I have been a professional piano tuner for decades, but I still remember well a time when I was a young piano player, knowing nothing at all about tuning. I only knew that to satisfy my ears my piano needed to be tuned about four times a year, with the change of the seasons, and that my parents could only afford to pay for one tuning a year.
In a recent popular movie, a teenaged wizard reminds his friends that every skilled person, even the greatest, started out as a beginner. As long as you have no prohibitive physical limitations, you can learn, with time, study, and practice, to do anything yourself.
Can you tune your own piano? You can, providing you have a good sense of pitch and are not tone deaf. However, you should never attempt to adjust a piano string without thoroughly understanding what you are about to do. There is a real danger of damaging your valuable piano or even seriously injuring yourself if you do not do it right. You must have the proper tools and always wear safety glasses. A piano string is a spring steel wire under high tension. If a piano string breaks suddenly, it could whip back and damage or destroy an eye.
Basically, an acoustic piano is considered a percussion instrument because the sounds are produced by a felt hammer striking the strings, causing them to vibrate at a frequency (or pitch) determined by their tension. Piano tuning is fundamentally a matter of carefully adjusting the tension of every string so that it vibrates at the right pitch.
Structurally, a standard piano is a large harp with steel strings stretched across a cast-iron frame. The moving mechanical parts of the piano, including the keys, hammers, and dampers are called the piano "action". The vibration of the strings is transferred into a wooden sounding board which resonates and amplifies the sound.
There are no fundamental structural differences between an upright (vertical) piano and a grand piano beyond the orientation of the harp. Physically, longer strings produce more tonally accurate and pleasing sound. Grand pianos tend to have longer strings than verticals and therefore better tonal quality. Grand and vertical pianos do require different action mechanisms.
The first necessary step you must take before considering trying to tune your own piano is to have it inspected and serviced by an experienced professional piano technician. Please do not attempt to adjust any piano without having a professional check it out first. It may sound like I'm trying to drum up business for your local tuner, but that is not so. This is a safety issue. The first thing a technician does is to check the instrument to make sure it has no dangerous structural flaws. Few tuners will touch a piano that has a cracked or fractured harp. It happens very rarely, but a piano with structurally compromised cast iron could suffer what metallurgists call "catastrophic failure", which basically means that the iron breaks very quickly with a release of all of the energy from all of those tightened steel strings. You do not want to be anywhere close to a piano, and especially not with your hands inside it tightening a string, if that were to happen.
Only a few tools are required:
- Piano tuning wrench
- Set of felt and rubber dampers
- Pitch reference (tuning fork or electronic)
You must have a good quality tuning wrench (called a hammer) specifically designed for manipulating piano tuning pins. Never attempt to move a piano tuning pin with any tool other than a piano tuning hammer. The better hammers have interchangeable heads. For personal use, you do not need to invest a large amount in a professional hammer, but be wary of economizing too much.
Only the lowest bass section of the piano has single strings. Normally the high bass, tenor, and treble sections are in groups of two or three strings per note that sound in unison (at the same pitch or tension). Every string has to be adjusted one at a time. The felt or rubber dampers are used to mute (stop from vibrating) the string or strings you are not adjusting.
Finally, you need a pitch reference such as a tuning fork or electronic device that rings at a constant frequency, such as A-440, which means that it sounds at the pitch of A above middle-C, which has a frequency of 440 hertz (cycles per second).
Once you have had your piano checked and you have the right tools, you are ready to learn how to actually tune the piano. You will find that it is a long and painstaking process requiring great patience. The largest misconception beginners have is that "only a few" notes need tuning on their piano. This is rarely true. By the time a few notes are noticeably out, the entire piano will need adjustment. Also, strings may break when you change their tension, no matter how careful and gentle you are.
String breakage can be an individual tendency of certain pianos. Some instruments go 100 years with all of their original strings; others may have two or three break with every tuning. I do not recommend that beginners attempt to replace broken piano strings. I had been tuning for two years before I started replacing strings for customers.
The one key skill every piano tuner must master is called "pin setting". This is the process of turning each steel tuning pin without twisting it. It is a bit hard to explain in a short article, but if you leave a twist or "torque" on the tuning pin (or worse, a bend), it will gradually twist itself back to its original shape and the note will soon go back out of tune. To avoid this, tuners have to develop a skill of "lifting" the pin rather than twisting it. This is critical to all piano tuning, but especially so on newer pianos that have very "tight" pinblocks (the laminated board into which the tuning pins are set).
There is no need to be afraid to try tuning your own piano, but you must read and research the subject before you adjust your first tuning pin. You may find that the effort required is not worth it to you, or you may find the process interesting enough that you decide to put in the time and effort to become a piano technician. That's what happened to me.