Cents and Sensibility

I have been in some truly magnificent homes during the last 30 years of tuning pianos up and down the coast of California from Malibu to Palos Verdes, and have had the pleasure of working on some of the most expensive pianos ever built.  The owners, some of whom are world famous celebrities and others, wealthy beyond most peoples wildest dreams, that you never heard of, are often and unfortunately quite negligent in regards to the care of their pianos. I’m talking about instruments that they payed upward of $100K for.

It has always puzzled me as to why someone would neglect such a valuable treasure.  But I see it over and over again.  These wonderful instruments sit idle and unattended for years – are never played and never serviced.  Is it that they were acquired as decorative room-art, or status symbols?  They never say.

When they decide, for whatever arbitrary reason, to call for a tuning the pianos are invariably in disastrous condition and require intensive care to return them to playability.

Let me pause to offer a brief explanation of how we determine the pitch of an instrument:

  • We start with the world-wide standard for concert pitch – where the A above middle C on a piano (A4) is supposed to be 440 Hz (cycles per second).
  • The frequency difference between notes (ie. the fundamental pitches) is measured in cents (like pennies).
  • The distance between any two adjacent notes is supposed to be 100 cents ($1.00).

Now let me explain what happens to an acoustic stringed instrument (assuming that is made of wood and metal) over time. Don’t abandon me just yet – I’m setting up the punch line.

  • Wood and metal expand and contract whenever the temperature or humidity change (all the time)
  • Therefore the interface between the soundboard (wood) and the strings (metal wire) is in constant flux.
  • This causes the tension on the strings to change and therefore alter the pitch (frequency) they produce when struck.
  • So, the instrument (in my case a piano – but this applies to all acoustic instruments) is always going out of tune (unless it’s kept in an hermetically sealed environment)
  • In Southern California we really have only 2 seasons but they have extremely divergent humidity levels that have a profound effect on unprotected pianos.
  • In the winter – the low Relative Humidity (R.H.) causes the soundboard to expel moisture and the piano goes flat.
  • In the summer – the high R.H. causes the soundboard to expand as it absorbs moisture from the air so the strings are stretched and hence go sharp.

When I explain this to my customers I often see their eyes glaze over (as yours may have) but if you’ll stay with me, I could save you a lot of money, heartache and disappointment.

So – back to the rich people!

Over the past month I’ve encountered over a dozen exquisite pianos, housed in sprawling estates, that hadn’t been tuned in 10 or more years and most of them were more than 100 cents flat!  Each one of them a disaster of enormous proportion that required extensive (and costly) therapy to rehabilitate.

The first question I ask is “What motivated you to tune the piano now, after all these years?”

Common responses are:

  • We’re having a party and have hired a famous musician to play for us
  • A relative, who is a concert pianist, is coming to visit
  • Our child wants to take piano lessons
  • Our child’s piano teacher refused to come back until we fixed it

This situation is so common as to have become cliche.  People with the most expensive pianos, who have no monetary constraints, are the most likely to neglect their instruments.  I, personally, don’t understand the psychology behind that attitude – but I’m not rich.  I suspect that in most of those cases the piano was purchased on the advice of a decorator or for the fulfillment of a need for personal glorification.

Whatever the justification, I find the indignity to the instrument an obscenity.  Confronting a situation like this is always painful and disturbing to me.  But it happens all the time!

I send reminder notices to my customers every 6 months.  The recipients of the 90% that go unanswered are most often the ones who need my service the most and have no excuse except:

“Well, no one was playing it”.


Cents and Sensibility — 7 Comments

  1. Listen to your piano, it wants you to play it!
    Listen to your piano, it’s longing for your tender touch.
    Love your piano, if its whining it wants the Master Tuner.

    What was that? Was it a bird? Was it a plane?
    No!….it’s Super-Tuner!

  2. Yes Jon…my eyes did glaze over during the the “glazing section”…but then you know I have zero musical knowledge. Fortunately you got back to the “rich people” section and I was enthralled. You know I kid…was a good read. I know you are passionate about your work, as you should be.

  3. So, should we be tuning our piano every six months in Napa? We pretty much have 2 seasons too. But what if you have a bad summer storm in the dry season? Would like require a touch up? Does it get more out of tune when you don’t play it for awhile? My piano is over 100 years old. it sounds beautiful to me. Sorry, your wonderful stories opened a can of piano worms for me.

    • If you look deeper into the text of my site you’ll find your answers there.
      Basically, it all comes down to how much you can tolerate.

      Six months is considered minimal (because of the seasonal extremes) to keep a piano at pitch.
      Pianos are constantly going out of tune (from the moment the tuner walks out the door).

      Take a look at the link to [Frequently Asked Questions] and the in-depth explanations provided in the [Five Lectures] site referenced in the above comment.

      If you have any questions after looking at that material – you know where to find me.

  4. GM Jon,
    Just a thought that occurred to me:
    When you are talking about how pianos go flat in winter and sharp in summer, I was thinking “why bother tuning at all? If it goes one way in cool weather and the other in warm weather, won’t it just wind up adjusting itself from season to season?” And I bet other people are thinking the same thing because we can’t hear the pitch like you do if it all goes flat or sharp in proportion. Does that make any sense?

    • Mischka,

      That’s a really good question and deserves a good explanation.

      The answer lies in the physical construction of the piano itself; The soundboard is held rigidly in place at it’s outer edges by the frame and more or less unrestrained elsewhere so that it can vibrate freely. The closer you get to its center, the largest part of the board, the more flexible it is and the more distorted it becomes as it absorbs or expels moisture from season to season (and it doesn’t matter what region you live in). Therefore, it cannot go out of tune proportionally across the length of the scale. (You can learn more about it by reading through the FAQ sheets on my [Links] tab). Also, the Wikipedia definition of Relative Humidity is quite thorough if you want to learn more about that.
      Although the extreme high and low notes may stay close to pitch, the inner octaves can fluctuate +/- 20 cents from one season to another – making the piano out of tune with itself. When it shifts from one state to the other the change in the middle section deflects the bridge causing the high & low sections to change as well (often in the opposite direction).
      Also consider that the wire strings are of different lengths & diameters and therefore expand and contract at different rates. This effects how much each string will go out of tune. Basically, at a micro (string) level, the process is completely random and unpredictable.
      And don’t forget about good old Entropy! My job, as a tuner, is to bring order from chaos.

      Does THAT make sense?

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