This piano tuning blog is a companion to our How to Tune a Piano Yourself tutorial. In this blog we expand on the tutorial with new information and perspectives on do-it-yourself piano tuning. If it is your first time here, visit the tutorial first.
The End of the Piano Tuner…or Not?
Piano tuning is a rather odd profession. It seems quaint, like a throwback to the old days before electronic keyboards. The piano tuner is regularly declared obsolete.Yet, the profession won't go away. The acoustic piano still remains loved and revered by many. These old analog instruments still grace our homes and concert halls.
The other assault on the profession is older, existing since the pianoforte was invented. That strategy is to replace the piano tuner with something better. Recently we reported on the self-tuning piano. However, a tuner was still required to set the initial tuning, which the self-tuner would reference.
The latest declaration of impending obsolesce against the piano tuner comes from a scientist who has developed a piano tuning algorithm. This algorithm uses entropy to determine the optimum frequency to overcome inharmonicity. By using repeated mathematical calculations that reduce entropy bit by bit, we eventually arrive at a tuned instrument. Despite breathless headlines, though, the piano tuner is still going to be needed. First, the algorithm just calculates frequencies, it is not a machine that turns pins. Turning pins such that they remain stable to keep their tune more than a few minutes or days is a skill that is just as important as determining a frequency. Furthermore, the tuner also makes other adjustments and repairs for the best sound.
The second issue is that similar results are available with current technology. A good aural tuner can deliver the best sound out of a piano already, without any electronic aids. Can the algorithm really make the piano sound better than a professional aural tuning? Is there really that much room for improvement? One could argue that the algorithm could make a mediocre tuner better. Already there are several electronic tuning devices on the market to assist tuners. They use a variety of systems to determine the stretch of a piano, but ultimately the tuner makes the final adjustments because rarely does the ETD get it right.
The root issue where the algorithm may actually have an advantage is in the issue of inharmonicity. Inharmonicity is unique on every piano. The writer of the algorithm suggests that it would be better than todays existing ETDs at addressing inharmonicity. ETDs are always being updated, so there's clearly room for improvement. But inharmonicity also changes on every piano between tunings. Humidity alone is never the same moment to moment, except in the most climate-controlled sealed room. Furthermore, the piano itself changes over time as the materials age. These changes are virtually unquantifiable. A good tuner subconsciously accounts for all these variables in ways that current ETDs cannot. Perhaps the "entropy tuner" can match the skill of an aural tuner, but I'll wager it can't beat it.
Regardless, at the moment this is all conjecture. The algorithm only exists on paper. No electronic tuning device uses the system. And somebody still needs to tune the pins. On the other hand, though, if the algorithm is incorporated in the self-tuning piano…hmmm.
Now it has been implemented: http://piano-tuner.org/ and apparently works pretty well: http://www.pianoworld.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/2435332/Entropy_Piano_Tuner.html