Tuning Your Own Piano: A Skill With Many Unexpected Benefits

Because we mentioned learning to tune your piano as a way to save money, I will briefly introduce the topic in this post. For actual tuning instructions, theory, and technique, there are enough websites and manuals available that I think there is little point in repeating that information here (my favorite sources may he found at the end of this post). Instead I will offer some points for you to consider if you are thinking of attempting to tune your own piano. These are things I have learned from my own experience with piano tuning and the discovery of numerous unexpected benefits beyond the financial resulting from this one new skill.

Saving Money

Since this is a financial blog, it makes sense to address the money factor first. The average tuning will cost you about $80. And since most pianos require two tunings a year (due to the changing seasons) you pay your tuner $160 per year not including regulating and minor repairs—which you can also learn to do on your own.

You will need to purchase some basic tools (tuning lever, mutes, A440 tuning fork), but these are one time expenditures resulting in long term savings. While shopping for a tuning kit, I saw prices as low as $60 for new tools and $40 for used tools. I opted for a $90 tuning kit because higher quality meant more accuracy and less risk of damaging my piano. Basic instructions for tuning can be found online for free or you can purchase a manual. This depends on how seriously you wish to learn the subject. I highly recommend Arthur A. Reblitz’s book, Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding: For the Professional, the Student, and the Hobbyist, which is thorough and easy to read.

And because time is money, you will need to consider the time you will spend tuning your piano. Your first few tunings may take you several hours, but with practice you might be able to tune your piano in 40 minutes. And remember it is only twice a year. You know how much your time is worth, so you decide.

Physical and Aural Requirements

You will need to be healthy enough to stand and lean over the piano for prolonged periods and repeatedly turn the handle of your tuning lever. You will need a little dexterity with the hands to insert wedges between the strings and turn the lever in very small increments. You should be able to distinguish musical pitches relatively well. You don’t need perfect pitch, but hopefully you are not tone deaf (though tone deaf individuals can probably tune with the help to electronic devices). If you own a piano, you are most likely a musician and your ear should be adequate.

How Hard is Piano Tuning?

How complicated piano tuning is depends on what methods you choose and how much you expect of yourself. Unless you are giving serious concerts in your home, you only need to tune well enough to please yourself and most listeners won’t know the difference. Here are several methods I know of that non-professionals use to tune pianos

From easiest to most difficult

  • Use a CD which plays the 88 tones of the piano and match each tone as closely as you can.
  • Use an electronic device which tells you what frequency (pitch) you are on so you know when you get it exactly in tune.
  • Tune A440 to a tuning fork and tune the other pitches by ear. This is best done by using the intervals Major 3rd, minor 3rd, Major 6th and Octave.
  • Learn tuning theory and set the temperament using “beats,” then tune the other notes by matching octaves.

The last method is more precise and requires more patience. It will also increase your knowledge and musicality.

Tuning Improves Your Ear

Ear training is the most stressful part of a musical education for many people. It is also the easiest part to neglect once you’ve scraped an acceptable grade and run away from your last listening exam. And even if you’ve never been in an ear training class, you can imagine how anxious you might be if you sat in a room for 45 minutes trying to process and write down what your teacher is playing before he starts playing the next thing you have to write down. Ironically, ear training class seems to create more insecurity than competence (except in rare individuals) due to the high level of pressure most of us feel in that situation.

There is nothing like routine to turn a skill into a mere habit. In the beginning, you might be uncertain whether an interval you tuned is inaccurate or whether you have a perfect unison in the 2 or 3 strings that make up one note. By the time you have tuned all 88 notes once or twice, you should find yourself quite confident about what you are hearing.

Tuning theory, if you choose to learn it, explains the mathematics (quite simple) and relationships between pitches which takes the mystery out of ear training and makes it more factual.

You Will Better Appreciate Your Instrument

Ever since I began to tune and maintain my piano, and realized how much work it entails, I have an increased appreciation for it as a fine and complex instrument. Penelope and I recently rearranged the entire house in order to move the piano to a location with the most stable temperature in winter and summer. I also dust it more often and make an effort to keep it covered when not in use, but the latter proved rather impractical because now that I work at home, I play the piano frequently during the day and often in the night as well. Still, one might say that I now have a more complex relationship with my piano.

Advantages for Pianists

As a pianist it was not so much the tuning, but learning my way around the inside of the piano that improved my playing. I can make choices based on what sort of harmonics I want to achieve and pedal according to how I want the dampers to interact with the strings. And if you have pretty good mechanical skills, you might learn to regulate and do minor repairs because there is a convenient sort of independence in being able to pop open the piano and fix a broken note or stop an annoying clicking part.

Advantages for Singers

Being able to identify and produce an accurate pitch is an obvious advantage for singers, because we have to tune our vocal chords to every note in a song. The process of piano tuning is good practice for your brain to find correct pitches. The physics of piano string vibration is closely related to vocal cord vibration which improves your understanding of partials and harmonics, allowing you to make more informed choices concerning issues such as vibrato, tone color and basic technique.

Benefits for the Curious and Scholarly

When I decided to learn to tune my piano earlier this year, I had no idea how many new subjects of interest it would lead to. I have been reading up on things like the history of the piano, earlier piano technology, and the math and physics of music which explains the reasons behind all those rules and conventions learned in music theory.

And most fun of all, I used what I learned about the workings of the piano action to design a mechanical toy which Penelope and I built for our dogs just yesterday. This really neat toy is a wooden lever with a place on one end where my dog Wolfie loads a tennis ball. He then steps around to the other end and depresses the lever with his paw, flinging the ball in the air for him to catch. This is so cool that we cheer until we are too hoarse to sing. And it all came from tuning the piano!

Recommended Resources for Piano Tuning and Repair

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