My Yamaha CFIIIS came back from PianoWorks in Atlanta and was installed in Charleston. It was very nicely strung with new pinblock and treble bridge cap. Flawless delivery to Charleston sounding very good on arrival. Good is relative, of course. The parts PianoWorks did were very very good. The sound of the hammers and their presence in a midsize room was harsh. They will only begin to sound acceptable with a couple of hours of serious voicing, and that can’t happen until the piano is tuned and very stable. To me, that’s at least 10 tunings. I just have to get started.

New brigde cap

New brigde cap

I haven’t tuned a piano in a year and before that probably 2, so I’m rusty. The skills of tuning stay with you, like riding a bike. The facility and confidence, however, have to be painstakingly, patiently rebuilt.

Tuning is a very physical activity. You are forcing a stout metal pin, which has been driven tightly into a block of wood and is under great tension, to move a very precise and tiny amount. The movement required starts with the back, shoulder and arm and ends with the wrists and fingertips as the pin is gently nudged into proper position. The final positioning of the pin is really manipulating the twist in the pin rather than causing it to move in the wood.

The actual note you hear from a piano is comprised of up to three separate strings (under special circumstances 4). The vibration pattern emitted by each of these 3 strings is very complex and actually consists of a number of softer individual tones which are subdivisions, or partials of the note being struck. These partials, sounding together when struck by the piano hammer, appear to our ears as a single note. Piano tuning requires one to listen to these individual, very specific subdivisions of a single piano string. The more a piano is in tune, the more these sound like one note, one rich, dynamic, note. The more it is out of tune the more harsh, brittle and generally aggravating it sounds. Like any skill, training your ear to hear partials can be done by just about anybody, after a great deal of time and practice.

Tuning a piano is actually the act of putting it precisely out of tune. Because of the stiffness of the steel in a piano string, the partials, or subdivisions of a particular note, are all slightly out of tune. The condition is called inharmonicity. While any string demonstrates this condition to some degree, it is the stiff steel strings of a piano that are most difficult and critical because of the range of the piano. The equations tell us that the strong partials or harmonics of a low copper wrapped bass string should be exactly in tune with the same pitch being emitted by a string far up the scale of the piano. But that stiffness in the string makes the correct mathematical relationship impossible to obtain. This means that the tuner is actually striving for a pleasing compromise where the errors in the relationship between the harmonics are spread evenly over the keyboard.

You can think of the way an ear is used in tuning by comparing it to something like Where’s Waldo or the hidden image pictures that were so popular recently. These puzzles require you to use your eye in a very conscious way, looking at something one way, then another hoping the target will pop out. When tuning, you are using your ear to examine the various different combination of partials between two notes, the one you are tuning and the one you are tuning too. You focus your concentration on one combination, possibly another to check, then the whole pattern of sound because just having one set of partials in tune is not enough if the tuning still sounds wrong.

The various methods of tuning a piano are essentially endless and once you start listening critically, the variance in tuning among tuners is substantial. Again like any profession, there are the hacks, the tradesmen and the artists. To tune a concert piano effectively one must tune at the level of an artist which means adjusting the different components so the tuning is actually optimized for the piano, artist and environment. It is possible, in skilled hands, for the tuning to augment a performance, to add something positive to it. This is something like a Formula 1 racing engine, tuned and optimized for one single event.

The temperment
The process usually starts with setting the first reference octave, called the temperment, to which all the other notes will be tuned. This temperment octave starts with a reference from a tuning fork and then is manipulated and fussed with until it sounds a very specific way in a series of checks and tests. These checks focus on vibrational patterns that when identified and recognized, divide the 12 notes of the temperment octave into generally equal parts. These checks and tests do not take into account any musical characteristic. This technique results in a generally serviceable tuning that works with most modern pianos and is relatively quick to perform. It is hardly meant to optimize a piano on it’s own because most customers can’t hear the difference and certainly don’t want to pay anything more for it.

Concert tuning is different.

But here I am, with a rusty ear, rustier joints and a howling collection of steel and wood, far from a piano. And man, I am not into struggling with this. So I set a basic temperment that roughly fits all the basic checks. You don’t have to be too picky here because the new strings are still stretching and won’t stay in tune for long anyway. I have a Reyburn Cybertuner that would have been great for the first 6 tunings or so, but my HP Ipaq on which I ran Cybertuner and the GPS system TomTom crashed and besides, I have to get the ear back in shape anyway…how hard can it be?