How to Tune a Piano Yourself

An online guide to tuning a piano.
Minimum equipment needed and a step-by-step procedure.

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Piano Tuning: Deceptively Simple

Piano tuning is a surprisingly simple process, though clothed in mystery by those "in the know." I could not find information on the web that explained how to do it without trying to sell me something. So after research and trying it myself, I have developed this method.

However, while the technique isn't complicated, piano tuning does requires patience, a good ear and practice. Moreover, the piano is a complex instrument; if you are careless in your tuning attempts, you can damage it. Keep in mind that professional piano tuners spend years learning the nuances. This page is not meant to devalue the skills of professionals. A professional will be more efficient, can make repairs, and will be better than the novice at bringing out the full tonal beauty of the instrument.

This page presents a simplified approach to piano tuning. It can't take the place of an experienced tuner, but it can be useful for those who want to keep things going between professional tunings, those who wish to experiment, even performers who need to do an emergency fix before the recital.

Note that a really out-of-tune piano that has been neglected for years may need a pitch-raise. Raising the pitch means to bring the piano sound board back into the universal pitch to which all pianos should be tuned. Essentially, the tuner does an extra rough tuning, maybe taking several passes until everything is in shape. This is can be done with the techniques on this page, but it's going to take quite a bit work on your part. A professional tuner will do it for you, though there will likely be an extra charge.

Of course, some pianos may require actual repair, like misaligned hammers or loose pins, which is beyond the scope of this page (though we do have some resources we can recommend.)

I was willing to try piano tuning myself mainly because my piano is an older, student quality model that we allow the kids to play. I don't think I'd tackle anything expensive or precious.

Still, I did it myself, and I am happy with the results. I suspect many casual piano owners can do the same. Even if you don't feel confident to tune all 88 keys, at least with this information you can keep ahead of those pesky sour notes between professional tunings.

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MINIMUM PIANO TUNING TOOLS

I used the following piano tuning supplies, all purchased from music suppliers online. No homemade stuff here. Might as well get the right tools for the job if you are serious about this.

* Rubber tuning wedges or "mutes" made for piano tuning. Assorted sizes come in handy. I use the ones with a wire handle, especially. You'll need at least two rubber wedge mutes to get started. Several other kinds of mutes are available for muting whole ranges of strings and muting just the middle of three strings. You may find these useful as you gain skill. (A reader offers this tip about wedges for those tempted to save money here: "You cannot mute the strings with your fingers, even if you have three hands. The heat from your fingertips will make the string expand, so you'll tighten it, and it'll go sharp as soon as it cools!")

* Tuning hammer or lever (actually a specialized wrench to turn the string pins), "apprentice grade." These puppies are surprisingly expensive. There is a variety of hammers to choose from. Better models like mine have an interchangeable head in case you run into an odd pin size. I tinkered briefly with a standard crescent wrench (I can hear you pro tuners shuddering now!), but it did not work well. It slipped easily, and tended to damage the square edges of the pins. Not a good idea. And the square shape of the pins ruled out proper use of a standard hex socket.

* Electronic tuner. I use a Korg Chromatic Tuner, model CA-30. This little fellow is KEY (no pun intended) to making this process as painless as possible. I tried using a tuning fork, but it was too difficult. The electronic tuner makes it much easier and faster. This little gem is about $20.00. There are more elaborate electronic tuners dedicated to piano tuning (which even the professional tuners use these days, rather than tuning forks), but they are hundreds of dollars. For the do-it-yourself method in this tutorial, any tuners in the inexpensive Korg lines will work. And the CA-30 will tune all your other instruments, from guitars to brass, too!

*`Light source to shine into the piano. It's pretty dark, and there are a lot of strings and other stuff in there. Easy to get lost...make sure a loved one knows where you are.

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PIANO TUNING PROCEDURE

1. Clear the room--indeed, the whole house if you can--of other humans. Lock the doors. Piano tuning requires concentration.

2. Start with the middle octave (Middle C on up to C'). Each piano key strikes one to three strings. Pick one string to tune at a time; if there are three strings, start with the middle. Carefully find the pin that turns the string you want to tune. Stick the rubber wedges in to stop the vibration of the other one or two strings in the set. While repeatedly striking the piano key HARD, turn the pin until the electronic tuner shows that it's in tune. The Korg CA-30 automatically detects the note you are trying to reach. If you are really off, it may show the wrong note, so make sure you know what you are looking for.

Tips about this process:

3. After the first string is tuned, move the wedges so that the first string and the second string are free, but the third, if present, is still dampened by the wedge. Ignore the tuner. Just put your wrench on the second string's pin. While repeatedly striking the key hard, turn the second pin until you can hear no more "beats"--that is, it sounds like one note, not two in disharmony. Repeat for the third, with all wedges removed. (Alternatively, you could tune all the strings in a key's set with the electronic tuner, but that's not as easy as you might think. Getting that little indicator to line up just right becomes tedious fast. Using your ear to tune the strings to each other is faster and will sound better.)

4. Repeat for each key, and there you are--a tuned piano! At the extreme octaves high and low, though, my tuner has difficulty "hearing" the note. In these cases, I had to tune by ear, that is, comparing a tuned key in a nearby octave to the suspect key. Hit both at the same time, then tune the target string by listening for disharmony beats. A better tuner, or maybe a remote contact mic might help. (Korg has a contact mic, CM-100, for the CA-30.)

Technical Sidenote: Ideally, you should just tune the middle octave with the tuner, then tune all the higher and lower registers by ear. In fact, a purist professional tuner may just tune the "A" with a fork and tune the rest by ear! It is difficult to match precisely the electronic tuner consistently. Also note that the only truly universal note all pianos share is A (above middle C) equals 440 Hz. From there a professional tuner essentially tunes the piano to itself (though he may use electronic aids and software to calculate the precise frequencies) because the vibration rate for other notes, particularly on the extreme octaves, may be in tune outside of the expected mathematical progression. This is so because of the differences in structure and materials among pianos. However, I went with the electronic tuner (for the first string in each note) whenever I could and it turned out OK.

One last tip: As you tune, it is impossible to hit dead on the frequency each time. So, if in doubt, tune a shade sharp. Pianos generally go out of tune to the flat, not the sharp, so you'll be a little ahead of the game, plus you'll get a "brighter" sound. A good piano tuner will actually tune the middle register a little sharp on purpose, because the process of tuning the high and low registers can flat the middle sometimes. (Fast explanation: All those strings put a lot of tension on the sound board. As you work your way to the ends of the keyboard, the resulting tension changes can subtly alter the shape of the sound board, reducing the tension on the middle octaves, causing the middle octaves to flat.) If you tune the middle a little sharp, by the time you finish the upper and lower, the middle will, in theory, be in tune.

How long will this take? That's extremely variable. Make of the piano, how badly out of tune it is, how good your ear is, etc. The first time you do it, it may take an hour to get through that first octave. Once you get the hang of it, I estimate that a careful tuning takes about 20 minutes an octave. As for a not-so-careful tune up, I have found that now I know my way around my particular piano, I can whip out the old hammer for a touch-up quite quickly--just a minute or two a note.

How do you keep a piano from getting out of tune? Aside from minimizing humidity, temperature and abusive-kid extremes, the best way to keep your piano in tune is to (surprise!) tune it. Once the piano is in tune, it is easier to keep it in tune with touch-ups and regularly-scheduled tunings. Don't wait until you can't stand the sound anymore. The more strings left untuned, the more the tension changes on the soundboard, causing a cascade effect where more and more strings to go out of tune.

PIANO TUNING RESOURCES

For my recommendations on where to buy the equipment described in this tutorial, as well as books on piano tuning recommended by readers of this tutorial, please click to continue. Contains advertising.

Low End Piano Maintainance and Repair Links
More links to content-rich websites with piano information for the do-it-yourself piano owner and player, gathered and reviewed by me. Contains advertising.

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