If your piano is starting to sound out of tune, you may be interested in trying to tune the piano yourself. You probably realize that tuning a piano is a much more complicated process then tuning a guitar. But how hard is it really? Could an amateur do a half decent job after a days work? While I am not a piano technician I wanted to answer this quetion for myself (I thought hey, maybe tuning pianos could be an easy side hustle).
To help you decide if you can tune your piano, I will give an overview the process, including the cost of the tools, and challenges/dangers involved. This is not a how-to guide. I leave that to professional technicians. This article simply addresses whether you can tune a piano yourself. For the adventurous, you can check out this detailed plan for how to tune your piano.
So, can you tune your own piano? Yes you can, however, it’s extremely difficult! You need the right tools, a lot of patience, and should tune a junker piano first. You also, won’t be able to tune it to the level of a professional.
To give you a sense of the energy required in the task, I read about amateurs who were able to tune their piano over the course of a week after watching after watching many hours of youtube guides. I also read of a piano technician instructor who gave 20 hour trainings to prospective technicians and after the training he thought about 35% of trainees were able to perform acceptable tunings (source found here).
How long does it take for a pro to learn? One technician said it took him 6 months of frequent tuning as an apprentice before he felt consistent tuning pianos. Other benchmarks I saw floating out their were 1000 tunings or up to 3 years, before you are a proficient tuner!
Let’s understand the challenges you are up against, so you can see why it takes so long to master.
Challenges of Piano Tuning
The biggest challenges in tuning a piano are:
- Notes must be tuned so they are accurate and stable. It is one thing to get a note to the desired pitch, it is another for it to keep its pitch. Piano strings hold much more tension than guitar strings, so stabalizing the pitch takes more nuance than just turning the tuning pin.
- Strings can break if you are inexperienced, and replacing them requires additional parts and expertise. While this can usually be fixed by replacing individual strings, if you break many strings you may have to restring your piano.
- Pins can loosen in the pin block. Over time, the pin may become so loose that the string can’t be tuned. If too many pins are loose the piano may be untunable without serious repairs.
- You can’t rely solely on an electric tuner – at least not a cheap one. Even using the standard equal temperament tuning system, the piano will sound out of tune if you tune every single string using an electric tuner.
Let’s give a brief overview of the process, to see if it is something you would have the time, energy, and patience to attempt.
How to Tune a Piano
To tune a piano you will need an electric chromatic tuner, a piano tuning lever, and some rubber mutes.
- electric chromatic tuner – $0-$1000. For a crude tuning you can get away with a free tuning app downloaded to your phone. For more accuracy, you will need a high quality tuner. Ideally the electric tuner would have a physical needle as this gives more accuracy, while a tuner with an electronic display may jump around more if it is poorly made. Professionals may use tuners that cost hundreds of dollars. Check to make sure that the tuner is set to “A440.” This means that the A above middle C resonates at 440 hz. This is the reference point in the standard tuning systems.
- piano tuning lever – $50+. It is worth it to invest in a medium-high quality tuning lever. If you use a lower quality lever, you may damage the pins by rounding out the square edges. In addition, make sure to purchase a lever that will fit your pins. Typically tuning pins come with a size marking of “#2”, but you can measure the diameter and find its corresponding size here.
- Rubber Wedge Mutes -$1+. Some keys have two or three corresponding strings. In this case you need to dampen some strings so you can accurately tune the rest.
- Other tools. You may need a light source and a screwdriver to effectively access the inside of the piano.
First you need to open the front of the piano so you have access to the tuning pins, this may involve removing the whole front panel.
Step One: Tune a Single String From the Middle Octave
We will call the notes from C4 to C5 the “middle octave.” Pick a note.
Now use your mutes to mute all but one string for that key. Find the corresponding tuning pin and use your tuning lever to slightly adjust the pitch. Make sure that the pitch does actually shift (if it doesn’t, then you probably picked the wrong pin).
Slowly adjust the pin with the lever until the string is in tune with the tuner. As you do this you will need to hit the key hard to equalize the tension on the string.
To tune a string the pitch needs to be accurate and stable. To “set” a string you will need to turn the pin so the string rings slightly above the desired frequency and then turn the pin back to the desired frequency. Setting a string is skill that takes a long time to develop!
Step Two: Tune That Note’s Other Strings
This step is also called “tuning the unison” because you are tuning all the strings of a single note to themselves. The steps are:
- Leave the tuned string and one other string unmuted.
- Tune the untuned string to the tuned string by ear. You shouldn’t use the electric tuner at this point, it is better to just listen very closely and adjust accordingly.
- Once satisfied repeat point 1 and 2 with any of that note’s remaining strings.
Step 3: Tune All Notes in the Middle Octave
Repeat steps 1 and 2 for all the notes in the middle octave C4-C5. You may need to look up an equal temperament tuning chart if your tuner only spits out frequencies.
Step 4: Tune Other Octaves By Ear
Finally, you need to tune the other octaves by comparing them to the notes of the middle octave. For example you may compare A4 with A5 and use steps 1 and 2 to tune it. Note you don’t want to rely on the electric tuner to tune the whole piano. If you do, the farther out from the middle octave you go, the more out of tune your piano will sound.
How Much Do Professional Tunings Cost?
Generally it costs $100-$200 to tune your piano professionally. You should tune your piano once or twice a year. In the realm of piano maintenance there are other services such as voicing, or regulating your piano that can cost in the $500 ballpark.
What Happens if You Don’t Tune a Piano?
Is it damaging to not tune your piano? Well it shouldn’t cause irreversible damage. With enough love (and money) any piano should be tunable unless it has serious structural issues.
If you don’t tune a piano for a long time, the tuning process is more sophisticated. Often pianos go flat so the instrument may need a “pitch raise” where the pitch on all strings is raised in one or two passes so that the strings can handle the new tension. This takes time; technicians may charge more.
In addition, an out-of-tune piano will slip out of tune quicker than an in-tune piano. So after tuning it, you may need to tune it again within the next several months.
I’ve often wondered if I can tune my own piano, and while technically I can, I realize that it takes a lot more work than I thought originally. If you do try to tune your piano, you will need the right equipment, which will cost around $100; you will need a lot of patience, and careful research; and you should try it on a low value piano first.
If you do attempt this, I would love to hear how it goes!