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Why Does A Piano Go Out of Tune?

Sensitiveness to Atmospheric Changes
Continual Variations
The Truth About Standing in Tune
The Neglected Piano

The following short statement was prepared by William Braid White, Mus. D. for his book, Piano Tuning and Allied Arts, a number of years ago. It was later adopted by Steinway and Sons, of New York, at Steinway Hall, and for the use of Steinway dealers. It is reproduced with the permission of Steinway & Sons, and because the facts presented are likely to be very useful to professional tuners, who so often have to make clear to owners of pianos the ins and outs of a question easily understood by technical men, but very mysterious to the laity.

In order to understand why a piano goes out of tune, it is first necessary to remember that the whole instrument is always under a varying stress. The two hundred and thirty odd strings are stretched at average tensions of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds apiece; so that the iron plate, together with the heavy wooden framing carries a strain totaling from eighteen to twenty tons.
Now, this stress is not constant, for the reason that the steel wire is highly elastic. The soundboard is merely a thin sheet of spruce wood averaging three-eights of an inch in thickness. If it be properly constructed, the whole board becomes something like a highly elastic spring. The more elastic it is, the freer and more agreeable will be the tone emanating from the piano.
Sensitiveness to Atmospheric Changes
Unfortunately this very construction is extremely sensitive to all changes of temperature and barometric pressure. Thus, in summer time, throughout the greater part of the country, there is much moisture in the air most of the time, and rain is frequent. Wood, under these conditions, swells up, nor will any kind of coating protect a wooden soundboard from these influences. On the contrary, when the heat is on during the colder months, the air in the rooms becomes much drier, owing to the evaporation of moisture, and failure to keep on hand open vessels of water, flowering plants or other moisture retainers or humidifiers. Consequently the moisture in the soundboard rapidly passes off, the board shrinks, the strings slacken down, and the pitch drops. (top)
Continual Variations
Now it is perfectly evident that even where conditions are not extreme, and even in climates which have only a comparatively short range, this process is continually going on.
Every change of a degree in temperature, or of one-tenth of an inch in a barometer, has its effect. The soundboard of the piano, then, is always slowly rising and falling though short distances, and constantly, therefore, suffering variations in its ability to hold the strings up to proper pitch.
On the other hand, if the piano be neglected, and unless it be tuned at least once every change in season, say four times a year, during spring, summer, autumn and winter, it will not stand in tune. (top)
The Truth About Standing in Tune
From the layman's standpoint, four tunings a year should be sufficient. The tuner knows however, that if he had time to tune his own piano as often as his ears tell him, he would tune it once a month at least.
From a strictly scientific point of view, it is probably true to say that no piano ever made has stood in tune, without a drop or a rise, for more than twenty-four hours, unless it were maintained at constant temperature and under constant barometric and hygroscopic conditions in a laboratory. (top)
The Neglected Piano
So much then for the frequency and need of tune. If a piano is neglected, if it be allowed to go through from one season to another, say, from spring to winter, without tuning, it will probably at the end of that time be considerably lower in pitch than it was originally. It will have gone through a rise, followed by a fall, and the fall will be greater than the first rise.
No matter what any salesman may say, no matter how finely the piano may be made, no matter, in fact, what the physical circumstances or the price, or the domestic conditions may be, there is no such thing as a piano standing month after month in tune. The better the piano, the more frequent and careful tuning it should have.
A fine piano is a work of art. Therefore to treat it roughly, carelessly or negligently is to commit a crime against a beautiful piece of expensive craftsmanship. To pay a lot of money for a fine piano and then allow it to go to ruin for lack of expert care is not merely aesthetically wrong – it is bad business.

Note from Phillip Williams:

As you can see from reading the above statement, proper tuning intervals are very important. In my opinion, and in our particular area of the country, I feel that if you play your piano at all, you should tune it twice a year. If you choose to set your piano in the corner and only look at it, you should tune it at least once a year. Many people think that since they are not using the piano, you can avoid tuning it and nothing will be for the worse. That is not true. If a piano stands untuned for too long a period, the entire structure of the piano, including the soundboard and bridges, can change. Regular tuning of the instrument can eliminate this possibility.

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PIANORESTORER@TIGERBYTE.COM

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