How to Tune a Piano - Introduction

Posted by Steve Howard on Jan 12, 2020

Welcome to our introduction on tuning a piano. This will not be a complete course on piano tuning and repair, but it will give you the basics and prepare you to tune your own piano or get you started as a new piano technician. We will focus on using an electronic tuning device in order to tune because I feel that for a beginning tuner it gets you started and can get you to the point of being able to tune a piano and learn some of the hammer techniques, control, setting the pin, and other things without having to work too much on training your ear. Ear training is important, and you do want to eventually learn this technique, especially if you're going to learn to tune for others.  Here is a link to a series of videos where we go into more detail about the theory of tuning by ear: Piano Tuning Theory

Let’s talk briefly about the basic tools that you need to tune a piano. Obviously, the primary tool that you will need is a tuning hammer. We have many different tuning hammers available here at Howard Piano Industries but our professional piano tuning hammer with a nylon or wood handle is a good start.You can purchase a one-piece head and tip or a two-piece head and tip so that you can change the tip sizes if needed. You can also purchase heads with different angles, such as 5, 10, or 15 degrees depending on preference. There are many tuning hammer options available, but you will want to be sure that you get one of good quality. You might see many inexpensive tuning hammers on the internet that come from China.Often, these hammers have tips that do not fit well so we do not encourage these. The key is to have the tip tapered correctly since the inside of the tip is narrower than it is near the mouth of the tip. It is crucial to have a tip that tapers properly so that it will have a snug fit over the pin.In most cases there will be some play, but that is okay.You just don’t want it to have a lot of play because it will cause you to have less control. They don’t make a tool to fit tuning pins for every single piano because there are variances from one manufacturer to another so you will find that a little bit of play is normal. A cheap tuning hammer that doesn’t have the tip tapered correctly will cause you to run into problems with tuning and can even cause damage to the tool as well as the tuning pins. So, a good quality hammer is obviously very important!  Here is a link to the piano tuning hammers we have available in our store: Piano Tuning Hammers

You will also need some rubber mutes and a temperament strip.I use 2 9/16” by ¼”. We have a variety of different mutes available in our store. After inserting the wire handle, they are ready to use, and it makes it easier to use them with the handles in so that you can get the mutes in between the strings. I like to have two of these mutes to use in the treble section of the piano. Just above the treble break and up to where the dampers stop. I also like to use them at the end, or the bottom of the tenor section right before the bass break or wherever I’m not using a temperament strip. The temperament strip is a strip of red wool felt and is the other thing that's handy. it's not necessary but it certainly makes the job a lot faster if you can mute off all the all the unisons for a whole section of notes rather than having to move your rubber mutes for every single note. This is a helpful thing to have and is certainly worth the few dollars that you would pay for it. Piano Tuning Mutes

So, these are the basic tools. Obviously, there are many other tools and we will talk about them in future articles. For now, we will focus on the basics.

Now you will want to have some type of electronic tuning device. It doesn’t have to be expensive. TuneLab has a shareware version that you can get for free to try out and if you like it you can register it for a small fee. It’s roughly $34 to register and this eliminates pop-up windows when you go to close the program. This doesn’t necessarily change the functionality, just convenience. Also, it doesn’t have as many features as other more expensive devices or even the updated version of Tunelab, but you don’t need these extras at this point. We will discuss other tuning devices in the future.For now, we will stick with TuneLab. It’s definitely a good way to judge how you are doing as far as getting close to where you should be and it’s a good way to help you get the piano in tune while you are working on your hammer technique, setting the tuning pin, and some of the other skills that you need to be able to tune a piano.  Here is a link to the page where you can download the shareware version of Tunelab for your computer: Tunelab 97

So, let’s go over some tuning device basics. This is software that can listen to the note of a piano and it has a spectrum, something that will tell you if you are sharp or flat and where you need to be. As you adjust the tuning pin, it will tell you when you are on, or close.Basically, it will help you to know where you need to adjust the pitch to be where it should be. Most good modern electronic tuning devices will measure the inharmonicity in a piano since it varies from one piano to another and this will determine how much stretch the piano needs. Stretch is when you have gotten your middle octave even tempered and then, as you go up on the keyboard, you are going to stretch those octaves higher than pure and as you go down you are going to stretch the octaves down. This means that you are going to bring the pitch lower than a pure octave. We won’t go too far into theory right now though. You can watch our You Tube Video demonstration on how to use TuneLab as it would be very difficult to tell you without you being able to see it.  It is part 3 of our How to Tune a Piano Video Series.