The Craft of Piano Tuning: Eric Tan

Today’s guest post has been written by piano tuner Eric Tan. Eric is based in Los Angeles, USA, where he runs his own tuning studio. In this post, he offers a detailed account of how to tune your own instrument, which, as he explains, can be a most useful tool for pianists.


The Benefits of Piano Tuning

Piano tuning is a trade that has a rich tradition. It has a steady demand as there are many households, studios, clubs, and conservatories in need of piano maintenance. This allows professional musicians to tune pianos for others as supplementary income. Of course, musicians may only wish to tune their own pianos for the following reasons. Firstly, they may own a studio and need to have their piano sounding pristine at every session. Therefore, they need monthly or even weekly tuning services. This is much more than the prescribed 1-2 tuning services per year for household hobbyists. If a studio musician can tune their own piano they can save a lot of money as a tuning can cost $100-$250 depending on how out-of-tune their piano is. For professional purposes, they would need to have a skill-set that is on par with that of a professional tuner, who uses both electronic tuning devices (ETDs) and aural tuning. That said, hobbyists ought to know how to tune their own pianos as well but they do not need to have their pianos concert-ready all the time. Therefore, they can tune with an ETD device without the need to refine their tuning using aural checks.

Piano tuning also allows a musician to really understand their own pianos idiosyncrasies. Pianos are unique in that they have a unique sonic fingerprint. Meaning that if two perfectly tuned guitars were to play a C-chord they would sound very similar. However, if you played a C-chord on two perfectly tuned pianos the pianos would still sound different. Therefore, every piano, including your own, has its own special sound compared to any other instrument in the world!

Piano tuning may seem magical to the uninitiated as the inner workings of a piano look extremely complex and overwhelming. However, with the right direction anyone can tune a piano. In fact, the advancements in ETDs have made it so that even non-musicians can tune a piano! Please note however, the professional tuners utilize both aural tuning techniques and ETDs for their services. Therefore, without aural checks on top of ETD tuning, you will be able to play your piano in tune but it won’t have the same polish as a concert piano.

Tools of the Trade

To tune a piano you need a set of rubber mutes, a tuning hammer, and a tuning fork or electronic tuning device (ETD). Mutes are very cheap. It’s recommended to obtain mutes with a metal hand on the end for easy placement and removal for tuning upright pianos. Hammers can be cheap as well costing about $30. However, these cheap hammers are not recommended as they can easily break. Therefore, expect to pay at least $60 for a tuning hammer and possibly even more as they can run up to $300 for hammers favoured by professionals. Note that a good tuning hammer should not have a lot of flex or give. It should be tight, so you can feel the feedback from the string. A little bit of give is fine, but too much is an issue. It is also recommended to obtain a tuning hammer with a star-shaped head instead of a square head as it makes it easier to find the right tuning position against the pin.

ETDs can cost $25 for a smartphone app and upwards of $1700 for dedicated handheld devices. If you wish to try your hand at tuning without spending anything upfront, then you can utilize a free trial version of TuneLab. This popular software is used by professionals and costs $300 for the paid version. It is available for both laptop and Android/iPhone, but it appears that only the laptop version has a free trial.

If you are a professional musician, it’s definitely worth considering investing in these tools to tune your piano yourself as paying someone else can be costly if you are having it done relatively frequently.

How to Tune Your Piano for Beginners

For beginners with an untrained ear, an ETD is a must. These devices have become much more advanced over the years and professional tuners use them along with aural tuning checks for their clients. Without aural checks, an ETD can still get a piano in tune relatively quickly, but it won’t have the same level of polish as it would if aural checks were utilized as well. Aural tuning is worth learning for this reason and is why conservatories and universities employ professional tuners to maintain their pianos. It’s also important to note that aural tuning is actually very damaging to one’s hearing. For someone who is a musician first and a tuner second, an ETD will help your ears stay healthy.

Therefore, this method assumes that you are tuning using an ETD without aural checks. This is what would be called a “rough tuning”. This is great for personal practice, but if you need to perform professionally, or you are recording a piece, then you should hire a professional piano tuner.

Step 1 – Access The Pinblock:

Firstly, you have to open the lid of the piano to access the pinblock. The pinblock is where all the tuning pins are located. These are the mechanisms which you will turn in order to give tension to the strings. On a grand piano, you simply lift the lid up let it rest on the prop. For an upright, you lift the lid up and remove the desk which is where you let your sheet music rest. This desk is taken out by removing screws or unlatching some levers that are on the left and right side of this inner compartment.

At this point, you should also have your ETD, mutes, and tuning hammer ready. ETDs are all different and it is beyond the scope of this article to outline the features and setup of every ETD. Once you decide on which ETD you prefer, you will have to consult its user guide to set it up. You just need to know that they are worthwhile investments that will save your ears and your time!

Step 2 – Place Hammer and Mutes:

Now you can begin to play each key and allow your ETD to guide your tuning service. You will start from the lowest note of the treble section working your way higher or to the right. Once those keys are done, you will then move to the highest note in the bass section and work your way lower to the left.

This only works if you sound one string at a time which is where the mutes come in. Piano keys each have a different number of strings associated with them. The low tones have one string per key. The middle tones have two strings per key. The high tones have three strings per key. Your mutes will be used to mute one string for the middle tones or two strings for the high tones for each respective key.

Once you have placed your mutes, you can now insert the tip of the tuning hammer onto the target tuning pin associated with the current key. You should have the handle of the hammer upright at the 12 o’clock position. This means that the head or tip of the hammer is pointed downwards at 6 o’clock.

Step 3 – Determine the Amount of Force Needed:

Whilst playing the key and keeping your eye on the ETD, you will tap the tuning hammer starting from the tip of the hammer to the end of the handle. This is done to help determine how much turning force you need to tune the key. So, if the ETD says the key is too flat, tap the hammer from the tip at 6 o’clock so that the force of your tapping is going clockwise. Do the opposite if the key is too sharp. Keep making your way towards the handle at 12 o’clock and stop once the ETD shows that you have found the right force necessary to turn the pin. Once you have determined this for the first couple of strings, you can have a good idea of how much force you will need for the rest of the keys and you will not have to repeat this process.

Step 4 – Tune The String:

USING TINY MOVEMENTS, aim to employ a jerking motion to turn your hammer in the proper direction. You will want the string to be just a little sharper than it needs to be and then ease it back down to flatten it. When you ease it back down, don’t bring it all the way to where your ETD says the string is in tune. You want it to be a little sharp so that the tension of the strings will naturally bring it down to the desired pitch.

Step 5 – Repeat Steps 2-4:

Once you have completed step 3 on a few keys, you will not need to repeat this step as you will have a good idea about the amount of force necessary to tune your piano. And as stated before, you will move from key to key starting with the lowest note in the treble section moving higher or rightwards. Then you will tune the highest note on the bass section moving lower or leftwards.

Step 6 – Play Something!

Congratulations, your tuning in now complete! Now it’s time to play your favourite piece and enjoy your newfound skill-set. Hopefully, you will find that this is a rewarding process and I wish you the best of luck on your musical journey.

Eric Tan


Publications

Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.


One Comment Add yours

  1. I’m sorry you feel this way, Sarah. I know several pianists who tune their own instrument and have become quite skilled at it. It’s not something I would ever do, though, and I think it’s a much better idea to use a professional tuner.

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