This guide will show you how to tune your piano using just a couple of tools and a free program called Entropy. Even if you've never thought about tuning your piano yourself before, you can achieve a satisfying result with a little effort and patience.
Why should you learn to tune your piano? If you’re like me, you enjoy the satisfaction of fixing and maintaining your own equipment, such as cars and computers, so now you can add your piano to that list! It's true that a professional tuner will certainly do a better job than you. However, if you haven't had your piano tuned in a while, you can likely get it sounding noticeably better than it currently does, even in your piano-tuning infancy. If you don't feel up to tuning your entire piano, you can learn the basic skills to be able to fix specific notes on your piano that are glaringly out of tune. I personally have enjoyed tuning my own piano, and I look forward to improving my skills as time goes on.
The most important skills you will need are being able to properly use a tuning hammer, and being able to hear beating and identify when two strings are in tune. Both of these will come with practice.
Step 1: Obtain the Equipment
To tune your piano, you will need the following equipment:
- tuning hammer
- computer with an internal or external microphone, or a smartphone
I recommend using a laptop with a decent quality external microphone. Internal microphones on laptops or phones may be sufficient to get the job done, but these microphones may have difficulty recording the low frequencies produced by the bass notes, which could affect the accuracy of the tuning.
Step 2: Remove Cover to Access Tuning Pins
On most grand pianos, the tuning pins can easily be accessed by sliding off the music stand above the keyboard.
On upright pianos, there is typically a hinge allowing the top of the piano to open up. The tuning pins are just below that cover.
Step 3: Practice Tuning Single Notes
To prepare yourself to tune the entire keyboard, it is helpful to spend some time tuning unisons (single notes). Since most keys on the piano have either 2 or 3 strings, the strings for each key need to be tuned to precisely the same pitch. Even with an electronic tuning aid, you will use your ear to tell when the strings of one key are in tune with each other. For now, don't worry about whether the key is tuned to the correct pitch relative to the rest of the keyboard.
- Choose a note with 3 strings to tune. (To start, the ones in the middle of the keyboard are easier.)
- Decide which string to use as a reference to tune the other strings to.
- Mute one of the strings (see picture). This is done so that you only hear the string you're tuning and the string you're using as a reference.
- Place the tuning hammer on the tuning pin for the string you are tuning. The handle should be pointing roughly parallel to the strings toward the inside of the piano.
- Pull the hammer to bring the string slightly sharp of where it should be.
- Move the hammer back the other way until the string is in tune. As you do this, listen to the sound of the two strings carefully. When they are far out of tune, you will hear a fast beating in the sound, which will slow down as they approach the same pitch. If they are perfectly in tune, there will be no beating at all.
- Once the two strings are in tune, mute the string you just tuned, and unmute the remaining string. Repeat the process for this string.
- The method of bringing the string into tune from the sharp direction helps the pin to stay where you put it. If a string is flat and you simply bring it up to pitch by increasing the tension, it will tend to loosen on its own after a short time (like a spring unwinding, but slower).
- Having the tuning hammer parallel to the string reduces the amount that your twisting motion can tilt the pin forward or backward, which would change the tension on the string until you release pressure on the hammer, causing error in the tuning.
- It is better to use quick, short movements of the hammer, rather than long, steady ones. This improves the tuning stability. When you are starting out, you may need to move the hammer more slowly to practice listening to beating and train your ear to identify when strings are in tune.
Step 4: Install Entropy
Entropy is free and open source, and relatively easy to install if you have a common platform. It can be downloaded here.
The reason for using software to help tune a piano is that the non-ideal nature of the strings needs to be accounted for. If you were to tune a piano to ideal pitches (equal temperament), it would actually sound terrible, because the strings produce overtones that are not at integer multiples of the fundamental frequency. Standalone electronic piano tuners and piano tuning software have ways of calculating how the pitch of each note should deviate from the equal temperament to make the harmonics line up better with each other. There are several programs that can do this; Entropy is not the only choice. Entropy's approach is unique because it quantifies the entropy of the piano based on how well the combined harmonics of all the notes line up, and then determines a tuning that minimizes that entropy. For this calculation, the frequency spectrum of each note on the piano needs to be recorded.
Step 5: Record Each Note Into Entropy
Click on the "Record" button on the left of the Entropy window. You will now need to record each note into Entropy. There are a few things to keep in mind for this step:
- If possible, do this at a time when the room is quiet. Extra noise in the room will reduce the quality of the recorded data.
- Mute all but one string for each note (see pictures). Remember which strings (right, left, or middle) you recorded, because when you are on the tuning step, you will tune the same string for each note to the pitch calculated by Entropy. The other strings will be tuned to that string.
- Keep each key pressed down until Entropy stops recording. (The red circle will change to a pause symbol.)
When you are finished with this step, you will see a graph of how each note compares to the equal temperament pitch.
Step 6: Run the Calculation
Click the "Calculate" button on the left. Then click "Start calculation." Entropy will calculate a tuning based on the data you recorded. You will notice that the bass notes are tuned flatter than ideal, and the highest notes are tuned sharper than ideal.
Step 7: Tune Each Note
Click the "Tune" button on the left. For each key:
- Mute all but one string (the same string you recorded earlier).
- Tune one string to the pitch calculated by Entropy. As you play the note, Entropy will show a line on the graph indicating the pitch, and a psychedelic rainbow indicator. You may be surprised to find that the moving rainbow gradients are the more useful of the two indicators. Watch for when the colors nearly stop moving to know when the string is in tune. One direction of movement indicates sharp, and the other indicates flat.
- Unmute one of the other strings on the same note (if applicable) and tune it to the first string, the same way you did in step 3. Do the same for the 3rd string, if there is one.
- Repeat for each note on the piano.
Step 8: Check Intervals
When you are done tuning, you can play various intervals on different parts of the piano, such as octaves, fifths, fourths, and thirds. They will not be completely free of beating (especially the thirds), but the beating should be relatively constant as you move up and down the piano in small steps.
If you notice any notes that sound off during this process, you can adjust them by ear, tuning one string first, and then the other two strings to the first. Some notes could have returned to being out of tune due to your hammer technique, or there could be imperfections in the tuning produced by Entropy.
At this point you should be able to tell whether your tuning made an improvement or not. Hopefully it did!
Step 9: Check the Tuning After a Couple of Days
As mentioned earlier, piano strings tend to go back to how they were if proper hammer technique is not used. This is something that will take practice. It is a good idea to check your tuning after a day or two to see if any of the strings have gone flat again, to get feedback on how well you are using the tuning hammer, and to correct any needed notes.
Step 10: Play Your Tuned Piano
Now that your piano is tuned, take full advantage of it by playing it often and basking in the abundant harmonicity!