When I began researching for this post, I figured, “hey, I’ve got a well rounded background in music, it should be easy to tell if my piano is out of tune.” But as I tested the recommended methods on my piano that hasn’t been tuned in 9 months I realized this is more challenging than I thought. My piano sounded decently in tune with itself, but it’s possible for a piano to be in tune with itself without having optimal intonation.
In this article, we explore how to tell if a piano is out of tune by using the following tests/questions:
- Does the piano sound “bad” when played?
- Are the A’s in tune with the A 440 tuning system?
- Are the strings of a single note in tune with themselves?
- Are octaves in tune with themselves?
- Do major chords sound pure?
Tests to Tell if a Piano is Out of Tune
Question 1: Does the Piano Sound Bad?
If you don’t like the way a piano sounds, most likely it just needs to be tuned. Other adjectives to qualify “bad” are:
Test: Play some random notes, a scale, and a piece you know well. If you would use any of the adjectives above to describe the sound of the piano, then it is out of tune.
Test 2: Do the A’s match the A 440 Tuning System?
The standard tuning system sets the A above middle C to a frequency of 440 hz. In music going up an octave doubles the frequency, so the A an octave higher should be 880 hz and the A below middle C should be 220 hz.
Test: Download a tuning app (I used gStrings although you could also use Pano Tuner). Check that the A above middle C is within 1-2 Hz of A 440. Continue checking that the A one octave higher is roughly twice the frequency, 880 Hz, and the A below is half the frequency, 220 Hz.
Some things to watch out for:
- Are the readings consistently higher or lower than the A 440 tuning system? If so then your piano may be in tune with itself, even if it isn’t in tune with the A 440 system.
- For example, my piano read about 441 Hz for the A above middle C, 883 an octave higher, and 1768 two octaves higher. While this runs high it is roughly in tune with itself.
- The frequency may vary from the A 440 system by more Hz the higher you get. Going up an octave doubles the frequency – it also doubles the acceptable error.
- For example when I checked my piano’s tuning the A above middle C was 441 Hz which is 1 Hz off an ideal 440 Hz tuning, the next A up was 883 Hz which is 3 Hz off an ideal tuning. But this still sounded in tune to me.
Test 3: Are Single Notes In Tune with Themselves?
As a key lowers on the piano, the hammer hits two to three strings tuned to the same pitch. (The only exception is the lowest octave where a single key corresponds to only one sing string). Over time the strings that correspond to a single piano key can become out of tune with themselves.
Test: Play a simple scale (start at middle C and move right playing all the white notes until you hit the next C). If a note is particularly twangy, that note is out of tune with itself.
Additionally, you can tell a note is out of tune with itself if:
- It doesn’t have a pure or rich tone.
- Additionally, notice if some tones are less rich than others.
- The pitch shifts sharp or flat when you strike and hold a key for several seconds.
- There is a wavering or shimmering effect when the note is struck
For pianos that are decently but not optimally in tune – like mine – it was hard for me to know whether I was really hearing a waver. I found this video by Living Pianos to be helpful because I had something to listen to.
Additionally, I struck the strings of a key individually with a pencil eraser. I opened the lid of my upright, applied the damper (right most) pedal and tapped the strings gently. You don’t want to touch the strings with your fingers because they have oil. I thought I could here the pitches more precisely using this method.
Test 4: Are Octaves In Tune with Themselves?
I’m not that picky with piano tuning – I’m currently living in a house that has a piano that hasn’t been tuned for 15 years. If a piano past the three tests above, I would be satisfied for general practice purposes. These last two tests will help you dig into the subtleties of intonation if you have more sensitive ears than mine.
When you play an octave the notes will blend together and almost sound like one note.
Test: Play G’s below and above middle C. Continue playing a descending G major scale. If some notes don’t blend together like the others, then those notes are out of tune with eachother. Additionally you can check random octave intervals throughout the piano.
We test this part of the piano because it compares bass notes that pass over the short bridge against treble notes that pass over the long bridge bridge. On my piano the strings switch bridges at the D below middle C. As the piano soundboard swells, these bridges raise causing notes on one bridge to become out of tune with notes from the other bridge (source sterlingpianotuning.com).
Test 5: Do Major Chords Sound Pure?
We just tested the octave; one way to test the other intervals is by playing major chords. Major chords by nature should sound pure, sweet, harmonious, and/or clear.
Test: Play major chords in various registers. Do some chords sound sour or impure? If so, the notes of that chord are out of tune with each other.
If you are unfamiliar with chords, try the C major chord – locate a C E and G and play them at the same time.
What Causes a Piano to Go Out of Tune?
The big causes of intonation are:
- Heavy usage
- Temperature/humidity fluctuations
- Jostling while moving the piano
- Natural adjustments over time
- Not placing a piano on an inside wall
How Often Does a Piano Need Tuned?
According to pianoworld.com, some concert pianos are tuned every day! But for a standard home instrument the recommendation is that you tune your piano every 6 months. Personally, I’d get my piano tuned only once a year if it passes the intonation tests mentioned above. It will cost $100-$200 to tune your piano. More on how often you need to tune your piano here.
Can You Play an Out of Tune Piano?
Yes. As I mentioned, I’ve practiced significantly on a piano that hasn’t been tuned for 15 years. There are some downsides though. Once a piano is really far out of tune, it will take multiple tunings before it retains pitch properly. Further, with a piano that hasn’t been maintained for that long, their may be other significant repairs necessary.
Playing on an out of tune piano will likely make it continue to slide out of tune. Eventually can a piano be untunable? Well, no. Usually after multiple tunings, and maybe even replacing some parts, a good technician can tune it.
By using a tuning app, testing individual notes, testing chords, and/or testing octaves you should be able to tell if your piano is out of tune. If you haven’t tuned your piano in a while, chances are it needs a good tuna (maybe even two).