DIY Piano Tuning
By profession I am a musician and teacher, but in my free time I’m a DIY enthusiast, having built a car port, replaced the entire braking system on a Mini, completely rewired a house, done painting and decorating, and even some plumbing. However, there are some jobs that I accept as being beyond my capability. Plastering is one of them (I’ve tried a couple of times and failed miserably), and tuning pianos is another. In fact I would go so far as to say that piano tuning isn’t a job to be tackled by anyone other than a professional. However, having said that, I was intrigued when I came across some YouTube videos on how to tune a piano yourself.
With electronic assistance it now seems possible for anyone to tune a piano, or so the first video I watched was suggesting. But after doing a little more research I began to realise that the tuning technique being presented had fundamental flaws. Even if the presenter had succeeded in tuning his piano (which he wouldn’t because he was using a guitar tuner) it wouldn’t stay in tune very long because he wasn’t ‘setting’ the tuning pins (as demonstrated in a video by a professional tuner). And notably, we never got to see the end result, i.e. a beautifully tuned piano.
I should explain that a guitar tuner is great for tuning guitars, but it won’t help with tuning a piano, other than to confirm that the A above middle C has been tuned to the standard 440 Hz. The thing is that a piano needs to be slightly out of tune in order to sound acceptable in all keys. This isn’t a trade secret; it’s something that has been known for several hundred years and is called equal temperament.
There are videos – many well-intentioned I’m sure – that purport to give advice and information but their content is simply wrong. An expert in the particular field can spot this immediately, but the average viewer is often unaware of the misinformation being presented. However, the man in the first video was no charlatan. He clearly stated at the start that he wasn’t an expert and had only been tuning pianos for two months. He was just sharing his passion and enthusiasm for DIY.
So it would seem that my initial premise – that tuning pianos is not a job to be undertaken even by DIY enthusiasts – was right. But then I came across a video presenting a piece of software specifically designed for piano tuning. The presenter of this video began by playing his horrendously out of tune piano. He then introduced the piano tuning software, demonstrated how to use it, and then showed the piano after it had been tuned. I must say I was very impressed (so much so that I’ve included a link to the YouTube video at the end of this article).
The software works by first taking recordings of all the notes on the piano – which need to be played individually and sustain for about three seconds – before doing a calculation to enable you to go through each note again and tune it using a tuning spanner, while referencing a tuning meter that appears on the computer screen (similar to the way you would tune a guitar using a guitar tuning meter). A screenshot of the software is pictured on the left showing an out-of-tune 'A'.
The whole process takes a considerable amount of time (remember that some notes on a piano have two or three strings, each of which has to be recorded and tuned individually while the other strings are damped).
According to the video the whole tuning process takes about two hours – not much longer than a professional piano tuner would take. However, the DIY jobs that I do tend to take much longer than if a professional were doing them, so I would double this estimate.
At 298 euros (£235 at the time of writing) the software isn’t cheap. However, it could more than pay for itself over two or three years, depending on how many times a year you would normally have your piano tuned.
There are only two drawbacks as far as I can see. The first is that the process is very laborious (I think I’d rather pay someone to tune my piano than to painstakingly record and tune the 230 or so strings there are on a piano myself). The second is that if you encounter any problems, such as a broken string or sticking key, you’re going to have to call a piano technician anyway.
Personally I’d rather entrust piano tuning to a qualified professional. However, being a DIY enthusiast, if I had time and money to spare I’d like to have a go at using the software – but not to tune my own piano!
I still believe that tuning a piano is best left to a qualified piano technician.
YouTube piano tuning software demonstration.