Fine Tuning


I have completed my 30th year of tuning and general piano service and during all of that time it has been my aim to improve the quality of my work in any way possible. I believe most tuners have this same aim.
I have been successful and my work has been acceptable to my customers all along, but I have come to realise during the last five years that there are many things to be learned about fine tuning. And many of them are not taught to the students who study the theory and practice of tuning.
This is not to say the theory of tuning, as taught in the best schools, is faulty. On the contrary, it is a theory which has developed into an exact science.
It has been correctly described as a closed mathematical system which, if followed faithfully, will result in tuning all intervals, correctly tempered, and all octaves tuned as “dead” or perfect octave intervals. But even this result, if it could be achieved, would not necessarily be entirely pleasing to the critical musician.
There are several reasons why this is true and every tuner should know all he can about them, and about how he can best overcome the difficulties they present.
First: -All tuning, except unison tuning, is done indirectly; that is, in tuning any interval, octave included, we are comparing coincident harmonics of the two tones being sounded.
Second: – The harmonics of a piano string, which is under high tension, are not exact multiples, in frequency, of the frequency at which the entire length of the string vibrates.
Third: – To tones which are either very high or very low in frequency, the human ear does not assign pitches which are directly proportional to their frequencies when compared with tones in the middle frequency range. In other words, our sense of pitch is a subjective discernment for each individual, and it may be considerably different from true pitch theoretically determined by the correct frequency for that pitch.
Fourth:- I doubt it’s possible to set an absolutely perfect equal temperament, probably because the harmonics on which we depend are not true harmonics of the fundamentals from which they arise. This should not, however, prevent any of us from setting Bach temperament as perfectly as possible and, on a good piano, it is possible to set a very good temperament indeed.
Fifth: – I also doubt it’s possible to tune a perfect octave without resorting to tests other than our evaluation of a “dead” or beatless interval. A number of years ago, a technical editor for a piano trade magazine warned all tuners “never trust an octave.” My experience has borne out the value of his warning. In fact, I have found that there is a considerable range of frequency over which an octave is acceptable to my ears, but the same octave will often be found to be less than perfect when one of its members is made a part of some other interval which is known to be correctly tuned.
We must recognize that perfection in tuning is not possible, but we should always strive for it. And as nearly perfect an equal temperament as we can set is a must, for it determines the harmonic pattern upon which all of the rest of the tuning depends. The quality of the piano is a limiting factor, as is our skill, but in the matter of skill it is our responsibility to do all we can to improve it constantly.
We recognize also that we are dependent upon coincident harmonics for practically every step in tuning. And also, that coincident harmonics may create some of our worst problems when they result in dissonant intervals. Therefore, they become the basis for some of our most useful tests, especially when they are coupled with some knowledge of chord structure. With this background of recognition of the possibilities and the problems we face I would offer these suggestions for achieving what we term “fine tuning.”
First: – Become familiar with the piano keyboard so that you may test any combination of tones likely to be used in piano music. Those who play the piano may not know how careful the tuner may have been with his temperament or how much attention he has given to tuning perfect octaves, but they will be quick to notice any interval which is dissonant to the degree that it offends the ear. So, we must know what degree of dissonance is correct in the equally tempered scale, for it is, after all, a compromise whose greatest advantage is that all scales in all keys are equally acceptable, though none may be said to be perfect.
Intervals used in polyphonic music include seconds, major and minor thirds, fourths, fifths, major and minor sixths, minor sevenths, octaves, ninths, tenths, twelfths, and so on. And most of these intervals, as well as others, have their uses as tests of accurate tuning.
Second: – Do not expect to leave a piano accurately tuned with a once-over tuning if any considerable pitch change is to be made, because the change in down bearing on the bridges during tuning will defeat your best efforts to achieve accuracy.

With a reasonably acceptable scale at the proper pitch, I strip mute the middle and treble sections of the piano. On uprights, above the treble break, the loops in the muting felt must be pushed down behind or preferably below the dampers, but this is not too difficult.
Then I set as perfect a temperament as possible, realizing that not only are fourths and fifths important intervals, but that major and minor thirds and sixths, while more dissonant, must also be acceptable intervals within the temperament octave. Also that fourths, fifths, thirds and sixths, both major and minor, have their proper beat rates and that these rates increase in frequency as we ascend the scale. This is true, of course, throughout the entire piano scale. The progression of .beat rates and its evenness is one of our best tests of the equal temperament we try to achieve.
Third: – When I am satisfied with my temperament, and sometimes I must be satisfied with a compromise on spinets and small grands, I proceed with the bass tuning. My reason for doing this is, that…
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