Tuning FAQs - Alex's Piano Service

Tuning FAQs

Why do pianos go out of tune?

Pianos go out of tune as humidity changes. Here in Maine (and New England in general), indoor humidity is highly unpredictable: Constant small fluctuations in humidity mean your piano can go out of tune even more quickly than in other parts of the country which experience only major seasonal changes.

These fluctuations can happen much faster if the piano is near a window, an air conditioner, a heat source, a humidifier or dehumidifier, an outside wall, or is in a drafty space. A piano placed in front of a baseboard heater can go out of tune in the matter of weeks, rather than months.

Major seasonal changes are not the primary reason a piano in our locale goes out of tune. Daily changes in humidity are the main factor. Fortunately, by controlling humidity, tuning stability can be improved.

Humidity is always changing. Your piano will go flatter as the air dries, and sharper as it gets more humid. And every time your piano’s tuning changes, some parts change at different rates than others. Eventually, the piano is out of tune with itself—that’s when it needs a tuning!

How often should I get my piano tuned?

I recommend tuning your piano a minimum of once every six months. If the piano is used for performances, is in a high-traffic and high-use environment like a church or a restaurant, or is very new, I recommend a minimum of once every three months.

If nobody plays the piano and you’re simply storing it, an annual tuning can be adequate if the piano is in a sufficiently stable space and doesn’t appear to be experiencing excessive humidity swings.

Why does my piano go out of tune so quickly?

The primary reason for a piano to go out of tune quickly is the environment and humidity changes in the environment the piano is kept. See “Where should the piano be positioned?”

Sometimes, loose pins can cause a piano to quickly sound dreadful, like two keys are being played at once. This usually happens in dry weather. However, some pianos with soundboard or bridge cracks can go out of tune very quickly. These will require more serious repair than can generally be performed in a home, and I can direct you to an experienced rebuilder.

If your piano is already in an ideal space and is still going out of tune quickly, or if you’re unable to move your piano to a better space, you might consider a Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver System™. These control the humidity inside the piano itself, and can considerably improve tuning stability in challenging environments, in addition to protecting the piano from dangerous humidity extremes.

Remember that chart up above? That’s just what’s happening in the room. Here’s what’s happening inside a piano protected by a Dampp-Chaser system. Yes, the humidity still changes, but much less than the room!

How long does a piano tuning take?

A newer piano that has been tuned within six months will usually take between 50 and 75 minutes. Some pianos can take up to two hours if they’re very far out of tune.

Should I wait to tune the piano after I move it?

If you’re just moving a piano a short distance within your house, the majority of pianos will not require any time to settle. The physical action of moving doesn’t generally alter tuning. However, changing the environment of a piano—moving it between houses or even towns—will almost certainly cause settling and adjustment. In these circumstances, I recommend waiting a minimum of two weeks before tuning. See my Piano Moving FAQs.

Will it cost more if it’s been a long time?

It depends. When a piano is dramatically out of tune, I’ll need to perform a “pitch adjustment.” A pitch adjustment is a very quick tuning designed to get the piano close to concert pitch before the actual tuning. This pre-tuning is necessary, as otherwise the piano will go out of tune as I tune it.

Pitch adjustments considerably change the tension within the piano. A piano that’s a half-step below concert pitch will undergo an overall internal change of almost one ton of tension during a tuning. This means the tuning does not last as long because the instrument will settle, and it also means the process of tuning it will take longer. You will want to consider getting it tuned a second time after about a month.

I do not charge extra if I can still tune it in my expected time frame of two hours, and I almost always can. However, the tuning itself will not last as long, and a follow-up will likely be necessary.

Do you tune by ear?

I tune using a Sanderson AccuTuner. After tuning, I will aurally evaluate the piano and will retune individual keys or perhaps a small section by ear if I think, for some reason, the machine’s “perfect” doesn’t match a human ear’s “perfect.” I do not, at this time, know of anyone in Maine who tunes primarily by ear, and if you know of one or are one please contact me!

What’s the difference between a fish and a piano?

You can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish.

Do you service players?

Players fall in two categories: Older player uprights, generally from the 1920s, and newer electronic players from the 80s onward. I can tune both, but the older 1920s players can present some unique challenges when regulating or repairing them. The player stack is heavy, and generally difficult to remove, and it sits between me and the action. You should expect this to take some extra time.

While I can help you set up your Yamaha Disklavier or other electronic system, I do NOT do repairs or rebuilding on the actual player mechanism, old or new. I do not currently have anyone to recommend for this work, and if you are such a person, please contact me.

My piano has a weird buzz. Can you fix that?

There are many possible reasons for a buzz. These range from debris on the soundboard, to poor string seating, to structural faults, to peeling glue on the edge of the soundboard. I will do my best to find the source of the problem in your piano and come up with a reasonable treatment.

Where do I find a teacher?

Funny you should ask: I have a handy list on my teachers page!

Are my ivories worth anything?

It is a federal crime to buy or sell ivory, and so the market value is zero. They are worthwhile to keep (or give to your technician) since they can be used to replace broken or missing ivories on other pianos.

Can you fix my broken music rack?

I do carry replacement hardware for music racks. If the music rack itself is broken, then the options depend on the piano: Upright pianos often have generic, easily replaceable music racks. If your music rack is hinged, I can almost certainly order a replacement readily. Grand piano repairs can be more complicated, but I do them. I might opt to work with a carpenter depending on the nature of the repair and the intricacy of the detail of your particular music rack.

My piano is too loud! What can I do?

If it’s a grand, you can leave the lid down. Another easy fix is putting a rug underneath the piano, which does a lot—especially for grands. If you have an upright, you can also cut a rectangular piece of foam insulation to set behind the piano. In this application, exposed foam does best.

It’s possible that your piano is too bright, and needs to be voiced down. Depending on the piano, this can be done by sanding the surface of the hammers, needling the hammers, or applying chemical hammer softener.

Where should the piano be positioned?

It should be positioned along on an inside wall away from doors and windows. Outside walls change temperature (and thus relative humidity) more quickly than inside walls.

Make sure it is in a large enough room. Small rooms change temperature and humidity quicker than large rooms because of the volume of air. The exception would be a small space with very well-controlled humidity.

Control the humidity in the room. Dehumidifiers or air conditions prevent the air from getting too humid in the summer, and humidifiers keep the piano from drying out in the winter. If you cannot control the humidity in the room, then I can install a Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver System™.

Our piano is in a building that isn’t heated in the winter. Do we need to do anything?

This is a pretty common situation here in Maine in churches and grange halls. Curiously, pianos exposed to colder temperatures tend to hold a better tune overall—this is because it’s largely the heating of the air that causes dryness in the winter, and cooler spaces maintain better humidity levels.

However, there is a tremendous risk of condensation forming on the strings and pins inside the piano and its action, which will initially cause rust and sluggishness and can eventually cause mold. Both rust and mold can become terminal conditions in a piano quickly, especially one that’s left unplayed and unattended to for months at a time. In this cases, my strategy is the installation of a Dampp-Chaser Piano Life Saver System™, or even just the Dampp-Chaser dehumidifier which is considerably less expensive than the complete system. See more about Dampp-Chasers.

The movers broke my pedals! Can you fix them?

It’s quite common for home movers unfamiliar with pianos to struggle when putting together the pedal assembly—this is one good reason to hire professional piano movers. Usually in these cases nothing is actually broken, and I can put the pedals back together in the same visit. However, in the case of major breaks, I can supply replacements (usually on a return visit) or can duplicate components (often with the help of a carpenter).

Something fell into my piano! Can you get it?

Yes. If a pen or pencil rolled in behind the fallboard or music rack, it is unlikely to do any damage other than making noise when you play a key—many times, my clients have no idea anything even fell in! However, if you notice a key no longer plays or feels stuck, or if the object fell into the action of your grand piano, give me a call and I’ll be by to remove it as soon as possible!

If it’s especially unreachable, I can hunt in hard to reach places using an endoscope.

My last tuner said the pins were too loose. Is this a problem?

A lot of tuners are not technicians—that is, they tune pianos but do not perform repairs. Tuning pins can often be sized up, or even just set deeper into the pinblock. However, if MANY tuning pins are loose or the pinblock itself is damaged (which is often difficult to judge in uprights), then the piano might be in need of a rebuild, which is extensive work done in a shop.

However, not everybody is looking to rebuild their piano. You might be looking for a solution that will work for the next few years, and is a whole lot cheaper. If the piano has dreadfully loose tuning pins, and another technician has already given up on it, there does exist one remaining (and interesting) solution: There’s an extremely viscous cyanoacrylate (sold by the brand name Hot Stuff Original Instant Glue) can be dripped around the tuning pins. It will wick into the pinblock and crystallize, swelling the wood. It takes approximately one bottle to treat a single piano. It does not bond the tuning pins to the pinblock, but rather swells the pinblock and consequently increases its grip on the pins.

This chemical wizardly can rescue pianos that otherwise seem quite far gone, although it’s not guaranteed if the pinblock is badly cracked or damaged. Nonetheless, I’ve had multiple situations where it seemed very nearly miraculous, and the customer was spared the cost of rebuilding the pianos for years.

If the piano is an upright, it’s necessary to lay the piano on its back before treating. (This typically requires a piano dolly unless you’re singularly gargantuan, and I’ve heard stories of such technicians.) Vacuum the area around the tuning pins so you don’t glue too much dog hair and other debris permanently in place. Leave the piano in this position until Hot Stuff has had adequate time to cure—you don’t want it to drop down the strings when you stand the piano back up. After an hour or so, the tuning pins should be set much more firmly, and tuning stability will likely be much improved.

In short, a piano with some loose pins is generally worth a second look by a technician, and about two thirds of the time I find I can correct the problem in-home.

Do you tune Mason & Hamlin Screw Stringers? Wegman’s? Square Grands? Birdcage Uprights? This unique thing I found in my basement I can’t find anywhere on the internet?

If your peculiar piano is in good condition, I’ll do my very best to tune it. And if I can’t, I’ll at least photograph it and look at it in wonder.

I can tune Mason & Hamlin screw stringers and birdcage uprights, if they’re otherwise in good condition. I’m always willing to take a look at something truly novel.

Most of the time, square grand pianos are not able to be tuned to anything resembling a modern tuning, and much of the time not even to themselves. This is because they are, by definition, very old, with most of them being from the 1850s and 1860s. They also simply weren’t built as ruggedly as pianos of even a few decades later, and mechanical issues typically abound. You’re better off completely rebuilding it if you’re passionate about the design.

Wegman uprights are real oddities, with their peculiar tuning pins. I can’t even find a picture of one on the internet to share here, so I’ll definitely come look at yours. When I first encountered one, I couldn’t find anyone else who had even seen such a thing. For the uninitiated, this is a design of piano that doesn’t use a pinblock: Metal tuning pins are placed through the cast iron plate, and then have a notch with a wedge driven in from the other side to hold them in place. They typically can be tuned, although replacing tuning pins is, essentially, machine work.

1 thought on “Tuning FAQs”

  1. When you explained in detail that it may take less than 1½ hours for a well-maintained piano to be tuned, I got a bit amazed. This reminds me of my ex-boss who owns a grand piano in his penthouse in Georgia. I’ll surely ask him to hire a tuner to check on the instrument. https://www.pianotune.net/marietta


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