Instrument Care Blog

Restoring the Piano’s Pitch

Restoring pitch to a piano goes by several names. “Pitch raise,” or “re-pitch” are the most common, although there are other terms for the procedure as well. No matter what it‘s called, it refers to raising--or lowering--the pitch to a standard frequency level, usually 440 cycles per second at note number 37 (middle A) on the standard 88 note piano keyboard. Modern day pianos--those built after 1900--are built with this pitch level as the tonal frame of reference. Bands, orchestras and choral groups use this pitch reference as well, and it has become the standard in America. Hence, the term, “Concert Pitch.” A new piano should be at, or near concert pitch when it is delivered from the dealer’s show room. If you’re in doubt about this, ask a qualified piano technician, music teacher or other knowledgeable music person to help you determine the pitch level of your new instrument. When a piano has been allowed to change its pitch level away from A=440, in either direction--flat or sharp--more than ten cents (1/10 of a semitone), restoring its pitch is necessary. This is not only so that the piano sounds good and agrees with other instruments and singers, but it is necessary to prevent damage within the tonal parts of the instrument. The sound-board, strings, bridges and hammers are all affected by the overall tonal pitch level. These respond over time by adjusting to whatever level has been allowed to develop. As an example, the bass strings are weighted, according to the design model of the instrument, to speak their note within a few cents of the A=440 reference, either flat or sharp. When the tonal reference has been allowed to “slip” farther than the few cents mentioned above, these strings cannot speak their true notes. Tuning a piano in this condition is impossible. Pitch restoration is an exacting and time consuming procedure, and it is relatively expensive when compared to regular tuning care. It should be accomplished by an experienced piano technician, preferably one who is factory trained and familiar with the techniques in “chipping” or establishing the pitch level from -zero-. Pressure must be added to the harp plate, sound-board and string assemblies in increments since it increases exponentially as the instrument develops its true pitch level. Great care needs to be exercised not to damage these parts in this “crowning” process, considering the enormous pressure changes involved. This procedure usually takes from 8 to 12 hours to accomplish. When finished the piano should be allowed to sit for at least 72 hours, and then re-tuned. Subsequent tunings and other adjustments such as pin coil staking, harmonic bridge adjustments and tuning pin “set” may be required. It is important to keep your piano in good tune once its true pitch level has been established. Please contact us for questions you may have about your piano and its care.

The New Piano

The piano is an instrument made mostly of wood. Depending on its style and design, it has approximately 1,200 working parts and is engineered to sustain a constant string-pull pressure on the harp-plate of some 32,000+ pounds. More than 1,000 pounds of this is triangulated through the harmonic tone bridges to “float” on the sounding board itself. The sound you hear is not the strings at all, but the soundboard which is being energized by the highly tensioned, specially made, music wire strings. It also has features which produce the musical dynamics necessary to interpret the piano literature. The total life expectancy of a piano instrument is 40 to 50 years depending on both its use and care. After the instrument is built in the factory it is adjusted to all its specifications. Then, it is allowed to stand for several weeks so that its parts can “settle” into a certain expected integrity to become a sensitive musical instrument and fine furniture piece. During this time, the mechanism is repeatedly adjusted and the casework finish is completed. Also, the strings are pitched and tuned several more times. Only when the new piano maintains its expected qualities is it delivered to a dealer and sold to an eager customer. When the instrument finally finds its way to its new owner, it is necessary for the factory specifications to again be reviewed and adjusted. Depending on the arrangements with the dealer, this operation should be completed by a qualified piano technician within a few days after delivery. At this time it is again pitched, tempered, and tuned according to its intended use - usually at concert pitch and in equal temperament. Careful follow-up care is the responsibility the piano owner. Tuning and maintenance, including casework care on a regular basis, must be pursued throughout the life cycle of the instrument. This ensures the best possible performance of the piano and prevents serious tonal damage and overall deterioration from neglect. Generally speaking, minimum care requires that a new piano be serviced and tuned at least four (4) times in its first year of service and two (2) times yearly thereafter. As the new instrument ages and whenever its use pattern changes, it is important to review and discuss these aspects of follow-up care with the dealer or qualified piano technician. Thank you for choosing AAA Music Service to care for your piano instrument. Please feel free to call on us whenever you have a question or concern about your instrument and its care.

Piano Tuning Care

The piano is an acoustic stringed instrument. It usually has 88 different notes, each having one, two, or three separate strings. These strings are set into motion by felt faced hammers hitting each string or set of strings whenever a key is depressed. Most other stringed instruments such as the guitar and violin have just a few single strings which are either plucked or bowed to produce their note choices. All stringed instruments have a delicate balance in their dimensions and adjustments, and their strings always cross a “harmonic” bridge which floats in a special position on the soundboard. Whenever these instruments are tuned, the tension on the strings is changed. As a result, the pressure distribution produced by these changes determines the pitch level and intonation of the instrument. The piano is pitched and tuned by adjusting the tension of each individual string. This is done by tightening or loosening each one by means of turning the screw-like tuning pin to which it is attached. The total pressure of all the strings pulling together on the piano’s harp plate, at pitch level A=440, is circa 38,000 pounds. The corresponding bridge pressure at this pitch level is approximately 1,500 pounds. This “bridge pressure” presses downward through the harmonic bridges onto the soundboard and produces the tonal balance, or intonation, we commonly call “tuning.” It is critical to maintain this pressure balance throughout the life of the piano in order to preserve its tone and serviceability. Serious damage is done to the instrument whenever its tuning “pressure” is allowed to relax or change more than just slightly. Regular maintenance service and tuning is recommended at regular intervals, and should only be performed by a qualified piano technician. The frequency of maintenance service and tuning depends on how the piano is being used and the atmospheric conditions in which it is kept. The more frequently a piano is used, and how often it is subjected to temperature and humidity changes, determine how fast the tonal balance changes and how often these services should take place. Even with no use at all, the piano requires service and tuning twice a year in order to preserve its pitch level, intonation and mechanical reliability. The tuning and general maintenance care of the piano instrument is a very important factor in its performance life and should be carefully considered with a piano dealer or qualified piano technician. Thank you for choosing Piano Tuners of Texas to tune and maintain your piano. Please feel free to call on us whenever you have a question or concern about your instrument.

Piano Strings

Piano strings are the wires which are stretched between the tuning pins and end pins on the harp plate. These wires are made from a specially formulated steel alloy which has been drawn through a die. Then, they are ground to the exact diameters required to generate and sustain the frequency of the piano’s individual note-tones. The treble notes are made of bare steel music wire in varying diameters. The tenor and bass notes are made of the same wire which has been weighted with copper wire windings. Collectively, these “strings” produce the frequencies and strength required to energize the sounding board for the various notes of the instrument. With prudent use and care, the piano’s strings should last the working life of the piano or about 40 to 50 years. Maintaining the piano’s strings needs to be part of the normal routine of regular piano care. They should be properly seated and kept clean as possible at all times. Also, the respective tuning pin coils need to be kept tightly closed and free from dirt and dust as possible. All these parts should be inspected regularly, and cleaned and adjusted when necessary. When a piano string breaks, it is usually due to unintended misuse by the player. Other occasions such as moving, improper storage, or unwise room placement can also harm the strings and cause them to break. When a string breaks, careful consideration to determine the cause needs to be pursued since replacement and repair is an expensive addition to routine maintenance and tuning costs. Also, permanent damage to the tone bridges and sounding board may result. Whenever string repair or replacement becomes necessary, the procedure should be accomplished by a well trained and experienced piano repair technician. The condition of the strings and their associated parts is critical to the way the piano performs. Careful attention to playing technique, as well as overall mechanical and tonal maintenance, is necessary in the continuing care of the instrument. As the piano ages and its use pattern changes, the condition of its strings and other parts should be discussed with the dealer or qualified piano technician. Thank you for choosing AAA Music Service to care for your piano instrument. Please feel free to call on us whenever you have a question or concern about your instrument and its care.

Pitch, Temperament and Tuning of the Piano

The pitch of the piano is its reference tone level. This is usually stated as the beginning note of the temperament system of tuning and carries a number indicating the frequency in cycles per second (c.p.s.) such as A=440 or C=523.3, and so on. A variety of tone generators, such as the pitch pipe or tuning fork, can be used to establish the pitch of the beginning note of the tuning system. Then, several methods to accomplish a reference octave can be used. All the notes remaining are then tuned to these (reference) notes. The temperament is the system of interval relationships within the reference octave mentioned above. Using the beginning note as the starting point, a reference scale, otherwise known as the “temperament octave,” is completed using any one of several systems to establish the intervals in this sample scale of notes. Most commonly, the notes of the temperament octave are set so that each speaks a consistently diminutive frequency of the note just previous. This system is known as “equal temper.” Although it is the most widely accepted and friendly temperament in the modern music community, there are some 360 different systems in use. Most are historic variations which favor certain key signatures or interval patterns in order to produce the tone color requirements in literature specific performances. Considering the physical characteristics of the piano, tuning is the aurally accurate distribution of the uneven pressure of all the strings pressing together on the instrument’s sounding board through its harmonic bridges. The piano is engineered so that this pressure arrangement across the entire scope of notes is consistent with a reasonable choice of pitch and temperament. When the instrument is in tune, the sounding board has been forced into a slightly truncated shape, or “crown,” forming the acoustic resonator which is responsible for the bell like tones we recognize as piano music. In relative time, the slow stretch of the strings causes the sounding board’s crown to change slightly and the instrument is “out of tune.” It is important to observe the tonal condition of your instrument at all times, and have it pitched, tempered, and tuned regularly by a qualified piano technician. Thank you for choosing AAA Music Service to care for your piano instrument. Please feel free to call on us whenever you have a question or concern about your instrument and its care.

Aural (ear) Tuning

Standard aural tuning is often based on two, or at most three, specific tone intervals, viz., the dominant 5ths, sub-dominant 4ths and, occasionally, the sub-mediant 6ths in a single octave subset of twelve notes called the “temperament octave.” Then, this basic octave is expanded in octave intervals over the remaining scope of notes until all the notes are “in tune.” The limitation of this system is the very small group of intervals used in the tempering and expansion process. The result is that the chord structures in the music have very little of the integrity essential to the literature being played. The majority of practicing tuners in today’s music community rely heavily on electronic tuning devices known as “ETD’s.” These units measure only three to five notes to produce a mathematically rendered “tuning” for the instrument in question. As a result, there is almost no consideration given to the interval relationships of the different notes as required in the music to be played. Also, these units do not “hear” the acoustic reactions of the room to the notes and intervals being tuned. Conversely, the traditional aural--or ear--tuning procedure is to compare the notes to one another and test them by using the basic intervals previously described. This produces a far more acceptable result than the electronic device. In contrast to the traditional aural method described above, a far wider range of “interval accuracy” is required in order to establish the tonal qualities in demand by most all serious piano players. Musicians do not limit themselves to a certain number of interval relationships, but express their music in a wider range of tone combinations as required by the literature they play. These artistic concerns are rarely reflected in traditional tuning methods. The technicians at Piano Tuners of Texas have developed a more complex system in which a far wider variety of intervals is used. Based on their prevalence in the music literature, major 3rds and 6ths, and minor 3rds and 6ths, in addition to 4ths, 5ths, 7ths, 9ths, 10ths and 12ths are used to establish a reference “temperament.” The remaining notes are then tuned by expanding this temperament by octaves. Finally, the entire scope of notes is tested and adjusted using the intervals described. An exceptionally accurate tuning in both the temperament and its expansion over the remaining notes is the result. Thank you for choosing Piano Tuners of Texas to maintain your piano instrument., Please feel free to call on us whenever you have a question or concern about your instrument and its care. --Click HERE to return to the main page-- The pipe organ is a mechanically motivated wind instrument which operates by pressing keys on a keyboard to allow slightly compressed air to flow through specially made tone generators know as “organ pipes.” Same as all other relatively complex mechanical devices it requires extraordinary skills to operate and play, and it must work exceptionally well in order to support the choreography which we normally associate with its use. The average pipe organ has hundreds of working parts and requires routine maintenance care as well as occasional major repairs in order to perform as expected. Most usually its main purpose is to deliver music on a regular basis; therefore, it needs to be kept in good tune and all its working parts need to be in reliable working condition at all times. Regular tuning and maintenance care is recommended at least twice yearly. Major repairs are usually completed as necessary. Although pipe organs have reasonably predictable patterns of wear and tear, major repair issues depend on the mechanical style, design complexity and quality of each individual instrument as well as its use patterns and installation environment. These repairs include procedures such as: tonal work, pipe-work cleaning and repair, leather work, general chassis repair, and the replacement of parts that are worn out. It is not necessary for tuning and repair issues to come as a surprise or present unwelcome budget burdens Skillful planning is the key to the instrument’s continued performance and longevity, and an experienced pipe organ builder is the best resource for consultation and advice in the areas of pipe organ ownership and maintenance. Each individual instrument has a finite life span according to its environment and how it is used. Although its service life is quite long--usually 40 to 50 years--the pipe organ finally wears out so that regular care is no longer cost effective and it needs to be rebuilt or replaced. At this time it should be evaluated according to the music program it serves and plans need to be made accordingly. This process should be accomplished in a goal oriented way by music sensitive people who have the best interests for the future use of the instrument and the music program it supports in mind. An experienced pipe organ builder can provide guidance as well as a variety of possibilities and options to consider. Thank you for choosing Piano Tuners of Texas to assist in the care of your pipe organ. Please feel free to call on us whenever you have a question or concern about your instrument and its care.

The Piano and Its Room Enclosure

The piano is an acoustic instrument. That is, the instrument itself is energizing the room or other space in which it is located instead of being a substitute sound source such as a recording or electronic sound synthesizer. The amount of sound a piano produces depends on its scale and the condition of its mechanism and sounding board. The way its sound fills an enclosure depends on the shape and size of the auditory space. Also, its placement in that (auditory space) is critical. Materials such as carpeting, wall coverings, window dressings, and the presence of an audience, also affect the tonal level and effectiveness of a piano’s sound. As with all acoustic instruments, the piano is limited in power and volume. Its power is its strength to penetrate a given space with sound, and its volume is the decibel level of loudness of the sound it produces. These are two very different properties and each must be carefully considered when placing an instrument. Also, auditorium size and shape, audience density, sound reverberation and decay, and even the literature to be performed should be carefully considered for the piano’s installation to be successful. Sound never contracts, it always expands, and it never propagates itself naturally. It is only reflected around corners, and it moves into smaller spaces in direct relation to its open expansion pattern. Although sensitive to the reverberation qualities of a given space, it decays at a rate consistent with the combined acoustical qualities of its auditory enclosure. The ideal location for a piano is 1/4 to 1/3 the way up the elevation at the small end of the room speaking down its long side. The larger room should expand slightly in height and width at a 7 to 12 degree angle from the sound source to enhance the sound’s egress. The lid or other reflective tone opening of the instrument should face directly into the auditorium allowing the sound to expand freely. Sound absorbing materials such as, carpeting, wall coverings, and window dressings should be kept to a minimum. The placement of a piano in a suitable space is critical to the nature of its sound and professional advice is recommended whenever there is a question concerning this venue. The experienced piano dealer, acoustician or qualified piano technician can answer most questions in this area and make reference to the proper professionals in special situations. Thank you for choosing Piano Tuners of Texas to maintain your piano instrument. Please feel free to call us when you have questions about your instrument and its care.

The Piano Action Mechanism

In addition to considering the musical properties of the piano, we must also take into account its mechanical characteristics. The key-bed and other tray action parts, as well as the pedal trap mechanism and its related parts, are complex working assemblies. These impart the intentions of the pianist to the musical parts of the piano. With few exceptions these parts are made of wood. The bearing surfaces and stationary contact points are made of various grades of pressed or woven cloth, and the hammers are covered with specially processed wool felt. The piano’s keys are actually simple, type-class A, levers. That is, the fulcrum or balance point is near the center of the length of the key with the effort (pianist’s fingers) and resistance (key’s action) on opposite ends. Each key is made of a dimensionally stable material--usually wood--with its own guide pins and felt bearing surfaces, and each one can be regulated independently. The note action assembly or “whippen” is the escapement device which is activated by the resistance end of the key. This part moves the hammer and its shank carriage piece and is responsible for the hammer’s strike and immediate release. This produces the bell-like sounds we recognize as piano music. The damper action is also activated by the key as it is depressed, and it silences its note as soon as the key is released. Depressing the pedals causes the (damper) action to sustain, soften or hold some or all of the notes during playing. This enhances the agogic style and dynamic intentions of the player. Together, these mechanical parts of the piano form a complex machine composed of hundreds of wooden parts and assemblies along with a few metal and/or plastic units. Some have carefully machined working profiles with tiny axles and felt covered bearing surfaces, and many have small springs, adjustment screws, and pads of leather or felt. The hammers and dampers are covered with finely milled wool felt, and the keys and pedal parts are very carefully made to accommodate the players movements. Maintaining the piano’s “machinery” at all times is important in order for it to perform as expected. It is recommended that the piano be tuned and serviced regularly by a qualified piano technician to preserve both its tonal stability and mechanical integrity. Thank you for choosing Piano Tuners of Texas to maintain your piano instrument. Please feel free to call us when you have questions about your instrument and its care.