Tuning a piano yourself

We have an old piano. We got it free with our house – too expensive to move. It’s nothing very special – a small Baldwin console – but a piano is a piano and we’re glad to have it. The first time we saw the house Susan had brought Ginny & Laney, and they went to that piano like moths to a flame. Only moths are a lot quieter.

It was out of tune. Way out of tune. It was last tuned in 1970(!) and it was a full pitch flat. The girls didn’t mind so much, they still loved to hit the keys and pretend to play. They’re far too young for lessons yet, but that will probably be coming.

In the mean time, though, the lack of tuning wasn’t improving their sound at all. Also, with a piano in the house, there’s no reason why I couldn’t get a teach-yourself book and peck away from time to time.

Tuning an old piano is not a one-step process

I looked into having a pro come and tune it, and learned that tuning a piano when it’s been neglected for a long time is not a simple tuning. It usually requires multiple visits because when things are really out of whack it is an iterative process. You tune, things settle and get back out of tune a little, you tune again and they slide out a little less, etc. At about $100 per visit, it was a lot of money to spend on an instrument no one in the house really knows how to play.

You can tune a piano yourself

It turns out that it’s not that hard to get a piano in tune by yourself. Sure, it’s not going to sound as good as if a pro had done it, and it’s going to take a lot longer, but it can be done. I spent $35 on a basic tool kit on ebay, used a tuning program on my iPhone (Agile Partners Guitar Tools, which is awesome) and set to work.

It took about 3 hours to get the first tuning done, which was done in fits and starts. It’s hard to tune a piano when your 3-year old wants to help! You will be turning a tuning peg for around 200 strings (many keys have 3 strings, some have 2, and the lower octave or so has one).

Even the girls’ playing sounds better

After I got done with my first attempt at tuning, I was shocked at the results. Of course chords sounded better, but what really surprised me was that the random banging the girls were doing even sounded better. Not like music, of course, but much more musical.

I’ve tuned the center octaves 3 times, and they’re fairly good. The bass octaves have been tuned twice and they’re ok. They are easier because they have only 1 or 2 strings per key. The treble octaves are the most challenging, first because they’re all 3-string keys, and second because I have a hard time hearing the beats that tell you something’s out of tune. I’ve got them close enough that nothing sounds really bad, to me, but I suspect a serious musician would be cringing.

A professional can finish the job

I figure I’ll tune it one more time, and if it stays pretty good I’ll have a pro come in and do it properly. I know I’ll never tune it as well as a pro, and I’m happy to have them do it when the piano has stabilized and the results will stick around for a while. Then we should be able to do regular annual tunings.

Some tips

There are several tuning resources that will help you, but I found Detwiler’s site to be good.

For tools hit ebay. There’s a seller there called showard88 that offers an apprentice kit for less than $35. It will include the wrench (called a hammer), a roll of felt and four rubber mutes. They will allow you to isolate strings so they can be adjusted one at a time.

The last thing you will need is a tuner. If you have an iPhone, get one of the apps for tuning. Or you can get an electronic chromatic tuner at a music store for $20 or so.

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