Historic temperaments

Historic temperaments

I play mostly baroque music and would love to hear it in an historic temperament. Would this be something my tuner could do for me? I don’t think I could manage it myself. Any properly qualified tuner should be able to do this for you although the whole subject of temperaments is fraught with argument and opinion. Check with your tuner if he is willing to change from equal temperament (ET) to an alternative and ask which one he recommends or is happy to do, as there are many to choose from! Some tuners may be most unwilling to deviate from ET either because they are unable or not confident in doing so or because they believe that unequal temperaments belong to the past and have no place on a modern piano. This is unfortunate as playing a piece in the temperament it was written in can be very revealing and open up a whole new world of sound which has been hidden by equal temperament. Bear in mind that ET has only been in universal use for the last hundred years – until then pianos were tuned to all sorts of different tuning temperaments; it could even be said that every tuner had a version of the temperament he was taught to tune in which was slightly different to every other tuner.When we listen to a recording of The Forty-Eight in equal temperament, we are rather missing the point – the subtleties of Bach’s choice of intervals and other musical decisions remain inaudible. Most editions of this music carry a facsimile of the original title page – a...
Electronic Tuning Devices

Electronic Tuning Devices

I’ve always been happy with my piano tuner but last time I noticed he was referring to a program on a pocket PC and tuned all the notes consecutively from bass to treble. I’m not sure what to think about this – isn’t it cheating to use a machine? There can’t be many fields of human endeavour where keeping up with the latest technology causes so much suspicion and mistrust! In the case of piano tuning this probably originates from the idea of tuners having the gift of superhuman hearing; that tuners are born, not made. The mundane truth is that good tuners are the result of good training and experience and that any tool is only as efficient as the person operating it. Electronic Tuning Devices (ETDs) have come a long way in the last few years and are nothing like the fixed frequency tuner you may use to tune your stringed instrument. These are dedicated piano tuning instruments designed to replicate the listening process to a degree of accuracy possibly exceeding that of the human ear. If your tuner has started to use an ETD then the net gain should be a more accurately tuned piano. The other point to be made is that listening is only a part of what the tuner does – actually setting the tuning pin so that the tuning remains stable after prolonged heavy playing requires just as much skill. Although ETDs are not cheap, there is nothing to stop an unqualified ‘tuner’ from acquiring and using one to tune your piano. If, however, you employ a Member of the PTA then...
Flat or sharp?

Flat or sharp?

When my piano was last tuned the tuner informed me that the pitch was slightly high – how could this be? I always assumed that pianos went flat over time, not sharp. You are right in thinking that the general trend, over time, is for the pitch of a piano to drop due to the great tension exerted on the strings and frame – something has to give and if left long enough the pitch will inevitably drop. However, in the short term other factors come into play. Bearing in mind that the piano is constructed from many different materials, humidity and temperature have considerable effect on the tuning and its stability. Too little humidity and the soundboard, being made of wood, will shrink allowing the strings to relax a little of their tension with a resultant drop in pitch. This usually happens during the winter months when the central heating is running and the air is drier. Conversely, if the summer months are particularly humid or damp, the soundboard can easily absorb the extra moisture and swell, forcing the bridges upwards which then have the effect of tightening the strings and raising the pitch. Unless you are particularly anxious for the piano to be at concert pitch at the time of tuning, it is probably best to leave the pitch slightly high as it will fall again when the humidity falls. This annual ‘breathing’ of the soundboard is one of the reasons why piano tuners are so welcomed twice a...
Noisy tuner

Noisy tuner

When my tuner is tuning my piano, he hits the keys very hard almost as if he’s angry with it! Is this normal? I’m a little afraid that something will break. To tune a piano successfully, several things are happening, all of which have to be attended to if the piano is to sound in tune even when the tuner has finished. The piano string is under great tension and the forces that hold it in place must be strong enough to keep that tension for as long as possible until the next tuning is due in about six months. The speaking length of the string is defined by the bridge at the bottom end and the capo d’astro bar or agraffe at the wrest pin end. So there are now three different portions of string; the speaking length, and two non-speaking lengths; one between the agraffe and the wrest pin and the other between the bridge pins and the hitch pin which anchors the end of the string to the frame. When the tuner makes an adjustment to the wrest pin he is altering the tension of the string but unfortunately not evenly between the three different sections of the string. If the movement on the tuning lever is to tighten the string (raise the pitch) the portion between the agraffe and wrest pin will have a higher tension than the speaking length because the agraffe will be preventing some of the tension from releasing itself into the rest of the string. Similarly, if the wrest pin is turned to lower the pitch of the note, the top...
Twangy strings

Twangy strings

Why do some of the strings sound ‘twangy’ on my upright piano? I don’t have a very good ear for pitch but my piano is a lovely Steinway model K. When did you last have the piano tuned? A piano needs tuning regularly, particularly one such as yours which will most probably have a very clear tone and therefore show the slightest movement out of tune. There are three aspects to tuning a piano; temperament, octaves and unisons, all of which must be addressed very carefully by the tuner if the result is to sound satisfactory. The temperament scale is the first octave set by the tuner where the pitch of each note is set against every other note in the scale so that the resultant tuning will be in equal temperament, enabling the pianist to play in any key. Octaves are then set to this temperament, slightly rising in the treble and falling in the bass. The final aspect of tuning is setting the unisons (the two or three strings which comprise one note) so that they sound as one. It is the unisons that are the first to be noticed going out of tune by most people and that is when they sound ‘twangy’. Because the piano is a ‘live’ instrument, sometimes unisons go out and then back into tune according to the weather. If the piano is persistently twangy, it’s time to call the...
Tuner competence?

Tuner competence?

How do I know if my piano tuner has done a good job? This is not as easy to answer as it first seems. The tuner is listening to the sounds of the strings whereas the average person is listening to the piano as a whole. Unless you are able to accurately distinguish the ‘beats’ set up between different pitches then you will have to rely on the overall sound of the finished instrument – does it sound pleasing to your ears? If not, try asking your tuner why; a satisfactory answer might include either the condition of the sounding parts or the quality of manufacture. Look also at the professionalism of your tuner – if he appears businesslike, confident and disciplined then this is likely to be reflected in the way he tunes your piano. Try to choose a tuner who has been recommended to you by someone whose opinion you can trust or find a Member of the PTA. He or she will have passed a stringent test of...