Simple fixes to put off paying the piano tuner

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I live in the Atlanta area, but I have a significant problem in that I am a bit far from downtown. That makes it hard for me to get piano tuners on call, or at least the piano tuners I want. I can get them to come out to do regular tunings but if a string breaks or a few notes go out of tune, it is hard for me to get fast service because I am not on their normal routes. They are moving between the downtown churches, universities, and studios and while they can drop by those places almost daily, they can’t easily do a 2-hour round trip just to fix a small issue for me.

You might ask why I don’t just use a more local tuner to do the emergency stuff but I have learned that just letting anyone touch my piano sometimes creates more problems. Their fixes don’t last and the work has to be redone later. In fact, it is remarkable that one tuner can tune a piano in such a way that it lasts a few months while another tuner’s work will only last a week.

This problem is easily the biggest problem that I face with running a studio in my house. I am currently on an unlucky streak where strings are breaking in the treble and if you know much about breaking strings, you know that the fix is not immediate. You put a new string on but it doesn’t stay in tune long. It has to stretch and adjust. Ideally, a piano technician comes to the studio every few days to deal with that string until it is fixed. For me, that is sort of impossible.

My solution is to do some fixes myself; and I will tell you a few of them today because you can do them, too. It might help you out of a jam, and it just might save you money because you might be able to put off calling the piano tuner for a while.

The most basic fix that is also entirely safe is to mute off bad strings. Let me give you a bit of background first. In the treble where most problems occur and are most noticeable, a hammer strikes three strings for each note. By far, the majority of tuning problems occur when one of those three strings get out of tune with the other two. Here is the thing: if you simply identify the string that is out of tune and mute it, no one will know. The sound from the remaining two strings will sound almost identical to the sound from three strings.

To figure out how which string is causing the problem, you have to identify the three strings being struck by the hammer (this is easy on a grand but will require you taking the front panel off of an upright). Then, press against each of those strings with your finger while playing the note with your other hand. When the note sounds better, you know which string needs to be muted. You can mute that note with an expensive mute you might buy on Amazon or you can just shove a bit of paper towel into the space between that string and the string beside it. Of course, that means you are really muting two strings and may affect an adjacent note so you might want to experiment whether to use your mute in the space on the left or right of the offending string.

If you are more adventurous, you can actually tune the offending string. This is more risky but it is not horribly difficult. Buy a simple tuning hammer, and give it a try. Here is what I do:

  • Identify the string that is out of tune.
  • Mute off ONE of the other two strings for that note so that when you play the note, you hear one good string and one bad string.
  • Put the tuning hammer on the pin for the bad string and twist it to get the strings matching. Be careful not to twist too much or you will have a broken string.

How do you know when two strings are in tune? That is the magic question. Piano tuners refer to “beats” and “pureness” and while it might take a bit of time to hear the beats (conflict in sound waves) between two strings not tuned together, it is definitely learnable. String players have to learn to do that; so you can, too.

I would never recommend that you try to tune an entire octave and do other things that piano tuners do. However, tuning “unisons” (making all strings on a note sound the same) is very doable and can be done in five minutes. If that is the only problem with the piano, paying a piano tuner $100 is sort of a waste of money.

There is another thing that I do as well that is usually quite easy. Pianos tend to develop vibrations here and there and you end up with sounds that you don’t want. Sometimes it is a buzzing for example. Very typically, you might only hear those extra sounds on certain notes.

It is easy to make the mistake of believing that that that kind of sound is a problem in a note’s action/strings but most of the time it is not. What is actually happening is that the sound frequency of that note is creating a problem somewhere else in the piano or in the room. For example, on my piano, certain frequencies seem to create problems in the hinge that connects the two sections of the top cover. There are some screws that get sort of loose in that long hinge and they vibrate on some notes.

When you hear this kind of thing, don’t be scared. Just get out some simple tools and try to fix it. Play the note repeatedly and try to isolate where the sound is coming from both by moving your ear around and pressing on different places of the piano. For example, on a piano hinge, I press on the screws in different places while playing the note until I don’t hear the buzzing any more. Normally, the easy fix is to tighten those screws. Or perhaps, get more creative: in the case of my hinge, I use a few dish cloths between the two sections that ends up putting a bit of pressure on the screws so that they don’t rattle any more.

Sometimes, you can fix problems in another part of the piano by muting strings if a particular string is vibrating at a frequency that creates an issue. You will find that muting strings solves a lot of problems. I have a lot of strings on my piano muted to some extent. In many cases, they are not fully muted but I use a small piece of felt to sort of take the edge off them.

Let’s face it: your piano tuner may not like you doing these kinds of things and may give you lots of dire warnings. You will just have to decide where you want to start treating your piano a little on your own. Playing piano doctor may not be ideal but it just might be necessary and might save you some money. I think in moderation it is worth it.