What Is a Pitch Correction and Why Is It Needed?

Pitch is a very important consideration when it comes to tuning a piano. When a piano’s pitch deviates from the standard, a pitch correction must be performed before the piano can be fine tuned.

But what exactly is a pitch correction and why is it needed?

Before we can answer these questions, we first need to cover some basic information about pitch. What is this thing that we call pitch?

Audible sound consists of waves whose frequency can be measured in cycles per second, or hertz. The higher the hertz value (cycles per second), the higher the pitch of the sound that we hear. Doubling the hertz value of a sound will generate a sound exactly one octave higher. For example, a sound that vibrates at 220 cycles per second is an octave lower than one that vibrates at 440 cycles per second.

You may have heard a piano tuner refer to something he or she called “A-440.” Some piano tuner-technicians even include this term in the name of their business. I remember back in the early years when my dad ran our family business, it was “Domeny’s A-440 Piano Service.”

But what does “A-440” refer to? Very simply, it means that the note A above middle C is tuned to a frequency of exactly 440 cycles per second. Although there are exceptions (for example, many orchestras tune to A-442), A-440 is the international standard for pitch when it comes to the piano.

Well, that’s the standard. That’s where your piano should be – where it needs to be – in terms of pitch. But obviously just because your piano should be at A-440 doesn’t necessarily mean it is.

There are two main reasons why a piano’s pitch may deviate from this standard.

The first and perhaps most obvious reason is neglect. Piano wire, though composed of steel, is highly elastic and stretches when placed under tension. The longer a piano sits between tunings, the more of this stretching that takes place. And because lower string tensions means lower pitch levels, the more the strings are allowed the stretch, the more the pitch of the piano will drop. It is not uncommon for a piano that has been neglected for 15 or 20 years to be at A-415 instead of A-440, which is a full note flat. In other words, when you play the note Middle C, what you’re actually hearing is the note B directly below Middle C.

The second reason why a piano may deviate from the pitch standard of A-440 is that a piano’s pitch fluctuates with changes in relative humidity. When humidity increases, the piano’s pitch rises. Likewise, when humidity decreases, the piano’s pitch drops. For a discussion of this phenomenon and why it occurs, please refer to my blog post titled “What Causes a piano to Go Out of Tune?” and especially reason #2, Temperature and Humidity Changes.

This means that even a piano that is serviced on a regular schedule may occasionally deviate sufficiently from the standard of A-440 that pitch will need to be corrected.

Okay, now we’re ready to tackle the question, “What is a pitch correction?” Put simply, a pitch correction is a very fast, rough tuning that brings the piano back to the proper pitch level. If the piano’s pitch is low (flat), we raise it. If the piano’s pitch is high (sharp), we lower it. In a pitch correction, larger changes are made to the strings and tuning pins than can be made in a fine tuning. Once completed, a pitch correction is immediately followed up with a fine tuning.

Except for these essential differences (fast; imprecise; larger movement of strings and tuning pins), the process of performing a pitch correction is essentially the same as that used for a fine tuning.

Because precision is not an issue when a pitch correction is being performed, a pitch correction can be completed in about one-third to one-fourth of the time that it would normally take to complete a fine tuning. Most piano tuner-technicians take this fact into consideration when setting their price structure. Generally speaking, a pitch correction will be priced at about 25% to 33% of the cost of a fine tuning.

So, to summarize what we’ve covered thus far: When a piano’s pitch deviates from the international standard of A-440, a pitch correction is performed. A pitch correction is a very fast, imprecise tuning in which larger movements of the strings and tuning pins are made. A pitch correction, once completed, is immediately followed up with a fine tuning in which only small changes are made.

Please note that we have delineated two separate and distinct steps for tuning a piano when pitch needs to be brought back to the international standard of A-440: First comes the pitch correction. Once this is completed, only then can the piano be fine tuned.

Now, this brings us to an interesting question that many ask at this point: Why must this be done in two separate steps – pitch correction, then fine tuning? Why can’t we pitch correct and fine tune a piano simultaneously, in one big, single step?

The answer to this questions lies in something that I have alluded to in a previous blog post. It is the principle that the smaller the changes that are made to the strings and tuning pins, the more stable the tuning will be. Of course, the opposite is also true: The bigger the changes that are made, the less stable the tuning will be.

The reason for this is actually not that difficult to understand. A piano’s plate (the large metal “harp” that is usually painted gold – an essential part of the load-bearing structure of the piano), although made of cast iron, is still surprisingly flexible. Tightening one string by a large amount will cause the plate to flex slightly in the area near that string, which in turn will cause neighboring strings to lose tension and drop in pitch. Now, if those neighboring strings have already been precisely tuned, guess what just happened to the precise tuning of those strings? Suddenly they’re not so precise anymore!

Simply put, this means that a fine tuning will not be very “fine” if large movements are made. Or to put it another way, it is impossible to perform a fine tuning when large pitch changes are needed. A pitch correction allows for those large changes. And although imprecise, a properly executed pitch correction will put each string close enough to its final position that only small changes will be needed in the fine tuning.

So the next time your piano tuner-technician tells you that your piano needs a pitch correction, please understand that this means that larger pitch changes are needed than can be accomplished with a fine tuning alone. Given the fact that a pitch correction is not expensive (my clients pay only about $30 for a standard pitch correction), the final result – a better, more accurate, more stable tuning – is well worth the added expense.

If you live in the Inland Empire area of Southern California and are in need of piano service, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to call me directly at (909) 824-2561; or you can contact me using this online form.

What Causes a Piano to Go Out of Tune?

One of the most common questions that gets asked of a piano tuner-technician is, “Why does my piano go out of tune?”

Actually, a piano goes out of tune for a variety of reasons. In this article, we will look at five reasons why a piano goes out of tune.

1. Strings Stretching Under Tension

The first and perhaps most obvious reason why a piano goes out of tune is that the strings, although composed of steel, are highly elastic and stretch when placed under tension.

Each string (and there are on average about 230 of them) bears a load of between 150 and 200 pounds. When you place that much tension on a length of steel wire, it is going to stretch. This is just simple physics.

This string stretching takes place quite rapidly in new pianos and in instruments that have been recently restrung. This is why manufacturers recommend that new pianos be tuned at least four times in the first year of ownership.

Piano wire becomes more stable after that first year. It continues to stretch, of course, but at a slower rate. This is why even a piano that is rarely played should still be tuned at least once a year. When a piano is neglected for an extended period, the normal tension that is on the strings is allowed to dissipate. It is common for pianos that are neglected for several years to be half a note or more flat. It is not good for the load bearing structure of a piano to be allowed to go for extended periods with a significantly reduced load.

Even though string stretching is the reason many people think of first, with the exception of new and chronically neglected pianos, this is not the biggest contributor to a piano going out of tune.

2. Temperature and Humidity Changes

It may come as a surprise, but the biggest reason why most pianos go out of tune is changes in temperature and humidity. And of these two, changes in humidity is the bigger factor.

The influence of temperature is fairly self explanatory. Piano wire expands with heat and contracts with cold, which affects the tuning. Most homes do not see enough of a change in temperature to have any significant affect on the tuning. This is more of a concern in facilities that are unoccupied for extended periods, such as churches and other public places.

But what about fluctuations in humidity? How could this affect a piano’s tuning? Let’s consider for a moment some of the basic structural components of a piano.

If a piano consisted merely of a set of strings stretched between two points, with no soundboard to act as a sound transducer, the sound produced would be extremely soft and weak. Very early in the development of the piano, it was discovered that a plank of wood, when placed under tension, very effectively amplified the vibrations produced by the strings. This plank of wood is called the soundboard.

In a grand piano, the soundboard is glued at its outer edges to the inner rim of the piano. You are looking at the soundboard when you open the lid and look past the strings at the horizontal wooden board underneath. It may appear as though the soundboard is flat. However, in a healthy, structurally sound piano, there will be a slight crown to the soundboard, meaning that the center of the board will be raised slightly higher than the edges. This can be verified by crawling under the piano and stretching a length of string from one end of the soundboard to the other. In a healthy soundboard there will be a gap of about 1/8″ between the string and the soundboard at the center of the board.

The strings connect to the soundboard by means of a long, narrow strip of wood called the bridge. A crowned soundboard not only produces better sound reproduction through compression of the wood; it also helps to seat the strings firmly on the bridge, resulting in what we call “downbearing.”

What does all this have to do with humidity fluctuations causing a piano to go out of tune? It’s really quite simple.

All wood contains a certain amount of moisture. How much moisture a piece of wood can hold is determined by the moisture content of the air that surrounds it.

When the soundboard is dry and the air that surrounds it is moist, the soundboard takes in more moisture. This causes the soundboard to expand. But remember, the soundboard is firmly attached to the rim of the piano at its outer edges. This means that instead of expanding outward, the only direction it can expand is upward, increasing the crown. This causes the bridge to push harder on the strings, which adds tension to the strings, causing them to go sharp. This effect is more pronounced at the center of the soundboard where it is more flexible than at the edges where it is more rigid.

When the soundboard is moist and the air that surrounds it is dry, the soundboard releases moisture. This causes the soundboard to shrink, reducing the crown. Consequently, less pressure is exerted on the strings by the bridge, which removes tension from the strings, causing them to go flat. Again, this is more pronounced at the center of the soundboard.

Now if every note shifted equally when this happened, pitch would simply float up and down and the piano would stay in tune with itself. But as we have already noted, this is not what happens. The whole piano is thrown out of tune as the various sections of the piano shift, some more, some less.

This is why manufacturers recommend that their pianos be tuned at least twice a year after the first year of ownership. Of course, it would not be practical to have your piano tuned every time there is a slight change in relative humidity. Once in the Spring or Summer, and again in the Fall or Winter, is enough to compensate for the major seasonal humidity changes that take place in most of our North American climate zones.

3. Poor Tuning Technique

Again, this may come as a surprise, but the technique used by the person who tunes the piano has a huge influence on the stability of the tuning.

There are two things that a competent piano tuner-technician will do that significantly improves the stability of the tuning.

A. Setting the String

There are many segments to a piano string, and only one of these sections “speaks.” For example, there is the segment that goes from the tuning pin to the capo bar or agraffe (the front termination for the speaking segment). Then comes the speaking segment. After this there is the segment that passes across the bridge and through the bridge pins. And the segment that goes from the rear bridge pin to the aliquot bar. And finally there is the segment that goes from the aliquot bar to the hitch pin. (The exact number of string segments varies from one piano to the next, and from one section to another within the same piano.)

In order for the tuning to be stable, the tension in all of these various string segments must be equalized. However, friction at the various bearing points makes this difficult to accomplish. An inexperienced tuner may think he has left the string in tune. But if he or she did not adequately “set” the string using firm test blows, one or more sections will have a higher tension than the speaking section. This unevenness will work itself out after he leaves, causing the affected strings to go out of tune.

B. Setting the Pin

Although made of steel, tuning pins are actually quite flexible. There are two ways that this flexibility of the tuning pin can come back to bite an inexperienced tuner.

First, because the pin is held so tightly by the pinblock (the block of hardwood that the tuning pins are driven into), the upper, exposed portion of the pin will twist slightly before the lower portion actually turns in the pinblock. If this twist is not removed and the pin returned to its neutral position, it will slowly untwist itself, causing the string to go out of tune. Of course, this happens after you have written the check and the tuner has left!

And second, the upper, exposed portion of the tuning pin is long enough that it can be bent slightly fore or aft. It is very easy to manipulate the tuning lever in such a way as to bend the pin slightly forward or backward. Once again, if the pin is not returned to its neutral position, it will eventually return on its own, causing the string to go out of tune.

When it comes to tuning stability, competence is worth paying extra for.

4. Playing the Piano

That’s right. Normal use will cause a piano to go out of tune. In fact, the more a piano is played, and more specifically, the heavier it is played, the faster it will go out of tune.

It is not possible to perfectly equalize every segment of the string. Through the technique of setting the string with firm test blows (see reason #3 above), a piano tuner can prevent major short-term tuning changes. However, as the piano is played, and especially as it is played heavily, the tension between various string segments will shift, causing the piano to go out of tune.

Pianos that receive heavier than normal use may need to be tuned more frequently than twice a year.

5. Moving the Piano

Although a long distance move will often cause a piano to go out of tune, unless the piano was handled improperly or has underlying structural problems, it’s not the physical act of moving the piano that caused it to go out of tune. Instead, it’s the fact that the piano was moved from one climate zone to another. So what we’re really talking about once again is the influence of temperature and humidity on a piano. (See reason #2 above.)

When a piano is moved to a new climate zone, it is a good idea to wait 3 to 4 weeks before having the piano tuned in order to allow the piano to adjust to its new environment. Depending on the severity of the climate change, there may be other considerations, such as the need for a humidity control system, that your piano technician may bring to your attention.

Most pianos do not need to be tuned after they are moved across the room, or even across town. I am amused at how many calls I get from people who just moved their piano to a different room in their house, and they’re calling me because their piano suddenly needs to be tuned. Never mind the fact that it’s been 20 years since the piano was tuned. The reason it needs to be tuned is because it was moved!

If you are in the Inland Empire area of Southern California and are in need of piano service, I would love to hear from you! You can call me at (909) 824-2561, or you can follow this link to my website’s contact page.

How Often Should My Piano Be Tuned?

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Having your piano tuned on a regular basis is the most fundamental aspect of caring for your piano. Naturally this prompts the question, “How often should my piano be tuned?”

Generally speaking, piano manufacturers recommend that their pianos be serviced three to four times in the first year of ownership and at least twice a year after this. This includes such well-known names as Baldwin, Kawai, Pearl River, Samick, Steinway, and Yamaha. (You can follow this link to read specific recommendations from piano manufacturers.)

Why do new pianos need more frequent service? It takes about a year for new piano wire to stretch and become stable. Tuning a new piano three to four times in that first year of ownership compensates for this rapid stretching of strings and ensures that the pitch of the piano is never allowed to drift too far from the international standard of A-440 (the note A above Middle C is tuned to a frequency of 440 cycles per second). Of course, strings continue to stretch after the first year, but at a much slower rate.

There is another reason why new pianos should be serviced more frequently. As a piano acclimates to its new environment (your home), it is common for small problems to develop. Keys may start to stick and other action parts may become sluggish. It is important to address these issues early, before they develop into bigger problems. A professional piano technician will be able to recognize and correct these issues, sometimes before you even notice them.

So that takes care of new pianos up through the first year of ownership. But what about pianos that are more than a year old?

Again, referring to the recommendations given by piano manufacturers: They should be tuned “at least twice a year.”

But why twice a year? Is there a logical reason for this?

Actually, this recommendation is based on the fact that for most of continental North America there are essentially two indoor seasons: wet (or wetter) and dry (or drier). Changes in indoor relative humidity are the number one reason why pianos go out of tune. (Perhaps in a future article I will delve into the science for why this is so.)

During Fall and Winter, what little moisture was in the air is quickly driven away when we turn on our furnaces and close our doors and windows. And then in the Spring and Summer, the humidity inside our homes increases as we turn off our furnaces and open our doors and windows. In many parts of the country, this is coupled with extremely high outdoor humidity. So you can see that there is a normal cycling inside our homes as the seasons change, from dry (or drier) to wet (or wetter) and then eventually back to dry.

And remember, it is when the indoor humidity changes that your piano goes out of tune.

With this in mind, let’s consider what happens when a piano is tuned only once a year instead of the recommended twice a year. When a piano is tuned only once a year, it ends up spending about half the year out of tune. For example, if you have your piano tuned in the Fall when the air inside your house is relatively dry, it’s going to go out of tune about six months later when the weather gets warmer and the indoor humidity rises. If you wait until the next Fall before having your piano tuned again, that’s six months (half a year) that it will remain out of tune.

This is why it makes sense to have your piano serviced on a six month schedule, once in the Fall or Winter, and again in the Spring or Summer. A twice yearly tuning schedule will help keep your piano sounding its best throughout the entire year.

If your piano receives heavier than normal use, it may be necessary to have your piano serviced more frequently than this. But for pianos that receive light to moderate use, a twice yearly schedule should be sufficient.

Absolute minimum maintenance for a piano, even one that seldom gets played, is once a year. Allowing a piano to go longer than a year between service appointments amounts to neglect. And neglecting a piano for extended periods can cause small and relatively inexpensive problems that might have been discovered earlier to develop into serious and potentially expensive problems.

I am surprised at how many people seem to think that their piano should be tuned once every five or ten years “whether it needs it or not.” I tell my clients that they’re wasting their money if they intend to have their piano tuned only once every five or ten years.

Here’s why.

It is a simple fact that small pitch changes produce more stable tunings, and that bigger pitch changes produce less stable tunings. The less the tension on the strings has to be changed in the process of tuning the piano, the more stable the tuning will be. This is why pianos that are tuned regularly are more stable (meaning they hold their tuning longer) than pianos that are tuned less regularly.

When a piano is neglected for two or three years, or even longer, it becomes necessary to make bigger adjustments when the piano is finally tuned again. Consequently, that first tuning is not going to hold for very long. As previously stated, the bigger the changes that are made, the more unstable the end result will be. This means that if the piano is to hold a tuning for any significant length of time, that first tuning will have to be followed up in one to three months with a second tuning where only small adjustments are made.

Why would someone pay for a tuning that is going to last only one to three months if they plan on going right back to neglecting their piano for another two or five or ten years? It just doesn’t make sense!

Of course, the better choice would be to stop neglecting the piano and see that it receives the service that it needs when it needs it. Then it will sound its best all the time!

I hope that what I’ve shared with you in this article has helped you better understand the service needs of your piano. And I hope that the next time your piano tuner-technician suggests that your piano should be tuned every six months, you understand that he or she has your piano’s best interests at heart. It’s not that he or she is trying to drum up more business at your expense. This really is what’s best for your piano.

If you live in the Inland Empire area of Southern California and are in need of piano service, I would love to hear from you! Simply follow this link to the contact page of my website.

How to Find a Competent Piano Tuner-Technician

If you’ve ever cracked the yellow pages or surfed the web in search of a piano tuner, you’ve probably found yourself wondering, “Which one should I choose?”

What sort of criteria should you consider when looking for a piano tuner? Should you choose the person with the largest ad or the biggest website? Should you go with the person whose phone number or address indicates that they are closest to you? Should you go with the least expensive tuner? Or perhaps the most expensive? How about the person with the most experience? Is there some sort of credential that you should be checking for?

How can you be sure that the piano tuner you hire to service your piano is a competent tuner-technician, someone who really knows what he or she is doing and who isn’t going to scam you into throwing money down a rabbit hole?

One of the first things you need to understand about the piano tuning trade is that it is entirely unregulated. Unlike the plumber or building contractor that you may have hired in the past, piano tuners are not licensed. There is no education requirement. No exam that they have to pass. Nothing. Literally anyone can advertise in the phone book or on the internet, claiming to be a piano tuner or piano technician.

Given this environment, it should be obvious that the size of someone’s print ad or the prominence of their website tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of their work. In fact, it is often the case that the best piano tuner-technicians spend little or no money on advertising. They don’t have to. The bulk of their business comes through client referrals.

Obviously, picking the piano tuner who is closest to you is no guarantee of competence either. And even experience is of little value if “25 years of experience” really means one year of experience repeated 25 times over.

It may come as a surprise, but how much a piano tuner-technician charges can actually tell you something about his or her competence and skill level. Put simply, there is a maximum that people are willing to pay within a specific market area for any given service, and this includes piano tuning. The higher a piano technician’s skill level, the higher the perceived value that his or her clients receive, and consequently the closer his or her fees can approach the maximum. A less skilled piano tuner would not be able to stay in business for very long charging these higher rates.

This is one of those areas where cheaper is not necessarily better. When it comes to hiring a piano tuner-technician, it really is true: You get what you pay for. Cheap rates usually mean low quality work performed by someone whose competence is questionable. Higher rates are an indication of high quality work performed by someone with a reputation for competence and quality.

But what about credentials? Is there some sort of credential or certification that you can look for in a piano tuner-technician? Actually, there is.

This credential is an indispensable and often overlooked criterion when choosing a piano technician – probably because many are not even aware of its existence.

But before I tell you what this credential is, I need to emphasize that there are many highly competent piano technicians who have no credentials. Just because someone lacks a particular credential or certification does not automatically make them an incompetent hack.

When it comes to piano tuner-technicians, there is only one credential or certification that means anything. There are a few other so-called certifications that you may come across. But only one is worth paying any attention to. And that is the credential of Registered Piano Technician, or RPT. It is conferred by the Piano Technicians Guild (PTG), a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of highly skilled, competent piano technicians.

I can tell you from personal experience that becoming a Registered Piano Technician is not easy! In order to become a Registered Piano Technician (RPT), one must pass a series of three examinations administered by the Piano Technicians Guild, demonstrating competence in the tuning, repair, regulation, and general service of pianos. When you hire a Registered Piano Technician, you can be assured that you are hiring a competent craftsman or craftswoman who is equipped to offer you the highest possible level of piano service.

Another important consideration is the fact that a Registered Piano Technician (RPT) is bound by a Code of Ethics, which ensures integrity and professionalism in all that we do.

So how can you find a Registered Piano Technician (RPT) in your area? The fastest and easiest way is to go to the Piano Technicians Guild website, www.ptg.org, and click the rectangular box at the top of the page, the one that says “Click Here to Find a Registered Piano Technician.” After you enter your zip code and define the radius of your search, you will be given a list of Registered Piano Technicians in your area, along with their current contact information.

If you are ever in the market for a piano tuner-technician, I hope that this information helps you find someone who will give you competent, high quality, professional service. And if you are in the Inland Empire area of Southern California and are looking for a piano technician, I would love to hear from you!

Welcome to the Domeny’s Piano Service Blog

Welcome to the Domeny’s Piano Service Blog!

This blog is designed for anyone who has an interest in pianos. Whether you are a professional pianist, someone who plays the piano for fun, the parent of a child who is taking piano lessons, or a piano owner who hopes to gain a better understanding of this complex instrument that you are hoping someday to learn to play, I think you will find this blog to be fun, interesting, and informative.

First off, let me introduce myself. My name is Roger Domeny and I am a Registered Piano Technician member of the Piano Technicians Guild. I own and operate a full-time piano service business in the Inland Empire of Southern California. That said, my purpose in writing these articles is not “shameless self promotion.” Instead, my purpose is to share information that will help you understand how a professional piano technician can help you get the most from your piano.

So there you have it. That’s my agenda. And my bias too. I will have more to say about this in future articles, but I believe that when it comes to servicing your piano, it is vitally important that you hire a professional piano technician, someone whose competence has been tested and certified by the Piano Technicians Guild, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to the development of highly skilled craftsmen and women. You see, not everyone who tunes pianos is a professional piano technician.

Why is this so important?

The piano is one of the most complex instruments that you can own. Think about it: Violinists tune and maintain their own instruments. The same is true of flutists, oboists, horn players, trombonists, and just about every other kind of instrument that you can think of. But not so with the piano. With very few exceptions, pianists do not tune and maintain their own instruments.

The reason for this is fairly obvious. Rather than having four strings like a violin, a piano has an average of 230 strings. The action, the system of compressed levers that transforms the downward movement of your finger to the upward movement of a felt covered hammer that strikes and sets into motion a precisely tuned string, has between 9,000 and 14,000 parts. The exact number varies according on the manufacturer and exact model of piano. Getting a piano to function as it is supposed to function so that it is able to produce the beautiful, melodious sound it is supposed to produce depends on getting all these parts to work together exactly as they are supposed to. And believe me, this is no small task!

Given this extreme complexity, you can understand why it is so important to hire someone who really knows what he or she is doing. A novice poking around inside a piano can cause some really big problems in very short order.

So with this brief introduction, I hope you will join me as we learn together about the piano and its service needs. There is a lot that I look forward to sharing with you. And I think we’ll have some fun along the way. After all, that’s what the piano is all about: Having fun making music!