You may have heard the saying: “Life is like a piano. What you get out of it depends on how you play it.” Well, what you get out of a piano may also depend on how often you tune it.
Why Do It? How Often?
A piano creates sounds when its padded hammers, connected to its keys, strike metal wires of different gauges and lengths. The sound produced by a vibrating piano wire alone is pretty weak. Similar to most stringed instruments, sound produced by a piano’s strings is amplified as a result of the vibrations being carried across a wooden “bridge” to a soundboard, which is a long, thin, wooden piece set into the piano. Soundboards are very delicate, and attract and lose moisture easily. As changing humidity levels make a soundboard expand or contract, the bridge is raised or lowered. That, in turn, tightens or loosens the string tension, causing the piano to become out of tune.
Since humidity levels change almost constantly, technically speaking, it is virtually impossible to keep a piano perfectly in tune. That’s why pianos used in concert halls and recording studios are tuned before each session.
Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of consensus among piano manufacturers and tuners about how frequently pianos used in homes should be tuned. Most experts recommend tuning once or twice per year. But some pianos will become out of tune faster than others because of their construction and the differences in humidity levels from region to region, home to home, and even room to room.
Ultimately, your own tolerance and usage will determine how often you’ll want to have your piano tuned.
It may be difficult for you to judge on your own whether or not your piano needs to be tuned. Since a piano becomes out of tune very slowly over time, you can actually become accustomed to the sound it creates—even if that sound is out of tune.
One way to judge is to listen carefully for inaccurate notes while playing simple scales and chords: notes that are out of tune will more easily reveal themselves when played before or after other, in-tune notes, or as part of common chords. Another way to tell by ear is to use a pitch fork (basic models cost between $20 and $60).
If you’re not confident that you can tell by ear whether your piano needs to be tuned, you can use an electronic tuner or software. Basic electronic tuners cost less than $50 and tuning software packages (used in conjunction with a computer equipped with a microphone) cost between $75 and $300. Tuning equipment and software used by professionals cost much more (and many tuners we spoke with warned that cheaper, basic equipment isn’t accurate).
Most musicians who play regularly have their pianos tuned twice a year: once in the spring and again in the fall.
If you play irregularly—or if you just don’t mind if your piano is slightly out of tune—you may have it tuned less often. But keep in mind that letting your piano become grossly out of tune will result in a higher bill when you finally have it corrected, since the piano tuner will have to adjust it at least two times: once to raise the overall pitch of the instrument, then another time to retune it. Several piano tuners we spoke with warned that if a customer waits until a piano is noticeably out of tune, it may take at least twice as long—with at least double the cost—to correct it. But if you have the tuning done rarely enough, the higher fees for the occasional tuning will be less than the cumulative costs of frequent tunings.
What Tuners Do
Almost all piano tuners adjust pianos according to the “A=440 Hz” standard, which means that when A-above-middle-C is played, the tone produced equals 440 Hertz (a standard, universal benchmark for tuning pianos, violins, and other instruments).
But tuning a piano isn’t as straightforward as just making sure that all notes match fixed pitches on the musical scale. Every piano is acoustically unique, and every piano is placed in different acoustical settings, so every piano produces a slightly different sound, even if every key is tuned to match perfectly its assigned pitch. If keys are tuned simply to match their respective pitch levels, the piano may still sound out of tune. For this reason, tuners usually make adjustments by ear as they work to ensure that the interaction between notes within each octave actually sounds correct, even if the notes are not perfectly in tune according to an electronic device.
Most tuners will use electronic devices when tuning pianos, but some eschew them. In any case, we don’t see any compelling reason to choose a tuner based on whether or not he or she uses electronic tuning equipment. Several piano tuners we spoke with said they would have no problem tuning any piano without electronic tuning equipment, but since the technology exists and is usually accurate, why not use it? For a skilled piano tuner, using electronic tuning equipment is akin to an experienced copy editor’s keeping spell check activated when writing.
Tuners will also check a piano’s “regulation” to make sure it properly responds when its keys are pressed. Ideally, the keys should be set to produce notes with proper sound levels at equal pressure; you don’t want to have to hit one key harder than another key to produce the same level of sound.
Most piano tuners also offer “voicing,” which is an adjustment of a piano’s tone and quality of sound. The tone and quality of sound can be adjusted without affecting the piano’s pitch just as the bass or treble settings on a stereo can be changed without altering the pitch of the notes. Voicing is a process in which extreme sounds are reshaped, excessively shrill trebles are mellowed, and offensively low tones are calmed. The idea is to make your piano “sing,” “croon,” or “bellow” in an intentional fashion.
While tuning work generally involves adjusting the tension of wires so that each key produces the correct pitch, voicing usually involves manipulating the shape and density of the hammer felts, string alignment, and pedal operation. Since voicing is tedious work, almost all tuners charge an additional fee for it. But unlike tuning, voicing work is long lasting, and usually only needs to be performed every three to five years.
Finding a Quality Tuner
It’s somewhat surprising that—even though piano tuning is a difficult, tedious job—just about all of the comments we’ve received for piano tuners have been positive. Examples of the accolades include—
- “[He] is a true artist. He is an exceptional piano tuner, and has also done some excellent repairs. He is knowledgeable in all aspects of the needs of a piano. I can’t recommend him highly enough.”
- “Always prompt, very accommodating about scheduling, and usually fixes one or two additional things on our 100-year-old piano without additional charges.”
- “He reconditioned my piano, came when it had a few kinks without extra charge, and tunes it as needed upon request. It’s about time for a tuning and I’ll be calling him soon.”
- “[He] is the only person I would trust around my 80-year-old Steinway grand piano. He is meticulous and extremely knowledgeable, and his prices are very fair.”
- “A good pianist himself with music background, easy to talk to, ready with information. I look forward to his biannual piano tuning—he reinspires my desire to play.”
To choose a tuner, talk with friends about experiences they’ve had. You can also check our ratings of piano tuners.
Everything else being equal, you may as well hire a piano tuner who is certified as a “Registered Piano Technician” (RPT) by the Piano Technicians Guild. Piano tuners who are certified as RPTs have passed a series of three exams that test general knowledge of piano technology as well as practical skill in piano repairs, action regulation, and timing. These tests are not easy; more than half of the tests taken are failed. Although there are competent piano tuners who are not certified, there are plenty who are, so you may as well take advantage of this quality check.
Keep in mind that piano tuners may be members of the Piano Technicians Guild without holding the RPT certification (these members are referred to as “Associates”). You can check the Piano Technicians Guild’s website to get a list of RPTs in your area.
No matter whom you hire, talk with your tuner about your likes and dislikes before he or she begins work—since every piano produces different sound, and individuals have different tastes and preferences. Once the job is complete, take your piano for a test drive; if it doesn’t sound right to you, ask the tuner for advice on whether or not further correction is needed.
Shopping for Price
Since customers seem to be overwhelmingly satisfied with their tuners, you may as well shop for price.
Our mystery shoppers called a sample of local piano tuners and asked them to quote prices to tune a 10-year-old, Steinway grand piano, which is played regularly, and was last tuned about one year previously. We found dramatic firm-to-firm price variation: the highest prices we were quoted were more than three times higher than the lowest prices.
We also asked tuners if the person who would be performing the tuning work was certified as an RPT. We found that on average certified tuners’ prices were somewhat higher than those of non-certified tuners, but there were some certified tuners who were among the lowest priced of all tuners.
Keep in mind that when we shopped for prices, we told tuners that our sample piano had been tuned about one year previously, and that we asked tuners to quote a price assuming that the piano’s pitch would only have to be raised slightly and that no voicing work would need to be done. Tuners for the most part charge a flat rate for tuning work, and then charge by the hour for other, non-routine tasks, such as voicing or raising the piano’s pitch. So you can expect a higher fee if your piano hasn’t been tuned for a long time or needs additional work.