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Piano Tuning

How to Tune a Piano [15 Steps Professionals Take]

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Fairfax County Piano Tuners

Published on May 3, 2023

Piano owners often wonder how to tune a piano effectively yet safely, without damaging wires and other materials. This is an important topic to cover, as it’s vital that you tune your piano regularly. First, tuning ensures a crisp, clear sound from every key. Second, neglecting needed tuning can shorten the lifespan of piano wires and make the next tuning more difficult to manage.

Additionally, tuning gives you a chance to evaluate the piano overall, spotting needed repairs and maintenance. In turn, your piano might last longer and hold its value more easily when you invest in regular tuning. Also, while professional piano tuning ensures excellent results, DIY tuning can also keep your piano sounding its best. With this in mind, check out 15 steps professionals take to tune a piano.

how to tune a piano

How to Tune a Piano, Step by Step

First, consider a quick summary of how professionals might tune a piano, step by step. Then, you can review these steps in more detail and ensure proper tuning at home.

  1. Gather and check your necessary tools before beginning
  2. Ensure a quiet, secluded environment
  3. Remove cabinet doors to access the wires
  4. Inspect the piano parts for damage
  5. Give the piano wires a light cleaning
  6. Prep middle C with mutes
  7. Test one middle C wire
  8. Tune the middle C wire as needed
  9. Set the pin
  10. Tune the other middle C wires or unisons
  11. Mute each wire in other octaves
  12. Tune the wires in other octaves one at a time
  13. Test the tuning by ear
  14. Readjust wires as needed for proper voice or temperament
  15. Ensure you remove all mutes and reassemble the piano

Gather and check your necessary tools before beginning

Before you do anything else, gather all the tools needed for piano tuning. Doing so beforehand ensures you won’t need to stop halfway through your tuning project simply because you’re missing something!

To tune a piano, you’ll need:

  • A tuning lever or key to tighten the wires as you work
  • An electronic tuner, which hears the notes as you hit each key
  • Mutes
  • A light
  • Dust cloths

It’s also helpful to check the condition of those tools. Ensure your tuning lever isn’t chipped or otherwise damaged so that it operates as expected. Also, test the tuner as needed. You can typically find instructions on this process on its packaging.

Ensure a quiet, secluded environment

For expert tuning, it’s vital that you work in a quiet environment. Your tuner needs to hear the wires as you strike the key to read its sound properly. Voices, music, phones, and even heavy vibrations can interfere with this process. With this in mind, turn off your phone, close all windows, and create the quietest environment possible before beginning.

Remove cabinet doors to access the wires

Use caution about simply propping up piano cabinet doors while you work. It’s easy to get distracted and bump into those doors, risking injury and piano damage. For added safety and some extra room, consider removing cabinet doors completely if possible.

Inspect the piano parts for damage

Before tuning, check the piano for damage that’s beyond your repair expertise! This might include broken wires, cracked pins, and the like. Once inside the piano, you can also check for cracks along the cabinet and other issues. These all affect how a piano operates, so consider calling a professional if you notice any such damage.

piano tuner in Northern Virginia
closeup of hand and tools of tuner working on grand piano

Give the piano wires a light cleaning

Note that stretching out piano wires affects their sound and risks damage. On the other hand, dust and dirt also dampen that sound and shortens a piano’s lifespan. With that in mind, use your cleaning cloths and a gentle touch to remove any debris inside the cabinet.

Prep middle C with mutes

First, identify the three wires for middle C. Second, mute the two outer wires by sliding your mutes between them and the next wires outward. This step keeps those wires from sounding when you test the middle C key.

Test one middle C wire

Test the center middle C wire by striking the key firmly while holding the tuner near the wire. The tuner should tell you the note it hears. This alerts you to how much adjustment the wire needs.

Tune the middle C wire as needed

To tune the middle C center wire, use your tuning lever. Gently turn the pin attached to the wire counterclockwise to loosen it just a bit. Then, turn it clockwise to tighten the wire. Test it again with your tuner until it reads the proper note.

Set the pin

To “set the pin” means to overtighten it just slightly. This allows the wire to hold its tune as long as possible. For this process, overtighten the pin with just one last “tweak” and then loosen it with slightly less movement.

Tune the other middle C wires or unisons

Once you’ve tuned the center wire for middle C, it’s time to tune C4 and C5, or the unison wires. Move your mute off either C4 or C5 and place it under the wire you just tuned.

Next, repeat the steps above. Once finished, move to the other wire in that octave. Remember to set the pin of each so that they hold that tuning.

Once tuned, remove your mutes and test the middle C key. Tuning all the wires in an octave refers to “setting the temperament.” Doing these together allows you to ensure they create the note expected as you play that key.

Mute each wire in other octaves

Once you’ve tuned middle C, it’s time to move to other octaves. Remember to work an octave at a time and not just random wires. This ensures a precise tune. You can also compare those notes to middle C as you work for a more harmonious sound.

Test the tuning by ear

Once you’ve tuned the wires according to your electronic tuner, test the piano by ear. Listen for an uneven beat or vibrating “wah-wah” sound. Adjust the wires as needed to ensure each octave produces a crisp, clear sound.

Readjust wires as needed for proper voice

As you play the piano by ear, you can also consider if it needs adjusting to your preferences. For example, you might prefer a higher or lower pitch or deeper bass. These details are the “voice” of the piano. To adjust the voice, readjust wires in an octave as needed.

piano voicing in northern virginia

Ensure you remove all mutes and reassemble the piano

Once the piano offers the sound you prefer, ensure you remove all mutes and other tools! Next, reassemble it carefully; ask for assistance if the lid becomes cumbersome to use. Lastly, test every key and the pedals to ensure your piano is in precise tune.

Can You Tune a Piano Yourself?

The short answer is yes, you can tune a piano yourself. However, it’s not an easy task! Note that there are typically about 230 wires on a piano, making tuning somewhat tedious and time-consuming. Also, an inexperienced player might not recognize notes that are out of tune.

Additionally, remember that it’s easy to overtighten wires during the tuning process. This risks wires snapping or losing tension. Not only do loose wires produce flat sounds, but they also wear out sooner than they should.

Lastly, remember that a professional piano tuner can check a piano’s condition overall. He or she can spot cracks along its body or soundboard or note when wires need replacing. Their expertise ensures a precise tune and that your piano is always in excellent condition.

Is a Piano Ever Too Old to Tune?

In some cases, extremely old or damaged pianos are no longer tunable. Wires lose their tension over time, while soundboard or body damage can interfere with their operation. Also, a piano with broken pedals or keys won’t produce the sound expected, no matter the condition of the wires!

However, note that many such issues are repairable. A piano restoration expert can usually fix or replace damaged wood parts, wires, pedals, keys, and more.

Additionally, remember that some damaged or outdated wires don’t mean the entire piano is unsalvageable. Replacing just those that have lost tension or snapped outright can mean a usable piano once again.

How Long Can a Piano Go Without Being Tuned?

In extreme cases, a piano can go out of tune in as little as 24 hours! However, this is typical for pianos stored in extremely humid or overly dry environments. Wood piano bodies and soundboards absorb humidity and expand and then shrink as they dry out. In turn, they pull on piano wires, taking them out of tune.

Also, remember that merely playing a piano puts stress on wires that bring the piano out of tune. In fact, some professionals insist on having a piano tuned before every performance. While this isn’t necessary for the hobbyist, consider that you typically cannot tune a piano enough! Additionally, the longer you go between tunings, the more work needed to create a precise, crisp sound.

Fairfax County Piano Tuners by PianoCraft is happy to help explain how to tune a piano. Hopefully, you found this information helpful! Also, call our Fairfax piano tuning experts when you need tuning, repair, and other services. We have the expertise needed to ensure precise sounds for virtually any piano model in use today. For more information, contact our crew at your earliest convenience.

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