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I usually tune my guitar and violin whenever I play them. I assume most people do too. But what makes piano strings different?

I know it is a lot of work to tune a piano, but I'm under the assumption that pianos do not need to be tuned as often as say a guitar.

Is this incorrect?

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    My piano should/could be tuned each time I have played on it. But by reasons of costs I tune it only once a year or 2 years. – Albrecht Hügli Dec 29 '19 at 10:02
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    @AlbrechtHügli But they stay in tune longer and more consistently than other string instruments, that's what OP is talking about ;) – Von Huffman Dec 30 '19 at 13:01
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    Yes, and as Ojs says in his answer it's not the strings that are more stable it's the system of the cast of iron frame. I meant the same but I am lacking of the vocabulary to explain this. I was thinking of this metal wall when I wrote in another comment that the humidity is the bigger problem. My piano was standing for years in a front of glass exposed to the sun and the piano tuner told me that the nails that hold the strings aren't anymore fix in the wall and not because of the temperature but because the wood was become too dry. To avoid this you can put a bottle with water inside. – Albrecht Hügli Dec 30 '19 at 13:19
  • The explanation sounds really odd to me. The strings are fixed to metal frame with rather heavy screws. – ojs Dec 30 '19 at 18:46
  • Direct sunshine brings large temperature changes, and I think they would be better explanation for loose tuning pegs. In contrast, my parents have a piano that hasn't been tuned in at least 20 years. The winters are very dry here, but the piano still sounds fine. The entire instrument is roughly 20 cents flat, but apparently it is a choice made by the tuner in 90s. – ojs Dec 30 '19 at 18:58
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Piano strings are attached to a cast iron frame, also known as harp. Cast iron is much less sensitive to humidity and temperature changes than wood. This is the main reason why they stay in tune relatively well. In contrast, harpsichords are somewhat similar but their frames are made of wood and they require much, much more tuning.

Other factors are that that pianos aren't usually moved and won't get knocked out of tune. They usually require tuning after moving. The metal strings are stable once initially settled, unlike synthetic or gut strings. Playing the piano also doesn't involve touching the strings with your hands, which puts dirt and moisture on the strings.

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  • That's what I meant too. To avoid that the wood wall where the strings are fixed becomes too dry you can put an open bottle with water on the floor of the piano (inside of the resonance corpus). – Albrecht Hügli Dec 30 '19 at 13:22
  • What I mean is that the harp is cast iron, and both ends of the strings are fixed to it. The harp is in turn attached to wooden frame and soundboard, which can bend the harp when it expands and contracts. Since cast iron is stiffer, humidity changes have less effect than with instruments made entirely from wood. Humidifiers still help with staying in tune and especially with keeping action in good shape. – ojs Dec 30 '19 at 15:53
  • I admit it's poor choice of words. The idea was that since you don't touch the strings with your hands, they don't develop the same kind of tuning problems that you get with old guitar strings. I edited the anwer. – ojs Dec 30 '19 at 19:43
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Most pianos can hold their tuning quite well, but can do so only under ideal conditions. Because pianos weigh quite a bit they tend to not get moved around very much and are usually kept where temperature and humidity hold a fairly steady level over an extended period of time. Expose a piano to the same conditions that smaller more portable instruments are subject too and you find they need to be tuned quite often. Move a piano and it will probably need tuning. Expose it to considerable temperature change, either hot or cold, and it will probably need to be tuned. Although piano strings are considerably heavier in weight and gauge, they are still susceptable to the laws of physics just the same as violins and guitars.

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    Temperature is less important than humidity. – Albrecht Hügli Dec 29 '19 at 10:00
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    @Albrecht Hügli have you ever played outdoors? If not, you've probably reached the (incorrect) conclusion that temperature is less important than humidity because the range of indoor temperatures is quite narrow. – phoog Dec 29 '19 at 14:17
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    I doubt that OP was wondering about the detuning of pianos in the snow. (I've often played out-door on pianos and guitars when caroling.) My comment was concerning the stable positioned piano and not the portable string instruments of course. btw. and I a think I wanted to post this comment below Tim answering: he mass of a piano also means its tuning is more stable, but over time it will still go out of tune, humidity and temperature differences being the main culprits and not here: * Expose it to considerable temperature change, either hot or cold, and it will probably need to be tuned.* – Albrecht Hügli Dec 29 '19 at 15:50
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    Another point to be made is about the cost and difficulty of tuning a piano, most folks don't wish to pay for a tuners services on a weekly basis and will accept having a instrument in the house that may be slightly out of tune. Violins and guitars don't have that problem. – skinny peacock Dec 29 '19 at 16:50
  • @AlbrechtHügli the problem is that the humidity changes with temperature and heavy piano is like a heatsink. Let hot air flow around a very cold piano and your instrument will be covered by dew. Cast iron (metal) fine details (string rolls) are the points where the water will accumulate easily. – Crowley Dec 31 '19 at 19:27
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They do, and they are! But only really with concert grands prior to a concert. Not as far out as maybe a guitar or violin might be, but just a subtle tweaking.

Guitar and violin, for starters, have exposed tuners which get knocked easily - in and out of its case, for example. Pianos are different. The mass of a piano also means its tuning is more stable, but over time it will still go out of tune, humidity and temperature differences being the main culprits - which also affect guitars and violins more rapidly, and to a greater degree as well.

Stretching strings on guitars will affect tuning, and that's one thing we don't do on pianos!

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    As the technician for a small Jazzclub, I can attest that not just "Superstars" but also national and even regional artists require in their riders that the piano must be tuned at least "x" hours before the soundcheck and must not be moved after that. In addition to that, some artists require the piano to be re-tuned before the concert as well. The most extreme case I heard about was an artist who required two fully tuned Steinberg grands and would play both of them during soundcheck and then choose the one which sounded and felt better. – Jörg W Mittag Dec 30 '19 at 23:14
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    @JörgWMittag - 'at least x hrs' - or 'at most x hrs'? Wonder if they knew what they were asking... – Tim Dec 31 '19 at 7:52
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In critical concert and studio situations the piano WILL be tuned before each performance, and sometimes even 'touched-up' during it.

But the design and construction of a piano is such that they hold tuning pretty well, and in domestic situations tuning twice a year or even less frequently can be practically sufficient.

Other instruments can hold tuning too. In Carol Kaye's instruction book - bible to a generation of bass guitar players - she recommends checking the tuning 'at least once a week'!

A friend, who used to stay with me when he visited London, died 10 years ago. He left an acoustic guitar at my house. When I opened the case recently, it was still perfectly in tune!

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  • Google image search reveals this is Clinton Ford. I'm afraid I've never heard of him, but now I've found his name I may check his music out. – Level River St Dec 29 '19 at 23:02
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    Thanks for mentioning Carol. What a career! – Tim Dec 30 '19 at 12:39
  • I know he was your friend Laurence, but an answer is not the right place for the last little bit of your answer. If you want you can put that info in your profile and have a link to it. – Dom Jan 2 at 15:20
  • Sad to be so against serendipity in a forum concerned with an art that captures our emotions! – Laurence Payne Jan 2 at 17:14
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It very much depends on strings and their fixtures. Pianos have steel strings on a steel frame: short of moving the piano or changing temperatures, not a lot happens here.

On a violin, the E string usually is a steel string as well and mostly needs fine tuning. Guitars similarly: steel strings need less tuning action than nylon strings, so concert guitar players tend to spend more time tuning than, say, Western guitar players (which is a tiny saving grace for 12-string guitars).

But wooden neck and corpus still move more under different temperature/humidity than a cast-iron frame.

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