Piano Tuning – How it is Done

Posted: February 23, 2013 in Piano

My clients watch how I tune their piano for about five minutes and then leave me to the task. I know piano tuning is a mystery to most people.  I’ll explain a few things here.

The temperament strip is a long piece of red felt. It is inserted between the wires in order to mute the two outside wires, leaving the middle wire to ring free. The middle wire will be the first one to be tuned. The temperament strip frees the tuner from having to insert mutes between the wires.  It is necessary and it also saves time.

Larger mutes are used in the bass section. You might not notice, but the technician always presses the sustain pedal before inserting the bass mutes. Why? The mute tends to move the bass string laterally, sometimes enough to pinch the damper wedge felt. If the felt is pinched and then the pedal is pressed, the  felt may tear from the damper block.

Setting A to 440

After the mutes are installed, the tuning fork is used to set the pitch of A to the fork. You can tune ‘A’ to the fork pretty close by ear. The tuner will then check that note with F2. Tuning is done by comparing the beat rates of notes.  The object is to tune notes in perfect unison, but in order to do that, you compare notes that are out of tune and make sure they are ‘out of tune’ the right way. So with the comparison of F2 to A4, the tuner will hear beats. It doesn’t matter how many. Then the tuner compares F2 to the fork. If the number of beats are similar between F2 and the fork, and F2 and A4, then A4 is the same as the fork. Tricky, eh?

Comparing Intervals

Although there are exact measurements that can be used to verify the pitch of a note, the tuner refers to comparisons using more general terms. Fifths are tuned “narrow” and fourths are tuned “wide”. A sixth beats a “little faster” than a third.  When you ask how narrow, wide or faster, then you are seeking an answer that cannot be described easily. If you tune one interval too wide or narrow, then another interval will be more severely affected. So let me review the intervals in the temperament section, the octave between F3 and F4, stepwise. (The following is a new temperament order that I am working on. For techs: I am trying to get to C# as quickly as possible to set the C#-F4 interval.)

  1. Tune A4 to fork.
  2. Check F2 – A4
  3. Tune A4 to A3
  4. Tune A3 to E4 wide
  5. Tune B3 to E4 wide
  6. Tune F#4 to B3 wide
  7. Tune B3 to F#3 wide
  8. Tune F#3 to C#4
  9. Check C#4, F#4

See how it is pieced together? F3, F#, G, G#, A, B, Bb, C, C#, D, Eb, E, F4, F#4

If the checks at step 2 and step 9 (and a few others I did not include) are not correct, you make adjustments to correct the interval. That helps the tuner do the fine tuning on the intervals.

The red notes above are now tuned. By this rotational method, the tuner continues until all the notes in the temperament section are in tune.  Each interval is not tuned quite the same as the others, but in order to avoid becoming too technical, wide and narrow descriptions will suffice.

When the temperament is done, the F3-A3 will beat at an interval of 7 beats per second (bps).  F#-A# will beat at 8 bps. As you move up the scale, the beat rate of the thirds will increase. A tuner learns how to hear these beat rates. It isn’t important that the beat rate is exactly 7, 8 or 9 bps. (Pianos differ.) It is important they the beat rate increases as you move up the scale (and decreases as you move down.)

The Zen of Piano Tuning

That’s enough for now. Notice a few things? Tuners do not tune intervals to a pure beatless interval. That means we do not “tune” pianos (literally), we detune them.

By this method (and others) notes are tuned using comparisons of the intervals, 5th, 4th, 6th and 3rds. Later, the tuner will use 10ths to do comparisons.

That sounds difficult, and it is at first. After you tune your first 100 pianos, you can set a temperament easily. Your tuning ability increases at intervals of every 100 pianos or so.  The learning curve is different for every tuner.

After you tune hundreds of pianos, you no longer have to think about what you are doing as you tune. In fact, that is a desired practice.  Your level of concentration is so deep that you are in your “zone”. One way to explain this is to compare piano tuning to the golf swing.

The Golf Swing

An animation of a full golf swing displaying t...

An animation of a full golf swing displaying the appropriate and professional technique. Each of the 9 frames in the animation are based on this image. The animation was made in both Adobe Photoshop CS and Adobe ImageReady. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you know a little bit about golf, you remember the steps to a good golf swing. Place your feet shoulder wide, square your shoulders, hold your hands just so, head down, hands forward, etc. If you think about all of those steps, you are certain to hit the ball into the trees, or hook it into the adjacent fairway.

It is only when you STOP THINKING about your golf swing that the ball magically sails straight down the fairway. You have to hit a lot of balls before your muscle memory will perform without your attention to its actions. The same is true in piano tuning.

The difference is that a golf swing occurs in a few seconds, and a tuning takes 45 minutes and more. The thrill of watching the ball sail perfectly into the air is similar to what it is like to finish the piano and hear how good it sounds. With piano tuning, the process takes longer – a lot longer.

A tuner does not drift into a trance through the whole tuning. The periods of non-thinking  occur at different rates and for varying periods of time. But it occurs enough that most tuners will agree that we “tune by not tuning”, the way you hit a golf ball by not hitting it. This echoes the idea expressed in the Tao de Ching. I am not an expert in the Tao, but from what I have already explained, I can give you an idea what it is about.

When you hit the golf ball perfectly, you often turn to your buddy and he exclaims, “How did you do that?”

You cannot answer with anything but, “I don’t know.”

What is Knowledge, Exactly?

Think about this for a minute. The reason you don’t know is that you have no knowledge of the whole golf swing. The golf swing is not one separate action: it is a combination of actions. You have knowledge of each step of the golf swing, but you do not have knowledge of a “step” which is the entire golf swing.  Second, since you were told (repeatedly) not to “think” about the golf swing as you were doing it, you cannot remember the steps you took. Your objective self is turned off. You were not paying attention to what you were doing. You were simply “doing”, or “not doing”.

The perfect golf swing is effortless. It has no separate steps. It is one fluid action, unexplainable, beyond the bounds of knowledge, and after you finish, there are no words to explain how you hit the ball perfectly.

That moment was the Tao. The object of the Tao is to get you to live your entire life just that way. Effortless, beyond the bounds of knowledge, perfection. The Tao urges you to eliminate the struggle in life. When the struggle is gone, only life remains. Peaceful life.

And when a tuner finishes tuning a piano and the satisfied pianist asks in amazement, “How did you do that?” the tuner will mutter some technical nonsense like I have done in this post, but none of that will begin to explain what the tuner did. Explanations are nonsense because the tuner succeeded only by not trying. “I tried to not try,” is not an answer you are likely to hear from the tuner because you would think he was crazy.

The Magic

Hitting a golf ball perfectly is magical. It is unexplainable.  The same is true for tuning pianos. However, as you learn each step in the process, you must make a commitment to perfection in everything you do. When you learn the discipline, you must strive for perfection. Later, when the skills are learned, when the “steps” are mastered, and you learn to stop watching yourself tune as you tune, then the result will reflect the perfection evident in your training. Today, when I set a temperament on a piano, I do not think about it. If I think about it, it is harder to do. After the temperament is set, I break away from my trance and check it. I do this part with my objective self. Then I proceed to the next section and soon I am back into my trance.

By this measurement you can know your tuner’s ability. It is not known by how well he plays, or by the words he speaks, or the manner of his dress or behavior. You know him or her by the level of perfection that was achieved during the training. Since that time has past, the only measure of success is to watch the ball as it sails into the air. After the tuner leaves, sit down at the piano and play it slowly and with great attention. Listen intently. Let the notes sustain like a ball drifting motionless into the air. Now let you mind drift away. Become the piano.

When you can become the piano, you can appreciate what your tuner did when he did not tune the piano.

Now you know how a piano is tuned. It is tuned by not tuning it.

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