HOW PIANO TUNING WORKS AND ITS EFFECTS ON STUDENT PROGRESS
There are two basic phases of piano tuning.
Phase 1. The tension of one string for each note/key is adjusted so its pitch or rate of vibration is correct. As a result, we hear the beauty intended in the composer’s melodies and the accompanying note combinations, such as chords and arpeggios. When these pitches are incorrect–even slightly–the result of even the most skillful playing is unpleasant, piano-based noise.
In such cases, there can be no meaningful enjoyment of the music, which discourages the student from practicing. Listening to it regularly also does untold damage to their developing musical ear, as they are not hearing standard pitches or note combinations as they practice. It’s somewhat like learning to paint pictures with sunglasses on, i.e. the “colors” of musical sound are distorted.
Phase 2. About three-fourths of the notes on a piano have two or three strings that sound together, which are referred to as unisons. Under normal circumstances, the pitch of these strings is adjusted to match perfectly. If so, the true, beautiful tone of the piano is evident. When unison pitches are slightly off, the affected notes twang, jangle, buzz, or make other unmusical noises.
This has several negative effects on the student’s progress.
First, the unisons that are furthest out of tune are the loudest. But since they appear randomly within each octave (e.g. a series of 12 white and black keys beginning on “C”), the student can’t control dynamics (volume) in a beautiful and artistic way.
Second, playing with good tone or controlling it for musical purposes is impossible, because out-of-tune unisons produce the opposite, which is uncontrollable distortion.
Third, the only thing uglier sounding than a piano with incorrect pitches is one whose unisons are twanging. In turn, there will be no satisfaction from piano practice, and the motivation to do so will be extremely low to nonexistent.
In sum, allowing a student to practice on an out-of-tune piano is setting them up for musical failure.
This also represents a false economy: of saving money on tunings, while at the same time, wasting much more money on lessons that are ultimately unproductive.
To use a sports analogy, practicing on an improperly maintained piano is like giving a child a warped wooden racquet to use for their tennis lessons.
WHY PIANOS GO OUT OF TUNE EASILY
Piano strings, made of metal, appear to be very rigid. Nonetheless, they need to be flexible enough to vibrate and produce audible sounds. As a result of this flexibility, their tension is essentially changing constantly–starting when your piano technician packs up their tools and walks out the door.
Beyond that, the large wooden soundboard of a piano, and two long wooden strips called bridges, glued together, resist the downward pressure or downbearing of the strings. As the humidity surrounding the piano changes (a near constant phenomenon), the soundboard/bridge assembly rises (with higher humidity) or falls (with lower humidity). This changes the tension on the strings in a random fashion.
As you know from the discussion above, proper tension equals proper pitches, and lack thereof equals wrong ones.
Other factors that affect the tuning of the piano are:
- exposure to direct sunlight or HVAC airflow
- outdoor air from open windows or doors
- frequent and/or loud playing
- moisture from bathrooms or kitchens close to the piano
All musical instruments with strings, e.g. pianos, guitars, and violins, noticeably lose their tuning within a matter of days, if not sooner. In the case of pianos, evidence of this is the fact that those in concert halls are tuned one or more times PER DAY.
Ironically, the same technicians who tune these pianos tell their customers they only need to tune once or twice a year. (?)
As a matter of common sense, they should be tuned whenever they’re out of tune. Since this is not affordable for most people, a reasonable compromise is four times per year, at the beginning of each Minnesota seasonal change. Our specific recommendation is January, April (when temperatures are consistently above freezing), July and October.
MAINTENANCE OF TUNING STABILITY/PROTECTING YOUR PIANO FROM DAMAGE
To make each tuning last as long as possible, the humidity surrounding the piano should not fluctuate more than 5% up or down from a particular set point. We prefer 45%, which means that ideally, the humidity would not drop below 40% or rise above 50%. During the heating season, maintaining 45% may fog up windows and cause moisture buildup on the walls. If so, 40% is acceptable during that time.
Also, pianos have about 10,000 parts. Many of these are made from wood/leather/felt, and in some cases, adjusted to tolerances as small as 1000th of an inch. Thus, limiting humidity fluctuation allows the piano’s moving and stabilizing parts to function properly year ’round. In contrast, expensive regulation work will be needed to correct problems with a piano subjected to the opposite conditions.
Avoidance of low humidity (below ~30%) also prevents cracking and warping of wooden parts, de-crowning of the soundboard (which degrades the tone of the piano), etc., etc.
What’s less commonly known is that a dried out piano loses some of its beauty of tone. In addition, the keys may move too freely, making the sound of the piano difficult to control.
High humidity (above 60%) causes wooden parts to swell up, making the keys feel sluggish. It can also cause the tone to become somewhat soggy.
Subsequently, if the humidity drops into the danger zone below 30%, the same parts shrink. This creates the kitchen sponge syndrome, which expands with water and then dries out in its absence. As we all know, the sponge loses its symmetrical shape when the latter occurs. This is essentially what happens to the wooden action parts of a piano when steady humidity is not maintained.
SHOULD YOU BUY AN ACOUSTIC PIANO IN THE FIRST PLACE?
I recently heard a recording of a student’s piano playing at home, and was surprised to hear that most of the notes had the ugly twanging sound discussed earlier. This explained why, in their lessons, the student had difficultly controlling volume and tone quality on our studio grand piano, which is fully tuned at least four times per year and touched up frequently between tunings.
Ultimately, piano lessons are about learning how to play an acoustic, and thus, the ideal learning situation is to practice on one. However, unless you’re willing to invest about ~$700 a year in tunings and keyboard/action maintenance, your child will be practicing on an unpleasant sounding instrument with an uneven key touch response. Both interfere substantially with meaningful musical advancement. In short, they can learn to “hit the notes”, but that’s about it.
As a bottom-line alternative, we recommend a Casio PX-870 with a subwoofer, vertical stand, and pedal board. This digital piano configuration costs about $1000, has a good tone, a decent key action, and rarely needs maintenance. Note that the subwoofer is especially important for overall depth of tone and bass response, as affordable digitals have small built-in speakers.