Frequently Asked Questions:
- BUYING A USED PIANO?
- ELECTRONIC TUNING DEVICES
- HOW OFTEN SHOULD I TUNE MY PIANO?
- DO I REALLY NEED TO HAVE THE PIANO AT STANDARD PITCH?
BUYING A USED PIANO?
The short answer: Figure on spending $2000 to $3500 for a used Yamaha or Kawai console. In this area these are abundant and generally date from the mid-seventies. There are plenty of sources on Craigslist.
The long answer:
The first decision you have to make is, do I want a grand or an upright? If you have the space for a grand piano and would like to indulge yourself in a good quality instrument, there are a great many good choices out there. This information is aimed more at the novice buyer with a limited budget.
I would always recommend that you have a piano technician check over any used piano before you buy it. He can give you advice about what problems or deficiencies the piano may have, what problems you may face with it in the future, and what a fair market price for it would be. However, before you hire a technician to look at it, you’ll need to see it yourself first, if only because it’s a big piece of furniture that most likely will end up in your living room.
As a rule of thumb, buy the most expensive piano you feel you can afford. Buying a cheap instrument is usually being penny-wise, pound-foolish. Used instruments tend to be quite reasonable and readily available. People buy them with the best of intentions and then end up not using them: they’re heavy and not easily moved, so when the time comes to relocate and lighten the load, they are first thing jettisoned. If it turns out that things don’t work out for you with the piano, you’ll find the instrument much easier to sell if it is a quality instrument, and you will be able to recoup all or most of your investment. On the other hand, if you or your kids take to the piano, it’s something you could have in the family for a very long time. Any pianist will tell you it is so much more enjoyable to play a good instrument, and any novice will tell you how frustrating it is to try to learn on an instrument that has a balky touch and an ugly tone. You will be spending many hours at the keyboard, so buy a good one to begin with and not only will it hold its value better, but making music on it will be a comfort, not a chore.
Vertical pianos come in four sizes. From shortest to tallest these are: spinets, consoles, studios and uprights.
I would recommend against buying a spinet . They were quite the vogue in the fifties and sixties when they were produced in large quantities as starter instruments, but they do have disadvantages. They tend to be the cheapest products; they have the worst tone (because of the short string length) and they are more costly to repair because of the difficulty of extracting the action. There is one exception to this rule which is the Baldwin Acrosonic. These pianos, especially the older models, were an exceptionally good sounding spinet.
I wouldn’t rule out an old upright just because of its age. (In pianos, “old” generally implies, pre 1940. Console Pianos don’t wear out that fast, and besides, its not easy for me to consider anything younger than I am as “old.”) The quality of piano building was quite high in the decades between 1890 and 1929 before the Great Depression drove all the smaller makers out of business. An old upright from the turn of the century, if you don’t mind the look, may prove to be a quite acceptable instrument. Don’t be too concerned about the brand name. There were literally hundreds of smaller piano makers in those days and the general quality of workmanship was quite high. Whether the piano is still in good condition will have more to do with how it was treated through the years than whether it was at the top of the pecking order when new.
Unlike electronic keyboards, pianos have never been built to be disposable. These old pianos were built to last, and whatever goes wrong with them, it can be repaired. However, practically speaking some repairs may not justify the expense. If an upright has any failings, it will generally be in the touch. There are many felts in a piano action and as it ages they get compacted and worn. Some of resultant slop can be adjusted, but short of the replacing the parts and keybed felt, you won’t get the feel of a newer piano.
There are two enemies of old pianos: too much moisture or too little. (In some climates—the Midwest, say–you can have both in the course of a year.) If it’s too wet, the wood will hold up well, but the metal parts will rust. If it’s too dry, on the other hand, the metal’s going to keep looking shiny and new, but the wood may crack and split.
There are a lot of metal parts in a piano: music wire, springs, various pins, screws, etc. Under humid conditions, these are all subject to corrosion. The music wire in particular, since it is under considerable tension, will suffer the worst. The treble strings will break and the bass strings will start sounding dull. Lift the lid and look inside. Things don’t necessarily have to be shiny and new, but if the strings look brown, or if you see some treble strings are noticeably shinier—meaning they’ve been replaced—you don’t want the instrument. Rubbing your fingers on the strings is a better test of corrosion than the eye. The worse the rust, the rougher the surface of the string will feel, sort of like a higher grit of sandpaper.
Wood parts suffer front excessive dryness which can manifest itself in all sorts of ways: cracks in the soundboard or ribs which have separated, cracks along the bridges where the bridge pins are inserted, warped keyframes, loose screws, etc. You may not be able to easily see this kind of damage, but you can sometimes hear it. If there is a crack in the soundboard or a loose rib you will hear a woody buzz or rattle when you play certain notes.
A console will probably offer you the best choice in a used piano. Fifties and Sixties era instruments will likely be American. Their quality runs the gamut from poor to excellent. Here, the brand name does make a difference. If you are looking at something of more recent vintage—mid 70s and younger—it’ll be an import. In the seventies most American piano companies, squeezed by the appearance of cheap electronic keyboards and corporate downsizing, either went out of business or moved production overseas. What American names that did survive in the business were henceforth usually made abroad.
There is a definite pecking order to these imports. The Japanese are the best: Yamahas and Kawais. The Koreans are second tier and the Chinese at the bottom. Yamaha and Kawai are proud to put their name on the fallboard. For the rest, it is often not easy to tell. The Korean companies produced many pianos under their own names, but also have purchased many old American names such as Weber, which have little resemblance to the originals. They also made “store names” such as Schaefer and Sons, Kohler and Campbell, Story and Clark. The Chinese are more apt to slap some German sounding name on the piano and hope you are fooled.
More recently we are starting to see a variety of imports from Eastern Europe. Of these, the Estonian and Czech pianos are best and some of them are very good, with a nice rounded bell-like treble. Others lack some finishing touches and in general their consistency is not as dependable as the Japanese. Nothing’s quite so good as a really good “handmade” piano. . .nor is anything quite so bad.
ELECTRONIC TUNING DEVICES
When I first started tuning in the early Seventies, I tuned strictly by ear, setting the initial A with a tuning fork. There were some rather unsophisticated ETDs on the market. At the most basic level, this was nothing more than a device to measure the frequency of each note on the piano. A tuner would then have to follow a chart to calculate the “stretch” of the piano. It was strictly painting by the numbers and most competent tuners would not have found the result to be acceptable.
Let me digress for a moment and explain a little bit about the process. The first thing a tuner does when tuning a piano by ear is to set one note to the proper pitch using a tuning fork as a reference. Typically, this would be 440 cycles per second for the A above middle C: A440. The next step is to set a “temperament” which establishes the relationship of all the notes within an octave. This is done by comparing the beat rates of different intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, etc. After the temperament is set, the rest of the notes are tuned by octaves up and down.
All pianos do not tune up the same. In a mathematically perfect world (such as the one inhabited by electronic keyboards), the frequency of each octave will double. The octave above A440 will be A880, and the octave above that A1720. In the real world, the stiffness and variable thickness of the piano wire causes these frequencies to alter and to achieve a beatless octave pleasing the ear, the piano needs to be stretched progressively sharp as you go up and progressively flatter as you descend from the temperament octave. This inharmonicity is greater in smaller pianos which have shorter strings. Hence,every piano tunes a little differently depending on the scale—the length and gauge of wire used for each note.
These early tuning devices had no ability to calculate the inharmonicity of different pianos, so their use was limited. However, modern versions which incorporate such improvements as frequency filters and sophisticated computers in essence emulate the way an aural tuner would calculate his tuning. Now, after measuring the inharmonicity of the scale at a few points on the piano, an ETD can calculate the temperament and stretch within seconds.
Does this mean an ETD has no drawbacks? Of course not. At the end of the day, an ETD is just another tool in our kit. The ear must be the final arbiter, and aural checks are still necessary. For instance, an ETD does not take into account the point at which the transition from plain wire strings to wrapped strings occurs.
The relative merits of strictly aural versus ETD-assisted tuning have been debated for many years in the tuning community, and “tune offs” between proponents of both approaches have, at past PTG Conventions, proven that competent tuners can come up with virtually identical tunings using either approach. However, most tuners, including myself, have long since switched to ETDs. From our point of view, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.
What are the advantages?
1. Efficiency. Setting a temperament by trial and error by comparing the beat rates of various intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, etc.—usually takes about 15 to 20 minutes. The ETD makes these calculations virtually instantaneously, though of course you still have to tune the notes and verify the results. You’re paying us for our time: if we save time, you save money.
2. Consistency. In noisy environments, an ETD listens for the frequency it is set to, filtering out the extraneous input. If this is the first or the fourth piano we’ve tuned that day, it will still read the same.
3. Stability. Most important of all–and this is the real clincher–is the fact that when you’re tuning by ear, you’re always referring to the note you tuned before. Unfortunately pianos do drift, especially when you are adding or subtracting any significant amount of tension, which you are, almost by definition. It is easy for a cumulative error to build up. An ETD offers a fixed point of reference. If a note is drifting, it’s immediately apparent. A lot of what goes into a solid piano tuning has to do with setting the tuning pin properly. There’s little benefit in tuning a piano only to have it drift out of tune immediately, and an ETD offers the best check on this.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD I TUNE MY PIANO?
The short answer:
If you play it less than 5 hours a week, tune it once a year.
If you play it more than a 5 hours a week, tune it twice a year.
The long answer:
There are two ways in which pianos go out of tune: the pitch drifts over the time, and the unisons get out of sync.
First we’ll talk about the unisons.
When you play one note of a piano, you are actually hitting two or three strings. These strings are tuned together to the same frequency. This is a unison. If all strings are at the same frequency, it will sound as if you are striking one string. However, if one string is sounding at 440 cycles a second and its mate is at 441, you will hear a wave form of one cycle per second. Unisons go out of tune mostly due to usage: a little very hard playing, or the cumulative effect of many hours of moderate playing.
The subject of pitch is a little more complicated.
Let’s look at the basic structure of the piano. There is a substantial wooden frame. To this is glued a large thin piece of wood called the soundboard. On top of that goes a heavy cast iron plate. Then you have about 230 strings all stretched very tight. Each string has on average 150 lbs. of pull on it, and the cumulative tension is around 20 tons for the typical piano. Much of the load is held by the plate. Cast iron is used because it is very rigid. The strings press down on a bridge which is glued to the soundboard, thus transferring some of their tension to the soundboard. Strings carry a lot of energy, but they can’t move much air on their own, so by transferring some of this energy to the soundboard, which has large surface area, you can move a lot of air. In essence the soundboard is the amplifier of the piano.
Although the soundboard looks flat to the eye, it actually has a crown on it, a very gentle arc which helps to support the pressure of the strings. Large pieces of wood are inherently unstable. When it is damp, wood will absorb moisture from the air into its cellular structure and swell up. It wants to expand along the grain of the wood, but in a piano the sides of the case constrain it, so the soundboard bows up in the middle, stretching the strings tighter, and making the pitch go higher. Conversely, when the weather is dry, the crown of the soundboard shrinks somewhat and the strings go flat. These changes are by and large seasonal in nature.
In California, we have two seasons. Throughout the spring and summer, when the weather is warm, the humidity stays in the higher ranges. In the fall and winter months, it’s dry—even if it’s raining outside. Remember, warm air can hold much more water vapor than cold air. Hence you can have high relative humidity in the winter months when we get rainy weather for instance, but if the air is cold, it will actually hold much less water vapor than a lower relative humidity at warmer temperatures. And these changes in the weather are exacerbated when you turn on the central heating, which tends to remove even more moisture from the air.
As the soundboard flexes with these changes, the pitch of the strings drifts accordingly, but not uniformly. Whole sections of the keyboard, rather than individual notes, are affected. The bass strings, which are mounted on a separate bridge which is closer to the edge of the soundboard, will not move as much. The strings in the low to mid tenor where the treble bridge crosses the center of the soundboard will drift the most. You can hear this by playing a two or three octave span which bridges the transition from bass to tenor. Individual notes may still sound solid, because the strings which make up one note have been affected uniformly by the motion of the soundboard, but the octaves will no longer sound good.
Most people would like to believe that if they haven’t played the piano, it hasn’t gone out of tune. While I am sure that a few sit-ups are going to get rid of that spare tire around your middle, the next lottery ticket you buy will pay off big time, and that all your grandchildren will all be named after you, in the case of pianos, this is just wistful thinking. However, it’s easy to be fooled because, without much playing, the unisons may still be in fairly good condition. The factors that cause the pitch to wander, however, never take a break.
This is especially the case in newer pianos where the music wire is actually stretching out. It takes four or five years, or a half dozen tunings, before this “cold creep” stops pulling the piano flat. However, even after the piano has stabilized, it will have a tendency to lose pitch over time. It will lose 2 or 3 cents of a note in pitch in a typical year. In a dry year, it may lose three times that much.
Tuning the piano regularly—especially when it is newer—helps to stabilize the pitch. Even a well seasoned piano should be tuned yearly. If you wait until the piano sounds out of tune to you, you’ve waited too long. First of all, because you’ve probably let it drift too flat, and secondly because if it sounds out of tune to you, chances are it sounds really out of tune to me.
Once a piano is more than a few cents flat, pulling all the strings up to their proper pitch will result in adding a considerable amount of extra tension to the piano. This extra tension depresses the soundboard, and as it gives way, the piano drifts flat again—two steps forward, one step back. Therefore, getting back to standard pitch often requires tuning all the notes twice. This is what we call a pitch raise.
The more you move the pitch of a piano, the more it reacts to the move. It’s a vicious cycle. The solution is to catch it before it needs a major adjustment. Pianos that are tuned regularly, especially in when they are new, are more apt to be stable in the long term.
So you play the piano with kid gloves and in the absence of any change the weatherman has been reduced to talking about the tide. You don’t have anything to worry about, right? Here are some other things which may impact the tuning:
Cleaning your carpets. This saturates the room with humidity.
A grand piano whose plate is exposed to the sun. The repeated warming and cooling of the plate will gradually pull the strings out of tune.
A piano sitting by an open window or door that is frequently used. Pianos don’t like drafts.
A piano situated under an air conditioning duct. Chilled air has all the humidity sucked out of it, and it falls, washing over the instrument.
This brings to mind a common misconception. If they know little else about pianos, everyone seems to be gifted at birth with the knowledge that a piano sitting on an outside wall goes rapidly out of tune. This charming bit of folk wisdom may once have had some basis in fact, back in the Little House on the Prairie days. However, in my experience outside walls have no effect on a piano’s tuning stability.
Here’s another chestnut that seems to be in everyone’s store of knowledge: moving a piano will cause it to go out of tune. Now, this is true, but it often is misinterpreted. It’s true that moving a piano from house to house will effect the tuning, both due to the jostling it receives while loading it into the truck and rumbling down the highway, and the change of climate that often results from moving it to a new location. However, simply moving it across the room, will have very little effect.
I was once called out to tend to a console piano that had been dropped off the stage onto the floor of a school auditorium, landing on its back. While one leg was splintered and a side had separated from the case, no serious damage had been done to the inside–and the tuning was in remarkably good shape. Because they must hold steady under such a large amount of tension pianos are built to be quite sturdy—more so than most people give them credit for.
Now here are some tips for improving the tuning stability of your piano.
1. Tune it regularly. Everything else is window dressing.
2. A string felt cover—a piece of cloth cut to fit over the strings of a grand piano, is often helpful in reducing the effect of air movement in a situation where the piano is exposed to drafts. (In some more severe climates a humidity control system may be helpful. In this area (the South Bay) I really don’t find they make much difference.)
3. If the hammers are excessively hard due to wear, not only does it make the tone painfully bright, it also will make the piano go out of tune faster. Reshape and voice the hammers.
4. There are sometimes inadequacies in the piano itself which will make it more apt to go out of tune, though these are not as common as you might think and limited, for the most part, to very old pianos.
Here are just a few:
A. Loose tuning pins, due to the pin block aging or becoming delaminated.
B. Jumpy tuning pins which may have been contaminated by spilled liquid or “pin dope.”
C. Rusty wire binding at the pressure bar or agraffe or digging into the plate felt.
D. A poorly restrung piano where the coil on the tuning pin is not wound uniformly or is set too high above the plate, allowing the tuning pin to “flagpole.”
E. Loose bridge pins. Loose bridges. Loose structural members. Some of these problems will be apparent to your piano technician at a glance. Some will only become apparent after he has tuned the piano. And some, such as deficiencies in the frame, will only become apparent after he has tuned the piano two or three times. Some of these problems have easy fixes, but most do not.
DO I REALLY NEED TO HAVE THE PIANO AT STANDARD PITCH?
It’s not uncommon for me to run into pianos that haven’t been tuned for years and are 50 to 100 cents flat. In this case getting the piano back to standard pitch would require two service calls: a pitch raise and then another visit in a week’s time after the piano has had a chance to settle, to fine tune it. Raising pitch substantially can also result in strings breaking if they are corroded. In those circumstances, you may be better off not raising pitch and tuning the piano at a level below standard pitch of A440.
But what are you sacrificing by tuning the piano below standard pitch?
Here are some reasons you may wish to have the piano at the proper pitch:
1. Playing along with other instruments or recordings.
2. Accompanying a singer.
3. Training the ear. Unlike almost any other instrumentalist, pianists never tune their own instrument. If they play a piano which is flat or out of tune their ear will never learn to distinguish proper pitch, or even what being in tune sounds like. Many piano teachers wish you to keep the piano at pitch for this reason, and for a vocalist it is imperative.
4. Lastly, pianos are designed to sound their best at a certain optimal tension. Once they get beyond about 30 cents flat, they lose their vibrancy and start sounding a bit lifeless, especially in the bass.