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Hello everybody,

I'm a newcomer to this forum. I haven't seen a presentation thread, so I suppose this, which will be my first post here, is a place as good as any other for introducing myself and my piano. I'm afraid it'll be a lengthy introducion, but it'll be related to the question I ask at the end, so I suppose it's all right.

I'm from Spain, I'm 46 and I've been playing the piano since I was 7. After earning a degree in classical piano at the conservatory, I've played all these years just for fun. My technical level has gone downwards at a steady pace since I left the conservatory at age 17, but it's still good enough to allow me to have a good time playing all types of music.

My piano is a 85-key vertical piano bought in 1916 by my great-grandmother, and while all my teachers marvelled that I could study seriously with such a piece of furniture (as one termed it), those who saw it were impressed by its quality and by the great condition it's in. After all, four of us have earned a degree in classical piano using it. It's a study piano, not a concert piano, that's for sure, but I've always managed to get everything I wanted from it (with the exception of the quick A's at the beginning of Debussy's "Masques", as the hammers didn't bounce back as quickly as necessary). The piano's been taken good care of, really, and it's much better than some new pianos I've seen which are used at the conservatory without problems. It had all the felt replaced a few years ago (hammers, mufflers, etc.), and all the strings but one are the original ones, in spite of which they don't have any rust and sound great. The only elements which seem to have suffered from old age are the springs, some of which have needed replacing at some point (around twenty of them, I'd say, and that only because when one in the middle of the keyboard broke, I would take one from the highest or lowest keys and put it in the place of the missing one, so in the end both needed replacing).

The only "problem" of the piano is that as long as I remember, it's always been flat. The first time ever a tuner came to see it was around 1990, when the piano was almost 75 years old. He commented the good condition the piano was in, and tuned it, though leaving it still flat (when I say "tuned", I mean all the intervals sounded OK). He came now and then until around 2010, when he retired. In these twenty years, he brought the tuning slighly up, but kept it roughly where it was when he first came, which is where it's still today. I cannot tell for sure, but the central A is around 400 Hz, which is sort of a sharp G (I hope my English is all right... I mean an out-of-tune G, not a G#, which I suppose is called "G sharp").

Anyway, since this old tuner retired, the piano's been tuned only once, since the guy who took charge of the business wasn't too willing to travel the long distance to my house. A couple of months ago, I called another one in, one recommended by a teacher at the conservatory. When he came, he said that the piano is in great condition (which I already knew), but that he didn't think it was worth tuning. He said the tuning is so low that it's unlikely that it'll vary much (and it's true it's quite in tune after some six-seven years), and that he'd only tune it if I decided to bring it up to 440 Hz.

Do you think this is advisable? I suppose the metal frame would withstand the extra tension (wouldn't it?), but I'm not so sure about the tuning pins and, certainly, the strings themselves. I'm not so concerned about the strings snapping, since they can be replaced, but I'm afraid in case something inside the piano should crack and be irretrievable wrecked. I wonder, if it's possible, why the experiencied, trustworthy tuner who came for twenty years never mentioned that possibility.

I've never minded this situation. When I studied at the conservatory and played lots of different pianos, it was never a problem with me (as long as I didn't try to play chamber music), since I felt comfortable with both tunings. Now that I've been playing only my piano for several years, I find it troublesome to play another piano, since I hear something different to what I play (that is, I hit the A and hear a B... That is, more or less my piano's B), which unnerves me. In spite of this, it doesn't worry me, as I'm sure that the moment I start playing other pianos regularly I'll get used to A 440 again. Years ago, I was able to tell the key a piece was in by listening to it; now I'm a couple of semitones off, but, once again, it doesn't bother me.

As I said, I wouldn't mind having a piano permanently tuned to 400 Hz. After all, that's what I've had, loved and listened to for endless hours all my life. But if I cannot find someone who tunes it now and then (meaning making it sound in tune but at 400 Hz), it's either going up to 440 Hz, or learning to tune it myself. And, as I think that it's a very difficult job that you can't learn by watching a few videos on YouTube, and that I'd need extra care for such an old piano, it could be ages before I consider myself prepared enough (and that supposing I can find a good, reliable course, which is not straightforward). Should I be more afraid of tuning the old piano to 440 Hz, or of learning to tune it myself?

Would you please tell me what you think the best solution would be? Thanks a lot in advance!

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The biggest danger is breaking strings. And there's no way to know if you're going to break strings until they start breaking. Sometimes you can make an educated guess based on certain risk factors. For example, you can look for other strings that have been broken and replaced: look for strings with shiny wire, or a knot splicing in a new piece of wire, or coils around the tuning pins that are very different than the rest, with 1-2 turns of wire instead of 3, or that are unusually sloppy. I'm guessing you won't find any since the piano has been below pitch for so many decades. Also look for rust or corrosion on the strings or tuning pins. That's not a guarantee that you'll break strings, but it's a higher risk. I think.

Breaking a string isn't the end of the world. They can easily be spliced or replaced, but it's a pain because the new wire stretches out over time and will be constantly going flat for many months. If you learn some basic tuning skills you can correct for that yourself instead of having the tuner come out again and again.

Getting the piano up to pitch is also kind of annoying. It will need to be tuned multiple times back-to-back (at least 2 fast "rough" tunings plus a fine tuning). And then it will take a year to really settle into the new pitch. That first tuning will only last a couple months I'd guess before it goes noticeably flat.

If it were my own piano I'd probably risk it, as I wouldn't be able to stand the piano being so far out. But a compromise might be to tune the piano to A=415. You might be able to convince your piano tuner to do that.


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Would it make sense, minimize the risk of breaking strings, to approach this pitch raise incrementally?

We're talking about a pitch raise of 165 cents from 400 hz to 440 hz.

4 pitch raise visits would include raises of roughly 41 cents per visit.

Maybe do this at 3 month intervals?


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I would simply start doing it straight to 440 (but not beyond). You will find out pretty quickly if it will take it or not. My rule of thumb is to allow three strings breakage. At that point I will begin re-assessing the situation.

Peter Grey Piano Doctor


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"he didn't think it was worth tuning. He said the tuning is so low that it's unlikely that it'll vary much"

This is surely nonsense. It seems that your new tuner just does not want to tune the piano at 400, not that it can't be tuned at 400. (Unless there are pinblock problems, which you have not mentioned.) Can you not find another tuner?

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Colombo Offline OP
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Hello!

Thanks for your kind answers! I forgot to mention that I very seldom connect to the internet (after realising that if I don't turn my computer on my free time multiplies by two, I decided to do so once a week at the most). I should have said it, so as not to seem rude when not answering soon.

Actually, I had the same impression as David-G's: that the tuner simply didn't want to bother tuning the piano. Either that, or that he wasn't able to do it by ear, only with the help of a digital tuner, and his didn't reach that far down (though I suppose it's just a matter of calling the notes by a different name). He did suggest the possibility AWilley has suggested himself: tuning the piano to 415 Hz, but only as an intermediate step before going all the way up to 440 Hz. He didn't seem to think that going little by little (as Seeker has also suggested) would be a good idea, as he wasn't even willing to do the 415-Hz intermediate step and said that it looked like a waste of time to him.

He also said he'd need to come more than once; he said that -in case I decide to go directly to 440 Hz- the piano would need at least three tunings: the first one wouldn't even last one day, the second one would be in another week, and the third one two weeks afterwards. He even suggested going further than 440 Hz, so that afterwards the piano would "believe" 440 Hz was a "comfortable" tuning. If, as he hinted, the piano can be brought to A=440Hz in less that two months, it doesn't sound bad, though I believe it'd be getting quickly out of tune for much longer after that.

There's something encouraging about your messages: no one has mentioned that tuning the piano to 440 Hz would risk anything else but the strings. I'd be terrified to damage the piano itself, but the strings can be replaced, so it's a secondary problem.

As I said, only one string has been replaced, and I really cannot tell the difference between it and the rest. It was one of the bass strings, and now it looks like all the rest. They don't have any oxide (I told the tuner so, but he didn't believe it until he checked it himself), maybe because I live in a very dry area (not it's a rainy season, and the humidity inside my house is lower than 30%). The pins also look good. I've checked everything again after reading your messages, and I cannot see anything that looks like it could be troublesome.

P W Grey's rule of thumb sounds like a logical one: after three strings break, it's time to think it over. Are treble strings more likely to break? The only one which was replaced was a bass one (and, God, it sounded like a gunshot when it snapped!)

I am considering the possibility of looking for another tuner. The problem is that there is none in my town, and they have to travel from 100 km away, so what people usually do is call the one who comes to tune the conservatory's pianos, so he can tune theirs in the same trip, so they don't have to end up paying for all the petrol (actually, it's one of the teachers from the conservatory who gave me this guy's phone number). I've already made an internet search, but I haven't found any references about any tuner, and I wouldn't like to have another come, only to tell me the same (because, of course, I had already discussed my piano and its tuning with him by phone before he came).

I have a good ear, and I can tell the key a musical work is in when I hear it (though, funnily, only for classical music, not when there are electric guitars or drums involved). When they play something in a film and it's speeded up or slowed down so it gets out of tune, I notice, as long as I know the piece (why they do that, I'll never know). But, for some reason, I'm perfectly at ease with my piano's tuning (well, probably the reason is the many hours I've spent playing it for the last 40 years). Actually, I can sing a piece, and when I go to my piano and play it, I find I was singing it in the right key (by this I mean A=440)... And I never found it troublesome to go and play a "normal" piano. It's like I accepted both tunings as right (and I could certainly tell when one of the conservatory's pianos was too flat, so it wasn't as if anything went).

I'll think it over. Knowing that the piano wouldn't probably be damaged is what I wanted to know. But, honestly, I think I'd rather stick to 400 Hz. It sounds SO familiar that I wonder whether I'd feel I was playing a different piano, were it tuned to 440 Hz. And I wouldn't like that: after all, it's like a member of the family. I love it as it is.

Once again, thanks a lot for taking the time to help me so kindly!

P.S. AWilley's idea about learning basic tuning skills is very appealing. At present, there is only one key which is noticeably out of tune, and it'd be great to be able to correct just that. I must certainly start looking for courses. I'd have liked to learn to do very basic maintenance... But I never got further than removing a spring from one of the highest or lowest keys to replace one that had broken in the middle of the keyboard (I haven't needed to do it since the first tuner came for the first time, when I was around 15 years old).

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My antique Broadwood square piano of 1804 is tuned to A=392 - because it sounds better at that pitch, compared with A=415 which seems to be the standard pitch for fortepianos nowadays. So, if you like your piano being at A=400, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, I can't believe that it is really in tune after not being tuned for 6 or 7 years! I think you should find a way of getting it tuned (at 400), and I think you will greatly enjoy the improvement.

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Well, it's not completely in tune, or otherwise I wouldn't have called a tuner in. But it's reasonably so. Actually, there are only three or four notes that make me shiver, all of them in the last octave and a half on the treble side. The rest of the piano could be better tuned, but it's completely bearable for most people, and I've certainly heard pianos which were more out of tune when I was a student at the conservatory (they were tuned once or twice a year).

I've been looking for courses to learn and tune the piano myself, but so far I've only found one which lasts two years, at 25 hours a week... And I think I can make do with something a little less, er, exhaustive. I'd still prefer to find a professional tuner, one who is willing to tune the piano to A=400.

Thanks a lot for the advice!

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Originally Posted by P W Grey
I would simply start doing it straight to 440 (but not beyond). You will find out pretty quickly if it will take it or not. My rule of thumb is to allow three strings breakage. At that point I will begin re-assessing the situation.

Peter Grey Piano Doctor

This.

The whole pitch raise thing seems like a sales scam to me.

Take the central A4 string, tune it to 443 once, strike it hard a couple of times to bring it down and finally settle it. Tune the rest and as soon as you break multiple strings with that procedure you'll need to talk to the client and tell him that all of his strings need replacing.

I'm a a newbie in terms of tuning, but so far I haven't broken a single string. And I've always tuned to 443 and that includes a substantial number of 19th century concert grands. It's actually weird, because I don't even know what it feels like when you break a string during tuning.

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Arturo Sandoval plays notes higher and higher on his trumpet, and then his drummer does a rim shot as he hits the highest note. That is what it feels like to break a string when tuning!


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Originally Posted by BDB
Arturo Sandoval plays notes higher and higher on his trumpet, and then his drummer does a rim shot as he hits the highest note. That is what it feels like to break a string when tuning!

Very good analogy!


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Originally Posted by Colombo
Actually, there are only three or four notes that make me shiver, all of them in the last octave and a half on the treble side.

Nothing wrong with getting a tuning hammer and fixing what needs to be done to make yourself happy. Watch some YouTube videos, read about it, and if it does not work out call in somebody. Tuning a piano is not brain surgery nor rocket science.

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Caveats: I know nothing about these issues. And I'm fond of tuning flatter than normal.

Opinion: if it's been 400 for so long, that's a piece of History. I'd be honoured to have an original thing like that in my hands. Uniformity is overrated. I'd try to learn to tune it myself in order to keep the 400.
And I strongly dislike it when people who come to deliver a service insist on fitting everyhing to their only one approach. I'm pretty sure there are pianos over there with all kinds of exquisite tunings and suggesting there's only one way to tune a piano is not good service. That holds for many other kinds of services.

Advice: using your computer little is actually a good thing. Computers eat up a lot of time and there's nothing more precious than time. Computers can make you feel you should always be computing.

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Hi!

I've already made up my mind: I'll try to learn how to tune it, and I'll stick to 400 Hz. Since at present there are only three of four notes that really need tuning, I'll start with those, and I hope that, little by little, I'll get confident enough to try to tackle the whole piano. As entonio has said, it's like a piece of History. I think that, were it tuned to A=440, it'd feel like a completely different piano. And I love MY piano. I'll start my holidays in July, and that will be when I start reading and watching videos on how to tune a piano. I've already decided I'll buy Arthur A. Reblitz's book "Piano Servicing, Tuning and Rebuilding". Even if it's too much for what I need right now, at least it'll be interesting reading, that's for sure.

Thanks, guys!


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