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Piano Tuning Series: What Makes A Piano Go Out Of Tune?

As with many things related to pianos there are a few answers. We have tried to compile the answers to the most common reasons.

One thing that people seem to forget when thinking and talking about pianos, is that:

A piano is alive and breathing

And yes, we do mean that quite literally (well, nearly). Unlike many modern items today pianos are historically and still made out of natural materials. This includes:

  • Wood: Commonly spruce for soundboards and hardwood laminates for wrest planks which hold the pins.

  • Cast iron: A mixed compound of metals to add acoustic and structural integrity for the frame.

  • Steel: Used for the majority of the strings in a piano.

  • Copper: Used to cover steel strings in the bass section and commonly referred to as "copper wound".

  • Felt: Natural felt is used throughout the piano as cushioning for different parts.

All of these natural materials respond to the environment in which they are placed and make a big difference in What Makes Your Piano Go Out Of Tune.

The materials expand and contract due to different environmental factors which you might not even notice yourself. When these are tempered and kept fairly stable this has a limited affect on your piano meaning that it will need tuning within a standard 6-12 month schedule. When these factors are not maintained properly they can seriously alter the tuning of your piano. Environmental factors to consider include:

  • Humidity: The wood in particular in a piano can feel the humidity of the environment even though it will have been well seasoned before turning in to a piano. Too wet and the wood will over expand causing the tuning to drop in pitch and the pins to become sluggish and loose. Too dry and the wood will contract and start to crack possibly raising the pitch of the tuning, causing structural damage and making the pins at risk of jerking when being tuned. Humidity which changes from one to the other is at risk of causing serious structural damage to your piano leading to costly repairs and your instrument sounding terrible no matter how well your piano tuner tries.

  • Heating: Having an environment which is too hot or too cold will have very similar effects to having the incorrect humidity. Usually modern pianos where the wood is unlikely to have been seasoned in the same way or for the same amount of time, are prone to feeling this more than older more robust pianos. With central heating becoming common place during the 1970's and 80's and the general environment of family houses becoming less changeable, problems in this area have become more limited. During the cost of living crisis make sure to leave your central heating on enough that your piano is not experiencing wide temperature changes, and don't put your piano against a radiator!

  • Drafts: Just one more way that a piano can experience significant changes in it's environment is through drafts. Simple methods to reduce this are not to place pianos underneath windows, to shut doors and curtains when it gets cooler, and to use draft excluders where you feel necessary.

Environmental factors are not the only factors that affect What Makes A Piano Go Out Of Tune. As discussed above a piano is a living thing. With the strings being made of steel and copper there is a certain amount of natural string stretch and tension placed on the string. Over time in combination with environmental factors this will move slightly.

The average string for a grand piano has 160 pounds of tension; can you imagine staying perfectly still with that much tension applied to you 24/7?

As discussed in a previous post What Makes A Piano Go Out Of Tune can be linked to irregular tunings. Every time you miss a piano tuning it is harder for the piano to go back in to tune and stabilise. Just like an elastic band that has been stretched, once a piano has settled it likes to stay where it is and so acclimatising it back to the correct string tension takes time and patience.

Lastly, a piano which is used a a practice piano usually goes of out tune faster. Hard playing effectively knocks a piano out of tune faster as the strings are subjected to more forceful impact. Although a piano tuner will know how to 'set the pin' properly on your piano, thus making it less susceptible to changes in tuning, continual hard playing will eventually change the tuning on even the most stable piano. This might not be noticeable to your ears but over time will compound and become more noticeable.

We hope that this blog on What Makes A Piano Go Out Of Tune has helped your understanding of the most common factors. Below are some reference links if you would like to do more reading on some of the elements and facts we have proposed.

Radiator What Makes A Piano Go Out Of Tune

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