I sat down at an outdoor acoustic piano placed in our city. It was towards the end of the summer, and the weather was humid. I played a couple notes. About 1/3 made a sound as expected, 1/3 made a sound but stuck, and 1/3 of the keys didn’t even trigger the hammer to appropriately hit the string.
So obviously this piano could use more than just a tuning. But how often should you tune a typical piano? The short answer: home pianos should be tuned twice a year. You could tune up to four times under heavy usage and a bare minimum of once a year under light usage. The long answer is that the following factors may require you to tune more frequently:
- temperature/humidity fluctuations
- heavy usage
- recent movement and heavy jostling
- unreliable internal mechanisms (such as a defective sound board or pin block)
- if it starts to “sound bad”
- if you are maintaining a piano in a concert hall (often tuned before each performance)
What Causes a Piano to Go Out of Tune?
If you keep your piano in a bad spot, or don’t maintain it well, it will go out of tune quickly. Here are the main factors that cause a piano to go out of tune.
Time – tuning a piano is just a natural part of piano care; over time strings go out of key! Piano strings hold extremely high tensions – up to 160 lbs per string and with 88 keys on a standard piano, that’s 18 tons of pressure throughout the whole instrument. Over time the strings naturally stretch causing the instrument to flatten.
High temperatures and humidity exacerbates the issue. Humidity causes sound board swells adding more pressure to the string and again they go flat. Large temperature/humidity fluctuations also causes the the instrument to go out of tune.
Heavy jostling affect the sophisticated inner workings of a piano. Some recommend tuning a piano after every move, something that adds to the cost of moving a piano. However, if the piano was moved smoothly within a single building, and retains pitch then you don’t need to.
Unreliable internal mechanisms such as a cracked sound board or loose pin block will prevent the piano from maintaining pitch. Such issues may require significant repair work.
How to Tell if a Piano Is Out of Tune?
Here are four steps to tell if a piano is out of tune.
- Check that the piano’s A below middle C is the same frequency as A 440. A 440 refers to the standard tuning system in which the A below middle C holds a pitch of 440hz. Listen to A 440 here. Does it sound like the same pitch? Or do you cringe when you hear both notes?
- Check that the strings of each key are in tune with each other. When you play a key in the mid and high range of the piano a hammer strikes two or three strings. Play each note one at a time starting an octave below middle C and moving up. If some notes sound fuzzy (or worse) then that key is out of tune.
- Check that octaves blend together. If you play two notes an octave apart, they should almost sound like one note.
- Check that major chords sound pleasant. Try playing a c major chord in the middle of the piano, if it sounds pleasant, try out several other major chords.
Do I Really Need to Tune my Piano?
Tuning your piano is part of standard maintenance. The string tensions take some time to settle after each tuning. An out of tune piano remains unstable after the first tuning, and may require two tune ups.
That said not tuning your piano shouldn’t cause irreversible damage (even if it’s not ideal).
What if it sounds good? Sometimes all the notes will flatten on a piano by roughly the same amount; the piano sounds in tune with itself, but is not operating at the appropriate tensions that your instrument was designed for. If this goes on for long enough the strings may flatten so much that it takes multiple tune ups before it gets back to in tune.
But, I’m still feeling cheap. Is it possible for me to tune my own piano? Well, yes, although I wouldn’t recommend it. You can read more about tuning your piano here.
Can a Piano be Tuned after 20 Years?
Yes a technician can tune a piano that hasn’t been tuned in decades; if they are experienced they’ve probably dealt with this before.
That said, it will certainly take multiple tunings before the piano stabilizes and there are several complications that could make the tuning challenging.
- Cracked sound boards – hard to repair. Often a piano with a cracked sound board will never reach it’s prior state.
- Loose pin blocks – in this case the strings will go flat as soon as the tuning lever leaves the pin.
- Snapping strings – old strings are more likely to snap.
So yes, but prepare for a hefty bill. Check out this Quora post for more information from some knowledgeable experts.
How Much Does it Cost to Tune a Piano?
It costs $100-$200 for your average piano tune up. If your piano is out of tune enough to need multiple tunings then it could cost several hundred more. This may seem expensive, however, other piano maintenance can cost much more such as piano regulation or restringing.
Tuning your piano is a necessary part of piano maintenance. Unless your piano receives heavy usage, goes through large temperature/humidity swings, or has been moved recently, you just need to tune your piano twice a year.