How to tune your piano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you've ever checked pricing on getting your piano tuned professionally, you know it can cost quite a bit.  No, it's not because the professionals gouge.  It simply is an exacting time-consuming process, one in which you will find some professionals are better than others at, and you pay for their expertise.

However, by working carefully and taking time, this is a procedure that many people can do themselves. Before going any further, realize that it is possible to damage your piano, and repairing the damage will cost more than having the piano tuned by a professional the first time.  Here are a few assumptions I will make, that should apply to you before continuing:
  • your piano is out of tune
  • your piano is not used professionally, or for performances
  • you're looking to save some money
  • the possibility of causing accidental damage to your piano does not concern you
  • you have the patience and ability to make careful tedious adjustments over the course of up to a few hours

This guide is really suited more towards those who have cheaper pianos, possibly the kind that are infrequently used (aside from possibly your kids banging on them).  This is the category I was under.  I know if I were to damage something or make a mistake, it wouldn't be the end of the world.  The piano itself was purchased from a garage sale, cost only a couple hundred dollars, and wasn't worth the cost in having professionally tuned.  That being said, it was badly out of tune, and I thought it would be worth it to give it a go.

Time for the standard "disclaimer".  I am not going to be held responsible if your piano ends up damaged, in worse shape, or rendered unusable as a result of anything written here.  Everything you do is entirely at your own risk and your own expense.

Piano

 

Required Tools:

  • piano (obviously)
  • device to adjust the pegs (tune the piano) with
  • method to provide notes, or an electronic tuner
  • -tool to 'pick' the strings, for example a guitar pick
  • OR
  • -tuning wedges (aka 'mutes')

A little more about the tools...  You can buy the professional tools, or 'make' your own.  Below is a little more detail about each tool, and the professional and home-made options.  The "best" option (in my opinion) is in green.

Device to adjust the pegs (tune the piano) with - If you've ever seen a guitar, you've probably noticed the 6 little tuning knobs at the end of the guitar.  Turning these knobs one way tightens the string giving a higher pitch, and turning the other way loosens the string, giving a lower pitch.  A piano has similar pegs (which you must find), connected to the piano's strings.  These are the pegs you will be adjusting.  They are almost always square. 

  1. The professional tool you can buy (which should hopefully fit perfectly) is called a "tuning hammer" or a "tuning lever".  It's shaped similar to a ratchet with a socket built onto the end.  This is the best tool to use, and it available at some piano supply stores.  The local one here sells cheap ones for about $40CDN.  You're best to phone around to see who carries them. 
  2. The home-made option I used instead (since the local supply store was out) was a vice-grips and the square end of a 1/4" socket.  The standard socket is usually 3/8" which is too large.  A 1/4" socket (in my case anyway) fit almost snug.  Check to make sure you get a snug fit.  If it's not snug, the socket might strip, or worse, the peg might strip.  Make sure you use the square end of the socket.  The actual socket-end is 6-sided and has a higher chance of stripping something.  Two final things: if the socket seems loose, just buy the professional tuning hammer (you might even be able to find one used). The other thing is keep in mind that the vice-grips option is a heavier option, and dropping them while working in the piano could cause some damage.
  3. If you have another device that is square and seems to fit right, it might be worth a try.

Method to provide notes, or an electronic tuner:

  1. If you have a magnificent ear, you can buy a tuning fork which will tune to a particular key (either A or C usually), and then tune the one string and go from there. 
  2. The next thing you can try is using another instrument that is in tune (for example, a guitar) to provide reference notes.  Again, you need a pretty good ear, although not nearly as great as for the first option.
  3. Certain computer programs can provide reference notes, or notes at certain frequencies.  Guitar Pro is an example, although there are others.
  4. Buy a chromatic tuner.  This is what I chose.  They are similar to guitar tuners, but they have all 12 notes (7 whole notes plus the 5 half notes).  Mine cost all of $23 CDN.  They're pretty easy to use - you just play a key, and the tuner tells you what note is playing and has a little digital arm that shows how close to being tuned it is.  If the arm is in the center, you're right on.  If the arm is to the left, the note is too flat, and if it's to the right, the note is too sharp.

Tool to pick the strings, or tuning wedges - On almost every piano, each key connects to a hammer that hits between 1-3 strings.  In the cases of 2 or 3 strings, each string has to be tuned. Unfortunately, when tuning, you can't simply use the piano keys, because you have to tune each string one at a time.  You therefore have 2 options:

  1. Use a guitar pick (or similar device) to pick (or strum) the string you're adjusting.  This is the method I chose.
  2. Buy tuning wedges ('mutes').  These are usually made of rubber, and are what the professionals commonly use.  The idea is that when they're tuning a string, they place these mutes between the adjacent strings, and the ones beside those, so that they can press the piano key, and only the 1 string they're working on will make sound.  For example, if there are strings B1-B2-B3-C1-C2-C3-C#1-C#2-C#3 and they are tuning C2, they will put a mute between B3 and C1, and another mute between C3 and C#1.  That way when C is pressed on the piano, only C2 will make sound, as C1 and C3 have both been muted.

Tools I UsedChromatic TunerVice Grips and Socket
Click on any of the above pictures to open a full-sized picture in a new window.  These are the tools I used - A vice-grips with a socket for adjusting the pegs, an electronic chromatic tuner, and a guitar pick to pluck the strings as I went through.

Tuning the piano

Now that you have your tools ready, it's time to start tuning!  It's usually recommended that you start in the middle of the piano (middle-C for example), but I suggest starting at the low end, because if you manage to break something, it's not the end of the world.  After you've done a few keys and are comfortable, feel free to jump to the middle and work your way to the ends from there.  Note that electronic tuners often have trouble reading notes at the high and low ends, so if you bought an electronic tuner, you may have to tune by ear for those notes.

To tune, you simply hit a key/string on the piano.  Using your electronic tuner or source of the "desired" note, you determine whether you have to make the string higher or lower in pitch.  Using your tool of choice, you then either tighten or loosen the peg very slightly and check again until you have the desired note.  Ensure you make small adjustments.  If you're turning the peg and the note's not changing, you're on the wrong string.  Once you have the first string adjusted, move on to the next.

Note that this process can easily take a couple hours or more.  If your piano needed a lot of adjustment, it may go slightly out of tune again quite quickly and might need another tune-up again within a couple of weeks.  However, the 2nd tune-up will usually be sufficient, and from then on you will probably only need to tune 1-2 times a year.

Close up shot of the tuning pegsThe opened piano with access to the tuning pegs
Click either of the above pics for a full-sized pic. These are pictures of the tuning pegs themselves. You can also see where the strings come down. Remember, some piano keys use 2 or 3 strings. Not only do you want them all tuned, but you want them all the same, or it will sound like 2 separate notes being hit when you strike a key.

Summary

Piano tuning can be done cheaply, but it requires patience, and care to make sure accurate adjustments are made.  As with doing anything yourself, there is always risk, but the reward is extra money saved, and if you end up becoming really good, the best sounding piano you could possibly have.

 

 

Disclaimer: All information on this page is to be taken as opinion and not as fact.  I disclaim all liability for anything that happens to anybody as a result of this existence of this page, any other pages on this site, or any other companies, people, places, or pages, that have been mentioned, referred to or linked to.  Use this information at your own risk.