Answers to questions I'm often asked...
1. What does it mean to "tune" a piano?
Pianos have between 200 and 250 wires that have different amounts of tension on them. When these wires are struck by a felt hammer, they produce a sound that has a pitch. Some keys have 1 string; some have 2 strings; some have 3 strings. All the strings of the same note have to have the identical sound, otherwise it would sound like you are playing more than one key when, in fact, you struck only one. There are 12 notes of different sounds in succession (A-G#); the following key repeats the same sequence but at a higher pitch. All 12 notes must be equally spaced apart in pitch in order for the chords and melodies to sound right. A piano tuner sets the relationship between these 12 keys, starting with the standard A above middle C = 440 beats per second. This ensures that the piano sounds like it's supposed to and that other musical instruments or recordings can be played with the piano and have the keys match up in a way pleasing to the ear.
2. Why should I have my piano tuned?
You should have your piano tuned in order to keep your neighbors happy! Actually there are several reasons: You and your family will "learn" from playing your piano what an A sounds like. This eventually becomes ingrained in you and if the piano is out of tune you will have learned the wrong pitch for all the keys. A piano is designed at the factory to produce the best sound when the piano is tuned at the proper pitch level (A-440 cps). Postponing a piano tuning for very long makes it difficult to bring the overall tension on the wires back to the proper pitch. Problems that are needing attention will be noticed when the piano is being tuned. These can be sticking keys, loose parts, squeaks, animal damage, rusting, etc. Very occasionally valuable items are found in pianos by the tuner. There have been newspaper accounts of coins found under the keys worth over $100,000.
3. How often should my piano be tuned?
It depends on several factors: If your piano is new (less than 5-7 years old), the strings will stretch rapidly and cause the piano to go out of tune very fast. It is important to eliminate this youthful stretching by more frequent tunings the first 5 years, 2 times a year, at least. If your climate causes great swings of humidity and temperature from season to season like Mobile Alabama, you will need to tune your piano 2 times a year, on average. If someone in your household plays a very heavy style of piano, such as gospel rock (Yes I play this way), this will put the piano out of tune very rapidly. Probably you'll never keep it in great tune. If your piano is 30+ years old and you live in a southern climate, every 2 years will suffice for most people in order to maintain the pitch properly. If you are a very picky musician and/or have a great ear, you are doomed to frequent tunings and general unhappiness.
4. Why do keys sometimes stick?
There are many reasons, usually due to excessive humidity, broken or rubbing action parts. It will require an examination by your tuner. Often minor problems can be corrected along with the tuning at no extra charge. Problems requiring more attention and time can add up in cost to the customer.
5. Why does a piano have to be tuned after it is moved?
It isn't the jarring of the piano during the move that puts it out of tune, normally. It's the change in environment, humidity, and temperature that has an effect on the piano. It's usually suggested that following a move you wait about 4 weeks before tuning the piano. The lacquer or varnish on the soundboard acts as a seal and takes about 4 weeks to penetrate and equalize the different humidities. When the soundboard absorbs moisture from the air it usually causes the pitch of the piano to rise.
6. How can I find a good used piano?
Keep your eyes open. Often bargains can be found in newspapers or throw-away circulars containing ads found on driveways. Since there is no Kelley's Blue Book for pianos, there is no set price for used pianos. Often people will sell a piano after many years, assuming that it has little value at that time. They are wrong. Look at many pianos, run your fingers on the keys, see if they all work without weird noises. Inspect the case; it is going to be a major piece of your furniture. When you have narrowed your search down, call a piano tuner/technician to check it out for you. Piano stores offer some safety in a 30-day or 1 year guarantee sometimes. You will pay for this, of course.
7. How do I clean my piano?
Use a slightly damp cloth on the case. If it's really greasy use a tiny bit of lemon oil (wood surfaces only), sold in supermarkets, and a soft cloth. If you have Cigarette smoke smells read on... The piano keys can be cleaned with a slightly damp cloth, a little mild soap, and lots of elbow grease. A vacuum cleaner can be used inside with little danger of harming anything. No dripping cloths anywhere, however. On high polish finishes do not use lemon oil, use a 1 part water 1 part alcohol mixture or lightly touch with Windex which will be fine. I have used vinegar for helping to neutralize odors such as cigarette smoke. Vinegar is nontoxic, natural cleaner that can significantly redue the smell of smoke. Remember moisture is a pianos worst enemy so be careful to no get too much liquid cleaners on the piano, best to apply vinegar in a rag and wipe down all the surfaces inside piano cabinet, not leaving too much dampness behind. I have also removed odors inside the piano by sprinkling baking soda and powered carpet fresh mixture in the bottom of the piano, and allowing it to stay for a period of time to help obsorb odors it can later be vaccumed out. Murphy Oil Soap is another option for a mild soap solution for cleaning the finish of the piano to help remove smudges and fingerprints.
8. Can kids banging on my piano cause any damage?
If they just use their fingers and fists it's almost impossible to harm a piano; only your ears. A metal, plastic, or wooden toy can quickly harm a piano.
9. Why should I be worried about mice and moths in my piano?
Mice and moths love pianos. They provide a source of food and nesting material. In many parts of the US moths can eat the felts in your hammers and under the keys in one season. Moth balls are a cheap preventative. Mice tend to live in unused pianos. They will use the under-key felt for nests, chew up your wooden keys, and urinate on the strings, instantly killing the bass strings. Mouse traps will save you a lot money.
10. Do pianos ever get thrown away?
Yes, they do, but rarely. Many old uprights are 100 years old now and, for the most part, are not worth rebuilding (I've tried this and it's just not worth the time unless you want it for looks only) if they are falling apart with rust or drying glue and wood. However, the majority of these old uprights can be made very playable with a little work.
11. Can I bring my piano to you to get tuned?
No. Unfortunately the act of moving the piano and re-moving to their house will negate much of the benefit of tuning.
12. What is the best brand of piano?
The brand that is right for your needs. Most people don't want or can't afford a $150,000 Bosendorfer piano. Over the years there have been over 7000 brands of pianos. The vast majority don't exist anymore but that doesn't mean they made an inferior instrument. My personal favorites right now would be Baldwin, Yamaha, and Kawai. There are many others that I would also recommend; some great pianos never make it to the US.
13. What's a square grand?
During a 25 year period in the mid 1800's piano inventors and manufacturers evolved from the upright into a horizontal piano that we call a square grand. They are VERY heavy with huge carved legs and frequently made of cherry wood. They represent an evolution of the piano, an important one. The action is quite primitive and difficult to control. They produce a big, rich bass sound and weak, febrile treble. Tuning a square grand is back-breaking, since the tuning pins are on the far side from the keyboard, necessitating a long reach. A restored square is interesting, historically, but it never was a great piano. (I recommend one for looks only, not for play).
14. What's the difference in a spinet, console, studio, or upright piano?
For several hundred years the upright piano ruled. Its main advantages are the longer strings and a full-sized action. Around the time of the 2nd World War, people wanted smaller pianos. Manufacturers complied by making the strings shorter and the action smaller. There are compromises when you do this. All pianos have the same length string in the top C, around 2 ¼ inches. Theoretically in order to get the C the next octave down you have to double the length of the string. If you keep doing this, the last A in the bass will be 27 feet long! That won't work. To solve that problem the scale designers increased the diameter of the wires a little every so often. When you want a spinet-sized piano you need to really increase the diameter. This produces an inferior sound to the upright but it looks cute. The action won't fit in such a small case so you have to make the parts smaller or cut off the keys and drop the parts down lower and link them up again. Not the most wonderful result but it does play. A spinet usually is around 36" high, a console 40-42", and a studio around 45 ". General rule of thumb: the longer the strings, the better the sound.
15. When were pianos invented?
The person generally credited with the concept of the first piano was Bartholommeo Cristofori, from Florence, Italy in 1709. He was the first to come up with a way to vary the volume of a struck string by using only the force of the key being depressed.
16. What's the difference between a piano and a harpsichord?
A harpsichord produces sound by means of a plectrum plucking the string as it goes by it. The piano strikes the string and rebounds from the string. The harpsichord can only increase volume by linking up other plectri to other strings. It doesn't matter how hard you press the key of the harpsichord; it will produce the same volume. The piano will produce more volume the harder you strike the key.
17. How long can a piano go without being tuned?
I tuned a piano recently hadn't been tuned for over 15 years. After the 1st tuning it's still out of tune, 1 whole keys flat. The longer a piano goes without tuning the harder it is to bring it back into tune. A piano that has had frequent tunings for 10 years can survive years without another one, but there will be a penalty to pay: unstable tuning.
18. Is the piano ruined if the soundboard is cracked?
Not usually. Wood tends to dry out and crack. The large expanse of the soundboard, under a lot of pressure all the time, eventually will develop some cracks. If the crack is along the bridge line, this creates serious problems, since the downward pressure of the strings forces the crack to widen, eliminating the necessary arc. Usually the cracks are not in those areas and at most will cause buzzes which can be eliminated. If the piano is ever restrung, the cracks can be repaired properly.
19. What is "concert pitch?"
Concert pitch presently is 440 cycle per second for the A above middle C. This has been true for about 70 years. Prior to that it was at 435 cps. 200 years ago it was whatever anybody wanted it to be for their instrument. This made tuning up with orchestras very difficult. Orchestra conductors today like to have everything tuned at 442 or 444 cps in order to obtain a more brilliant sound. Piano tuners hate this.
20. If water gets spilled in my piano, can it be saved?
It helps if you can immediately dry the affected area. If water sits for a time it can cause the glue joints to dry out, resulting in wooden parts coming apart and felt swelling up and coming unglued. Usually this can be fixed without too much problem. If much of the piano sits in water, e.g. in a flood area, this can result in converting the piano to another piece of furniture (or having a big fire and rosting marshmallows - be careful).
21. Why are there so many blind piano tuners?
Part of the reason is that after WWII, many of our returning veterans had been blinded. The US government set up 3 training centers around the US in order to teach these men and women a trade that didn't require the use of eyes. There are many highly respected sight-impaired tuners today. Frankly, I am in awe of the dexterity and abilities of some blind tuners not just to tune but to repair small parts assemblies that are quite small. It is truly a blessing to see blind people tune - they have a gift!
22. Why do some pianos stay in tune longer than others?
New pianos will not stay in tune very long because the strings are stretching so much. A piano that has had numerous tunings over a 10-year period frequently stabilizes the tension on the cast-iron plate and remains in tune amazingly well. Some small pianos that do not have much support in the back structure never stay in tune well. If a piano is situated in a stable environment, no drafts, no hot air vents, no open windows, no direct sun, it can remain in tune for long periods of time.
23. Is an outside wall bad for pianos?
If the outside wall is outside the house, definitely. In climates with many changes and homes without much insulation, it's better not to put your piano on an outside wall. I do not recommend an outside wall especially with a window.
24. Can I put my piano over a hot-air vent?
Only if you want to ruin it. The drying action of the hot air will eventually crack the soundboard, dry out the pinblock, and cause the action parts to become loose. (Please don't be stupid and try this at home)!
25. How can I make my piano softer in volume?
There are several ways: Drape or tack a piece of heavy carpet over the back of the piano. Soften the hammers by removing the hard external felt that has become compacted. Install an apartment muffler rail. It's a bar with a strip of felt glued to it. When lowered it comes between the hammer and strings and really quiets the volume without changing the touch. It can be raised and lowered at will without affecting anything but the volume.
26. Can the heavy touch on my piano be changed?
Yes. The moving parts in the action may be too tight, causing too much friction. This can be fixed fairly simply. Sometimes just lubricating the moving parts will make it much easier to play. If necessary lead weights can be installed in the keys to assist the pianists tired fingers.
27. Can the light touch on my piano be changed?
Sure. Sometimes this is caused by worn-out parts or felts; replacing them will restore the proper resistance. Occasionally lead weights can be installed to give more resistance to the keys.
28. What happens if I break a string?
Don't panic. Replacement strings are readily available. There is a break-in period with new strings, since they go out of tune frequently due to their elasticity.
29. How do I take care of the outside case of my piano?
Manufacturers usually recommend a slightly damp soft cloth. If there is much grease, use a little lemon oil (wood surface only) on the cloth. See question # 7 above.
30. Why are there three pedals on some pianos?
Around the turn of the century there were only 2 pedals, normally. Then the sostenuto pedal was invented, primarily for the grand piano. It's very expensive and rarely seen in upright pianos. When you play a key (or keys) and depress the sostenuto pedal, those notes only will continue to sound and all other keys can be played staccato. Americans being what we are, we saw those new pianos with 3 pedals and asked why we only had 2 on our pianos at home. At first the manufacturers responded with a "practice" pedal, attached to a spring that went up and down! Worthless. Now there are 2 main uses for the middle pedal: The pedal is attached to the bass dampers only. When depressed, the played keys of the bass section will continue to sound and the treble keys will cease their sound in a normal fashion. No one has ever been seen using it for this purpose. The pedal is connected to an apartment muffler rail. This drops down between the hammers and the strings and produces a VERY quiet sound without affecting the touch.