Tuning & Voicing your piano...
What Is Piano Tuning?
Stated in the simplest terms, putting a piano back into proper tune means restoring each note to its proper pitch so that the piano sounds harmonious, musical, and pleasant to the ear again. The piano tuner accomplishes this by making very small adjustments to the tension of each string by means of very slight movements to the tuning pins with a tool know as a tuning lever (also referred to as a tuning hammer). The piano tuner stretches each string to the exact tension that will vibrate at the correct pitch. On a modern piano, there are 88 notes (pitches) from lowest to highest. The lowest bass notes have one string per note, upper bass notes have two strings per note, mid-range up to highest notes, have three strings per note. All notes with more than one string must have each string tuned to vibrate at exactly the same frequency — in unison. All together, most modern pianos generally have somewhere between 230 and 240 strings that make up the full 88-note keyboard.
Starting with a standardized reference pitch, usually an A-440 Hz or C-523.3 Hz tuning fork, the piano tuner stretches the strings of each note to that exact point at which it will vibrate at the proper frequency based upon an historically accepted tuning system known as equal temperament, the tempered scale, or simply temperament. Piano tuning is accomplished by methodically comparing the beat rates created between the various useful note intervals (5ths, 4ths, 3rds, 6ths) to setup what is called the temperament octave, a twelve-note range of notes near the middle of the piano keyboard. Each interval must be checked and re-checked until all intervals cross-check with each other. Setting the temperament, when done properly, mathematically divides the total frequency range of the temperament octave into twelve equal semi-tones – thus, the term equal temperament. Setting a proper temperament octave is at the very heart of skillful piano tuning, and must be done correctly! All the other notes on the piano are tuned by octaves to the temperament octave.
There are many aspects to competent piano tuning, but if the tuner fails at this stage, tuning the rest of the 88 notes is a waste of time, and a waste of your money. The piano will not sound right no matter how well the octaves and unisons are tuned! Think of the temperament as the “master octave” from which the rest of the octaves are duplicated up and down the piano keyboard. If the “master” is out of tune, all the “duplicates” will be out of tune as well. The goal of equally tempered tuning is that your piano sounds harmonious and pleasing to the ear no matter which musical key signature you’re playing in.
Although piano tuning is fundamentally an objective, mathematically based process, skillful piano tuning also requires subjective judgment because of factors like inharmonicity, stringing irregularities that can cause false beats, and psychoacoustic factors, just to name a few. Strictly speaking, it isn’t necessary for a piano tuner to be a musician but, in my opinion, musical talent and training enhances the professional piano tuner’s proficiency. Listening with a “subjective ear” along with a careful assessment of beat rates will achieve the best results. One example where subjective judgment comes into play is in applying an advanced technique called octave stretching.
There is no substitute for hands-on training and plenty of experience working with different makes and models of piano with regard to these key issues. Don’t be shy about asking a prospective piano tuner what kind of training and experience they have. I heartily recommend that you spend a few minutes talking to a prospective tuner on the phone. Get a “feel” for the person. Remember, they are coming to your home. You want them to be trustworthy as well as competent. How long have they been in the area? Most piano tuners that have been in business for awhile can give you local references upon request.
Want to learn more about piano tuning?
Wikipedia - Piano Tuning is a good starting point and offers an easy-to-read tutorial that will give you a more in-depth, technical look into piano tuning theory and practical application. Included are explanations of piano tuning terminology and links to advanced topics such as historical tuning systems, octave stretching, psychoacoustics, inharmonicity, and a chart showing all the specific pitch frequencies (in Hz) and beat rates associated with the equal temperament system of tuning used today.
What is Piano Voicing?
While piano tuning is all about setting all the notes at the proper pitch, voicing has to do with the tone
of your piano. Tuning the piano does not directly affect the tone of your piano. Aside from the inherent scale design,
quality of materials, and craftsmanship that went into building your piano, tone quality of a piano is
significantly affected by the felt which covers the hammers. The piano hammer is the part of the piano mechanism that strikes the string and makes it vibrate. Piano voicing ensures that the tone of the piano is consistent from note to note. Achieving a balanced sound, whether it is bright, medium, or mellow, is the ultimate aim in piano voicing. Unlike tuning, which deals primarily with adjusting the tension of the strings to achieve the proper pitch, voicing deals with the character and condition of the piano hammers.
As a piano ages, it tends to get "brighter" in tone. This can eventually result in your piano sounding harsh or metallic.
Also, some unevenness in tone from one note to another usually develops. This happens for a number of reasons. The hammers
can develop deep ruts where they repeatedly come in contact with the strings. The felt surface becomes compressed and may
also flatten out and cause a slapping sound when they strike the strings. If the hammers are not too old and worn out, they can be reshaped by removing some of the worn felt surface. Additionally, a piano technician's tool called a voicing
needle can be used on the shoulder of the hammer to make more refined adjustments to tone. If a given hammer sounds too bright, a needle slipped into the shoulder of the hammer will make it more mellow. If a note sounds too soft, the voicing technician may put some lacquer on the shoulder of the hammer making it a little brighter. Each note is compared to others and "voiced" to sound even and pleasant to the ear. These procedures can greatly improve your piano's tone. However,
sometimes the hammers are too badly worn, or there is too little felt left to reasonably expect a good result. If this is
the case, the only cure is to install a new set of hammers. Replacing old hammers with a set of new, high quality hammers
can suddenly bring a piano "back to life", but can be comparatively costly.
A word of caution: Voicing is a very delicate operation and must be performed by a properly trained and very
experienced piano technician. Improper use of voicing needles, for example, can ruin perfectly good hammers and cost you
needless expense in hammer replacement and additional voicing costs.
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