Prime Piano Services

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Russell Gallman - Certified Piano Technician

FAQs

Why does my piano go out of tune?

How often should I expect to have my piano tuned?

What does the expression “pitch raise” mean?

Is there an optimal place in my home to place a piano? 

 

Why does my piano go out of tune?

This Frequently Asked Question can be addressed from many angles. There are many reasons that contribute to a piano’s ability (or lack of ability) to hold a tuning. The two most frequently encountered causes of pianos going out of tune are loose tuning pins and sound board movement - expansion and contraction - due to the piano’s environment.

The most important contributor to an instrument’s stability is its environment. The western scale began its journey with the ancient Greeks. Not only did they cultivate what we know today as perfect fifths, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras promoted our facility with triangles in what has become known as the Pythagorean Theorem. Before I familiarize you with the importance of triangles in your piano and how they relate to a piano’s stability, let’s first visit a very important piece of wood in the instrument – the soundboard.

The Soundboard –
From a physics concept, your piano is an energy transfer system. As we strike the front end of a key, a chain reaction of events happens in the “gears” which moves a hammer to impact a string. The hammer excites a wave pattern on the string that in turn transfers energy to the soundboard – the piano’s amplifier. The larger vibrating surface area of the board in turn excites the air molecules (more efficiently than narrow strings) at different frequency patterns. With regard to a piano’s tuning, we can imagine that a soundboard “breathes.” Just as our chests rise and fall as we inhale and exhale, our soundboards rise in the presence of humidity, and they fall in the absence of humidity.

The Soundboard & Triangles –
Below is an exaggerated and simplified depiction of a typical soundboard with a bridge and a single string. As you notice, the board is shown with an arch or radius. In a healthy piano this is known as a crown. Typically, the manufacturer has designed a 60’ radius into the construction of the soundboard. The primary triangle shown has labels “a”, “b”, and “c”. For our conversation, “a” is the run of the triangle; “b” will be referred to as the rise; and “c” will be assigned as the hypotenuse. Also, for our discussion, please note that the run of our triangle is typically fixed in the structure of your instrument and will very seldom be altered. We will be exploring the seasonal changes of the rise and hypotenuse that occur.

 

The Humid Season Environment –
Typically in the state of Georgia, it is not unusual to see the humidity return beginning in the month of May. Wood acts like a sponge in the presence of moisture. As the soundboard in your piano begins to retain the moisture in the atmosphere this causes the crown (the hump) to rise upwards. As you probably recall from Algebra days, as the rise of a triangle increases, so too will the hypotenuse increase in length. As the hypotenuse grows in length, the tension on the string also increases. Pitch goes up. In Georgia, our summers can be saturated with 80% relative humidity and sometimes more.

The Dry Season Environment –
In contrast to the thick, humid days of summer that we can cut with a knife, we see just the opposite during the fall and winter months. When one can see Stone Mountain in the distance on an October afternoon, then pianos will soon be feeling the effects as well. The dry months present a double challenge for your piano. Cooler air holds less moisture, and we turn on the heaters in order to warm our bodies. Again this mobilizes the tuning triangles. As the spongy soundboard begins to part with its moisture, the hump goes down, and the rise of the triangle begins to decrease. Less rise means shorter strings and less tension on the wire. Hence, the pitch goes down. Winter of 2010 not only produced record low temperatures; the relative humidity at my residence was as 16%.

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How often should I expect to have my piano tuned?

A proper response to this question is contingent upon how the instrument is being used. For example, the performance grand pianos in the concert venues of the university where I received my training were tuned 3 times per week during the active recital season. In contrast, the average practice room upright pianos would be tuned at least 3 times per season.

The Tuning Envelope and Piano Health –

The tuning envelope refers to the amount of pitch change that occurs between tunings. The less the change, the more stable a tuning will be and the greater the longevity the owner will realize on subsequent tuning visits. Hence, it is important to schedule tunings often enough to keep the tuning envelope as narrow as possible. If you want to save money, then don’t tune. But be prepared. Getting caught up can be costly. My Base Tuning Fee only applies to the first 1.5 hours of a tuning visit. Beyond 1.5 hours means that more effort and passes are being made so the tuning will hold. Hence, an additional fee will be assessed to your tuning visit. In addition, one or more tuning visits may be required in order to re-stabilize a piano.  Why?  Because the piano technician controls the tuning pin end of the string, but time controls the other end that equalizes during heavy playing.  Finally, pianos that are permitted to significantly drop in pitch are at increased risk of string and plate breakage. The responsible course of tuning maintenance: Keep it close.

Residential Pianos –
For most pianos in homes, the owner is advised to schedule tunings no less than once per year. Bi-annual tunings are the most recommended, and will be required as a student’s sense of pitch develops. Discerning artists typically have their pianos tuned 4 times per year.

Institutional Pianos –
Please visit the Institutional Piano Care segment of this site for recommended practices.

 

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What does the expression “pitch raise” mean?

You may have heard your piano technician use the terms pitch raise and pitch lowering. The expressions actually have dual meanings and functions. From a simplistic view point, your piano may be significantly flat or sharp in pitch position when compared to an A440 tuning fork. Hence, the tuner will adjust the pitch accordingly. However, that characterization is not always sufficient.

The average residential piano usually has 240 strings that are attached at fixed points. Let us assume that your piano has not been tuned in ten years. It will most likely be the case that your piano is very flat. In order to bring your piano up to concert A440, the tuner adds tension to each string (i.e. 10lbs per string). The total amount of new tension on the wires can be quite significant (i.e. 2400lbs).
Consequently, the fresh tension exerts downward force on the soundboard. This is like laying the piano face up, flat on the floor and the placing a pallet load of dog food on the sound board. Piano wire is high carbon steel. Sound boards are ¼” thick pieces of spruce wood. The wood does not have the properties necessary to resist the cumulative force of the steel. For the piano tuner, this means that the sound board will be moving (i.e. sinking) as tension is applied to the strings.

Pitch raise
does refer to raising pitch, but more importantly it refers to the procedure that a technician utilizes to pressurize a sound board before a Finish Tuning. In general, pianos behave in predictable ways. Sound boards are engineered and constructed to find a place of equilibrium against the forces being applied by the music wire. Once the sound board is evenly compressed, the piano will be more likely to hold a fresh tuning. Hence, pitch raise and pitch lowering are important pre-tuning passes and pressurizing techniques used to achieve a reliable, enjoyable, and stable finish tuning.

Bringing pianos up to pitch is not without its risks. Please review Owner’s Risks (Good News and Bad News) and the Piano Tuner’s Disclaimer in the Tuning tab. Also note that pitch raised pianos tend to go out of tune quickly. Keep an ear open. Your technician controls the “tuning pin” end of the string, but time controls the opposite end – the “hitch pin“end. It is not uncommon for a follow-up tuning to be required in 6 months.

 

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Is there an optimal place in my home to place a piano?

Pianos make beautiful center pieces in our homes. However, there are things to consider when locating a piano in the home. Temperature and humidity changes will play an enormous role in a piano’s individual life cycle and in its ability to hold stable tunings.

  • Try to avoid placing your instrument too close to the floor and wall vents of your home’s heating and air conditioning system. The heating especially can cause damage to a piano’s structural integrity.
  • Try to avoid placing the piano in a location of direct sunlight as this too will shorten both the life of the instrument as well as blow out any tuning services that are provided.
  • Try to avoid placing the piano on exterior walls.
  • Try to avoid placing the piano underneath windows or even nested within bay windows.


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