I recently got a used piano from the family of one of my ex-roommates. The thing was crap; an old Wurlitzer spinet that was dusty, smelly, and hideously out of tune. I had it moved professionally for about $195, which paid for about 50 minutes of transport.

It hadn't been tuned since 1969, so every key played a ghastly combination of notes. I was out of money, and anyway, you're not supposed to have your piano tuned for 4 to 6 weeks after moving, as the piano will gradually change size as it adjust to its new climate. But, to me, this was unacceptable. To have this pile of wood and wire in my apartment and not be able to play it was an affront to my very being, so I just had to tune it. BUT HOW?

Well, it was actually pretty easy. First, you need the tools. For me, it was simply a tuning hammer, which is something like a one-size socket wrench that only fits the pins in a piano. Also, you need two muting wedges, which are simply triangular pieces of rubber on sticks that you can wedge between strings to keep them from vibrating. Lastly, I used my laptop computer from work, but any computer will do, as long as you can get it to a position where you can see the monitor and run a microphone from it to the piano. There's some great shareware out there called TuneLab 97 that can listen to your piano and tell you how to adjust it to be exactly on-pitch.

So, once you've got all that stuff, you need to get into your piano. If you're looking at a minor touchup, then you just need to lift the lid so that you can get at the pins. In my case, the thing had a broken wire and I had to take off the front panel of the spinet to gain access to the strings themselves. This shouldn't be too hard for anybody who can figure out child-safe caps.

Tuning an individual note

To tune an individual note, you don't need perfect pitch, and you don't even need to be that musical. You just need a couple working ears (one will probably do) and a quiet environment devoid of musical tones like those that might come from your TV, radio, your fridge, or ninjas. For notes that have only one wire, it's easy. Just use TuneLab or some other tuning device (you can probably do it with a guitar tuner or a related gadget) and crank the associated pin until it lines up.

The multi-wire notes are a bit trickier. Generally, your tuning device isn't smart enough to tell you when one wire is in tune with another wire, so you've got to do it yourself. So, first, isolate one wire with your tuning wedges. For two-wire notes, it doesn't matter which one, but for three-wire notes, stick the wedges in on either side of the group and tune the middle one to the desired note. Once that is done, un-mute a second string. Now this is the (not-so) tricky part: you have to listen for beats. When the beat slows and, ideally, stops, the two pitches are exactly in tune.

"What's a beat?" you very well might be asking. No, it's not you drumming on the piano. Stupid. A beat in this sense is the pulsating intensity of the pitch that happens when two things make sound at almost, but not quite, the same frequency. You don't have to be especially skilled to hear them, either, you just have to concentrate. It's difficult to convey the sound in text, but it's almost a kind of a "woooo-ohhhhh-ooooo-ohhhhh". The sound will waver in intensity, and sometimes you can even feel the buildup of vibrations in the piano itself, especially with the lower notes. The reason this happens is that as the two strings produce sound waves, the waves interfere with each other. If the two strings are vibrating at exactly the same rate, the peaks and troughs of their sound waves meet up exactly and add to each other. However, if one string vibrates slightly slower, the sound waves will gradually go in and out of synch, alternately adding to each other and cancelling each other out. What you hear, then, is a beat. The closer the strings are to each other, the longer it takes for their sound waves to go out of phase, and the longer it takes for the beat to occur.

So, now that you've listened to the first two strings and gotten them so that the beat is minimal, you may have to tune a third string. Don't try to tune three strings at once: you want to use the first one you tuned, the middle one, as your reference. Mute the string you're not tuning.

Tuning the whole Piano

A piano is under a lot of stress. There are around 10 to 12 tons of tension in a piano. This much force can change the shape of a piano, and changing the tension in one wire minutely affects all of the others. This means that if your piano is drastically out of tune, like mine was, you're going to have to drastically change the amount of tension acting on the piano. The net result of this is that the first wires you tune will go out of tune by the time you've tuned the last wires. Tunelab 97 lets you get around this by calculating overpull. This feature calculates how sharp you should tune your first note so that by the time you're done, everything is in tune. Otherwise, you'll have to re-tune the piano a second, and even maybe a third time.

If you want to go the extra mile, you can tune octaves. Once you've got an individual key's pitch about where you want it, mute all but one wire and play it simultaneously with one wire from its octave and listen for beats. It helps if you determine which one is closer to being exactly on-pitch, and then monkey with the other one until you don't have a beat anymore. Then tune the rest of the wires on whichever note you modified to be in synch.

And that's it. No magic or sacrifices or goat's blood. Enjoy.

Removing broken wires

My piano came with a broekn wire, and I broke several more while tuning it. If this happens, fear not. Chances are, you probably won't be missing a note until you replace it. If you break one of the larger wires, like from a two-wire note or, god forbid, one of the large, copper-wrapped, bass wires, you lose. You're going to be out a note until you can replace them. Make sure you keep the broken wire so a professional can tell you what gauge you need. However, if you break on of the little, three-wire notes, that's okay. The wires actually don't terminate at each end; they wrap. One wire can actually be a part of two different notes. Sometimes it just makes up one. It just depends on how your piano was strung.

So what do you do? You've just heard that horrible TWANG, and one of the wires has freed itself of this mortal coil. First, find the other end of the wire. Pluck or play the wires around it, and find the one that all of the sudden sounds like a church bell. This is your man. Use your tuning hammer and loosen the still-attached end of the wire four full turns. Now, get some needle-nosed pliers and a wire cutter if you've got one, and yank the coiled part of the wire away from its pin. Cut off the coiled part with the cutters or the pliers, and then pull the string down through the bottom of the piano, if you have an upright piano. If you've got a grand piano, I don't know. You should probably have enough money to pay somebody to do this, anyhow. Again, hang on to the wire, as you'll need it to determine the gauge for your replacement. After this procedure, all of your notes should work properly again, even if they have a few less wires associated with them.


I am not a professional. There are many, many more complicated aspects to tuning a piano than I have set down here. You should probably hire a professional if you have the money, but for people like me with better things to spend their money on (like video games and beer) that's just not always an option. Professional tuners are, from what I hear, very protective and jealous of their skills, and I don't blame them. It takes a lot of time, patience, and skill to properly tune a piano, and they probably deserve to make what they do, which is in the area of $90 an hour. However, I think that most tuners would agree that, given the option of doing it yourself or have to live with a useless piano for months, they'd opt for choice A. The point, however, is that like everything else you do in life, tune your piano at your own risk. There are ways for you to screw anything up, and this is no exception.

For more information:

I got the courage to do all of this from a website called www.balaams-ass.com/piano. It's a biblical reference, so don't go there looking for muslim porn or whatever. The webmaster is a pastor and is just a really nice guy, and he's got pages and pages of do-it-yourself tips on piano tuning and repair. Go there and buy something from him.

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