How to Tune a Piano
A STEP-BY-STEP PROCESS
If you’ve read our other blog posts, you are probably aware by now of all the many pitfalls of attempting a piano tuning without proper skills and experience. If you are still undeterred and think you’d really like to give it the good old try (and perhaps become a more serious tuner in the future), here is a guide for you. We outline a step-by-step process for an amateur piano tuner in the most simple way possible. These are the very basics you will need for a complete and thorough tuning. Although a professional piano technician will likely do more and have more tricks up their sleeve. Piano tuning is quite simple at first glance, yet it is extremely difficult to master the nuances. A professional tuner will have spent years (likely decades) perfecting their personal technique.
It takes roughly 1000 tunings to become a viable technician the industry will trust and respect. So with that in mind, please read each step carefully and take your time. There is absolutely no room for rushing. Expect your first tuning to take hours and possibly days. Don’t get discouraged if the tune doesn’t hold or the pitch isn’t perfect. If you are serious about learning this skill, you will have many many tunings ahead of you. Good luck!
PART 1: PIANO TUNING TOOLS
You will need a set of professional tools in order to tune a piano. Attempting a tuning with regular tools from your tool box will risk damaging your delicate instrument. Invest in a set of quality piano tuning tools, especially if you plan on doing this more than once. A set of good tools will last you for years and not cost more than a single tuning.
1. LEVERThe number one tool for any aspiring piano technician is the piano tuning lever. Also known by several names, the lever, wrench, key or hammer is an indispensable part of your piano tuning kit. The lever is shaped uniquely to fit the piano tuning pins, which have a square shape but are tapered. Its star-shaped socket is designed for comfort and flexibility, providing the piano tuner with maximum control. There are several sizes available, but the most standard and easiest to start with is size #2. A quality lever will fit the pins snugly and feel secure both in its position on the pin and in your hand. Aside from the correctly shaped and sized socket it must have a sturdy handle. Tuning an instrument is as much art as science and requires finesse. The smallest adjustments to a pin will make the difference between a piano in and out of tune. In order to feel and control the movement with precision, a quality tuning lever is required. Sub-par products abound online, and while they are cheap – they are also useless. More likely to leave your piano out of tune (or worse damaged), skip the cheap hammers and invest in a quality tuning lever. Some of the better levers will come with interchangeable parts, in case you encounter a differently shaped pin or a rarely shaped cabinet. While it’s a good idea to avoid beginner or bargain labeled tools outright, price will be your best guideline when shopping for a tuning lever. In this case, the more expensive – the more reliable. Perhaps you won’t need professional grade tools, which can run in the several hundreds and offer not only precision and control, but durability and longevity. But opt for a middle-of-the-road model (pricewise), which will at least allow you to work on your tuning skills without causing frustration and chaos.
NOTE: If you purchase a model with interchangeable tips, you will also need a tip wrench. This little tool will allow you to switch tips and tighten them without damaging the socket. It will prevent the tip from coming loose during a tuning. If your model only has one tip – you won’t need this wrench.
TIP: Do not try to replace a piano tuning lever with a crescent wrench or socket wrench. It will not fit the pins correctly, will slip and damage the tapered ends. It will not give you the control you need, sliding and slipping the entire time. The handle is also inappropriate and will quickly become uncomfortable. Don’t cut this corner – get the right tool for the job.
2. ELECTRONIC CHROMATIC TUNERFor a beginner, an electronic tuner is a crucial companion. While some of the best piano technicians can perform a tuning without the help of an electronic tuner, relying solely on their ear and perhaps a tuning fork for reference, as an amateur you are not there yet. An electronic tuner will provide you with a much-needed reference to start the tuning process. It will sound out all notes in the middle octave. It will also listen to the notes you are playing and inform you which note you are nearest. There is an abundance of electronic tuners on the market. While some are extremely expensive and promise enviable precision, all you really need is a reliable representation of the middle octave. You will not be using the tuner beyond that. Likewise, there are several software applications that can be downloaded and installed on your laptop or even your phone. They are often cheaper and more portable, since you don’t need to carry around an extra device.
3. MUTESAn assortment of rubber wedge mutes will be the thriftiest part of your piano tuning kit, costing you only a few dollars. It’s useful to have a variety of sizes on hand. Mutes with a handle are also convenient. You’ll need about five (give or take) to get started. These little wedges will assist you in muting adjacent strings while tuning a note. The strings are spaced quite close together and you want to be able to isolate them. Most mutes are created equal, so no need to fuss about quality. Just buy a few and you’re ready to go.
4. OTHER AIDS TO CONSIDERA few common implements that may come in handy during a tuning are: A screwdriver to help in opening the instrument and removing some of the parts for better access A light source, like a flashlight or portable lamp, to help you see all the intricate details and small parts (like pins and strings, etc) Dusting cloths or dusters, as well as a vacuum cleaner often come in handy. Particularly for instruments that haven’t been maintained regularly, quite a bit of dust and even cobwebs can collect inside the cabinet. None of that is good for the instrument or how it sounds. A light dusting or vacuuming can go a long way.
BEFORE YOU BEGINYou’ve compiled your piano tuning tool box and are itching to get started. Before you begin, take a moment to align your expectations with reality and remind yourself that you are not a professional piano technician. Remind yourself that…
WHERE TO BUY TOOLSNowadays it’s easy to shop for most things online, and that includes piano tuning equipment. However, beware of poor quality cheap products that abound on the internet. A site like amazon also cannot replace the knowledgeable recommendation of an industry expert. That’s why going to a specialized store may have its advantages. These will be small local shops run by people, who know the craft and the instruments they are selling. Above all, remember to buy a quality lever. Read also for servicing your piano.
This is a complex task.Beyond the mechanical action of turning the tuning pins, a well-performed tuning must leave your instrument not only in tune, but stable. That means that your piano will remain in tune for months after the procedure. A professional piano technician will spend years perfecting their technique to master these 2 skills. I’m afraid there is no shortcut, no substitute for putting in the time. So expect your first tuning to fall quite short of “good”.
This guide is just the beginning.The steps outlined below are a very simplified process for a first-time piano tuner. If you are curious about the process and think you may want to get into it more seriously, this is a great starting point. Once you master the technique outlined here, you’ll be better equipped to learn more advanced strategies. We don’t recommend practicing your budding skills on a high-end expensive instrument. Pick something cheaper or older for your first several attempts. The possibility of inflicting damage is real, make sure you won’t regret it. If you’re in need of a tuning for an instrument you care about, enlist the help of a pro. You’ll be happy you did.
There are over 10,000 moving parts.A piano is by no means small or simple. It is an intricate mechanism, made of thousands of parts that work in unison to produce beautiful vibrations. And getting all these parts to do just what you want is no easy task. The job becomes more challenging the longer your instrument goes without maintenance. Over time your piano not only goes out of tune, but slides out of pitch, may lose responsiveness and decline in tonal quality. These issues can be corrected, but you will want a professional’s help. The pitch can be restored back to standard A440, action regulation can solve a myriad of problems, breathing new life into a tired instrument, and voicing can do wonders for a piano’s tone. You may also be in need of piano repair and tuning. This is beyond the scope of this tutorial. Consult a trained professional.
Tune at your own risk.It is a possibility that you will completely destroy the instrument you are attempting to tune. We are not being alarmist, just realistic. Being too enthusiastic or impatient can result in broken strings, loose pins, cracks etc. Remember to use caution, just because the piano is big and heavy does not mean it’s not delicate. It is, treat it with utmost care. Some mistakes, such as damaging the pin block – cannot be undone (or would be prohibitively expensive to fix).
PART 2: Piano Tuning Process
You are ready to start. Make sure to remove all ambient noise as much as possible (people, pets, humming appliances, etc). You will need a quiet space as much as this is doable. Open up the instrument, you may need to remove a couple of screws with a screwdriver, but it is designed to be easily removed. Set up your light to illuminate the pins and strings. Let’s begin.
STEP 1: TUNE 1 STRING IN MIDDLE C
Tuning always starts with the middle octave of your instrument, also known as “middle C”. This allows the piano technician to tune the instrument to the standard concert pitch, which in the United States is A440 (although in Europe it is often 442Hz, a bit higher). What that means is that A4 is tuned to vibrate at exactly 440Hz. Even if you are tuning with a tuning fork, you can match the vibrations by starting here. Each note in this octave is usually connected to 3 strings (although only 2 in some smaller models).
You will need to pick one of the strings connected to your note. It is common to start with the middle one. Make sure to find the correct pin for the string in question and place your lever on that pin (be sure to secure the socket snugly).
Step on the sustain pedal to raise the dampers off of the strings and very carefully slide the rubber mutes onto the adjacent strings belonging to the same note. You want the wedges to stop the strings from vibrating, but not stretch them too much. When in doubt, always err on the side of caution.
First, loosen the string a bit with your lever by turning every so slightly counterclockwise. This accomplishes two tasks: ensures that you are in fact on the right pin, and gives you just a bit of slack on the string.
Now, actually tune the string by turning it ever so slightly (and slowly) clockwise, all the while firmly striking the key. Continue this until your electronic tuner says the note is in tune.
NOTE: There are several caveats and considerations to keep in mind while you are working on step 1 of this guide
Check the pitch. If the piano is completely off pitch (meaning very far from the standard A440), your electronic tuner is likely to get confused and think you are tuning a different note. It is not necessary to get the piano back to standard pitch right away (in fact we don’t recommend you do), but make sure your electronic tuner knows which note you are tuning and what pitch your instrument is currently playing in. You can check this easily with any online software and calibrate the electronic tuner accordingly.
Double-check that your lever is snug and completely seated on the pin. You can easily do damage to the pin if this is not the case.
Use caution. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we will repeat – rushing has no place in tuning. It is common to mix up the pins or miss the point when you should stop turning. If you go fast, you’ll end up with a broken string before you realize what happened.
Do NOT loosen the pins. As a first-time amateur tuner, it’s safe to say that it will take you several passes to tune each string anywhere close to where it should be. That means much turning back and forth, which is very bad for the tuning pins. In general, the less you disturb the pins the better. A professional tuner with years of experience will likely take no more than 3 strokes to perfectly tune and set each pin. While this kind of precision is out of reach right now (and for several years), do try to minimize the number of turns to a minimum (hence the caution). Wiggling the pins unnecessarily (something you should NEVER do) or turning them endlessly or using excessive force, can all result in loose pins. Loose pins in turn will not hold their place and slip out of tune at the gentlest use – basically rendering your instrument untunable and requiring some serious repairs to the pin block. Again caution is your friend here.
Are you on the right pin? You should hear a difference from the slightest movement of the lever. If you don’t – double check if you’re on the right pin.
Do NOT overtighten the string. Or you’ll end up with a broken string (or several). This is the most common mistake for beginners. This is why we start by slightly loosening the string with a counterclockwise motion. But do take care when going clockwise.
Find your flow. It helps to fall into a pattern for each note. For example: middle string first, then right string, then left. You can pick any order that works for you, but sticking with a consistent routine will help you minimize mistakes, like mixing up pins or skipping a string. Every experienced technician has a process that works best for them, there is no correct way to do it. But they do have a process. And now is as good a time as any to find yours.
Check also: Registered Piano Technician
Set the pin.
While this is more art than science, you should begin practicing setting your pins. What that entails is ensuring the string you just tuned stays in tune for a while. In a nutshell the process is:
Rotate the lever ever so slightly clockwise, just barely above pitch
Rotate it even more slightly back counterclockwise
While this sounds simple, this is some of the most nuanced work a technician will perform during a tuning. A professional tuning should hold for 6 to 12 months of regular use. A novice tuning may not hold until tomorrow. There is no way to learn this skill without practicing it over and over.
STEP 2: TUNE THE UNISONS
Once you’ve tuned the first string in a set of three (or sometimes two), it’s time to match the remaining strings to the first one. This process is known as “tuning the unisons”.
Remove the mutes dampening the second string you are about to tune, but keep the third one muted.
Put away your electronic tuner. You won’t need it for this step.
Place your lever onto the pin connected to the second string you are about to tune. Just like before, turn the lever ever so slightly while repeatedly striking the key. Keep going until the 2 strings sound as one and you hear no difference between the two whatsoever.
Finally remove all of the rubber wedges, unmute the last string in the set and repeat with all strings unmuted. When all three strings sound as one – your note is tuned.
Congratulations, you tuned your first note!
STEP 3: TUNE THE REST OF THE OCTAVE
In a nutshell, you will repeat the first two steps described above for every note in the middle octave. Starting with C4 and all the way to C5. Doing this is called “setting the temperament”. A temperament is an octave in the middle of the keyboard consisting of 13 notes tuned in perfect relationship to every other note in the octave. The reason this step is so important is that you will then copy the relationships you’ve established between the notes of this octave to every other octave above and below it. So, as you may have guessed, any mistakes you make here will not only be copied but amplified the further you move away from the center.
STEP 4: TUNE THE REMAINING OCTAVES
Once you have set the temperament by tuning all the notes of the middle octave, you can use this octave as a reference for all the other octaves of your piano.
Set aside your electronic chromatic tuner. You will not need it anymore for the remainder of the tuning. Seriously, trust us on this, continuing to use the electronic tuner will only hinder you. You must rely on your ears now.
Start by tuning the octaves closest to the middle, the ones right above and right below. Instead of using the electronic tuner as a reference (like you did in step 1) use the temperament instead. Match each note to its counterpart, meaning A4 to A5, B4 to B5 and so on. Pick one string, while muting the others, and compare it to a corresponding note in the middle octave.
Once you have your first string right, continue by tuning the unisons as before. Meaning get the other strings in this note to sound exactly the same as the first, so that playing all three strings (or 2 in some cases) will sound like playing one single note.
Continue by working away from the center, going octave by octave and comparing adjacent octaves as your reference. This way you will match A5 to A6, then A6 to A7 and so on.
As you may have guessed, since you are using notes as reference (in place of the electronic tuner), you will want to play both the note you are tuning and the note you are trying to match at the same time. You will need to do this with one hand while turning the wrench with the other. This is the reason you will have to use adjacent octaves rather than the temperament, because your hand can only capture notes one octave apart.
This however is the reason that mistakes can be carried on and amplified as you keep moving towards the outer octaves. If a note you are using as a reference wasn’t quite in tune or began to slip out of tune shortly after you set it, you will carry on these issues to consecutive octaves. That’s why you want to check back with the temperament (i.e. the middle octave) once in a while to ensure that you are still on the right track. Of course, this works under the assumption that your middle octave is well tuned.
This might be another good place to develop a working pattern, just like in tuning the strings in the unison. The order of keys you tune in an octave is not important. But having a process will ensure you don’t miss any keys by accident. Likewise, it is a good practice to alternate high and low octaves as you gradually move away from the center. This will equalize the tension and help your tuning to become more stable.
Do not seek perfection in your octaves. The irony of piano tuning is that it’s the imperfections and deviations from the perfect octave that make it sound good. This may sound counterintuitive, but this phenomenon was discovered as far back as ancient Greece and is well understood by professional piano tuners and musicians alike. In theory, an ideal tuning would include exact mathematically perfect intervals within an octave. However, because of the way different strings are constructed (different lengths and materials) they do not respond in the exact same way. You may have heard professionals talk about the fact that each instrument is unique in its own way, and that is absolutely true. A skilled technician will take the instrument’s specific idiosyncrasies into account when tuning and adjust accordingly. What may work for one piano, will not work for another. This is also the reason we do not continue using the electronic tuner past setting the temperament.
So what does all of this actually mean in regards to tuning octaves? To account for these differences as well as the way human ears perceive certain sounds (slightly flatter than the actual pitch), piano tuners must stretch the octaves to “sound right”. This results with slightly sharper octaves the farther you move up from the center, and slightly flatter octaves the farther you move down. Just how much sharper or flatter is really up to the technician, and this is where your ear and experience play an essential role. An electronic tuner will be no help here and if fact will lead you astray, since it knows nothing about stretching and will attempt to keep you to the exact “perfect” sound, which turns out to be quite wrong.
Read Also: Piano Repair Services
This chart demonstrates how much the lower and higher octaves end up being stretched away from the “perfectly” flat line. While the green line is the average, the red shows real life variations. You can notice that on average the middle octave is barely stretched at all. This fact allows us to get away with using the electronic tuner (which results in a perfectly flat middle octave). In real life however, professional tuners may even stretch the ends of the middle octave a bit, resulting in a more superior or fitting tuning for the particular instrument. That is why using an electronic tuner to start will usually be sufficient, but never ideal or superior to a professional tuning by ear.
That’s it! You’ve read the guide and you are ready to put it into practice. Remember, don’t expect perfection on your first (or even your 10th) try. Tuning is a skill that comes with time and continuous practice. Even the most experienced professionals are continually improving their technique over many years. So take heart and keep going. You are bound to get better.
P.S. Above all, use caution, don’t rush and exercise patience. Good things come to those who are patient. Good luck