You get the gist of how piano tuning works. You play the note, hear that it's wrong, then adjust the tension on the string until it matches the pitch source.
But wait. Where do you get the pitch source?
Do you use a tuning fork, an electronic frequency finder device, or just do it by ear? Do you even need a reference pitch at all?
It's a matter of personal preference, really, but in our humble(ish) opinion, some sources are better than others.
Here's how we think they stack up.
4. Tuning by ear
We’d probably rank this one higher if we had perfect pitch ourselves. Don't be so surprised - only 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch. Most of these people tend to be musicians (natch) and even then, there’s only a little better than a 1% chance they have absolute accuracy.
In fact, most piano tuners do not have so-called Perfect Pitch™. This term is usually reserved for singers, anyway, since most people define it as pitch identification and reproduction on cue.
Anyway, hitting an exact A440 without any reference is almost impossible. A person with perfect pitch can easily identify the A, but probably won’t be able to narrow it down to the hertz.
That said, it's possible to do an approximate tuning by ear if the piano isn't wildly out of tune. Most people with average to good hearing can pick up the “color” between strings on the same key. Not sure what we’re talking about? Head over to your acoustic piano and give middle C a tap. Do you hear that wiggliness within the note? That warbling is actually the sound waves bumping into each other on their way to your ear, and it’s an indication that the strings aren’t tuned *exactly* the same. Close but not, well, perfect!
If you have perfect pitch, you can improve your piano's sound, but in the end, tuning to the cents is practically impossible if you’re relying only on your pitch sense.
3. Tuning forks
So you don’t have perfect pitch. Or maybe you do, but you want to get your piano sounding perfect, too. Tuning forks are the next step up.
Tuning forks are about as low-tech as it gets. Strike the tines on your knee or a hard surface (please not the piano itself – you’ll damage the finish) then listen to the sound and adjust the note to match. Tuning with forks generally works in one of two ways: use a single A440 fork to set the A - or - use a set of chromatic forks to set a full octave. Once you've done that, use those reference pitches to tune the rest of the piano.
It's labor-intensive, but really gets the tuner involved with the process. There's something to be said for the level of expertise required to tune a whole piano with forks alone.
(Slightly unrelated but definitely worth a watch: This guy had the bonkers idea to replace all his strings with tuning forks. Not that we’d recommend doing this, but, y’know. It’s a pretty cool experiment and the sound is unique to say the least!
But be warned, the creator says, “It’s kind of like the piano is screaming in pain.”)
Anyway, if you’re an old-school tuner who prefers the art of aural tuning, forks are the way to go.
2. Pitch finding apps
Essentially the opposite of tuning forks, technologically speaking, pitch finding apps make anyone with a smartphone a piano tuner. Sort of.
These apps are available from the Apple Store, Google Play, or whatever you use, and you'll have more than a few choices at your disposal. Some are extremely functional and advanced, some are super basic, and prices range from free with ads to expensive monthly subscriptions. But we figure if you’re going to pay to use a tuner app, you might as well invest in a long-lasting set of forks or a purpose-made electric tuner.
And yeah, there’s YouTube. If you search for a piano tuning pitch finder, you’ll find plenty of pitch source videos to get you started.
The downside to all of these apps and videos is that if they emit sound that you’re supposed to tune to, it all depends on your device speakers. What sounds sharp on one phone might sound flat on another. Apps that pick up the sound and tell you the frequency are usually close-ish, but this is a case of “you get what you pay for.”
Note: The pitch finder app gets second place simply because it’s more user-friendly than forks. Not a lot of learning curve on this one. But if this were an accuracy ranking, high quality forks would definitely take second over apps as a whole.
Bottom line, if you’re not interested in tuning your piano super accurately, want to tune other instruments, or just want to see if you have perfect pitch, get thee to the app store. Have fun!
1. Electric tuners
Almost every piano tuner in the 21st century has one of these in their bag. There are loads of brands and formats out there, with pricetags ranging from $50 to $1000, and accuracy levels to match. If you're even remotely serious about tuning your piano, you'll want a purpose-made electric tuner.
What’s great about electric tuners is that they’re usually pocket-sized and can pinpoint a frequency with extreme precision. Most don’t emit a sound, but instead tell you what it hears so you can adjust the note accordingly. The lower-end electric ones are best for setting the middle section of the piano, while super-high-end tuners can do it all.
Another cool thing about today’s electric tuners is that you can stretch tune or sweeten notes as you see fit. It’s a rather advanced feature, so it’s not recommended for DIYers, but you can use electronic tuners like the Peterson Stroboplus to fiddle with the cents as you tune so that it sounds more pleasing to the ear. Mathematically tuning to the hertz often doesn't sound quite as melodious. It’s not the same as un-tuning a piano, but customizing the sound for advanced player preferences.
The best part about electric tuners and other frequency detectors is accessibility. If you are hard of hearing or just not great at tuning by ear, modern technology will do the heavy lifting for you.
Old-schoolers shouldn't shun these, either. Electronic tuning devices were invented almost 100 years ago because tuning by ear or with forks is hard!
So there you have it! Our four favorite piano tuning pitch sources ranked. Now we'd like to hear from you! What's your favorite? Do you think you have perfect pitch? Let us know!