Robert G. Kelly RPT
Piano Tuning & Repair

Wny Do Pianos Need Tuning?

How Should I Take Care of My Piano? (PTG)

Caring for the Piano Finish? (PTG)

What about Pitch Correction? (PTG)

How Long Will a Piano Last?

Can Kids Pound on the Keys?

Do I have a Spinet, Console, Studio, or Upright?


Wny Do Pianos Need Tuning? piano tuning

"If I move my piano to another room, does it need to be re-tuned? My grandmother had a fine old upright that she never got tuned. Why does my piano need regular tuning? Back home we always kept a jar of water in the bottom of the piano. Does this help keep the piano in tune? How often does my piano need tuning?" Piano technicians hear these questions every day. Tuning is the most frequent and important type of piano maintenance, but it's often the least understood. Here we'll look at why pianos go out of tune and how you can help yours stay in better tune between visits from your technician.

First, new pianos are a special case; their pitch drops quickly for the first few years as new strings stretch and wood parts settle. It's very important that a new piano be maintained at proper pitch (A-440) during this period, so the string tension and piano structure can reach a stable equilibrium. Most manufacturers recommend three to four tunings the first year, and at least two annually after that.

Aside from this initial settling, seasonal change is the primary reason pianos go out of tune. To understand why, you must realize that the piano's main acoustical structure, the soundboard, is made of wood (typically 3/8-inch thick Sitka spruce). And while wooden soundboards produce a wonderful sound, they also react constantly to the weather. As humidity goes up, a soundboard swells, increasing its crowned shape and stretching the piano's strings to a higher pitch. During dry times, the soundboard flattens out, lowering tension on the strings and causing the pitch to drop.

Unfortunately, the strings don't change pitch equally. Those near the soundboard's edge move the least, and those near the center move the most. So, unless it's in a hermetically sealed chamber, every piano is constantly going out of tune!

The good news is there are some simple things you can do to keep your piano sounding sweet and harmonious between regular service appointments. Although it's impossible to prevent every minor variation in indoor climate, you can often improve conditions for your piano.

Start by locating the piano away from direct sunlight, drafts, and heat sources. Excess heating causes extreme dryness, so try to keep the temperature moderate (below 70 degrees) during the winter heating season.

Get a portable room humidifier, or install a central humidification system to combat winter dryness in climates with very cold, dry winters.

A portable dehumidifier or a dehumidifier added to your air-conditioning system can remove excess moisture during hot, muggy summers.

If controlling your home's environment is impractical, or if you want the best protection possible, have a humidity control system installed inside your piano. These are very effective in controlling the climate within the instrument itself. Besides improving tuning stability, they help minimize the constant swelling and shrinking of your piano's wooden parts. The critical part of such a system is the humidistat, a device that monitors the relative humidity within the piano and adds or removes moisture as needed. Jars of water, light bulbs, or other "home remedies" have no such control and can actually do more harm than good.


how longHow Long Will a Piano Last?

Pianos are among the most durable of personal possessions. Admired for their fine cabinetry and treasured for their beautiful sound, pianos usually lead a pampered life in the best room of the house. They're often thought of as permanent family fixtures, passed down to children and grandchildren. Their large size and weight give them the illusion of being able to last forever.

While pianos do last a long time, remember they're really just large machines made of wood, felt, and metal. Over the years, seasonal changes take their toll, stressing the wooden parts and straining glue joints. Felt hammers are pounded flat after thousands of collisions with the piano's strings, and metal parts corrode and weaken. Years of friction wear out the one thousand felt bushings in the action. How long a piano will last varies greatly, depending upon maintenance and repair, usage, climate, and quality of manufacture.

Here's a sketch of the life cycle of a typical home piano:

First Year

The pitch of a new piano drops considerably, as the new strings stretch and the structure settles. If the piano receives the manufacturer's recommended three to four tunings during this time, it will stay at the correct pitch, allowing strings and structure to reach a stable equilibrium. Without these important first tunings, any later tuning will involve a large pitch raise, leaving the piano unstable.

Two to Ten Years

The pitch stabilizes, assuming regular tunings (and additional climate control devices if needed). The mechanical parts of the piano's action wear and settle too. This causes two changes: first, the touch of the piano becomes less responsive as the parts go out of adjustment. Secondly, the tone changes as the hammers flatten and grooves develop from repeated collisions with the strings. Periodic regulation and voicing, important parts of a complete maintenance program, correct these changes.

Ten to Thirty Years

Wear of action parts continues, the extent depending upon how hard and how often the piano is played. Normal regulation and voicing will maintain good tone and touch if usage is moderate.

If the piano suffers wide temperature and humidity swings, it will begin to show permanent deterioration during this time: loose tuning pins, rusty strings, soundboard cracks, and aging of the finish.

Thirty to fifty years:

After years of playing, the hammers and other action parts will be quite worn. Years of seasonal changes cause bass strings to sound dull and treble tone to lose clarity. Eventually, adjustment alone will not correct these problems, and some parts will need replacing to restore the original tone and touch.

Over fifty years:

A few geographic areas with mild climates have older pianos still in good condition. Well-built, well-designed pianos can still be playable at this advanced age if they've had good care and moderate use.

However, at some point in a piano's life, an important decision must be made: Should the piano be replaced? Is its life over? Should it be reconditioned or rebuilt (made functionally new again)? Should it continue to limp along with an ever worsening tone and touch?

The needs of the pianist are the real variable in judging a piano's useful life. Good performance requires a piano in good condition.

Older, high-quality instruments can often be rebuilt to like-new condition for less than the cost of a new piano. Even economy grade instruments can often be dramatically improved by judicious reconditioning. Your piano technician can help you make this decision.

Eventually, it becomes less and less practical to continue maintaining a very old piano. The undeniable end of a piano's life comes when the repair cost exceeds the value of the repaired instrument. Medium quality old uprights reach this point sooner than do high-quality large grands. Rare and historically important instruments may never reach this point unless totally damaged in a fire or other disaster.

Happily, almost any piano that has received reasonable care will have served the art of music for decades by the time its days are over.


piano careCan Kids Pound on the Keys?

Because it's so annoying, the racket of keys struck at random may rattle your nerves, but it won't damage the piano. Most pianos are built to withstand very heavy use. The next time you see a serious pianist perform a flamboyant classical piece, notice how forcefully he or she attacks the keyboard. Or listen to how hard your tuner pounds each key when tuning your piano. In comparison, a child's small hands couldn't possibly play that hard.

The real danger of children playing with, as opposed to playing, a piano is that they often can't resist dropping small toys inside, slipping coins into the slots between the keys, or running toys across the finish.

But remember that music exists to give pleasure. Encourage your child to have fun with the piano, not to be afraid of it. Don't worry if young children play haphazardly and loudly. If you teach respect for the instrument and they discover how enjoyable playing can be, they'll treat it properly. And if your children learn that playing the piano is fun, you won't have to plead with them to practice when they're older.


typesTypes of Vertical Pianos

When it comes to pianos, the old maxim "The bigger, the better" is usually true.

Vertical pianos come in various sizes. The shortest is the spinet, about 35" to 39" tall. Because the action (the mechanism that transmits your keystroke to the hammer) is of a different design, a spinet will usually have a lighter and less responsive touch than a larger piano. And the spinet's smaller soundboard and shorter strings produce a thinner tone.

Consoles, 40" to 44", have a compact action that sits directly on the back of the keys. This design improves both the touch and the tone over the spinet type.

Pianos that are 45" to 48" are called studio pianos, and those 49" and above are called uprights. These larger pianos have the advantages of full-sized actions, so their touch is the most responsive of all vertical designs. With their larger soundboard and longer strings, they are capable of a richer and fuller tone when there is a piano tuning.


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