(from guest blogger Robert Furst)
THE TRUTH ABOUT STAYING IN TUNE:
You know, a fine piano is a work of art. Therefore, to treat it rough, carelessly or negligent it is to commit a crime against a beautiful piece of expensive craftsmanship. To pay a lot of money for a fine piano and then allow it to go to ruin for lack of expert care is not merely aesthetically wrong it is bad business. If a piano is neglected, if it be allowed to go through from one season to another, say, from Spring to Winter, without tuning, it will probably, at the end of that time, be considerably lower in pitch than it was originally. It will have gone through a rise, followed by a fall, and the fall will be greater than the first rise.
No matter what any salesman may say, no matter how well the piano may be made, no matter, in fact, what the physical circumstances or the price or the domestic conditions may be, there is no such thing as a piano standing month after month in tune. The better the piano, the more frequent and careful tuning it should have.
In order to understand why a piano goes out of tune, it is first necessary to remember that the whole instrument is always under a varying stress. The strings are stretched at an average tension of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds apiece; so that the iron plate, together with the heavy wooden framing, carries a strain totaling from eighteen to twenty tons.
The soundboard is merely a thin sheet of spruce a three eighths of an inch in thickness. If it is properly constructed, the whole board becomes something like a highly elastic spring. The more elastic it is, the freer and more agree able will he the tone emanating from the piano.
From the layman’s standpoint, two tunings a year should be sufficient. The tuner knows, however, that if he had time to tune his own piano as often as his ears tell him, he would tune it once a month at least. From a strictly scientific point of view, it is probably true to say that no piano ever made has stood in tune, without a drop or a rise, for more than twenty four hours, unless it were maintained at constant temperature and at constant barometric and hygroscopic conditions.
PIANO TUNING GUIDELINES
Unfortunately, this very construction is extremely sensitive to all changes of temperature and barometric pressure. In summer time, throughout the greater part of the country, there is much moisture in the air most of the time, and rain is frequent. Wood, under these conditions, it swells up; nor will any kind of coating protect a wooden soundboard from these influences. On the contrary, when the heat is on during the colder months, the air in rooms becomes much drier owing to the evaporation of moisture and failure to keep on hand open vessels of water, flowering plants or other moisture retainers or evaporators. Consequently, the moisture in the soundboard rapidly passes off, the hoard shrinks, the strings slacken down, and the pitch drops.
Now, it is perfectly evident that even where conditions are not extreme, and even in climates which have only a comparatively short range, this process is continually going on. “Every change of a degree in temperature, or of one tenth of an inch in a barometer, has its effect. The soundboard of the piano, then, is always slowly rising and falling through short distances, and constantly, therefore, suffering variations in its ability to hold the strings up to proper pitch. On the other hand, if the piano be neglected and unless it be tuned at least once every change in season, say four times a year, during Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, it will not stay in tune.
The most common cause of a piano going out of tune is fluctuations in temperature and of humidity changes. The best temperature for a piano is the same as the comfort of a person. Inside each case is an enormously complex piece of machinery, you have up to 12,000 parts that are incorporated into an elaborate assembly of a precision engineered musical instrument. In addition to the usual factors of friction, wear, and tear, add more than 40,000 pounds of string pressure and the adverse cumulative effects of climatic flux of temperature and humidity.
When a piano is tuned, it begins to go out of tune, and each time it is played the strings stretch a little more. Pianos of lower cost are more likely to be made out of lower cost materials and will be more difficult to service or keep in tune, because is the quality and construction of the piano itself.
Pianos made of cured hardwoods with sturdy construction and quality parts and stringing design will resist the adversities of humidity, in fact buying the next grade up of any particular piano line would more than pay for itself in a very short period of time in a piano’s life, and you would enjoy playing on an instrument that is acclimatized, with superior tone qualities. Direct sunlight is the biggest problem today, both for the finish of the instrument and the tuning stability.
TUNING STABILITY AND MOVING YOUR PIANO
Unlike the old saying, you have to tune a piano if you move it just isn’t true. Moving a piano in the same room, house, city, and state will not effect the tuning very much. Pianos go out of tune due to the weather much more than from being moved. Sure if you bounce it around on a pick-up truck long enough or often enough it will go out of tune. By not so much as to effect the pitch like the changes in humidity.
If a new piano has received a good tuning at the store, it will still sound harmonious after being moved to the home for about 3 months. Even if a piano is moved long distance in a truck, it would depend on how much temperature and climate change such as from Miami, Houston or Seattle to Phoenix, Denver or Las Vegas for example. In which case, some tuning and regulation would be needed.
In high humidity climates such as Miami, Houston, Seattle or near a large body of water, a piano can be helped by the use of a climate-controlled system. In very dry areas, a number of large green plants in a room will be of help. Pianos from dry climates may have a history of problems such as loose tuning pins and split or broken wood parts such as the soundboard. Pianos imported from wet climates may have sluggish keys and action joints. There are many controls and fixes available for this and it should not cause concern.
There are only three reasons a good piano will go out of tune. Strings stretch. Strings stretch throughout the life of the piano. The older the strings, the less flexible they become. When piano wire is new it has irregularities in its diameter and has more ‘stretch’ potential. As it stretches, the diameter becomes more uniform, producing better tone because the overtones ring more precisely. Therefore, a new piano requires more tuning. Experts recommend four tunings the first year and twice a year thereafter. Not tuning a piano this often will not damage the piano; it will just delay the time until the piano reaches its tonal potential.
Soundboards move. Even the best spruce soundboards have cellular matter between the grains. These areas take on humidity in the summer, causing the board to swell. Because the board is crowned, additional tension is forced on the strings causing them to go “sharp,” or up in pitch. Additionally, the increased tension may cause the tuning pins to slip or the string to seat on a new spot at the bridge pins. In the winter, when the humidity is reduced, the board shrinks, resulting in an out-of-tune piano. If you live in a tropical area that is always humid, or a desert that is always dry, your piano will be more stable with regard to its tuning. The tighter the grain of the soundboard, the less susceptible it will be to changes in humidity. Air conditioning dehumidification and furnace humidifiers will help, but will not completely eliminate the effects of seasonal changes in humidity.
Note: Defective pianos can have tuning problems related to other causes. Tuning pins slip. If the wood holding the tuning pins (called the ‘pin block’ or ‘wrestplank’) has dried out and constricted, Or if the pins have been turned very many times, the tuning pins will not be able to hold the proper tension on the string and the pitch will go flat shortly or immediately after tuning. This problem is only correctable by replacing the pin block. Moving a piano with loose pins may cause it to go out of tune, but the problem wasn’t caused by moving. It was caused by the defect in the piano.
In the next part of this post, we’ll explore piano tone.
By Robert T. Furst, Author, Bluebook of Pianos and Piano Times, © 2011 Bluebook of Pianos. *Piano Times copyright used by agreement in the State of California.
Our thanks to guest blogger, Robert Furst. Visit his website—bluebookofpianos.com—for more information about pianos.