Is Your Piano Out of Tune?

Mitch OxfordArticles

Tuning, tuning piano tone and pitch

A Crash Course in Knowing When to Call a Certified Piano Tuner

For the piano owner who wants to maintain and get the most enjoyment out of their piano – but doesn’t want to spend money on unnecessary repairs – the question, “Is my piano out of tune?” is an important one.

As a proud owner of the instrument, you want your piano to sound its best. A properly tuned piano invites one to play and brings out the best in the player, no matter what their skill level. Playing an out-of-tune instrument is discouraging and detracts from the enjoyment and satisfaction you get from playing a properly tuned instrument.

As a non-technician, how do you know if your piano is out of tune? Fortunately, you don’t need to be a technician to answer this question. Here are 4 simple tests you can do on your own – without spending any money:

Test 1: Is Your Piano at the Correct Pitch?

Whether or not your piano is at the correct pitch depends on the vibration rate of specific test notes and comparing them to a “standard” rate of vibration. The most commonly used test note is A-440 (also known as A4, or “Concert Pitch”) which refers to the “A” note in the octave above “Middle C”. When properly in tune, this note vibrates at a rate of 440 times per second – thus, A-440. This is an important measure of your piano’s correct pitch.

Test: To test if your piano is at standard pitch, you’ll need to compare your “A” note to a known, accurate reference note – for example, a tuning fork. If you don’t have a tuning fork but have a computer nearby, there is a handy online reference here: The middle fork in the picture labelled “Concert Pitch” is A-440.

Test 2: Are Single Notes in Tune With Themselves?

Except for the very lowest bass notes, each note on your piano has more than one string. The upper-bass section has two strings per note, while the remaining higher notes each have three strings. When a piano is in tune, each of these two or three strings for a single note are tuned to the exact same pitch (or frequency) and sound like a single note. If these strings are not perfectly in tune with each other, a noticeable wavering effect can be heard. Not only is the resulting note unpleasant to the ear, the frequencies are actually fighting each other and, to some degree, cancelling each other out.

Test: As you play each key on your piano, listen carefully for any “wavering” or fluttering effect from the tone. It should sound level and steady and as a single note. If you notice any notes do not sound as one, you are in need of a piano tuning.

Test 3: Do the Octaves of the Piano Blend Into One and Other?

When a piano is properly in tune, the octaves of a note “line up” with one and other exactly. After all, you are playing the same note…just an octave higher or lower. Simply put, an “octave” is the frequency of a note and all it’s multiples (or halves).

Let’s use A-440 as an example: One octave up from A-440 (otherwise known as A4) would be A-880 (otherwise known as A5). An octave down from A-440 would be A-220 (otherwise known as A3). The numbers indicate the frequency of the vibration of the string per second.

When a piano has been subjected to temperature and humidity fluctuations, swelling or contractions of the soundboard may result – which causes the octaves not to line up the way they should. The result is the piano will have an unbalanced, confusing sound – not to mention, being out of tune.

Test: With your right foot, depress the sustain (far right) pedal and play three of the same notes, each an octave apart. Do they sound like the same note? Do you hear any wavering? Do the notes seem to blend together perfectly? If not, you are in need of a piano tuning.

Test 4: Do Simple Major Chords Sound Harmonious?

A simple, 3 or 4 note major chord has a beautiful, harmonious sound. All the notes sound as though they are blending together. If any one of those notes is off, it will add a dissonance that is noticeable to the ear.

Test: Play a simple, 4 note major chord – let’s choose a C major chord. Depress the sustain (far right) pedal and play middle C (the white key before the set of 2 black keys in the middle of the keyboard). Move up 2 white keys and play E. Move up 2 more white keys and play G. Finally, move up 3 white keys and play the octave C. This is “C major”. Does the resulting chord make you smile or cringe? Do the notes sound harmonious together? If not, you are in need of a piano tuning.

If you need to have your piano tuned, Contact Me to set up an appointment for consultation. I’ll be happy to answer any questions that you may have. We will work with you to make sure your piano is properly maintained and operating for maximum enjoyment.