View Full Version : Misteries of piano tuning

Dec-02-2007, 06:01
(This discussion started here (http://www.magle.dk/music-forums/869-what-you-listening-28.html#post28937).)

Proper tuning of a piano takes much more than using an electronic tuner. If one were to tune every string on the piano to exact pitch, it would sound horrible. A good piano technician/tuner will impart subtle characteristics to the tuning of every piano string, ergo, a couple of cents - plus/minus off in the tuning.
Corno, I'm very curious about this.
How one would know which string tune up or down?
Can you explain this a little bit more (maybe open a topic about this)?
Hi Rachmaninoff,

An excellent question you pose. I can only speak very generally on this subject since I'm not an authorised piano tuner. A Steinway technician whom I once knew, who tuned pianos for some of the *Illuminati* of the piano world said that he tuned the notes which had three strings as follows: Flatted, Natural, and Sharp, ergo, one string was tuned down minus three cents - the middle string at perfect pitch, and the last string at plus 3 cents.

The single string bass notes he usually tuned minus 2 cents but he carefully took into consideration the wishes of the concert pianist. A few other techs had other means but they felt uneasy to share such info with a layperson, or so I gather. I hereby invite any forum member to dispute what I've shared since I am just a layman when it comes to tuning pianos, not an expert.


Corno Dolce
Hi Corno Dolce,

I don't know how to test it (maybe using some computer program), but do you think 3 cents make a noticeable difference? I thought the human perception was about 5-6 cents. Well, maybe there is a difference on a combo of three close strings. Also, does this out-of-tune blending have some relationship with the effect heard on a string ensemble, where the instruments form some kind of "chorus" effect?

Corno Dolce
Dec-02-2007, 08:36
Hi Rachmaninoff,

As I shared in the beginning, I am not a professional piano tuner. I only shared what I heard from a Steinway tech. I surmise that when it comes to tuning, each one of them will have their own *style*. It wouldn't surprise me if there are sound files of minute variations in piano tuning available on the web.

I think you may have mentioned something quite on the mark when you said *Chorus Effect* with the string ensemble. A warm glow is how I would characterise it. Let me interject another related piece of info: The String Division of the Wanamaker Organ has many stops aka registers which control three sets of pipes which somewhat loosely sound like the string ensemble in a large orchestra. Some of those sets are tuned flat, some natural, and some sharp. The effect achieved is quite magical - a swaying, hovering, very slightly tremulating and billowing *cloud* of sound that envelops the listener: Truly other-worldly!

I don't know how many cents difference there are between the pipes but it works wonders when you play a solo brass or woodwind line against it. Now, to tie the aforementioned in the previous paragraph with the topic, I shall posit that even minute centesimal variations in tuning, when combined as a chord, will achieve a warm, glowing chorus/ensemble effect where the piano is one with the string section. Of course, the piano is very capable with cascades of declamatory chords - like a brass and percussion section adding drama to the whole sound canvas.

Alright Rachmaninoff, the ball is in your court.


Corno Dolce

Dec-02-2007, 16:49
Hi CD!

May be I have misunderstood what you explain about piano tuning, but if you really tune the 3 strings of the same key, one minus 3 cents, one 0 and the last +3 cents, I hope it is only for playing Claude Bolling (borsalino).
Do you know the tuning method of Serge Cordier (exact fifthes, and short octaves) ?
J-Paul :) :)

Corno Dolce
Dec-02-2007, 18:51
Hi J.P.

Yes, I do know about exact fifths and short octaves. I'm sorry if what I wrote sounded like that of someone pretending to be a piano tuner, which I am not. I enjoy reading what you write and comment about. Interesting that you should mention Claude Bolling. There are some other composers whom, I believe, *experimented* with *preparing pianos*, ergo, with tuning and with *additions* like screws, wood dowels and other *devices* stuck between strings and elsewhere achieved some sounds that definitely set them apart from the mainstream of music.


Corno Dolce

Dec-02-2007, 19:27
Hi C.D
Do not worry, what you wrote did not sound like that of someone pretending to be a piano tuner. I am not a piano tuner too. I only tune my two own pianos and I do it very badly, not as a professional . I do it a very slow speed (i need one or 2 days) and i am unable to tune it +/-2 or 3 cents accuracy. Some people cannot hear such small intervals. I think I can hear, but I am quite unable to tune my piano with such precision. not easy to deal with the tuning tool.
PS, I have the book of serge cordier, but I do not use his method.
Other subjet, Corno, have you seen my thread in classical forum "who wrote this song" ? I think you can find the answer.

Corno Dolce
Dec-02-2007, 20:11
Hello J.P.

Yes, I did listen to that sound clip but I am most sorry to say that I have not a clue as to who might have written it. I apologise profusely for my lack of knowlege and ignorance in regards to the music presented in the sound clip.

Sadly and dejectedly,

Corno Dolente

Dec-03-2007, 03:16
My mother is a piano technician and attempted to teach me some of the trade. When she left me alone with a piano once to work on a temperament and came back an hour later to find me asleep and drooling on the keys, I think she realized that it was probably not the profession for me (as did I).

But....I did pick up a few things from her and from attending a couple of Piano Technician's Guild conventions.
There are tuners who will use an electronic tuner to help them, but as far as I know the PTG (Piano Technician's Guild) would never allow one of their members to do that and it is frowned upon. The best tuners use their ears, but they don't just have a "perfect pitch" in their ear to tune each string. They are using beat relationships between intervals.

In setting the temperament, I believe in the middle of the keyboard from F to F, or C to C depending on your teacher, all but the middle string of each set of three is dampened, and those lone strings are tuned to each other--narrow fifths, wide fourths, and then a certain degree of rising beat counts between thirds as you move from the bottom to the top of the octave. There is a whole system of checks and balances that you listen for. Once that is set, I believe you then tune octaves all the way up and down, and then remove the dampening felts to tune unisons of the strings. When I was practicing unisons, I was never given instruction (or heard of such a thing) to tune down cents and up cents within a unison. This doesn't mean that people don't do that, of course. There are many methods.

A few of the members of the PTG chapter in my mother's area would actually practice historical temperaments on people's pianos, often without telling them.

Corno Dolce
Dec-03-2007, 10:41
Hi Fretless,

Thanks for your revelations. A chance meeting I once had with the piano tech who exclusively tuned Ashkenazy's concert grand had examined the tuning of a grand done by a colleague and was not merciful in his judgement about the tuning done. He retuned that grand!!!


Corno Dolce

Dec-05-2007, 01:04
Fascinating info, guys!