Frequently Asked Questions About Tuning a Piano Yourself
Be sure to visit our home page, Tuning a Piano Yourself. If you have a question about piano tuning yourself, contact us. You will find more comments, questions and answers from our readers on our comments page.
Q. How much does professional piano tuning cost?
This is very difficult to answer. It depends on location, local market conditions, the tuner, and how much work your piano needs. What is a reasonable fee in one city may be too low for another. But just to ball park it, a basic tuning on a regularly-tuned piano is $75 to $125. A neglected piano may be more, because it takes more work to tune. Broken strings, action repairs, voicing or regulation will be an additional cost. This is only an estimate; like any purchase, call several tuners and get references.
Q. Should I try it myself or get a professional?
If your piano is nice or valuable and you have the money, have a pro do it. He or she will do a much better job than you ever can. However, if you are up for an adventure, and are willing to accept the risks I detail on this website, then give it a try.
Q. Can I use a [socket wrench, crescent wrench, vice grips, pliers, false teeth] instead of an expensive tuning lever?
Please, please no! Those tools may damage the pins. Pins are expensive to replace. Enough bad pins can make your piano-untunable. Furthermore, those tools do not give you the delicate feel you need for tuning: handles are too short or narrow and there is "play" or looseness. Without good feel, you will be turning the pins more than is necessary. Too much turning can loosen the pins, necessitating another repair. Buy a proper tuning lever, and do NOT use anything but a proper tuning lever!
Q. Can I use a digital piano as a reference to tune an acoustic piano?
Not to tune the entire piano note-to-note. You can use it as a reference for A4, or perhaps the temperament octave, then tune the rest of the piano by ear, as we explain in our piano tuning tutorial. But inharmonicity, or the difference between what sounds good on a piano and the mathematically calculated frequencies for each note, means the acoustic piano will not sound right if tuned using a digital piano for every note. A digital piano uses the mathematically calculated frequencies since it has no strings. See our piano tuning tutorial for more explanation.
Q. I do not live in the U.S. Can you suggest a piano tool supply house that ships internationally?
Q. What's the difference between a cheap gooseneck lever and an expensive lever?
Any mechanic will tell you that good tools are worth the price, and so will any piano tuner. You need a fine touch to tune. Any problem with a poor fit, or poor tool quality can be frustrating. Cheap levers often have square sockets, rather than star-shaped sockets; this limits available angles for positioning the tool for comfortable, careful tuning movements. Economy gooseneck levers are all one piece rather than having the interchangeable heads and tips of better tools; if you find an odd pin size, or awkward access, you don't have the option of just buying a new head or tip. Finally, many gooseneck levers seem to have a shallower bend in the neck than better hammers. This may limit movement in a tight cabinet, and may not give as good a feel for turning the pin. You don't necessarily need a $100 pro model, though. Something in the $40 range with a changeable head is the minimum I recommend; avoid the $20 cheap models. Pro levers also have extendible necks as well as interchangeable heads and tips.
Q. Can you tell me more about how to know which hammer to buy?
Alright, if you insist. Here is a detailed response I gave to a reader recently:
For tuning levers, avoid anything labeled "budget" or "economy" or has a "gooseneck" (fixed, single-piece head on a bent shaft.) Those are all signs of poor quality. Grover-Trophy especially is a brand to avoid. Those are the cheap levers on Amazon, and the reviews are terrible. NewOctave Global brand are "good" levers for the non-professional market. Models labeled "apprentice" "student" or "craftsman" are generally among those adequate for starters--if they are at least $40. HOWEVER, these labels are applied by the seller; there is no standardization. Some sellers will label a budget hammer as "student" when it's just cheap. That's why price needs to be used as an indicator. For a discussion of mid-grade hammers compared to professional models, here's a good thread at PianoWorld.com's piano technician forum. We also discuss this subject more in our blog post, Piano Tuning Lever Quality
The higher the price, the better the lever--buy the best lever you can afford. I suggest the barest minimum would be a "student" or "craftsman" quality as labeled at PianoSupplies.com (they don't happen to use the "apprentice" designation.) You'll also see hammers and kits labeled as "professional" that aren't. If they do not give a brand name, then they are not really professional, they are just higher-quality mid-grade. They may be good hammers, but understand that true professional tools have a brand name. The most affordable true professional tuning levers are Schaff brand levers.
Q. Should I get a kit, or buy the tools separately?
Kits often have a tuning fork, which is a $15 item you won't ever need if you use a chromatic tuner as I suggest. They may also come with more mutes than I have in my tutorial; however, the extra mutes (e.g., treble mute, temperament strip) will eventually be used if you keep learning. Mutes are all the same; there's no significant quality differences at this level. So, if the kit is a good deal despite the tuning fork, get the kit--but don't pay for a tuning fork.
Q. What size tuning lever tip should I buy? What's the difference between the tip sizes?
If in doubt, buy a #2. The #2 tip is by far the industry standard. #1 is smaller, sometimes used on European pianos; #3 is larger, sometimes encountered when damaged pins have been replaced or a piano rebuilt. (Sizes run from #0 on up to #9, though anything other than a #1, 2 or 3 is truly a specialized case.) Actually, in tuning lever tips, size does not matter as much as you might think. It's true that there are different pin sizes; however, because most pins are square and tapered, and tuning tips are likewise tapered, tips may fit more than one pin size. The difference is the "feel" of the way the tip holds to the pin. A larger tip (e.g. a #3) will grab lower on a standard pin and may tend to have a little looser feel as it bottoms out--but beware that if the fit is too loose, the tip can slip and strip the corners from the pin. On the other hand, a smaller tip (e.g., #1) will grab higher on the pin and tend to have a tighter feel; some tuners always use a #1 because that feel gives them the control they prefer. Regardless, the #2 size is by far the most common, so start with that.
Q. Why does my tuning lever seem to slip or bind on the pin?
Three possibilities come to mind:
1) You are not taking the time to fully seat the lever tip on the pin. Solution: take your time.
2) The pin itself is bent, torqued, or otherwise deformed. Solution: if you can't tune it, the pin may need to be replaced. See Reblitz for advice or hire a piano technician or tuner. Damaging a pin is a risk for inexperienced tuners. Only use quality tuning levers, never cheap levers, socket wrenches or other makeshift tools. Make sure you are fully seating the tip on the pin, and only turning the lever perfectly parallel to the sound board, with no wiggling or pressure in other directions.
3) Your lever has a bad tip. Solution: Don't buy cheap levers. Cheap tuning levers often have tips manufactured to substandard tolerances. Some cheap levers are too loose, some are too tight, some happen to get lucky and fit properly. Others are made of low quality metal that deforms with use. To avoid uncertainties, buy a good lever. Good tips will last for decades even for professionals.
Q. I bought a nice lever, but the tip keeps coming unscrewed. What gives?
You need to tighten the tip. There's actually a special tool called a tip wrench that is designed for this. It's available from the same places you find the better levers, and it is not expensive. If your hammer's head unscrews, but the tips do not, then you don't need a tip wrench.
Q. What harm could I do to my piano if I tune it myself?
The three primary risks are: 1) Break a string, 2) Loosen a pin, 3) Damage or bend a pin. Breaking a string is pretty common, and happens professionals, too. Strings are under high tension and made for durability, but sometimes corrosion or long-term metal fatigue or flaws in the string are unavoidable. The way to prevent string breakage is to limit how far you turn the pin. This is where good lever technique is important. For new tuners, the biggest error is being on the wrong string. You crank away wondering why there's no change in the sound when suddenly "ping!" it's over. Similarly, being on the correct string and using careful technique can prevent loosening the pin. The pin is twisted into the wood of the soundboard. The pin hole can wear if overworked or if the pin is wiggled sideways. Bending or damaging a pin is prevented by using a good tool, properly seating the head on the pin, and applying strictly perpendicular to the sound board. For repair options, continue reading this FAQ.
Q. What is a "cent?"
Cent is the unit piano tuners use to measure how close a note is to being in tune. Electronic chromatic tuners use this scale on their displays. One cent is equal to 1/100th of the distance to the frequency of the next note on the chromatic scale (e.g., C to C#). Most people cannot distinguish less that three cents difference between tones.
Q. I told my piano tuner that I tuned it myself. Why did he shake his head?
Professional tuners are very dedicated. Yes, they want your business, but they also want what's best for your piano. They know the risks, and that amateurs can do more harm than good. I outline these risks on my web page. On the other hand, I've had tuners tell me that they are encouraged by owners who want to know more about the instrument, or to explore the disappearing art of tuning. Just be very careful if you attempt piano tuning. And perhaps it's best not to dwell on the subject when the pro comes.
Q. My piano is in tune, but still does not sound like I think it should. What do I do?
Tuning is actually just one part of servicing a piano. Piano technicians and some tuners also regulate (adjust the action of the keys) and voice (service felt and other sound modifications). In old pianos especially the felt on the hammers wears or hardens, giving a metallic sound (recall the tinny pianos played in Westerns.) It's beyond the scope of this site, but you can purchase books on these techniques, as well as supplies and special tools from piano supply sources.
Q. My piano keeps going out of tune no matter what I do. Can I fix that?
A. If only a few of the same notes keep going out of tune, you may have a loose pin or two. A piano technician and some tuners can fix that for you. There are ways to do it yourself, but that's beyond this web site. Incidentally, loosening pins is one of the greatest risks of tuning your own piano. Take great care to move the pin as little as possible. Avoid wiggling or bending the pin. A good tuning lever will help here. If many notes keep going out of tune, then the piano may be responding to swings in the environment. Changes in temperature and humidity will change the tuning. The only solutions are to stabilize the environment, or to tune more frequently. If environmental conditions are stable and pins are solid but many notes fail to hold tune, then the piano may need a "pitch raise;" see the below.
Q. What's the difference between a piano tuner and a piano technician?
A. Tuners tune, and may or may not do other things like repair, regulation or voicing. Piano technicians are trained in repair, regulation and tuning, though some may specialize within these. Many piano technicians advertise simply as tuners, because that is a familiar term. If you know you need services other than tuning, ask your tuner; he may well perform that service. If not, he can refer you.
Q. What should I do about a broken string?
A. Piano strings are replaceable or can be spliced in some cases...or you may be able to "do without." The middle and upper registers are easier, and may be manageable by a do-it-yourselfer. But the big, double-wound strings in the lower octaves can be harder to replace because universal replacements may not match the sound of the original strings; the best replacement may need to be custom-wound. To "do without," on the double-wound bass notes where there are two strings, the broken one can be removed and the remaining one becomes the sole string. The missing string may cause uneven wear on the felts or action, requiring more repairs later. For treble notes, there may appear to be two or three strings, but are actually one string doubled around a peg; the "do without" method won't work. This is beyond the scope of this website, though; our Further Study section suggests websites and books for piano repair.
Q. What can I do about a loose or bent pin?
A. Call a piano technician. Some loose pins can be repaired with the original pin kept. Other loose or bent pins can be removed and replaced. This costs money. If there are many loose or damaged pins, the cost of repair can exceed the value of the piano.
Q. How often should a piano be tuned?
A. For homeowners, professionals recommend tuning at least once per year at absolute minimum, but preferably twice. Best times are after seasonal changes because seasonal humidity changes tuning; tune a few weeks into the winter heating season, a few weeks into the summer season. A new piano may need to be tuned four times in the first year until it stabilizes. A neglected piano tuned for the first time in years may need several tunings days or weeks apart until the tuning stabilizes (see "pitch raise.") Any time a piano is moved it should be tuned, but preferable after it has had a few days change to acclimatize to the humidity conditions of its new home.
Q. The tuner said my old piano needs a pitch raise. What is that?
A. A pitch raise is performed on a piano that has been left untuned for years. Basically, so many notes are flat that the piano will not hold tune unless treated a special way. (Details: too many flat or loose strings change the tension on the wooden soundboard; if this is not addressed, the soundboard will physically change shape, interfering with its ability to hold to the standard pitch of A440.) To raise pitch, the tuner makes one comprehensive pass, perhaps in a specific pattern or using values calculated by a specialized electronic tuning device designed for piano, to get all the notes roughly tuned. Then he leaves it to settle for a few days or a few weeks. He returns either to perform another rough tune, or if things are good, a final fine tuning. It's part art, part science; different tuners do this different ways with different pianos.
Q. The tuner refused to tune my piano. Now what?
A. Some pianos have been so neglected that a tuner may think they'll never hold tune, and in some cases this can be true. The repairs required may exceed the value of the piano or the cost of a replacement. If a tuner says it's not worth tuning, try another tuner for a second opinion. If no tuner will tune, then contact a piano restorer to see if there's any value in the piano at all. Of course, you can try to tune it yourself!
Q. How does one become a professional tuner or technician?
Traditionally, new tuners or technicians apprentice under a veteran to gain experience. Alternatively, a few schools offer courses, and correspondence courses are also available. The Piano Technicians Guild offers professional certification for those who pass the RPT exam; those who pass may use the Registered Piano Technician or "RPT" credential. For more information on becoming a professional tuner, visit the Piano Technicians Guild website.