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I have a piano that is out of tune, and I know tuning pianos properly is complicated enough to have it's own profession. But I think it would be interesting to have a go myself, for fun.

But is this even meaningful? Could I spend a day with some instructions and get a half-decent job done? Or would I just damage the piano or make it worse?

Good instructions (books or online) for learning how to tune a piano would also be appreciated.

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6  
This is something I've often wondered about. Is a mechanical/electronic tuner necessary or can it be done without one for people with perfect pitch? (Or perhaps with just a pitch fork, going off of intervals from there.) –  Ben Alpert Apr 26 '11 at 19:08
    
I think it would require perfect pitch; it would be too inefficient to refer to tools. –  Matthew Read Apr 26 '11 at 19:16
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@Matthew Read I don't have perfect pitch, but what I find is people who don't have it seem to give it an overly-exaulted status. According to David Burge recognizing pitches should be like "recognizing colors in a rainbow". Now what you say is "red" (F#) might not be EXACTLY the frequency for F#, you may be of 1 Hz or 1.5 Hz.. Point is even if you had PP, its still a continuum of sound you're dealing with.. I would think even if you have PP you'd best use a tool, perhaps, if for nothing else but to make the job go easier/faster –  bobobobo Jun 1 '11 at 3:51
    
The $10 Dover book on Piano Tuning describes (among many other things) a very simple method of Tempered Fourths. I've applied it to guitar tuning with great success. You go through the circle of fourths (modulo an octave) tempering each one off the previous from a single reference note. Then you check if all the interval seems balanced, then take the rest of the notes off the good octave. I haven't actually done it, but the book is so well written that, 5 years later, I still think I could do a decent job of it. –  luser droog Nov 3 '11 at 5:29

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I would encourage anyone who is interested to tune their own piano. My personal experience is... (I am an amateur in the true sense (Latin: "To Love"), have played piano for 8 years and probably tuned my own piano for 5 years (when I have time))

It probably took me about a week (off and on, I suppose about 6 hours) to completely retune my old piano from the ground up after having watched several hours of (slow, boring) instructional video. My tools were

  • An upright piano
  • A small tuner that performed poorly on the top and bottom octaves
  • An A fork (tap it to a hard surface and hold to your ear to hear a perfect pitch of the A note
  • The tuning wrench and the silencers
  • A good ear (I play piano by ear very well)

I actually never learned the cost to have a piano tuned, but I hear it is expensive, so I would say it is worth it. It is not that hard, although it takes a long time at first.

Here are some tips. (personal experience, upright piano)

  • You can avoid breaking a string by moving it down in pitch first, to check that you have the right string. Then move it up in pitch. If the note is very low, you may want to move it most the way one day and the rest a different day (likely a total waste, but my nerve would not let me do it all at once)
  • Make sure you are rotating and not pushing up and down. It is possible (depending on the piano I guess) to pull the bolt (lack of a better name) down instead of unwinding it. This is not good because it loosens it from its hole. (I have a brass backplate so it probably did not matter for me)
  • Most of the notes have 3 strings. It is simple to tune the first of the three notes with the tuner (after silencing the other two). But for me, the most effective way to tune the other two notes is by comparing them to the original. Either both at once or take turns, whatever you think, but if you follow the tuner (at least my tuner) you are bound to be slighly off. The most important thing is that the 3 strings all match perfectly to each other. (That perfectly to each other rule applies across the whole piano, but it is less important I suppose, still the better you tune the better)
  • If you do not want to use the tuner (perhaps you are outside its accurate range or there is noise or the string gives a difficult tone), you can compare notes using Thirds, Fifths or Octaves.
    • Third would be C,E together or E,G#, tune one until they both seem match tones and sound good.
    • Fifth is C,G (or B flat, F)
    • Octave is of course C and another C.
  • Consider using a Tuning App on your Android or iPhone if you have one. For Android I downloaded DaTuner free version. It is cheaper than purchasing a tuner, and much cheaper than getting a tuner that is as powerful as your phone. Generally, using an app on a general purpose device allows you to take advantage of more capable hardware that cannot be justified on single-purpose devices such as tuners, car navigators, music players, etc.

When tuning by ear, (this is hard to describe), when two notes are close, but not just right, there is like a small wild ring. Also, normally the tones of two notes seem to fluctuate like long waves with sub waves. The long waves are the easiest to measure I think. The long waves of the two notes should match up.

Let me know if you have any questions. This is all personal experience.

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12  
The phenomenon you describe in your last paragraph is called a beat. The speed of the wavering between the two close notes is the beat frequency. –  Matthew Read Apr 26 '11 at 23:27
    
I don't think tuning by a third is a good idea if you are aiming for an equal tempered tuning since I guess you're likely/risking to tune a just third (of frequency ratio 5/4) of 386 cents which is quite far off from an equal tempered third of 400 cents! Pure fifths (3/2 or 702 cents vs 700 cents of ET) might not be optimal either, especially if you stack them and add the error (ending up with the Pythagorean comma). (Further I believe the octaves are generally stretched a bit in the high and low registers of modernly well tuned pianos. But that might be beyond OP's needs or intents.) –  Ulf Åkerstedt Sep 3 '12 at 9:20
    
If someone decides not to use a tuner, then either (A), they need a tuning fork for all 12 notes, or (B) they need to tune in increments. I can understand someone wanting to only tune in 5ths, and not 3rds, and I expect there are other good options. –  musicwithoutpaper Jan 3 at 13:31
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Tuning in 5ths and octaves only does have an unfortunate side-effect, which is that if you make a mistake, it is perpetuated across the entire circle of 5ths. Tuning in 3rds gives you a chance to tune some notes anchored more closely to your A (or C if you use a C-fork) –  musicwithoutpaper Jan 3 at 13:32
    
You can get a loud sound from a tuning fork by touching the ball end to the wood of the piano (while the fork is singing). –  luser droog yesterday

As you already suggested, it takes time. I would say that to begin to be a good piano tuner takes at least 3 years and you still have plenty of room to improve.

It helps to have a good and discerning ear, but you do not need what people imprecisely call perfect pitch. You will need a good reference tuning fork or pro electronic tuning reference. I prefer using a C tuning fork but most people use a A.

One of the most difficult part for amateurs is that they usually have only one piano to tune, their own and that

  • they usually have been very influenced by this piano and its probable incorrect tuning evolving in time.

  • they do not know what they want in term of temperament

  • they are not aware of the numerous pitfalls of our human sense of sound.

  • they believe that all pianos are more or less the same as regard tuning

A thing you must do and that you must do often is to go in as many places as you can (piano sellers, friends, etc.) and hear different pianos to help develop a feeling of the very diverse compromise that a tuning is.

You need some basic tools :

  • a tuning wrench matching the model of your piano. Most upright pianos have the same kind. Choose one with a solid and long handle, it is more comfortable.

  • tools to mute or isolate strings (when tuning notes having 2 or 3 strings, also initially to have a whole central octave with only 1 active string by semitone)

and a lot of patience. The best would be to have two different pianos in the same room. One more correctly in tune than the other. Practice on one trying to match the tuning quality of the other.

EDIT: Further basic advices as several suggested I extend my answer.

There is a lot of easy things you can do as a beginner. Do not rush.

  • On a piano which is not too out of tune, concentrate on a few notes in the medium part of the piano (extreme low and the upper register can be tricky at first) that are the most out of tune or the most disagreeable sound. This is usually because the two or three strings of this note have been drifting from each other. First mute the (two) lateral strings on the target note and do the same to a note one octave apart. First tune the central string using the octaved note as a reference. Then unmute one of the lateral ones and match it with the central string, listening for beats, try to always finish your tuning by a smooth move pulling the string while playing (it is usually more stable). re-mute then match the other lateral one with the central one. Unmute all and check first as an isolated note and with the octave.

  • Most amateur pianos are not tuned sufficiently frequently, especially in their early years, that's a pity because it degrades their further tunability. If yours has drifted a lot from the reference tuning you want (usually A=442Hz or A=440Hz), do not try to re-tune it at once or in one move. First learn to improve its harmonization : improve individual notes, try to determine how the drift is spread other the piano (it is quite common that the medium has drifted more than the bass or the treble parts because of a more frequent usage). Look closely at the strings and tuning systems: are all strings and systems in good shape (no rust, regular winding, no excessive pinching, even outside length of tuning axes, etc.) ?

  • Good tuning is associated with good key subsystems : learn more about the mechanics, look at the hammers (are they moving silently, are they aligned with the strings angle, are they moving back in place quickly ?), at the felt (is it even from a key to another ? is it too marked by the strings ?).

EDIT

As promised. One good (but not as complete as it claims) reference in English, now in paperback is :

Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding: For the Professional, the Student, and the Hobbyist. Arthur Reblitz, 1997, 1-8795-1103-7

Beware, the same author made several books on piano construction, mechanical piano, history of piano-making.

There are tuning exercises and beat charts for a common tuning system.

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I'm not interested in becoming a good piano tuner. I'm interested in tuning my piano. As such much of your answer shoots to the side of the goal. :) –  Lennart Regebro Apr 27 '11 at 13:24
    
@Lennart Regebro : Agreed, sorry, I am not giving you a straight answer. As I have said, I am not sure you can learn to tune your piano without practicing with other pianos or having a correctly tuned piano as a reference. I think you can correct individual notes if you are careful, but retuning large parts of an instrument is something else altogether. I first learned myself by tuning several times over several months an old piano that I had inherited but I had already a piano that was recently tuned by a professional in the same location and I had a prior experience of tuning violins by ear. –  ogerard May 3 '11 at 6:13
    
In the video lessons I took, a C fork was suggested, and the old man gave the reason he uses an A. When someone is reviewing your work, they will say "How's your A" and it is less common to say "How's your C". Of course if you are on your own it does not matter, and it is personal preference. –  musicwithoutpaper Dec 19 '11 at 13:35

If you have good fine motor skills, can read and understand the section on tuning in the Reblitz book referred to by @ogerard, and learn to use a professional grade Electronic Tuning Device (ETD), I think your goal is entirely achievable.

But probably not in one day, maybe closer to a week, that's how long it took me to get to the first tuning I thought was "listenable," starting from scratch with an old upright I bought to learn on. I used the Tunelab software (in free trial mode).

Yes, you will make your piano's tuning worse, to start with, until you get good enough at it to satisfy yourself (or decide to call in a professional). Yes, you can cause serious damage to the pinblock of your piano if you are not careful, so I wouldn't recommend learning on your main piano, because the pinblock is a major component and can be expensive to repair.

Getting "good" at it takes some serious investment in time, energy, and practice. But for some people, it's worth it. After that first acceptable tuning, it took me a few months before I felt up to tuning my main piano, a small Chickering grand. A year after that, I passed the Piano Technicians Guild tuning exam, and now tune professionally. And my piano is always in better tune that it used to be before I headed down this path.

For decades, there has existed a raging debate in the piano technician community about aural vs. electronic tuning. I have learned and used both methods. My feeling is that it is easier and faster to learn to do an acceptable tuning electronically, than it is aurally. But that alone will not give you the understanding required to be able to tune professionally.

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Well, this is kind of late, but, no, you can not learn to tune a piano in a day.

Why do I say this? Well, I am a Registered Piano Tuner with the Piano Technicians Guild and I've been teaching piano tuning for eight years.

You can however learn a lot in a 20 hour basic crash course. But how well your tuning will sound after depends on your ear and aptitude.

My student's success rates, after 20 hours of instruction and supervised practice, are roughly:

Have a very poor understanding: 30%

Can finish the tuning but the piano sounds horrible: 30%

The final tuning is not great, but playable. Sounds like a piano that hasn't been tuned in a year: 30%

These students have an exceptional understanding of the concepts presented, and their final tunings are impressive: 10%

Potential of Students.

Percentage of students who can achieve professional results with practice: 25%

Percentage of students who could probably learn to tune their piano to their own standards: 50% (includes the previous 25%)

These statistics are subjective, from my experience teaching over 200 people to tune their own pianos.

You can break strings and round off the edges of the tuning pins with poor technique and poor tools.

You can drop the tuning hammer and chip the keys.

There is other damage that could be done just by being careless.

The Reblitz book is not great for tuning, IMHO.

Hope that answers your question.

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