Tuning Your Own Piano

Posted by Sarah Czarnecki on

Tuning your own piano requires a good ear, a few specialty tools, and plenty of patience. With the right materials, you can give your piano a touch up between professional tunings or adjust a few notes that have gone sour.

A full piano tuning is a long process that can’t be rushed, so take your time and move very carefully inside your piano. If you are not experienced with piano tuning and your instrument is severely off key or has broken parts, we recommend contacting a professional piano tuner.

Build your tuning kit

Like a guitar or violin, a piano is tuned by adjusting the tension of each string. Unlike a guitar, you’ll need specific tools to tune this instrument.

This tuning kit includes all the basic tools you’ll need: a tuning hammer or lever, a temperament strip, and mutes. Add a thin blade like a screwdriver or dull knife to your toolkit as well.

Once you’ve assembled the tools to safely tune the piano, you’ll need a pitch source -- that is, a tuning fork, electric tuner, online source, or other tuning instrument. There are some excellent pitch finding apps available for your mobile device or laptop. 

Inside your piano

Open the piano lid and remove the music desk to access the strings and tuning pins. You may need a screwdriver for this. Each piano design and model has a different interior setup, so check which kind of piano you have if you’re having trouble accessing the strings and action. 

The hammers of your piano strikes the strings. Assuming your piano action has no broken parts, the tuning process focuses only on adjusting the tension on the strings by turning pins. The action and hammers are only used to strike the strings you’re actively tuning.  

Notice that the strings are grouped inside the piano. On the right side of the piano, 2/3rds of the strings are grouped by threes. To the left, a smaller section of strings is grouped into twos. On the lowest register, individual strings are not grouped. You’ll start the tuning process with the groups of 3 strings and move from left to right. 

There are many possible tuning methods and sequences, but for a full tuning, we prefer working the strings in this order. Let’s get started!

exposed upright piano strings 

Prepare the strings for tuning

  1. Locate the first group of three strings on the left side of the treble section. These strings are plain steel, not copper wound like the lower notes.
  2. Place a temperament strip between each bundle of three strings. Use your dull knife or screwdriver to gently press the strip between the bundles. Allow the strip to rise over the center string so it can vibrate unimpeded. Continue this process from left to right until the strip is completely used up.
  3. Place your tuning lever on the center pin of the first note. This is the string on the left that’s covered by the strip. Press the key and you’ll see that this is the only string vibrating. 
  4. Set your electric tuner to match with the note you’re working on.
  5. Play the note and compare the pitch to the reading on your electric tuner. Now you’re ready to start tuning!

Turn the pin

  1. With your tuning lever on the center pin of the first note, play your note and carefully begin to rotate the handle. A clockwise motion will raise the pitch, and a counterclockwise turn will lower it. 
  2. Move very slowly -- you will not need to rotate your tuning lever around and around. Just a small fraction of a turn at a time will be enough. Tuning too fast or too severely can damage your piano or break a string.
  3. Always make sure to keep your tuning lever flat, like rotating the hands on a clock. Be very careful not to bend the tuning pin.
  4. Keep playing the note and turning the pin until the pitch matches the reading on your electric tuner.

    Move to the next notes

    1. Once your first string has been tuned to the correct frequency, move to the center string of the next bundle of strings. 
    2. Adjust your electric tuner up one half step and repeat the pin turning process outlined above. 
    3. Keep going until you reach the highest note on the piano. You’ll have to remove the temperament strip and reinsert it two or three times as you move across the piano.

    Finish tuning the upper register

    1. Now, return to the first bundle of strings you’ve tuned. Insert a rubber mute or damp to stop the string on the right from vibrating.
    2. Place the tuning lever on the tuning pin for the left string of this set.
    3. Play the note and adjust the left string to match the pitch of the center string you tuned earlier. Keep playing the note until the pitches match. You can do this with the electric tuner, but this is more difficult since both strings are sounding at once. Instead, do this by ear. When the note stops sounding "wavy," you'll know it is in tune.
    4. Remove the rubber mute and replace it to damp the string you just tuned. Move the tuning lever to the next pin and adjust the string on the right side of the bundle. Play the note over and over and adjust the right string to match the center string.
    5. Repeat this process until you reach the highest note on your piano.

    Tune the lower notes

    1. The bass section is tuned from right to left -- that is, from the highest notes to the lowest notes of this section. This portion of the piano strings is grouped into pairs.
    2. Starting with the highest note in this section, insert the rubber mute to stop the left string from vibrating. You will start by tuning the right string in the pair. 
    3. Set your electronic tuner to match the note. Adjust the pitch using the same techniques as outlined for the higher register. 
    4. Moving from right to left, repeat this process across the pairs of strings. 
    5. Like in the higher register, the bundle of strings must match in pitch. Once you’ve finished tuning this section of the piano, start again at the highest pair. Play the note and match the pitch of both strings by tuning the left string.
    6. Continue tuning until you reach the lowest section of your piano. 
    7. The lowest notes are single strings. Set your electric tuner to the correct note and turn the pin until it matches the reading on your tuner. 
    8. Repeat until you reach the last note on your piano.

    Finishing touches

    If you have just a few notes that have gone sour and don’t need a full tuning, single strings can be adjusted by using the rubber mutes, tuning lever, and pitch finder. Match the string pitch to a string that is already in tune and use the techniques outlined above.

    Even if you are not a professional piano tuner, tuning your own piano doesn't have to be hard, so long as you approach the task with the correct tools and a gentle touch. Set aside plenty of quiet time, work carefully and methodically, then enjoy your newly-tuned piano! 


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