[2.5] Getting Started

Without a teacher, you cannot dive right into tuning. You will quickly lose your bearing and have no idea how to get back. Therefore, you must first learn/practice certain tuning procedures so that you don't end up with an unplayable piano that you cannot restore. This section is an attempt to get you to the level at which you might try a real tuning, without running into those types of difficulties.

The first things to learn are what not to do, in order to avoid destroying the piano, which is not difficult. If you tighten a string too much, it will break. The initial instructions are designed to minimize string breakage from amateurish moves, so read them carefully. Plan ahead so that you know what to do in case you break a string. A broken string per se, even when left for long periods of time, is no disaster to a piano. However, it is probably wise to conduct your first practices just before you intend to call your tuner. Once you know how to tune, string breakage is a rare problem except for very old or abused pianos. The tuning pins are turned by such small amounts during tuning that the strings almost never break. One common mistake beginners make is to place the lever on the wrong tuning pin. Since turning the pin does not cause any audible change, they keep turning it until the string breaks. One way to avoid this is to always start by tuning flat, as recommended below, and to never turn the pin without listening to the sound.

The most important consideration for a starting tuner is to preserve the condition of the pinblock. The pressure of the pinblock on the pin is enormous. Now you will never have to do this, but if you were to hypothetically turn the pin 180 degrees very rapidly, the heat generated at the interface between pin and pinblock would be sufficient to cook the wood and alter its molecular structure. Clearly, all rotations of the pin must be conducted in slow, small, increments. If you need to remove a pin by turning it, rotate only a quarter turn (counter clock-wise), wait a moment for the heat to dissipate away from the interface, then repeat the procedure, etc., so as to avoid damaging the pinblock.

I will describe everything assuming a grand piano, but the corresponding motion for the upright should be obvious. There are two basic motions in tuning. The first is to turn the pin so as to either pull or release the string. The second is to rock the pin back towards you (to pull on the string) or rock it forwards, towards the string, to release it. The rocking motion, if done to extreme, will enlarge the hole and damage the pinblock. Note that the hole is somewhat elliptical at the top surface of the pinblock because the string is pulling the pin in the direction of the major axis of the ellipse. Thus a small amount of backwards rocking does not enlarge the ellipse because the pin is always pulled into the front end of the ellipse by the string. Also, the pin is not straight but bent elastically towards the string by the pull of the string. Therefore, the rocking motion can be quite effective in moving the string. Even a small amount of forward rocking, within the elasticity of the wood, is harmless. It is clear from these considerations that you must use the rotation whenever possible, and use the rocking motion only when absolutely necessary. Only very small rocking motions should be used. For the extreme high notes (top two octaves), the motion needed to tune the string is so small that you may not be able to control it adequately by rotating the pin. Rocking provides much finer control, and can be used for that final miniscule motion to bring it into perfect tune.

Now, what is the easiest way to start practicing? First, let's choose the easiest notes to tune. These lie in the C3-C4 octave. Lower notes are harder to tune because of their high harmonic content, and the higher notes are difficult because the amount of pin rotation needed to tune becomes smaller with higher pitch. Note that middle C is C4; the B just below it is B3 and the D immediately above middle C is D4. That is, the octave number 1, 2, 3, . . . changes at C, not at A. Let's choose G3 as our practice note and start numbering the strings. Each note in this region has 3 strings. Starting from the left, let's number the strings 123 (for G3), 456 (for G3#), 789 (for A3), etc. Place a wedge between strings 3 and 4 in order to mute string 3 so that when you play G3, only 1 and 2 can vibrate. Place the wedge about midway between the bridge and agraffe.

There are two basic types of tuning: unison and harmonic. In unison, the two strings are tuned identically. In harmonic tuning, one string is tuned to a harmonic of the other, such as thirds, fourths, fifths, and octaves. The three strings of each note are tuned in unison, which is easier than harmonic tuning, so let's try that first.