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I've been hearing a hearsay all the time that if you didn't tune a piano for a long enough period, and it goes out of tune too much, it couldn't be tuned any more at all. When I asked why, I was told that the frame inside the piano goes out of shape when the strings lose their tension, and that this process was irreversible. However - now that I think about it, I don't really understand it any more. Things go out of shape when there is too much tension applied, not too little. Of course one could argue that the frame goes out of shape when it's not stressed evenly any more, but that seemed unlikely to me, because all the strings (and all the force vectors applied to the frame) point in the same direction. There isn't much room for the different forces to work opposingly.

So, long story short: given a piano, and not tuning it for a very very long time (everything else to be alright), will it be untunable after it reaches a certain degree of detuning? If so, how does this happen?

It'd be nice if you could back up your answer by some kind of credibillity / source material.

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    It may well happen on a piano with a wooden frame, but not with an iron frame. – Tim Mar 29 at 8:42
  • When I bought my piano, it was consistently a semitone flat. One tuner was reluctant to bring it up to concert pitch. Another was happy to. So: opinions vary. – badjohn Mar 29 at 14:10
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Everything else being all right, it's entirely possible to bring the piano back up to pitch after it has sat untuned for a long time.

I've done it many times. As MMazzon said, stability will definitely be a problem at first -- the piano will go back out of tune a lot faster than normal. The main cause of this is that the wire forms bends around several bearing points on its path between the tuning pin at one end and the hitch pin at the other. When you drastically change the tension on that wire, those bends end up in a slightly different place. Over a period of time, the old bend will relax and a new one will form, causing the string to go out of tune. So in order to get the instrument stable again, you have to keep retuning it as soon as it goes out. A typical recommended schedule after an extreme pitch raise is something like retuning in one month, then two months, then three... It works. Will it ever be AS stable as if it had never been neglected in the first place? Maybe not, but it'll be pretty good. Certainly tuneable.

Keep in mind, the cost of all those tunings kinda adds up, and that's where perhaps the greatest truth of the statement about a piano becoming "untuneable" comes from. Usually the kind of owner that will let their piano go for a decade without tuning, usually isn't going to be willing to go to the trouble or expense of having it retuned again that often.

Now for the implicit question that I dodged earlier: will everything else be all right?

That's a lot harder to answer, and I would venture nobody really knows. There are too many factors and they're pretty hard to measure. Making large changes in tension on the strings certainly isn't great for a piano. It tends to do things like work the bridge pins loose, stress various glue joints, etc.. But to a degree, they're built strongly enough to handle some of this. Consider that it's common practice in rebuilding shops to completely remove all the strings, work on the belly, and then restring. Usually with new strings (might as well), but not always! It works fine, as long as everything was still solid to begin with. You're putting stress on the parts, but as long as they were healthy they can handle it.

Another thing that comes into play is rusty strings. If the strings are rusty and the piano has fallen way below pitch, it may not be possible to bring them back up to pitch without breaking them. Whereas if the piano had been kept at pitch, they might still survive a more minor adjustment.

With a typical modern piano (late 1800s on), there shouldn't be any issues with the frame changing shape. The plate and bracing is so massive and stiff that it just doesn't move much.

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Unless the strings or the tuning pins are damaged and need replacing, a piano can always be tuned perfectly.

But the real question is: how well and how long will that piano hold the tuning?

A good quality piano which is tuned regularly becomes "well conditioned" and will hold the tuning well and for a long time.

On the other hand, even a good piano, if neglected, will lose its conditioning, and may not hold the tuning for very long.

In such a case -- i.e. after a piano has not been tuned for a long time -- it will have to be tuned a first time, then probably tuned again after a few days or a few weeks, and possibly one more time not very long afterwards, in order for it to settle back properly.

Afterwards, and as a rule of thumb, a home piano should ideally be tuned every 6 months or so to remain well conditioned and hold the tuning properly.

Concert and recording studio pianos, of course, are tuned or checked before every important event, but that's another thing...

(Source: conversations with a friend who is a professional piano tuner and technician. I also used to tune friends' neglected, dust-collecting pianos as a hobby.)

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  • Afterwards, and as a rule of thumb, a home piano should ideally be tuned every 6 months or so to remain well conditioned and hold the tuning properly. I think this depends a lot on weather. Here in Los Angeles, it would be kind of silly to tune a piano that often. – Ben Crowell Mar 29 at 15:25
  • @Ben Yes, it depends on weather, or rather, on how big and frequent are the temperature changes, on how much it is played, how hard it is played, quality of the parts, etc. But it also depends on how good your ear is, and how much you want to keep it near perfect. Keep in mind your ear gets used to deviations too. You may think your piano is in tune, but let a professional tuner give it a pass, and then you will realize how off it was, and how much better it is now. Of course, YMMV :) – MMazzon Mar 29 at 15:35
  • Down to one piano now, but when I had three in use, they were tuned about every 4-5 yrs. My one was tuned after a move about 5 yrs ago, and is still well in tune, and at concert pitch, and played every day. That's Northern Europe, in a studio that doesn't fluctuate much temperature or humidity wise. – Tim Mar 29 at 16:17

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