Frequently Asked Questions About Pianos
Answered By Bradley Laird, Piano Technician and Sage- Email
©2005-2014 Bradley Laird
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Several things make pianos go out of tune. Probably the most significant cause is seasonal change in humidity. Being made of wood, which expands and contracts in response to the relative humidity of the environment, piano soundboards swell during the summer months causing more pressure to be exerted on the strings which cause the pitch to go up. In the fall and winter when the heat goes on the moisture content in the atmosphere drops and the soundboard shrinks and the pressure on the strings drops causing the piano to go flat. Playing the piano is also a factor in how long a piano stays in tune. Hard and frequent playing does have an affect on tuning by settling and stretching the strings. The piano tuner attempts to settle the strings solidly while tuning, but pianos with actions that are out of adjustment or pianos with old corroded strings are difficult to settle during tuning. Another reason a piano goes out of tune is from tuning pins which slip. Each string is wound around a steel tuning pin which is driven into a hole in a plank of wood called the pin block. Over the years seasonal fluctuations in humidity may cause the pin block to loosen its grip on the tuning pins. Cracks may form in the pin block or tuning pin holes may become enlarged. Some remedies exist which may help correct this condition and provide some additional years of use, but controlling the humidity is the best way to prevent this problem from happening in the first place.
How can I minimize the effects of humidity changes on my piano? (Click here to go back to the top)
First, be sure there are no hot air ducts in the vicinity of the piano. A heating vent blowing on the back of a piano will drastically shorten the life of your piano. It can cause glue joints to fail prematurely, action parts to become brittle and crack, tuning pins to slip, and a variety of other ailments to occur. Return air vents (inlets) are less of a problem. If there are heating vents near your piano seal them off tightly or move the piano. Second, position pianos so they are not near fireplaces, gas heaters, direct sunshine, radiators, or drafty windows. Sources of heat near a piano cause the piano to dry excessively. Sunshine can cause heating and drying of the piano, can wreck the finish, and cause discoloration of plastic key tops. Third, there are various humidity control devices or systems which can be of benefit to the well-being of the piano. There are internal humidity control systems which can be installed in the piano by the piano technician which are quite effective in maintaining the proper humidity level.
These systems are only a moderate cost and consist of a humidifier and a dehumidifier system placed inside the piano case. This system is controlled by a device called a humidistat which is similar to the thermostat in your home. When the humidity drops the systems adds moisture to the air inside the piano. When the humidity goes up a dehumidifier is activated. These devices are very effective in upright pianos because of their closed case construction which limits the airflow through the piano. Models are designed for use in grand pianos too but they are less effective due to the "open air" nature of the grand soundboard. Whole house humidifiers should be set to maintain 42% for optimum conditions.
Many people incorrectly believe that plants placed near the piano help offset dry conditions. Plants have little or no beneficial effect on the piano's wooden parts and present some danger when watering if water were to be spilled on the piano. Do not place potted plants on top of a piano case as the dampness will permanently damage the finish and spillage can create serious damage. Some people believe that a pan of water placed inside the piano will help protect the instrument, but this method does not provide sufficient moisture to be of any benefit and increases the risk of damaging the internal parts of the piano from spills. And frankly, I have found a number of pans and jars of various kinds inside old pianos, and they are always bone dry because the owners put them in and then forgot about them. I wouldn't add a pan of water strictly because I wouldn't want to attract THE BANE of infrequently played pianos-- mice! If you insist on sticking a pan of water in the bottom of the piano you might as well put a little tray of mouse food in there too since you are just asking for them to move in. (One day I think I will write an article on the habits of mice in pianos. They love to live in there. To a mouse, a piano is a great apartment. The best way to keep them out is to play the piano. All that ruckus keeps them away.
Does temperature have an affect on tuning? (Click here to go back to the top)
Temperature does have a minor effect on tuning stability but is generally not much of an issue. Humidity associated with temperature changes is the real culprit. One exception is in the storage of a piano. A piano allowed to become very cold if stored in an unheated area such as a garage can be ruined by condensing moisture which collects on the strings and tuning pins. If you care about a piano never store it in a place where you yourself would not be comfortable.
What is a standard tuning? (Click here to go back to the top)
A standard tuning is when the technician comes to the home, inspects the piano for possible faults, fine tunes the piano to standard pitch (A440) and may also make some minor adjustments to the piano keys and action. Standard tunings do not include making repairs.
What is a pitch raise? (Click here to go back to the top)
A pitch raise is needed when a long period of time has elapsed since the last tuning (or when a new piano's strings are still stretching) and the piano has dropped significantly in pitch. Pitch raising is an approximate tuning which brings all of the strings up to their designed tension. Sometimes more than one pitch raise procedure must be made before the piano stabilizes sufficiently to allow for a fine tuning. Pitch raises add to the cost of tuning service.
How often should my piano be tuned? (Click here to go back to the top)
A general rule is that the piano should be tuned before it reaches the point of being seriously out of tune. For most pianos in the home this means a tuning every six months to one year. Because pianos with good quality pin blocks and proper tuning go out of tune somewhat evenly-- that is to say, they still may sound relatively in tune with themselves-- the overall pitch is still likely to drop over time even though you may not notice it without comparing the pitch to a tuning fork or another instrument of known pitch. Correcting slight pitch changes with regular tunings is less risky than waiting years or even decades and then asking the piano tuner to correct it all in one session. The less the overall pitch must be brought up during a tuning, the less the risk of string breakage, unstable tuning, and structural damage to the piano. For pianos used as furniture once every year or two should suffice to maintain the design tension on the instrument. A piano drops in pitch over the years due to seasonal humidity variation, string stretching and playing. A piano which is allowed to go untuned for a long time will be more expensive to bring back up to pitch because of the time involved and the tuning will be more unstable. Pianos in schools, churches, institutions, clubs and performance halls may need to be tuned quarterly or monthly. Pianos for concert use are normally tuned before each performance.
Does moving a piano affect its tuning? (Click here to go back to the top)
This depends. Let me explain. Moving a piano six feet in the same room is unlikely to cause a tuning problem unless it is now positioned in front of a heat vent, a door, or window. It is the change in environment that has the greatest effect on tuning. So, moving a piano from Phoenix to Atlanta would most certainly demand a tuning after a few weeks of adjusting to the new conditions. Same goes for a piano moved from a basement to an upper room or moved from a restaurant to a church. Aside from the local environmental conditions it is entirely possible that moving a piano six inches can put it out of tune! But the cause is different.
Pianos are strung with hundreds of steel strings and the combined tension of the strings adds up in tons, not pounds. The tension exerted by the strings may equal the weight of a small house! This is why pianos have such massive cast iron structural plates and heavy wooden frames inside. It is all designed to keep the strings from crushing the piano. How does this affect tuning? Not all pianos are built the same. Some are more massive, rigid and stronger than others. If the piano structure is flexed in any way by moving the piano, it may affect tuning. Small, cheaply made pianos, or pianos with damage, are most likely to suffer from this. Sometimes just lifting one corner of a spinet an inch from the floor will twist the plate enough to change the tuning.
Pianos which must be moved around, such as on a stage or in schools, should be placed on a piano dolly with rubber wheels. Rolling a piano on its casters is difficult, can damage floors, often breaks the casters, and requires lifting to ease the weight from the wheels. Sitting on a dolly all the time prevents flexing of the case and structure of the piano and the piano is more likely to stay in tune when rolled from place to place. Piano dollys are specifically designed for this purpose and are made to keep the piano stable. Do not use a furniture moving dolly as they are very easy to tip over. While on the subject of piano moving, let me suggest that every significant move is best handled by a professional piano mover. A piano is a lot different than a bookcase. Use an expert for moving.
Also, let me remind you that people have been killed by pianos falling on them. If you have a piano with broken casters or wobbly grand legs, get them fixed before someone is hurt. Children have been killed by old pianos which fell on them by playing around and climbing on them. I actually went on a tuning call one day and the family had a spinet with both front legs missing! That meant that a 400 pound piano was sitting on just the back edge--about 14 inches deep--with the keyboard hanging out in mid air. I didn't really want to sit in front of it and was afraid it would fall over just by tuning it. When I strongly suggested that the legs be fixed the man of the house said he'd take care of it. (They had two small children and if one of them had tried to swing like a monkey from the keyboard he would have been flattened like a pancake!) I returned a few weeks later and was startled to find that the guy (who wouldn't invest in fixing the front legs) had CHAINED THE PIANO TO THE WALL! Nice! (Oh, yea, he also "refinished" the piano by hosing it down with polyurethane which dripped in all the cracks and glued the lid and fallboard shut. I see some strange stuff.) Vertical pianos are very top heavy and uneven floors or bad casters make them a serious danger. Small pianos weigh in at 400-600 pounds, larger uprights in the 500-900 range, and grands can go as high as 1,200 pounds. Don't hurt yourself by trying to move a piano and don˙t let one fall on you or someone else. If you need to move a piano... call a piano mover! Don't say I didn't warn you...
Should I leave the lid up or down on a grand piano? (Click here to go back to the top)
When you are playing the piano it is strictly up to you. The piano is significantly louder with the lid up, but if you leave it open all the time you will be eventually faced with a very dusty piano. The soundboard in a grand piano is very difficult to clean because the strings are in the way. It is best to leave the dusting and cleaning to the piano technician because it is quite easy to damage strings and dampers while attempting to clean the piano. Closing the lid when not playing helps keep the interior of the piano clean. As a side note, technicians are often called to trouble shoot buzzing and rattling sounds in grand pianos only to discover that a paper clip or pencil has been dropped into the piano. Objects like this are less likely to end up inside the piano with the lid down. And remember that small objects, once inside the piano action, can jam parts so they do not work and cause parts to break.
Should I keep the keyboard covered? (Click here to go back to the top)
Closing the fallboard to protect the keys is a good idea in high traffic areas and it also keeps dust from getting in between the keys. Plastic keytops will eventually yellow from exposure to light so keeping the fallboard closed is a good idea. If you have a piano with elephant ivory keytops periodic light exposure (no direct sunlight!) actually helps keep them from yellowing. What are some other ways I can help prevent damage to the piano? Teach children in the household not to pound the keys. Do not allow anything liquid near the piano. Drinks and plant watering spills can cause total havoc with the internal parts of the piano. Keep all liquids away! Failing to heed this advice can be expensive. How should I clean my piano keys? Keys are best cleaned with a soft cloth lightly dampened with a few drops of water. Too much water can warp ivory keytops and cause the wooden keys to swell and rub on their neighbors. In no case should sprays or liquids of any kind be applied to the keys of a piano. Should I ever use the vacuum cleaner inside the piano? With the hundreds of tiny parts inside a piano it is not a good idea to sweep inside the piano. The risk of damage is too great to suggest the use of vacuum cleaners by anyone not trained in the servicing of pianos. Screws and other parts may have worked loose and fallen to the bottom of the case. The technician may often retrieve these parts and reinstall them, but not if they were sucked up during cleaning.
Is a piano ever oiled to keep the action working freely? (Click here to go back to the top)
No way! Liquid lubricants, WD40, oils, and silicone should never be allowed near the strings, action, tuning pins or other piano parts. These lubricants are fine for car engines and tractors, but not wooden piano parts. Piano technicians use a variety of lubricants (mostly in dry form) for a select few places in the piano, but liquid lubricants can turn a perfectly serviceable piano into a useless piece of furniture so don't be tempted to use them for any reason!
How can I keep moths and mice from damaging the piano? (Click here to go back to the top)
Playing frequently is the best preventative. Neither of these vermin, which were a major pest in years past, is much of serious issue for piano owners today. All felt and wool parts of the modern piano are mothproofed during manufacture. Mothballs are not suggested! Volatile chemicals in insecticides can cause corrosion of strings and sensitive action parts. Mice are not a serious problem unless the piano is stored in a barn or warehouse. A mousetrap placed behind the piano might make you sleep better. If you think you have a pest problem with your piano, call and have it inspected before you put anything in or on the piano. Call the piano technician before you call an exterminator who just might hose down the piano with some damaging chemical.
What is regulation? (Click here to go back to the top)
A piano action has thousands of small parts made of wood, felt, leather, brass, and steel. These parts corrode, compress, springs get weak, wooden parts get brittle, keys warp, and otherwise get out of adjustment over time and with use. Regulation is the process of going over all of the action parts to adjust and align them so that the piano plays as it was designed to do. A piano with keys which do not respond correctly is difficult to play and more difficult to tune if the hammers cannot deliver a solid blow to the strings. Regulation can be done in stages, spaced out and completed at the time of regular tunings to spread out the costs. For maximum performance the entire piano can be regulated at once. Regulation requires many hours of meticulous, exacting work by the technician so be prepared for a long visit to have this work done in your home. Pianos can also be moved to the technician's shop for total regulation service.
Are the strings ever replaced on a piano like they are on guitars? (Click here to go back to the top)
Most pianos have one set of strings which is used for the entire life of the instrument. Thankfully, no fingers touch the strings during playing so they do last a very long time. Corrosion does take its toll over time and strings lose their former brilliance and clarity. Pianos can be restrung, but the cost can be prohibitive. Many pianos are simply not worth the cost of restringing. High quality older grands (such as Steinway or Mason and Hamlin) are revived during the rebuilding process by the replacement of all strings. Sometimes high quality or better old uprights will have only the bass strings replaced or cleaned to renew their tonal qualities. But, for most pianos, only strings which break during tuning or from failure during playing are ever replaced.
Will strings break on my piano when it is tuned? (Click here to go back to the top)
The danger of string breakage is increased if the strings are very old, rusted or corroded, or if the piano has not been tuned in a long time and the pitch must be raised. The plain steel strings throughout most of the piano can be replaced at a modest cost if any break during tuning. Bass strings (the bottom 20 notes or so) are normally wound with a copper outer wrap and are custom made for each piano. If a bass string breaks during tuning a string will have to be ordered and installed at a later date. If a bass string breaks while playing the piano please save the string so it can be measured for making a replacement.
How old is my piano? (Click here to go back to the top)
The serial number of your piano can often be looked up in a book called the Pierce Piano Atlas and the age determined. Call me if you are curious and want me to look it up.
What is my piano worth? (Click here to go back to the top)
Placing a dollar value on an item like a piano is difficult to do. Of primary importance is condition. An antique piano may have a beautiful case but is often untunable and may be a moth-eaten wreck on the inside. It is safe to say that (aside from rare early pianos) most pianos have no antique value. Generally, it is the condition that determines value, not age. Pianos of all quality levels have been made throughout the years so don't assume that because it is old that it was built better. Pianos are similar to cars. Think about the car that you own. What did you pay for it? Now, if I told you that I had exactly the same model and year car, would mine be worth the same as yours? Maybe, maybe not. Mine might have a leaky transmission, a blown engine, bad tires, and 350,000 miles on it. But, it might look perfect. The moral of the story is that condition is really important in evaluating the value of a piano.
What is my piano worth?How much does it cost to have my piano tuned? (Click here to go back to the top)
The basic charge for piano tuning is found on my home page. Click on the FEES link. Read the sections above about the difference between a standard tuning and a pitch raise tuning. Remember that repairs are not included in the cost of tuning. Often I will make minor adjustments to a few keys at no charge while I am there for the tuning. But any significant repairs will always be discussed fully with you before they are done so you have no surprises. If you decided to have the repair done, fine. If you choose not to that is OK too. It is not my practice to suggest additional work just to run the bill up. I will only suggest things that I feel should be taken care of and leave the decision to you. Working in this way allows me to sleep better at night and it is my desire that you say good things about me to your friends. I strive to keep my rates fair and reasonable for both of us.
I hope this piano information has been useful and interesting to you. If you have other questions, please feel free to call me.
What's the strangest thing you ever found inside a piano? (Click here to go back to the top)
OK, I admit. I have never been asked that but I do like to bore people by telling them anyway. Tied for first place were: 1) a live copperhead snake and 2) a loaded pistol. People, please... only stash unloaded pistols in the belly of your piano. (I sure could have used that loaded pistol the day I found the snake!!) Thank you. Things I consider to be normal "finds" during tuning and repairs are Lincoln logs, broken CDs, paper clips, mouse-chewed church bulletins from 1968, candy wrappers, pencils --lots of pencils!-- things like that. Pennies, dimes and Chuck E. Cheese tokens are sometimes under the keys. When I hand them over at the completion of a tuning I often hear things like "Wow! My son lost that when he was 4 years old and he is graduating from Auburn this year." The finds sometimes offer clues regarding the last time the piano was tuned. Sometimes the curiosities are without explanation.
What's the single most important thing you can do to help your tuner do a good job? (Click here to go back to the top)
Be quiet. Really quiet. No rattling dishes. No conversations with your teenage daughter. No Oprah on in the next room. No running CHAINSAWS! (That has actually happened during one of my tunings.) Please put your talkative parrot somewhere where he doesn't feel the urge to converse with me during the tuning. Little friendly pooches are better left to sniff me over real good and then fall asleep under my feet while I tune. If they are locked up in the laundry room without a proper introduction to the piano tuner they will bark or whine continuously. Cats usually only make one visit into the room during a tuning and remain quietly puzzled. Children are encouraged to take a peek and ask questions if they like.
Another oddity, perhaps a Natural Law of the Universe, is that for some reason the act of piano tuning attracts people operating electric sweepers. It goes like this: Arrive at the church, start tuning, and then, like clockwork, exactly 14 minutes later an electric sweeper is switched on in the balcony or in the narthex. It may be simply that the person who opened the church for me to do my work is looking for something useful to do while I do my thing. Yeah, that's probably it.
Final Hint: Just because you took the day off so the piano tuner could come it's not a good day to have the hardwood floors resurfaced... since you were going to be home anyway. Ya know? Thank you. You'll get a better tuning job.
It is amazing that many people, not you of course, have never connected the dots enough to realize that tuning a piano requires the use of one's ears and that other sounds in the vicinity are very distracting and make the task more difficult. A similar analogy might be someone shining a flashlight in the face of an engraver of currency plates at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving (the folks who make our paper money). Or coming up behind him, while he is touching up Washington's eyebrow, and giving his chair a good shake. That pan you just dropped in the kitchen has the same effect on the already weakened nervous system of your piano tuner when he is laboring over the treble.
Let me tack on one final bit of advice. If the tuner is scheduled to arrive it is a polite practice to actually be there at that time. Amazingly, these days, it seems about 1 out of 5 scheduled tunings begin with nobody home. I go to some degree of trouble to show up a wee bit early. Nothing sours a tuner's attitude more than knocking and ringing and sitting on the porch steps when he could already be at work.
Have a nice day!
Bradley Laird - Piano Tuner
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©2005 Bradley Laird