How to tune a piano
In this short manual we would like to try to help people,
who have little to no experience with piano tuning, on their way to start
tuning. We strongly advice you to read this whole manual, so you will know what
tuning is all about, before you start tuning your valuable instrument.
You must realize that tuning isn't something you learn in a
heartbeat. It takes a certain dose of perseverance and self-criticism to learn
to tune a piano to a reasonable level. Many tuners using Dirk's Piano Tuner are
reaching a level of tuning they thought unreachable.
Some knowledge about the great varieties of upright pianos
and grand pianos and their technology with all its details may be useful too.
You should be able to recognize any deviations and occurring "side
effects" and be able to solve them if needed.
Now about tuning in practice: First some imperative tools
for piano tuning:
The Tuning Hammer. You can turn the tuning pins with this
"lever". More about this "turning" later on. Buy a good
Tuning Hammer, because a good Tuning Hammer gives you more feeling and better
control during tuning. The Hammer shouldn't be too light or too long. The
stiffer (less flexible) the Tuning Hammer is, the better the feeling with the
tuning pins is. The "head" must be star-shaped to fit the square
tuning pins. There are different sizes of tuning pins, so make sure you buy the
right size Tuning Hammer for your tuning pins.
The star-shape gives you the possibility to put your Tuning
Hammer in different positions on your tuning pins. This way you can always put
the hammer in the most suitable position.
A Tuning Hammer with exchangeable head is recommended, when
you are planning to tune more than one piano. You can put different heads with
different sizes and lengths on this hammer suitable for any kind of tuning pin.
A dealer can give you good advice about this.
Second: Mutes, Tweezers and Felt Strips. These tools are
used to mute strings that aren't supposed to be heard during tuning. You'll
need some rubber Mutes for muting strings. Some Mutes with a metal wire handle
are recommendable too. Especially for instruments were there isn't enough space
everywhere for the normal Mutes.
Plastic reverse operating Tweezers are available for use in
upright pianos. Those Tweezers must be (gently!) maneuvered between the hammer
shafts. They are used to mute two adjacent strings or the two outer strings of
a unison so you can tune the inner string. A unison is a set of three (middle
section and treble side) or two bass strings that are equally tuned and that
belong to one tone.
These Tweezers are especially used on the treble side
(highest notes, shortest strings) of the piano, where there is no room for the
normal Mutes. So these keys activate a hammer that hits two or three equally
There are also flexible Felt Strips in different thicknesses
available. These Strips are mostly used in grand pianos. You can loop these
Strips around all (left and right) outer strings of a unison to mute those strings,
so only inner strings will sound. Some people prefer this method above the
Mutes, because they say it works faster.
With the dual string unisons you always skip one space so
you can alternately tune a left and a right string of the successive tones.
It is recommendable to use a flat aluminum or wooden tool
when applying these Strips. Make sure not to hit the soundboard with this tool,
because you might damage the soundboard. It is also very important to press the
sustain pedal (the pedal which allows you to lift all dampers lightly at once)
down to prevent damage or deformation of the damper felts by the lateral
movements of the strings. Be sure to press the sustain pedal down again when
you want to remove the Strip. Put your flat hand on the strings (be sure to
wear gloves to prevent oxidation of the strings) while removing the Strip so
you won't cause big movements of the strings, which could lead to damage to the
dampers. Uncontrolled actions could also lead to the detuning of your instrument.
Now something about the turning of the Tuning Pins. One
thing is important with turning the pins: minimal movement, sometimes you can't
speak of turning at all. First you've got to find out if you need to increase
or decrease the pitch. When you start tuning it is saver to tune your string
downward a little to prevent that you tune your string to tight, which can lead
to overstretching of your string which in turn can lead to deformation or
breaking of the string. Practicing these minimal movements is essential for
developing a good feeling. A good feeling is essential for a good tuning
result. We advice you to practice this before moving on to tuning the piano.
Begin with muting some outer strings of some unisons with
Mutes. Don't do anything with the inner strings and place the Tune Hammer on
the Tuning Pin of an outer string that isn't muted.
Try to put a little bit of pressure on the Tuning Hammer, to
the left because you want to decrease the pitch, but without turning the pin.
Listen carefully at what you hear. Increase the pressure on the Tuning Hammer a
little bit, when you don't hear a difference. Increase the pressure until you
start hearing beats. When you start hearing beats it means that there is now
pitch difference between the inner string and the outer string. The larger the
difference, the faster the beat. When you let go of the Tuning Hammer now (and
you didn't!! turn the Pin), the Pin will return to its former position and the
pitch difference will disappear because of this. This is of great importance to
the tuning later on. What did happen here? All you can see of the Tuning Pin is
only half of the actual Pin. The invisible part of it is clamped into the pin
block and keeps it real tightly clamped which prevents that the string can
Putting just a little bit of pressure on the Tuning Hammer
makes the Tuning Pin twist a little. This flexibility is "just" a
property of the material. The material is to some extend "elastic"
even though it's made of quality steel. At the place where the Pin is clamped
into the pin block, there is so much resistance, that the Pins won't always
return to their former position, when you turn them. It's your duty during
tuning to help the Pins with this, because otherwise the strings will do this
for you when you play the piano and this will lead to detuning of the piano.
This process is called setting the pins and is vital for a stable tuning. You
must therefore ensure that the pins will stand in a clear rest position, so you
can contribute to this stable tuning. This is one of the hardest parts of
tuning! You can check this by hitting the key harder a couple of times and
listen if there are changes or not.
This takes us to the point of the Tuning Stability: When you
look at the total length of the string in the piano, you will discover that you
can divide the string into three sections. The first part, starting from the
tuning pin, is the section of the string that doesn't vibrate. That section of
the string runs over a fixed point that may be implemented in different ways
depending on the location and the type of instrument. Those fixed points are
the agraffes and the capo (if any). The second section of the string is the so
called free vibrating section of the string. The hammer head hits this section
of the string. It's the sounding part of the string. This section of the string
runs over the bridge, which is attached to the soundboard. The first fixed
point (seen from the keyboard) up to the bridge determines the sounding section
of the string. The bridge is the second fixed point that the string runs over.
The third section of the string is a (second) non-vibrating section of the
string. It runs from the bridge to the end of the string and its attachment
point, the so called string pegs.
But we were still talking about Tuning Stability. You can
imagine that a relatively high resistance exists on the two fixed points, where
the string "shifts" over during tuning (or when changing the string
tension), partly because of the high string tension. That resistance can lead
to tension differences between the three sections of the string. If you let
this difference exist, it will level out while playing the piano and that will
fairly quickly detune the piano. Hitting the key several times hard will make
sure that the tensions in the three sections of the string become equal. It is
recommended to tune the pitch a little bit higher first and then tune down to
the preferred pitch while hitting the key repeatedly. Hitting the key will help
the string run over the fixed points easier. By tuning the pitch a little
higher, the string tension will help reaching the right pitch.
You'll have to develop the ability to get the tuning pin
into a clear rest position, to eliminate string tension differences and to
finally reach the right pitch.
Now something about what happens, when we do have to turn
the tuning pins. The tuning pins are clamped into the pinblock. The pins are
pretty stuck in the block. You'll have to overcome a lot of resistance to get
the pin to turn around. The tension of the string will help you, when you want
to tune the pitch of the string down. When you want to tune the pitch higher
you'll have to overcome the resistance of the pins and also the tension of the
string. How do we tune higher or lower? There is a difference between the grand
piano and the upright piano on this matter. We'll tell you about it below.
First the upright piano. Take a good look at the tuning pin
and the way the string is attached to the pin. The string leaves the tuning pin
and goes down to the bottom of the piano, to the left. You'll have to
understand that turning the pin left will lower the string tension and will
also lower the pitch. Turning to the right will have the opposite effect and
will make the pitch go up.
What about the grand piano? Well it is not very different
from the upright piano, but you'll have to notice the differences to make no
mistakes while tuning.
The string leaves the pin on the right side of the pin and
runs to the "tail" of the grand piano (when we look from keyboard to
tail). You'll have to understand that the pitch/string tension will get higher
when you turn the tuning pin to the right. Turning left will make everything go
down. It is important that you respect the structural differences between a
grand and an upright, because the way the Tuning Hammer is placed and moved is
very different with grand pianos or upright pianos.
With an upright piano it is best to place the handle of the
Tuning Hammer in an upright position a little to the right of a vertical line.
Looking at clock time place the Hammer at about 1 o'clock.
Turn the Tuning Hammer to the right to make the pitch go up.
With the grand piano place the handle of the Tuning Hammer
to the right and slightly away from you. Seen from above it stands at about two
Pull the Tuning Hammer towards yourself to get the pitch to
We'll still have to explain one of the most important parts
of tuning to complete this explanation: The motion of the pin and which pin we
have to turn.
You will notice that there is a lot of difference in the
feeling between turning pins. You will notice this in one and the same piano
too. Sometimes the pins are very smooth and accurately turnable, but often
turning will go choppy. Those pins are known for "jumping" ( too
far), when you try to apply a little more strength on the Tuning Hammer. Don't
be scared of the "screeching" noises that will occur with this. These
noises are caused by the "wringing" of the tuning pin in the pin block
and won't cause any damage. Again teach yourself the skill to turn a tuning pin
with very small movements under all circumstances. This is of utmost
importance. If you master this, you will not only prevent the string from
overstretching, but you will also be able to tune a string very precisely. The
differences in pitch you'll have to adjust will often be extremely small.
First check very well if you have the right Tuning Pin for
the string you want to tune, before you start tuning. Follow the string until
you are really sure you have the right tuning pin. When you start turning the
pin and the pitch doesn't change directly, don't keep turning, because there is
a chance you are turning the wrong pin. It is safer to put a little pressure on
the Tuning Hammer without turning the pin. You should notice that the pitch
will go up a little while doing this. If it doesn't you can be sure you are
touching the wrong pin and you have muted the wrong string. Always check this
before you start turning the pin maybe causing unpleasant consequences for the
For that same (safety) reason it is preferred to first tune
a little lower and then go up. Again: it's recommended to tune the pitch a
little bit higher first and then tune the pitch down to the right pitch,
because of the stability of the tuning we want to reach. With this you will
achieve that the "turning" of the tuning pin will lift itself and you
will be able to neutralize the tension differences in the string easier. Make
absolutely sure the tuning pin will reach its rest position! In the beginning
it will look like a chaotic state with all the pins, but when you study the
pins a little better you will discover a clear logical pattern in the pins.
Later it will be much easier to find the right pin, but it's better to make
sure you have the right pin a few times too often than adjusting something
Earlier on we mentioned the very high string tensions: this
can amount to an average of about 80 kilograms per string, which results in a
total force of about 18000 kilograms on the instrument (the frame).
Imagine you start tuning on a piano of which the pitch of
the whole range is much too low. You can imagine that it's, purely in terms of
the proportional distribution of the pulling forces, important that you bring
up these forces as evenly as possible over the piano. It's also important to
know that you'll have to adjust pitch deviations of more than 30 cents in
multiple steps because of the above reason (look for more about cent deviations
in the relevant paragraph of the manual). In such a case, first perform a
"rough" tuning with the sole purpose of bringing the pitch closer to
the desired pitch while trying to reach an evenly as possible divided tension
in the instrument. Such a rough tuning can be reached within 15 to 20 minutes
after some experience and it's not important that there are still some little
beatings hearable in the unisons on that moment.
We will show you a method to achieve that uniformity now:
First start tuning the middle strings of the octaves between
C3 and C5
Second tune one of the strings of each unison of the double
Third tune every middle strings from C5 up to C8
Fourth tune the lower single bass strings
Fifth tune every left string of all unisons from C3 up to C8
Sixth tune every remaining string of the double bass section
Last tune all right strings from C3 up to C8
Note that the transition between double bass strings and the
triple unisons isn't the same in all instruments at C3. You'll have to check
this and adjust when needed.
We deliberately haven't told anything about the complex
field of relations between all interacting intervals and their shifts (called
stretch) because this difficult matter is integrated in Dirks' Piano Tuner
which brings piano tuning within your reach.
Although we tried to explain the tuning procedure very
carefully, any damage from any cause whatsoever will be outside our liability
because it's simply impossible to teach you, within this brief manual and
without any practical experience, all the facets of this wonderful profession.
All we can advice is: practice a lot and listen to what you
are doing. Also without the Tuning Device. Then it won't be only about the
tuning, but purely about a better understanding of everything and about
developing the skills of manipulating the Tuning Hammer.
We wish you every success and hope you'll be able to enjoy
a beautiful tuning result soon.