, at your own risk…many pianos have been saved from “the heap” that way, and many pianos have gone on to lead useful lives for many more years.  My hats off to the many piano rebuilders who do just that every day of their lives.  We owe a lot to them.

Again, I am NOT saying that old pianos should not ever be rebuilt, not one bit.  I am NOT saying that you are not wise by putting money into an old piano.  You have every right to do what you would like.  The CAUTION is to consider these things before accepting that “free” piano, and then being disappointed when you realize what you’ve inherited, and that once you fix it up, you quite possibly won’t get that price back out of it if you decide to sell it.


What I AM saying, is that basically, you’re not going to get something for nothing.  Don’t expect to take on a free piano and “only have it tuned”.  It’s probably not going to happen.  If you are going to accept that free piano, it would be a good idea to know what you’re getting into so that you don’t have that shocked look on your face when I have to give you the bad news!   Accepting that free piano sounds so tempting, but take some simple advice and do your homework before you do.


Free pianos are not always the best to learn on!
I am often surprised when I hear a parent reason that they “are getting a piano for free, even though it’s in pretty rough shape, to see if my child will like it and stick with it before investing any money into a better piano.  After all, they aren’t practicing to play at Carnegie Hall, or anything like that, so it really doesn’t matter.”  I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this. Really though, what kind of reasoning is that?  I understand not wanting to spend money on something the child may give up in a year or two, but the way I see it, you are setting him up to fail.
Certainly, if your first experience with an instrument is a run-down, shoddy instrument that barely plays, the chances of you falling in love with the music it produces (or doesn’t) is slim to none!  While it is a risk you take to get a decent piano and keep it maintained, that investment will likely pay off in the long run…and if it doesn’t, you still have a nice piano that has value that can be sold if you need to.
This goes for adults too.  Anyone learning to play the piano needs a good, decent, well tuned and regulated piano from which to learn on.  “Why.” you ask? Because your ear is being trained to hear differences in sounds and pitch, as well as the differences in expressions.  If the piano is not tuned and voiced well, you will begin to recognize pitches incorrectly, the piano may not respond to your loud or soft playing correctly, and you could learn improper finger techniques as you attempt to compensate for poor, uneven touch, loose and wobbling keys, and such. We seem to think that younger students won’t notice, or that they at least won’t mind, but the fact is that they do notice.  Every time they go to their piano lesson play on their teacher’s well maintained piano (we hope), they are reminded when they get home that their piano for some reason doesn’t sound or feel like their teacher’s piano.  It is for this reason, many times whether the student knows exactly why or not, that many potentially great pianists have given up at a young age.
What makes things worse, I feel, is when the parents are not musically inclined (not THAT they are not musical, but because they are not musical).  When the parents don’t have an ear for music, or are not pianists themselves, it makes it much easier for them to justify starting out with a less than stellar instrument, because they honestly don’t know the difference.  So reasoning with them about how really important it is for the student can sometimes be more difficult.

Here’s how I see trying to get little Johnny or Suzie to learn to play on an old clunker.  Think about this…would you WANT to learn to play golf, and would you learn to play WELL, on a set of hand-me-down clubs that had all the club faces all nicked up, where the wood clubs were dried and split, where the handle grip tape was all gummy and falling off, some of the clubs had bent shanks, and all your golf balls had deep cuts in them from years of use.  Absolutely not.  Granted, we usually cannot afford the best set money can buy, just like everybody can’t go out and get a Steinway & Sons grand piano to learn on, but at the same time, I would never try to learn golf on a set of clubs that I’ve described, nor would I try to learn or practice piano on a very poor piano.  It may have been good in its time, but time and wear have rendered them near useless.


Today’s post was not about bashing old pianos given for free.  As I said before, there are many of them out there still making plenty of great music.  My hope is that armed with this knowledge, you will be prepared to either say “no” to that offer and make plans to search out a decent piano to learn on, or that if you say “yes” to that free offer, that you will be either prepared to spend some money fixing it up properly, or you will be prepared for take your technician’s recommendations, whatever that may be.


Until next time…..make a joyful noise!

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Why do I need to tune my piano even if I never play it?

Another great question that I mostly addressed in my second post in the section titled:

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

That article gives a good explanation of what is happening inside the wood when it is subjected to moisture changes.  However, in addition to the information there, I want to focus in this post on some practical evidence of humidity change, as well as give some “real world” examples why the idea of a “forever tuning” doesn’t exist, except in our dreams! 


I’m pretty sure that everybody that owns a piano secretly wishes for “the tuning” that would last forever.  (For the record, we piano tuners don’t, by the way!)  Ok, let’s turn the tables for a minute….whenever I leave the doctor’s office, I always secretly wish that it would be the last time….though I know it won’t.  I guess we’re all wired that way.


Anyway,  back to pianos….IF pianos went out of tune just due to use, then it would make sense that if the piano were never (or rarely used) that it would maintain it’s tune until it had been played enough to “bang” it out of tune again.  Unfortunately, that is not the case with pianos.  In fact, I don’t think that’s the case with most things in life.  Our world is in a constant state of change.  Consider the weather, the water cycle, the rock cycle, the human body, the seasons, and the list goes on.  With all this change going on all around us, both in things we see, as well as within the microscopic world that we cannot see, it only makes sense that the objects around us are also in a constant state of change.


If you stop and think about all the things in life that change, move, or shift because of aging, vibration, humidity, dryness, sun’s radiation, etc, we could fill several books listing the many things that don’t stay constant in life….yes, most everything!  Some simple examples: A bolt, unless rusted on, will usually loosen over time if subjected to heat, cold, vibration, and such.  Doors once oiled will begin creaking when the oil seeps out of the hinge and/or dries up (even if the door was never used).  A child’s swing-set sitting out in the yard will begin to fade and the metal will rust over time, even if it was never used…ask me how I know?  I have a package of assorted rubber-bands in my desk drawer right now that I’ve had there for many years.  Many of them are still good, but some of them have dried out to the point of breaking with one use.  So, you can see that natural forces are constantly at work on the objects around us, and our pianos are no different.


Practical Effects of Humidity (moisture) on Wood:


The piano, being primarily made of wood, is susceptible to the effects of humidity.  The wood will move, swell or shrink, even before our very eyes if given enough moisture or dried quickly enough. 


Try this: soak a large wooden tongue depressor in water for a few minutes, lay it out on the table for a few minutes and see what happens, then dry it with a blow dryer.  I haven’t done this, but I can only imagine the warping, curling and such that would likely be evident.


What about a piece of cardboard?  We all know what a nice, new piece of cardboard looks and feels like.  We also all know what a wet, warped piece of cardboard looks and feels like.  Furthermore, after that wet cardboard dries out, it will never be the exact shape it originally was before it got wet.  I like to paint sets at our church for church plays, etc.  I’ve learned that if you paint only one side of the cardboard, when it dries it will curl considerably toward the painted side.  My nice straight cardboard walls become bowed looking walls that don’t stand up straight anymore.  All from the effects of humidity.


If you’ve never done this, it’s kind of fun.  First we need to agree that paper is wood, correct….very, very thin, but made from wood no less.


Now, next time you tap your restaurant drinking straw on the table to take the wrapper off, be sure you’ve scrunched the paper up pretty tightly like an accordion before taking it off the straw. Now, lay the scrunched paper down on the table, take only a drop of water and place it on the wrapper.  It will begin growing and stretching out like it is alive.  While this is a fun little experiment that shows the effect of moisture on paper, it may seem a little overly exaggerated as it relates to the actual parts of a piano, but here again, maybe not so much.  The little drop of water had a huge effect on the wood fibers in that little piece of paper, yes. Now what would happen if you had a whole ream of paper and the same drop of water?  On the flat surface of the ream, probably not a huge effect, but on the end of the ream where it could penetrate in a little, I think there would be a noticeable change. This same drop of water, in reality, could have a significant effect on a wooden piano part much the same way.


Again, for a detailed explanation on humidity, refer to post #2.


Just because we don’t see water in the air, doesn’t mean it’s not there.  Case in point.  Our church runs a dehumidifier in the fellowship hall.  On most days when the humidity is above 50% or so, that dehumidifier can pull more than a gallon of water out of the air in a single day.  Note, that that’s just one dehumidifier running, almost non-stop, and still not bringing the humidity down to proper levels sometimes when the room humidity is high.  Therefore, a couple dehumidifiers would probably pull out twice that much or more.  That’s a lot of water in the air.  Remember, now that the wood cells are tubular like a bundle of drinking straws, just waiting to absorb that moisture.  When it does, the wood moves, and when the wood moves, things go out of adjustment…including tunings.


I read about a funny story (true story by the way) about a technician who was called to repair a string on a piano, but according to the customer, he “had to replace the string without turning the tuning pins”.  When the technician asked why, the owner said that the piano kept going out of tune so often that they hired a “master tuner” to do his best “master tuning” on the piano.  Then when he left, they poured superglue around all the tuning pins, thinking that they were “cementing” that tuning in place once and for all.  The customer was wrong on two accounts…1) the super glue will not cement the pin in place permanently, and 2) even if it would, the soundboard and bridge are both made of wood, and they swell and shrink more than the pin block, and are the main reason pianos go out of tune due to humidity changes anyway.  The tuner, I’m told, waited until the customer was gone and proceeded to replace the string as normal (by the way, there is no way to replace a string without moving the tuning pin!)


So, just because you don’t play your piano much doesn’t mean it won’t need a tuning now and then.  As sure as the seasons change, your tuning is changing too.


You ask, what do you do to combat the humidity changes in the piano?  While there is no perfect, low-cost solution, here are a few things that can be done help control humidity.


Dampp-Chaser Humidity Control System (system installed in piano)

– Room humidity controlled (not just by house system, although those can sometimes help)

– A humidity controlled storage unit (like some schools or other performing arts buildings  have back stage)

– Use a cover over the piano when not in use, and an undercover (especially when used with a Dampp-Chaser Humidity Control System.


In summary, there are no “forever tunings”, so might as well make friends with your local piano technician, you’re gonna need him!


Until next time…Make a Joyful Noise!





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How often, and what time a year should my piano be tuned?

Generally, your piano should be tuned about once or twice a year.  That said, the real answer is …it depends.  For example, a once-a-year tuning would never do for a brand new piano, teacher’s piano, practice piano, or concert piano.


How often you decide to tune your piano depends on several things, such as: humidity fluctuation, how particular you are about how your piano sounds, how often it is used, how it is used (for practice, for performance only, teaching, etc), and of course finances play a role too.

All these factors really need to be considered and discussed with your piano technician for you to come to the proper conclusion regarding how often to service your piano.


As a starting point, I’d recommend tuning your piano no less than once a year.


If you wait any longer than a year, then the overall pitch and tension of the piano will begin to change, usually going pretty flat.  This is not only hard on the piano, but you’ll pay for it later in pitch raises (also known as pre-tensioning, pre-tuning, or pitch adjustments) trying to get it back to pitch and trying to get it to hold it’s pitch again.  If you have a piano that is being rarely used, the piano is not used for teaching or practicing, and you’re not really particular about how perfectly it sounds, then once a year is usually just fine.


If the piano is being used in a school or church type setting, you are playing your piano regularly practicing for lessons (or maybe you just love to play), then I would recommend twice to four times a year, again, that depends on things such as humidity, how hard you play, and personal preferences.


If the piano is used in say a recording studio, then the piano might likely need to be tuned weekly if not before each recording.  Again, this depends on the piano (how well it holds it’s tune) and how stable the humidity is where the piano is located.


Now, if the piano is used for concerts, then it will usually be tuned for rehearsal, and then fine tuned again just before the concert, and sometimes “touched up” during intermission.


So, you can see that there is really no one answer that I can give you, and even the recommendations above are just that…recommendations.  Each piano and situation varies, and that is something you will have to talk over with your piano technician.


Generally, the more a piano is used and the more public the piano becomes for entertainment, teaching, concerts, recordings and such, the more frequently the piano will need to be serviced.


Don’t forget that like anything, your house, car, etc. that pianos too will require more repairs and regulation also the more they are used.


What months are best to tune my piano?


What we’re really asking is: “what time of the year is the humidity stable enough to tune my piano so that I can keep my good tuning for the longest amount of time possible?”


You will hear it said over and over that HUMIDITY CHANGES are the primary reason pianos go out of tune.

The following excerpt is from my FAQs page on my website:

When choosing a time of year to have your piano tuned, some
believe that fall and spring are the best times, being
right after major seasonal changes. True, that is when the
Relative Humidity is most ideal for a piano, at 43% or so.
However, January and July are the best times if you want the
longest period of time without major fluctuations, even though
the humidity during those times are not always ideal. If your
home or establishment maintains it’s temperature and humidity
rather well, or if your piano has a Dampp Chaser or similar
humidity control system installed and functioning regularly, then
this is not as much of an issue. While there is never a “perfect”
time, it is always better to have it tuned than it is to wait and risk
forgetting. Pitch adjustments are costly and hard on the piano! I
would suggest that whatever time(s) you decide, that you stick
with it.


So, in the Spring and Fall (April and October) about 2 weeks after the heat or A/C is turned on, are typically recommended times if you decide to tune twice a year.  The humidity at these times of year are closest to 43% on average, which is what the piano needs.  Generally, these are good times of the year to have your piano tuned.


However, another good time is January and July.  While the humidity may be a little higher or lower than desired at these times, humidity levels hold pretty steady for a longer period of time during and immediately following those months.  So, with a January/July tuning, in some places, your piano should stay in tune a little longer than with an April and October, Spring/Fall tuning.


IMPORTANT: Keep in mind that I live in Missouri, and other parts of the country may have different recommendations.  Please always consult your local Piano Technician for his/her local recommendations.


While there may seem to be no absolute perfect time to get your piano tuned, (and if there were, everybody would be calling us all at once and we piano technicians would be swamped with hundreds or thousands of pianos in one week or month, and have no tunings the rest of the year), it helps us to at least aim for the “better” times of the year when we can maximize our tuning stability.


My final recommendation, though….whatever you decide, pick a time and stick with it.  Get your piano tuned, and then keep it tuned.  It will be the best for your instrument, the best for your ears, and the best for your neighbor’s ears too!


Until next time…make a joyful noise!

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Does my piano tuner have to play so loudly when tuning?

“Does my piano tuner have to play so loudly when tuning?  Is he deaf?  Can he not hear what he’s playing, for crying out loud?  Is he going to hurt my piano by playing so hard? Maybe I ought to call someone else who can hear better and tune more softly.”


These are great questions that I’ve never actually been asked before, but I have see the quizzical looks on the customer’s faces at times and have gone ahead and answered those questions for them to put them at ease.


The answers are…

“Yes” the piano keys needs to be played really firmly while tuning.

“No” your tuner is likely not deaf.  He can hear what he’s doing, but there is a real purpose to why he is playing so firmly.

And “no” it doesn’t hurt your piano.


Each string of a piano passes over, under, and around several friction points as it makes its way from one end of the piano to the other, from the tuning pin to the hitch pin.  This creates a situation where you now have the “speaking length” of the string, and the “non-speaking lengths” of the string (see pictures below).

Speaking Length of string (green line)

The “speaking length” is the longer vibrating part of the string that makes the sound when you play.  If you tightly stretched a rubber band between two fingers, then plucked it…the entire rubber band would be vibrating and sounding (except the parts touching your fingers). The vibrating, sounding part of the rubber band is the “speaking length”.  The part touching your fingers does not vibrate and sound and therefore is “non-speaking”. Notice the green line in the picture shows the “speaking length” of that string.


The “non-speaking lengths” are at each end of the string and are the little sections between friction points that are not usually part of the sound when played. In the picture above, it is all the parts of the string to the left and right of the green line. The part of the strings that go from the tuning pin to the pressure bar/capo or “v” bar/ or agraffes, as well as at the end (or bottom of the piano) between the stagger pins on the bridge, and from the bridge pin to the hitch pin.  All these sections are considered “non-speaking lengths” of the string since they aren’t the part of the string responsible for making the music.

stagger pins

The picture you see here is a close up of the hitch pins (far right) and the bridge pins (or stagger pins at left).  The section of string to the left of the bridge is the “speaking length” and is the main part of the string.  So, again, all of the string from the time it enters the stagger pins at the left, and goes around the hitch pin at the right and comes back through the stagger pins is all considered the “non-speaking” length of the string.


So, what happens when a note is played loudly during tuning?

What happens during tuning is that the string is being stretched and pulled through all of the friction points.  Because of friction, it may pull all the way through some of the friction points, and not so much on others, leaving the tension at different amounts along the length of the string.  A practical example of that would be when you tie your shoes.  If your laces are really loose to begin with, as you pull on the laces, it will sometimes tighten some sections tighter than others. You have to get in there with your hands, usually, to kind of pull each section to about the same tightness before going ahead and tying them.  The tuner has to do that also in the piano.  He does that by playing a firm blow.  All the energy from that firm blow rushes up and down the string, through the friction points, and allows all the sections of the string to equalize their tension, thus making the tuning more stable.


If your tuner didn’t do this, the tuning would be very unstable.  It might sound good for a little while, especially if played very softly, however, soon after the tuner leaves and you began playing a loud piece of music, the strings would equalize their tension, causing everything to go wildly out of tune.  So, we are equalizing the tension along the full length of the string when we play loudly during tuning.


Does it hurt the piano when the tuner plays loudly?

While it may make you feel uncomfortable during the tuning process, under normal circumstances, the tuner’s loud playing will definitely not hurt your piano.  The piano is built to withstand quite a firm blow for pieces of music marked ffff.  However, it is not beyond the scope of possible for something to break, especially if the piano is extremely old and the parts are pretty dry and glue joints are brittle.  Even at that, it is extremely rare for the tuning process to ever damage the piano by playing firm tuning blow.


So, next time you call your tuner, get your earplugs if you need, but be rest assured that your tuner is doing what is necessary to ensure you have a piano that stays in tune as long as possible.


Until next time…..make a joyful noise!



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My piano sounds louder since you tuned it…what did you do?

Today’s post has to do with sound waves, and can look complicated at first, but I promise, it’s pretty simple to understand.  I love explaining this one to the customers who ask.  I keep it short and simple for them, so I’ll keep it short and simple here, fair enough?


“My piano sounds louder since you’ve tuned it…what did you do?”

I’ve heard this one so many times, and there is a simple answer.  I tuned it!  “Ok, I know that already….so really, what’s going on here,” you ask?

The simple answer is that before tuning, the 3 strings of each note (or two strings per note in the tenor section) don’t match each other. The sound waves bump into each other, and when they do, they cancel each other out from making any sound…this creates a “whah – whah” or dead sounds when the strings are out of tune with each other.  However, after tuning, the 3 strings (or two in the tenor) do match, and the waves are now working together to produce more sound, not against each other.


That’s basically it.


Now, for those of you that just wanted the simple answer….you’re done…you can go back to your Sudoku puzzle now! However, if you want a little better explanation, read on.


Sound waves : Working together…or not? That is the question!

I think we all remember back to science class when we learned about sound waves, right?  A single string that is played will produce a certain soundwave having a particular frequency (wavelength) and amplitude. Furthermore, any sound wave will have peaks (high points) and troughs (valley low points) like you see below.

Parts of a wave

Cycles: While understanding cycles is not really important to understanding what I’m trying to explain today, I’ll throw it in just as a refresher to how waves work. Each wave starts at the line, goes up above the horizontal line, then down below the line, then back to the line.  That is one cycle. (The picture to the left shows about 2 wave cycles. This happens many times a second for any given note.

Your piano is tuned at A=440, that means the A above middle C has a wave that cycles (or reoccurs) 440 times each second.


Single note wave

Now, back to the explanation…what you see in this picture is a single wave. This is what a single string of any note would make. (Side-note: a single string almost always sounds good and pure because it doesn’t have another string’s wave to potentially “fight” with).


2 waves at different speeds - waves cancel sometimes

OK, now imagine you take another note’s wave and lay it right over this one.  If they are exactly the same frequency, the peaks and troughs would line up, an exact match.   However, if the second note created a pitch with a frequency a little faster or slower than the the first note, (the peaks and troughs would happen sooner or later  and will not line up) this note would be either sharp or flat from the first note.  Every so often the the faster wave would overtake, or “lap” the other, just like a runner that runs so much faster than another, that he eventually “laps” the slower guy (this always happened to me- I was the slow guy on the track in High School).

Every time this happens you will hear a beat, which sounds like a “whah” sound. When the waves of each note played wind up at the peak at the same time, they get together and you hear sound.  When they are at the trough at the same time, you hear sound.  When the waves wind up on opposite sides of the center line, they cancel out. (Much like + and – cancel in math).

Notice in this picture, the greyed areas the sound is cancelled.  The first, 3rd, and 4th areas you see in the picture are clear, meaning that the waves are together and are producing sound.


So, let’s put it together and see what it means for the piano.

3 strings per note


On a piano there are usually 3 strings per note.  So, for one note on the piano to be in tune with itself, the waves of all three strings need to be traveling exactly the same speed.  When they do, guess what….the peaks and troughs now match up creating more….you guessed it…sound!



All 3 notes (waves) traveling together AMPLIFY sound!

The bold yellow line represents all 3 waves (the 3 strings of a single note on the piano) traveling exactly together…in tune with each other.  No fighting, no bickering for who’s first to the finish line, none of that.  They work together to help each other out, thus creating a more unified tone with greater volume.


Here’s a real life example that may help. 


Imagine a soloist singing in an auditorium.  Suppose he/she is singing at a medium to loud volume.  At the back of the auditorium, they sound good, clear, but maybe not too loud.  (that would be like a single string sounding in a piano).

Now, imagine a trio (three singers) in the same auditorium. They are singing in unison, the same melody of a song.  They are also each singing the same volume that the soloist did.  The difference will be that they will have more volume as a group, even if each is only singing a normal volume.  (this would be like the three strings in tune with each other).

Lastly, imagine what it would sound like if each of the three each sang a different song, different melody, different words, different rhythm, etc. but at the same volume as they were before.  What might you hear?  Discord for sure, but you would catch bits and pieces of each and none would be as well heard as if they were singing the same thing, together.

It’s much easier to hear the group singing the same thing at the same time, right?


One last example: Here’s another way I like to think about how waves behave when they are in tune or not.  It’s kind of like riding a horse.  If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up saddle sore if when the horse goes up, you go down, and vice-versa.  Every time you bump the saddle, would be like a beat (or “whah) like I was talking about.  Not exactly, as all analogies don’t work perfectly, but that’s the idea. You get saddle sore when horse and rider are working against each other.  The better way is to be in “tune” with the horse….riding “with” the horse.  When he goes up, you go up.  When he goes down, you go down.  Much better to  work together, than against each other.  That’s really all there is to it!  When we tune, we are trying to get all the waves of a certain note to work together, and when they do, they produce not only a better tone, but more sound!  Pretty neat, huh!

Kind of like life, isn’t it.  We work together, we get more done!


Well that’s all for today.  Until next time…make a joyful noise!







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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 (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 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 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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Welcome to the Blog of Richard’s Piano Service

Thank you for visiting the Blog of Richard’s Piano Service.

I am Richard W. Bushey – Piano Technician, Waynesville, Mo.

This is my very first Blog post, and it’s something very new to me, but I feel that it can be very beneficial for us both.

As with any profession, there has been much study, practice, testing, and practical on-the-job experience that has gotten me where I am today.  I am a better piano technician than I was a year ago, 5 years ago, and for sure 18 years ago when I first picked up a tuning lever for the first time.  However, even after 18 years in the business, there is much I have to learn, so in an effort to continue to improve and offer the best service possible, it is necessary for me to keep learning and stretching myself to do better, daily.

You may be a piano owner (or would like to be) and you may have many questions about your piano.  Pianos are quite fascinating instruments, and very unique too.  I am always surprised at how little piano owners really know about their instrument.  Like a car, they know that when they put the key in and turn it, it goes VROOM!  When it stops going VROOM (hopefully before…) they know to fill it with gas.  That’s all some car owners know about their cars.  Similarly, piano owners purchase their pianos, bring them home, and all they really know about their piano is that when they open the lid and press the keys, music comes out.  When the music seems less than musical, they get it tuned, but that’s about it.

So this is why I feel this Blog can be useful to both of us, you the reader, as well as me the technician.  Piano owners can really benefit by understanding a little more about their beloved instruments, and when the Technician says it needs an “oil change” (or a regulation, some adjustments or repairs), there won’t be so many “deer-in-the-headlight” looks and awkward pauses!

As a Piano Technician, it is my goal to continue learning so I can better know how to assist my clients.  One way I do that is by attending monthly Piano Technician’s Guild Chapter meetings where fellow technicians from around the area meet and share ideas, methods, and in general encourage one another.  I also subscribe to the Piano Technician’s Journal, a monthly technical magazine for piano technician’s which brings a wealth of knowledge to my mailbox each month.  I also shop with various piano supply companies, browse their websites, read their technical articles and such.  I also enjoy visiting fellow technician’s websites to see what they’re offering and things they are sharing.

So, this is a place where I can share some of what I learn, and as I pass it along, I hope it will enrich your piano owning experience.

Thanks again for stopping in, and until next time…make a joyful noise!

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