How To Tune Your Own Piano
Pianists go to great lengths to maintain their piano. Pianos have been around for decades and have been played by many great musicians are a prized possession. That is why piano techs charge $200/hr to service these instruments. Certain types of jobs like restringing can cost upwards of $10,000.
In short, piano maintenance is expensive. Therefore, DIY solutions that can allow pianists to save money should be pursued if at all possible. The most important type of service that can be done regularly at home is a piano tuning.
Pianos should get tuned at least 1-4 times per year depending on the frequency in which they are played. This type of frequency is best for home pianists. Professional pianists will require much more frequent tunings. Studio pianists may require weekly tunings and concert pianists will need them before every performance.
Concert pianists are likely to have their pianos tuned by whatever orchestra is funding their performances so they don’t need to do their own tunings. A studio musician working on a budget could save a lot of money tuning their own piano as paying $100-$200 per week for a tuning can obviously add up.
Therefore, studio pianists operating on a tight budget should consider doing their own tunings. They can even make some money tuning pianos locally for hobbyists by advertising on Thumbtack, Facebook, and Craigslist.
Home hobbyists who only need to tune their pianos 1-4 times per year can more easily manage to pay a professional to perform a home tuning. Still, if a home hobbyist is seriously considering playing piano over the long haul, they will end up saving money over time by doing a tuning themselves.
Besides cost, professional musicians ought to know how to tune their own piano in case their piano is out of tune and there aren’t any professional tuners immediately available. You don’t want to have to play in front of a paying audience when your piano sounds off. This isn’t likely to happen but the fact that it could happen is good enough reason to know how to tune your own instrument.
Piano tuning is done using a tuning hammer or lever that turns pins that are attached to a piano’s strings. You are simply tightening or loosening the strings to make them either sharper or flatter respectively. This process has gotten remarkably more accessible because of electronic tuning devices (ETD).
This is what has made it possible for home hobbyists to do a DIY tuning. They will also save your ears as doing aural tuning over time will actually damage your hearing. Before these devices, you simply had a to hire a piano tuner who received formal training to do proper aural checks on a piano.
Now devices and electronic interfaces allow even non-musicians to tune a piano! In addition to a tuning hammer and an ETD you will need a set of mutes which is needed to tune keys that have multiple strings associated with them. You need to mute certain strings so you can focus on tuning on string at a time.
You will have to invest around $500 to get the tools necessary to tune a piano. You will want a tuning hammer that should cost at least $60. There are cheap $30 ones which will break easily on you.
It’s recommended to get an app called TuneLab which will cost you $300 as your ETD. Mutes are cheap and you can get a set for less than $20.
Rough Tuning Summary
This tutorial will be focused on teaching you how to perform a “rough tuning” without aural checks. This means you will only be using your ETD to get your piano sounding proper.
However, it will not get the same professional polish you would get from a professional service done with aural checks. Professional tuners use both ETDs and aural checks in their services.
This is what studios and concerts pay for. To be clear, “rough tunings” will still sound good they just want sound perfect. So if you need to get your piano to sound in-tune last minute before a performance and there isn’t any time to do a pro’s job then this is a good way to do that.
It’s also the way recommended for saving time and money for hobbyists and professionals on a budget.
1. Get Your Tools:
Get your ETD ready, some mutes, and a tuning hammer.
ETDs can be an actual device or a pc and phone app. Some phone apps cost $25 and dedicated devices can cost $1000+. Tunelab is the app recommended here as it is also used by professionals. It costs $300 but it has a free trial.
Start with the free trial to get a reference point for what a professional standard sounds like. Then consider purchasing the full suite for $300 or try some of the cheaper apps after your Tunelab trial to see if they are comparable.
Get 2 cheap mutes. You want wedge-shaped rubber mutes with handles sticking out of them.
Tuning hammers are both cheap and expensive. A hammer must unscrew along the axis of its handle NOT the head. Avoid the $30 hammers. You can expect to pay at least $60 for such a hammer. Aim to get a hammer with a star-shaped head instead of a square one.
2. Access The Pinblock:
Pianos have tuning pins inserted into a slab of wood called a pinblock inside them. You will insert your tuning hammer onto these pins.
On a grand piano, just lift the lid and prop it up. On an upright, open the lid and remove the desk. This is where sheet music is rested on. To do this you have to unscrew a screw on both sides of the compartment. Or you may see two latches that can be released by hand. Once done just lift the desk and place it somewhere.
3. Determine Which Keys to Tune:
A piano that hasn’t been tuned in 1+ years may need to have each key tuned. Otherwise, just play each key to see which one sounds off so you can tune those ones only.
4. Place Mutes:
There are 2 strings on the middle tones and 3 on the high tones. You will use your mutes to silence the strings you aren’t tuning on said tunes. The low tones only have 1 string and no muting is necessary.
You want to tune in a specific order beginning with the lowest note of the treble section from which you will move to the right of the piano. Then you will tune the highest bass note moving to the left of the piano. So place your mutes on the strings that you are tuning within these sections.
5. Place Hammer:
Play a key and follow the strings to their pin.
Place your hammer on the pin. The handle of your hammer should be at 12 o’clock and its head should be at 6 o’clock.
6. Determine Proper Force:
With your eye on the ETD play a key so if it’s flat or sharp. If flat you will need to turn your hammer clockwise and vice versa if it is sharp.
Before you tune you need to know how much force you should apply. If flat, tap the hammer starting at the head so that the tapping force is going clockwise. Keep tapping clockwise moving your way from the head to the end of handle. The ETD will show a change in tuning at a specific spot of the handle. That is where you need to apply force on the handle. Now you can use this information for the rest of the strings and don’t need to perform this step further.
7. Tune The String:
Restringing a piano is expensive, loud, and traumatizing. Don’t break a string. USE TINY JERKING MOVEMENTS when tuning.
Always tune your strings so that they are a little sharper than they should be so that when the strings settle, they will go down to where they ought to be in tune.
8. Repeat Steps 3-7:
Keep going moving from key to key until done.
Play something and see how it sounds. I recommend Billy Joel!