How to tune your own piano

February 8, 2012 by Karl

Piano berry berry berry berry berry

In today’s economy, cutting spending is a must. One place to do this is by tuning your own piano. This post will show you, step by step, exactly how to tune your piano in a very easy way. You will need to buy a few tools, but the total cost of the tools should be less than what a piano tuner would charge (assuming you have your own laptop).  Once you have the tools and the knowledge, you will be saving every time the piano needs to be tuned.

Most pianos have a full 88 keys,  which is 7 ⅓ octaves.  It is very rare that the lower 5 and upper 5 keys are used.  They still need to be tuned, though if they’re not perfect no one is going to notice.

Here is the basic keyboard layout:

Keyboard Layout

Each octave has 7 white keys and 5 black keys.  The different octaves are labeled 0-7.

You will need 3 basic tools in order to tune your piano.  A tuning ‘hammer‘ (which is really a wrench), some little rubber wedges called ‘mutes‘, and a windows based laptop with a built-in microphone.  If you don’t have a microphone in your laptop, you can plug-in an external microphone.  On the laptop you need to download and install AP Tuner.  This is the software that you will use to tune each of the notes.  It is free to use, but if you are happy with the software, I encourage you to pay the $35 US to help support the person who wrote this awesome application.

The video at the bottom of this page will show you each step in how to tune the piano.

If you have an old piano, like mine, you may find that the tuning pins are very loose, and won’t hold the strings in tune.  If this is the case, you can go to my post on replacing tuning pins to see how that is done.

In general, you want to start tuning in one spot and work your way up or down the keyboard, one note at a time.  Some tuners start in the middle and work up, then return to the middle and work their way down.  There doesn’t seem to be a perfect way to do it, but you want to make sure that all the strings are properly adjusted when you are done.

If your piano is significantly out of tune when you start, you may want to take it up in half pitch steps (half a note at a time) a day or a week apart so you don’t break any strings.  Old strings can be brittle, and break if they are overstressed.

On the lower end of the keyboard each note has only one string that is struck by the hammer.  As you move up the keyboard, it shifts to two strings per note, and then three strings per note.  Where there are two or three strings per note, you need to get all the strings in unison with each other (the exact same pitch), and you need to make sure that it is playing the proper pitch.

The video below will explain it in detail, but the basic method to achieve this is to mute out all but one string on an individual note, and then use a device that will listen to that string to determine if it is the proper pitch.  In our case we will be using some software in your laptop.  Adjustments are made to this string as needed, and then any remaining one or two strings  are adjusted to match the first.  Then the process is repeated for each note on the piano.

As each string is raised to pitch, more and more tension is placed on the sounding board of the piano.  The combined tension of these strings is somewhere between 15 and 20 tons.  That’s 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of combined tension on the sounding board.  When you raise the pitch of each string, you are increasing this tension on the sounding board.  What you may find when you finish tuning the piano, is that if you go back to the original strings that you tuned, they will be slightly flat from where they were when you tuned them at the beginning.  This is somewhat normal because of the tensions involved, and how that tension plays out across the entire sounding board as the strings are tightened in succession.  If it is noticeable, you may want to bring them back in tune.  If you’re happy with the sound, don’t worry about it.  It is next to impossible to get them all perfect.

Here is my video on how to tune the piano:

How to tune your own piano from karlboer on Vimeo.

A piano should stay in tune for about a year.  If not, then your piano may need some maintenance.  Keep in mind that pianos need a constant humidity.  If the humidity in your home changes a lot between summer and winter, that is going to be a long term problem for your piano.  Even if it is staying in tune now, it could start to develop problems down the road if the humidity is constantly changing in your house.

If you have found the above information helpful, please comment below. Don’t forget to tell your friends about frugalberry.com. Facebook links can be found at the top of this post.

 


I selected this post to be featured on my blog’s page at Money Saving Blogs.

21 Comments »

  1. Steve Dyck says:

    Hey Karl, what an awesome blog. Nathan is interested in piano tuning and has a great ear, but with the computer app he will be able give it a whirl.

    Thanks

  2. Ev says:

    Hi Karl. Great information. With the assistance of this I am going to attempt to tune my mothers piano. It was her grandmothers before her and would be at least 100 years old, however nobody in the family plays it. It is basically an ornamental piece of furniture so it doesn’t matter too much if a string breaks during my attempt to tune. Having said that, if a string does break, could it be potentially dangerous given the tension or will it simply just unwind. More than willing to give the tuning a try but not willing to lose an eye!

    • Karl says:

      Ev,

      I’ve never seen a piano tuner wearing safety goggles or any protective armor. I also don’t remember reading about any danger with strings breaking, when I was doing my own study on piano tuning. I have only seen 2 strings break (both while I was tuning an old piano). Both broke right at the tuning pin. There was a loud bang when it happened, but no flying wire. I suppose it’s POSSIBLE that there could be a danger here, but I’ve never heard of it. That said, if it is a concern, don’t hesitate to use safety goggles or safety glasses. It can’t hurt.

      Blessings,

      Karl

      • Scott D says:

        Nice tutorial. Does APTuner provide any help with stretch? Regarding body armor, the only situation I’ve heard where there is some risk is working on the old square pianos from the 1800s. Apparently a broken string could indeed come at you, perhaps scratching a forearm. There are still a few of these around in dusty basements. A DIY tuner might be tempted to work on one, so it’s worth a mention.

        • Karl says:

          Scott,

          I’m not familiar with stretch. AP tuner is a great little program for the price. It may not have all the bells and whistles of the professional software, but it does a pretty good job. I’m not familiar with the older pianos from the 1800s. Is this a big issue?

          • Scott D says:

            If the issue you are referring to is square pianos, I’d say no, it’s really not big because very few are in service. As for the stretch, I’m referring to inharmonicity, or the difference between the mathematically correct frequency for a piano note and the slightly different frequency that actually sounds “right.” Google can explain more. Anyway, it’s a big deal to piano tuners. Just tuning to an electronic tuner that does not account for inharmonicity will give the piano a poorer sound to the discerning ear.

  3. joe teshuwah says:

    What would you recommend if you DON’T have a laptop?

    • Karl says:

      Joe,

      I may not be much help here. I would go to the library and take out a book on piano tuning. If you have a tuning fork and a good ear you can do it without the assistance of any device, but you need to have a VERY good ear, and it takes years of practice to get it right. (Not something that I have)

      Karl

    • Matt says:

      A great way is to get a chromatic guitar tuner and tune the middle octave with the tuner. Then put the tuner away and just do it by ear. That way you have a reference for each note on the piano.

  4. Nice read, some good advice. While it takes years to master the art of tuning, this certainly is a good start :)

    • Karl says:

      Thanks for the feedback Steinway Restoration! I’ve received some less than helpful comments from some professionals about this post.

  5. Cliff says:

    Thank you for this tutorial! I downloaded APTuner and successfully tuned our 1909 Kranich and Bach upright grand. I broke two strings but both broke at the peg and I was able to secure enough from the other peg to still make them work. Sounds great now!

  6. rob says:

    Hi tried the tuning software but found it wasnt helpfull. Every key I tried, the tuning software was alternating so badly, I couldnt use it. Sorry but its a 0 out of 10 from me

    • Karl says:

      Rob,

      Sorry to hear that. Sometimes the microphones on laptops are not the best. Did you try an external microphone? This may help.

      Karl

  7. Sung says:

    Great tutorial.This will be a fun project for a weekend and make my wife happy and my ear.
    thanks.

  8. Alyce Mintz says:

    What if a string breaks? How can it be fixed.
    I have not started yet, but I have three notes that have no sound what is that

    • Karl says:

      Alyce,

      I have not yet replaced a string, but from what I have read you need to measure the diameter of the string and buy some replacement string which comes on a spool (for the upper notes). I believe there are several diameters used on the upper notes depending on location of the string. The lower notes with the copper wrapping needed to be purchased individually with exact measurements.

      I hope this helps.

      Karl

  9. Andrea says:

    Hi Karl,
    nice tutorial, thanks for that, just ask myself in software have choise selection about piano instrument so I can tuning every 88 Keys by that. Thanks :-)

  10. Annette LaBonte says:

    Thank you for a VERY helpful video. I have been scared to try this but now I think I can try it tomorrow. Crossed fingers–well not while I am tuning.

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