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What is a Piano Tuning?

The simple answer is that a piano tuning is a complex process of adjusting string tensions. 

To tune a piano, one increases string tension to make a higher sounding note and decreases the tension to produce a lower sounding note.  Each note has a particular pitch that it corresponds to.  For example, the frequency for the note A above middle C is 440 hertz.  Periodically, the pitch for each string drifts substantially enough to warrant a piano tuning.  If middle A is at a pitch noticeably different than 440 hertz, the sound that is heard will not make sense when it is played with other notes in the piano and other instruments. 

Nearly all piano companies recommend that a piano tuning be performed a minimum of 2 times per year, and a new piano 3 to 4 times the first year.   Click on the following hyperlinks for a more comprehensive explanation of the following piano tuning topics:

Tell me more about piano tuning 

Why is it necessary to tune a piano?

How often should I have a piano tuning?

Tell me more about piano tuning

The comprehensive answer is that piano tuning is the process of adjusting string tension so that 1) the overall pitch of the piano is referenced to middle A at 440 hertz, 2) the individual strings within a unison are at the exact same frequency, 3) the pitch of each note, when paired with another note, makes a proper sounding interval and 4) each string’s tension is at equilibrium as it passes through its various bearing points.  So, there are 4 components of a piano tuning – pitch, unison, interval and stability.


If you have ever arrived early to a concert at the symphony, you probably noticed the musicians tuning their instruments to the piano that had recently had a piano tuning.  The reference note that is played is the note A above middle C.  Each musician listens to the piano and then tunes their own instrument accordingly.  The international pitch standard has remained A above middle C at 440 hertz for nearly the last 100 years, although some symphonies are beginning to request a slightly higher pitch (ie 442 hertz).  Although each note has its own scientific frequency(hertz), it is only middle A that is tuned to that standard.  Due to a phenomenon know as inharmonicity, the notes below middle A are tuned slightly flat and become more flat the further down the keyboard you go.  Similarly, the notes above are tuned slightly sharp and become more sharp as you progress up the keyboard.  And, as if that wasn’t enough, each piano requires a custom piano tuning.  In other words, the same piano tuning used for a spinet piano would make a concert grand piano sound horrible.


Have you ever looked at the piano strings (actually metal wires)?  If not, you may be surprised to discover that even though the piano has 88 notes, it actually has more than 220 strings.  For most pianos, the upper 2/3rds of the keyboard have 3 strings per key.  Out of the remaining notes in the bottom third, the lowest octave and a half usually have 1 string per note while the remainder have 2 strings per note.  The lowest notes have 1 string because the diameter and length of the string provides enough mass for a low pitch and loud sound.  However, it is necessary to reduce the diameter and length of the string to generate a pitch that is substantially higher.  So, you will notice that as you progress up the keyboard from the bass (left) side, the strings’ diameters and lengths get progressively smaller.  A side effect of this is that the volume gets softer.  To remedy this and keep the bass from overpowering the rest of the piano, piano makers pair 2 or 3 strings per note.  So, a unison refers to the individual string or strings within the note.  In notes that have more than 1 string, all the strings must be set at the same frequency in order to properly tune a piano.


The term interval refers to 2 notes that are played together.  Some intervals are more harmonious than others while some are downright raucous.  Each note is a specific acoustical “distance” away from the surrounding notes.  It is this “distance” that, among other techniques, enables a composer to use particular intervals to setup tension and resolution within a musical score.  For instance, a 3rd interval (such as C and E), due to the distance between the lower and higher note, is good for setting up a climax while the 5th (such as C and G) will have a serene feel to it.  A proper piano tuning places each individual note at an appropriate “acoustical distance” from the other notes around it, so that when they are played together, the composition makes sense.


A good sounding piano tuning is of little value if it goes out of tune quickly.  The stability of a piano tuning is a function of 3 things: the quality and condition of the piano, the environment that it is in and the skill of the tuner.

If you take another look at a piano string, you will notice that it starts at a tuning pin, goes over and under several points of contact and most often loops around and returns to the next tuning pin after going through those same contact points.  Due to the friction at these various contact points, changing pitch puts more tension on the part of the string closest to the tuning pin and the least amount on the part that is farthest away.  Although the string’s sections cannot be at the same tension, unusually high tension in one segment may want to leach into the lower tension in another segment of the string, which will alter the pitch.  A quality piano tuning places the string at equilibrium so that it is stable.

Another factor within the tuner’s control is how he or she manipulates the tuning pin.  Although you cannot see it, the tuning pin goes through the golden, cast-iron plate (sometimes referred to as the harp) and is securely held by a multi-laminate piece of wood called the pinblock.  It is most often made of hard-rock maple or beech.  However, the tuning pin twists slightly as it is turned in the pinblock.  And, just like the string, the tuning pin wants to return to a place of equilibrium.  A quality piano tuning places the tuning pin back to its rest position.  An important point to note is that just because someone has tuned pianos for 30 years does not necessarily mean he can produce a stable piano tuning.

Why is it necessary to tune a piano?

Did you know that the average grand piano has approximately 20 tons (40,000 pounds) of string tension and that the smallest changes in strings tension can be easily heard?  This is why a piano tuning is necessary.

The most significant factor that affects a piano tuning in the home setting is the change in humidity from season to season.  Other factors that affect the piano tuning include routine playing of the piano, significant changes in temperature and direct sunlight or air currents on the piano.

Maintaining a “piano friendly” environment (advice coming soon)

How often should I have a piano tuning?

As state above, a piano tuing should be performed a minimum of 2x per year.  New pianos go out of tune very quickly and usually necessitate a piano tuning 3 or 4 times the first year and then 2x per year afterwards.  It is necessary to highlight the fact that 2 piano tunings per year is the minimum recommendation.  This is a good rule of thumb for most casual, social enjoyment and beginner and intermediate piano students.  However, in the same way a car that is used often requires more frequent maintenance, the heavier and longer that a piano is played, the quicker it goes out of tune.  Piano teachers and serious piano students would benefit from a more frequent piano tuning interval.  Also, the setting that the piano is in has a great affect on it too.  College pianos go out of tune very frequently and drastically not due as much to heavy usage but rather extremely poor humidity control during the school year.  And, similarly, churches that turn off their heat and air between services to save money (a good reason to do so I might add), have pianos that between tunings sound mediocre at best and downright horrid at worst.

Maintaining a “piano friendly” environment (advice coming soon)

What do piano factories recommend? (advice coming soon)