Pianos are very complex musical instruments, capable of producing the most wonderful music particularly in the hands of a skilled performer. They are made up of a huge number of parts (Steinway suggest that 12,116 parts go in to the production of their instruments) which, when working in total harmony, combine to offer the pianist a range of expression from the most incredibly delicate to the opposite extreme, that of power and majesty. With such a diversity in the sizes and styles of pianos, and whether yours is one of the smallest made or a large concert grand, one common element all instruments have is their need for regular tuning and maintenance.
Most instrumentalists learn to tune and perhaps carry out minor repairs during the course of their studies, usually once they have gained some proficiency in playing their instrument. Almost all will clean their own instruments and keep them in working order; string players will replace broken strings and some woodwind players will make their own reeds. Pianists however tend to rely on calling in a professional to undertake tuning and maintenance for them.
It takes a long time to become a skilled piano tuner and there is a minimum period of 5 years before a tuner is eligible to apply to become a Member of the Pianoforte Tuners’ Association. Since 1975, Members of the PTA have had to pass separate practical tuning and repair tests together with a viva voce test on the subjects of tuning theory, piano repairs and construction; each section has to be passed to a very high standard. Similarly, PTA Technician Members have undergone practical technical tests in action repairs but with no tuning element in their examination.
It is unfortunate that no matter what level of skill a Piano Tuner/Technician has attained, they are simply referred to as a ‘Piano Tuner’. In the same way that the PTA makes the distinction between tuning and repairs in its examinations, piano tuners also make this distinction. Tuning a piano does not mean repairing the instrument. It is therefore regrettable that when a tuner is called in to ‘tune’, the piano owner often assumes that this also means that any problem with the instrument will automatically be addressed by the tuner at no additional time or cost. Even where a tuner attends a piano regularly, the issue of proper maintenance of the instrument can still be neglected.
Most musical instruments (other than pianos) that are in playing condition would be kept at pitch (currently the ‘A’ above ‘middle C’ on a piano is at 440Hz in the UK) but with pianos this is not always the case. Not all pianos were built to this pitch standard as it was only adopted at an international conference in 1939. The International Organization for Standardization adopted this pitch in 1955 and reaffirmed it in 1975 as ISO 16.
Generally, year by year pianos drop in pitch; this can be a gradual drop, often imperceptible to a piano owner. Even when a piano is regularly tuned, it does not mean that it will automatically be kept at A=440. In particular, tuners who work for piano shops often have an allotted time for their visit and therefore may just tune the piano to whatever pitch they find on their starting note. You may have to ask specifically for your piano to be put to A=440 as it takes longer to “pitch raise” a piano and usually incurs a higher fee. This should always be discussed with your tuner as older pianos may not be suitable for a pitch raise due to their age and condition.
While tuning is part of the proper maintenance of a piano, the action inside the instrument, the dampers and the pedals also require attention periodically. The performance of these parts of the piano declines over time and it is their ‘Regulation’ which is required. This optimises the geometry of the action, makes the piano work efficiently again improving the touch. This is usually done in conjunction with ‘Voicing’ which will improve the quality of tone and restore all the subtlety of musical expression which a piano can deliver. How often this is required will depend on how often the instrument is used, by whom it is used and the conditions in which it is kept.
Further information can be found on subsequent pages of this website.