How To Tune Your Piano

Intro to Piano Tuning

Piano tuning is an old profession with a rich tradition. This craft seems like it would be difficult and complex. This is especially so when piano tuning schools teach esoteric theories in sound and acoustics. Furthermore, it’s easy to feel intimidated by a piano’s dizzying internal array of pins and strings. In fact, many upright piano owners have never even glimpsed inside their instrument. It ends up being awe-inspiring when a piano tuner can spend an hour tuning a piano that sounds completely dissonant and transform its sound into an instrument worthy of the stage. This explains why piano tuning services can command prices ranging from $80 to $300 depending on various factors.


Thanks to electronic tuning devices (ETDs), piano tuning can be done by hobbyists at-home. You don’t have to apprentice or go to tuning school to become a piano tuner. ETDs can accurately determine the required pitch for each string, eliminating the need for a well-trained ear or knowledge in acoustics and physics. By using a cheap set of mutes, a tuning lever, and an electronic tuner, anyone can tune a piano and make it sound playable. Please note that relying solely on an ETD for tuning, which is called “rough tuning,” is not as precise as a professional tuning done with aural checks. Therefore, if you are a regular performer or studio musician you ought to have a good relationship with a piano tuner if it’s within your budget. This does bring to mind a major benefit of doing your own tunings which is that you save a lot of money over time. Do note that when starting out, you will have to spend around $300 to $500 on the materials necessary to perform your own tunings. This is great for pro musicians on a budget who need to have their instrument tuned multiple times a week or month. It’s also useful when a musician has to perform but their instrument sounds off and there is no one around who is qualified to tune it.  


There is one final difference between “rough tunings” and professional tunings which is that tuning with aural checks is actually damaging to your hearing over time. Therefore, relying on ETDs is less stressful to your ears. Hobbyists need not worry too much as they only need to tune their pianos 1-2 times per year. Professional musicians do need to worry more about doing DIY tuning on a regular basis even if they are not performing aural checks due to the frequency pro pianists require tunings. It’s best for pro musicians to consult their physicians in these circumstances. With all of these considerations in mind, piano tuning is a neat and rewarding skill. It’s very satisfying to take a piano that sounds completely off and make it concert-ready with your own two hands.


Step-by-Step Guide:


1.     Gather the Tools

·       To start with, you will need an ETD, some mutes, and a tuning hammer.


·       ETDs can be purchased as phone apps, laptop software, or portable devices. These range in price from around $25 for a phone app to over $1000 for portable devices. The recommended ETD for this guide is Tunelab, a popular app used by professionals that costs $300. However, if you’re just starting out with piano tuning and want to familiarize yourself with the process, you can begin with the free trial version. This will give you an idea of what a professional standard for an ETD looks like, after which you can choose an ETD that suits your budget. Note that Tunelab is available as both a phone app and laptop software application.


·       Mutes are inexpensive, and you only need two. It’s best to get ones with metal handles attached to them for easy placement when tuning upright pianos. These are wedge-shaped, rubber, and palm-sized.


·       Tuning hammers can be either cheap or expensive, like ETDs. When purchasing a tuning hammer, ensure that it unscrews along the axis of its handle, not the head. Cheap hammers that cost around $20-30 unscrew along the axis of the head, which defeats the purpose of using them. A suitable hammer would cost at least $60. Look for a hammer with a star-shaped head instead of a square one, as it’s easier to find a good fit on the tuning pin. Additionally, the hammer should not have too much give or flex, as you require tightness to provide good feedback from the string.

Top of Form


2.     Access the Pinblock:


·       Unlike guitars and violins that have tuning pegs you can turn with your hands, pianos have tuning pins inserted into pinblocks inside the piano. Since the strings are tied and twisted onto the pins with a lot of tension, you need a tuning hammer to adjust them. Accessing the pins is a simple process, but it differs between an upright and a grand piano.


·       On a grand piano, you just need to lift the lid and use the prop to keep it up. On the other hand, for an upright piano, you must open up the lid and remove the desk. The desk is the part that supports your sheet music. To remove the desk, you need to unscrew one screw on each side of the inside compartment. Alternatively, you may need to release two latches manually. These latches are located on the left and right sides. After removing those parts, lift the desk up and place it in a safe location to avoid any damage.


3.     Determine Which Keys to Tune

·       If it has been a long while since your piano has been tune, you will likely need to tune each key. However, if only a handful of keys sound off you can just tune that handful.


4.     Mute the Strings:


·       The middle and high tones on the pinblock have 2 and 3 strings per pin, respectively. When tuning, you need to focus on tuning one string at a time while muting the other strings. To do this, you will need to use mutes to silence the strings you are not tuning. The low tones have only one string per pin and do not require mutes.


·        To tune the entire piano, you should start with the lowest note of the treble section and move progressively higher or to the right. Then, tune the highest bass note moving lower or to the left.


·        To mute the other strings, place the wedge-shaped mutes between the strings associated with the same key that you are not tuning, leaving only your target string to be heard.


5.     Place Tuning Hammer


·       Locate the pin associated with the string you want to tune and position the head of the tuning hammer onto it.


·       Make sure that the handle of the hammer is pointing towards 12 o’clock while the head is at 6 o’clock.


6.     Determine the Optimal Force


·       Before you begin tuning, you need to determine the optimal force to apply to the hammer. To do this, start tapping the hammer at the head (6 o’clock) and gradually move towards the handle (12 o’clock) while playing the associated key. If the key sounds flat, tap the hammer in a clockwise motion. If it sounds sharp, tap the hammer counterclockwise.


·       While tapping, observe the ETD for any changes in tuning and note at which part of the hammer’s length the change occurred. This will help you to determine the optimal force to apply to the hammer for the rest of the strings. Once you determine the ideal force for a few strings, you won’t need to repeat this step for the remaining strings.


7.     Tune the String


·       When tuning, use small, gentle movements to avoid damaging the strings. If the string is flat, tune it a bit sharper than the correct pitch, then bring it back down slightly. Keep it slightly sharp to allow the strings to settle into the correct tuning.


8.     Repeat Steps 3-7


·       Continue moving from key to key, using the same process to tune each string.


·        If you are tuning the entire piano, begin with the treble section and move rightwards, then tune the highest bass note and move leftwards.


9.     Play Something!


·       After tuning, play the piano and listen to how it sounds. If it still needs work, repeat the tuning process. If you are unsure of your tuning skills, consider hiring a professional tuner.


You Can Achieve Professional Results!

While you may not be able to achieve the same level of precision as a professional tuner. You can still achieve comparable results top a professional tuner. Unlike a professional who has to tune within a few hours, you can take your time and tune your piano over a period of weeks or months, gradually improving its tuning with each session. This means you can either pay for a highly polished tuning in a short time or take the time to do it yourself and achieve professional results over a longer period.