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"The only time I play on a properly tuned instrument, is when I go to the concert hall for a performance......" (a quote from a well-known pianist).
The Piano and its Tuning
The piano is a unique instrument, with the largest range of pitches of any musical acoustic device. In the early l9 th century the use of the cast-iron frame for stringing was introduced in the US, which stabilized much of the force of the steel strings, as compared to previous pianos which were plagued by the expansion and contraction of wood members under compression. Iron made tuning much more stable, but the case and soundboard have all the propensities of wood to change in response to changes in heating and the seasonal humidities. So it is usual for pianists who are concerned with keeping their instrument in relative tune to have the piano tuned twice a year, first when in spring the air becomes more humid, and again in the fall when the effect of a heating system starts to shrink wood parts.
Piano sound is complex. The instrument itself involves an action with several thousand moving parts, a wood soundboard supported by ribs connecting to a rigid case, and the soundboard itself which under pressure from strings resting on two separate bridges, resounds and transmits the sound to the elastic air medium.
But this is no simple relationship, like that of a vibrating tuning fork touched to your dining room table. The characteristic sound of the "piano" is the result of many interlocking factors relating to the length and thickness of the individual strings, the impedance matching of the soundboard, and the "in-harmonicity" of the piano considered as a whole, since multiple modes are involved across the spectrum of the traditional 88 notes. For an excellent review of the acoustic properties of the piano, from the acoustic physicist's point of view (with references to analytical studies made over the years) take a look at this book:
The Musician's Guide to Acoustics, by Murray Campbell and Clive Greated, Dent and Sons l987 (ISBN 0-460- 04664-6), pp. 241 ff.
I mention this technical study here, because there are so many factors which affect tuning of the instrument, more in fact that a proper tuning can deal with. Some of the factors affecting the final sound are inherent in the strings, case and soundboard, others are related to the human hearing apparatus, and many of the characteristics of piano sound are inexorably tied to the qualities of the individual instrument. Tuning can only do so much, even when resorting to intentional mis-tuning of certain tones to avoid annoying overtones in the harmonic series.
Let me give a brief list of things which should be in order, before tuning is contemplated:
a) The pins must be tight and hold the strings under tension. It seems hardly necessary to mention this, but the wrest plank changes its hold on the pins so slowly over the years, that the gradual loosening may not be immediately apparent.
b) The hammers are the most likely offenders against a good sound overall, they harden over the years, grooves wear in, and filing off the grooves changes the shape, weight and the quality of the sound produced. But hammers can be replaced at a fraction of the cost of the piano.
c) The "let off" or distance from the string at which the hammer is disengaged (you can observe this by pressing a key down slowly and watching for the release under the strings) must be quite near to the string. Wear on action parts may cause early let-off resulting in weak tone. This is always worth checking.
d) After the point of let-off, the key should be able to be depressed a very slight further distances, perhaps only 1/16 inch. This "aftertouch" is really not a matter of touch or delicacy of sound, but insurance that the let-off is complete, and that the action is working correctly. A technician can adjust let-off easily in a hour or less.
e) There are many parts in the complicated grand piano action which wear over the years, if you are a conscientious pianist and practice several hours a day, you may actually wear the action out in a couple of decades or less. If you are a light user the action may outlast you, actions are generally well built and very strong, and the occasional sticking key can be dealt with without much trouble.
The Pianist's Dilemma
Now I want to talk about the dilemma which confronts every piano student or professional pianist. If you ask your tuner how long his tuning will stay correct, he may tell you till next spring or fall, and in a general sense that is right. But in sheer honestly, he should tell you that a week later there will be changes, and in a month it would not be suitable for a concert or a recording. That is why a concert pianist has it written in his contract for a performance that the piano will be "fresh tuned", which means just a few hours before he plays. That will be a very different piano from the piano he has been practicing on while preparing for the concert, it will sound clearer and cleaner, the harmonies will be the best that Equal Temperament can offer, and the sound will be better to his ears. Hence the remark of a professional pianist that the only piano he play on which is properly tuned is the one at his concert.
There is more of a problem in this, than many of us realize. If you practice long hours daily on a mis-tuned piano, even one slightly off from a fine tuned instrument, you are accustoming your hearing to hearing mis-tuned sounds and intervals as normal. The piano is a difficult instrument to play, it looks easy in one sense since you "play" the notes rather than make them from scratch as with violin or clarinet. But you have a very complicated two-handed score to read, with often six or more notes sounding together, and you must have physical control over the limited parameters of loud/soft, long/short, keys over a three foot graphic display, as well as the use of one or two feet for pedals. Since the piano does not have the control of phrasing which voice of violin have, you must "phrase" passages by devising subtle amplitude and rhythm effects.
In this welter of contrary requirements, one things is easy to forget. Many pianists do not listen attentively to the actual "sound", the way a violinist must, since much of that sound is pre-programmed to a certain extent by the instrument. And if not listening acutely to the sound, one will easily pass over mis-tuning, bad intervals, ringing octaves, a wrong-sounding bass........since there are so many other things which demand prior attention.
To repeat: The pianists faces the dilemma of operating a very complicated instrument with a complex musical program, and often must divert attention to the score and away from the final sound output. In this situation he or she (and she actually hears more acutely) ignores the tuning, and fails to rejoice in the lovely sound of a properly tuned instrument. No violinist faces this problem, in an unfretted instrument or with the human voice the mind makes things sound right even as they are made, intervals automatically true themselves, even beyond the compromises of Equal Temperament. Compared with this necessary attention to detail of sound, the pianist tends to become a rough and crude listener.
Most of us have our piano tuned twice a year, roughly when the house heating system goes on, and when it goes off. But when you ask an experienced piano technician how long a piano stays in perfect tune, he should honestly say 'a week or two'.So the "fresh tuning" which a performer's contract specifies in a necessity, not a whim of the agent's imagination
For the seasonal changes,when spring humidity and fall house-heating change the wood parts of the soundboard/case in relationship to the cast iron harp, it will take more time to go over the whole range of strings. Once you start really listening to the sound, you cannot go back. Most of us have had to play the piano just as it stands, ignoring ringing sounds until they cross the threshold of tolerance, or until the tuner comes on his schedule. If you become sensitive to off-beating sounds, the way a tuner is, that is if you hear amplitude pressure-rhythms in the notes, aside from the actual musical "pitches", then you will want your piano perfect each time you sit down to practice or to play for your own pleasure. Raising the level of acoustic attention and pleasure should be the aim of any musical endeavor.