How to Tune A Piano

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 13 of 100.

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I don’t think I was ever particularly good at piano. 

What I really had going for me was longterm stamina. Other seven-year-olds burned out by nine-and-a-half and switched to soccer. I never had any interest in being outside at ALL, so I stuck with piano lessons through high school graduation. I didn’t learn anything quickly, and I went through long phases where I suffered from ennui (read: laziness) and didn’t practice like I was supposed to. For the record, I can do most basic piano things. I can play all the scales. I know which scales contain which black keys, and I know how to avoid complicated key signatures. I can play any chord. I learned how to play one and a half songs by Ben Folds Five. I can say, “I could sight-read that song, yeah!” and then download the sheet music and then practice it for hours and hours and then pretend to sight-read it when I am at a party at your house.

In the early years of my piano adventures, Mrs. Balmer (my piano teacher) was into hosting these Tuesday night functions where all her students would gather, have a mini recital, eat cookies, and do piano-related activities. Once the activity had to do with writing music on a piece of manuscript paper. Erin — who sat next to me — composed this elegant-looking thing full of crazy notes with like nine horizontal staff marks and lots of sixteenth rests and stuff like that. I wrote eight quarter notes in the key of C. Erin said, “Oops! Mine’s accidentally really complex!” “Mine too,” I said. I said this because I literally did not know the meaning of the word “complex.” I thought it meant “basic” or “boring” or “likely wrong.” Erin rolled her eyes at me and then probably played some Chopin nocturne during the recital part at the end. But Erin quit piano a year later, and I was still taking lessons when she was getting married. See what I mean? Slow and steady.

My main thing on the piano was “song-writing.” I put this is quotation marks because I have friends now who write songs, and my songs do not compare with the songs of my friends. They are stumble-y and repetitious and rhythmically boring. But when I started writing songs at fourteen, I was treated like a protégée. No one was doing that yet! Everyone was still playing soccer. I relished the feeling of being ahead of the curve. I hopped on any piano that presented itself. I auditioned for the high school talent show and was one of four acts that made it in. (The other three were ballet dancers, a jazz band, and an anti-drugs comedian.) I figured I’d be doing music for the rest of my life. 

But in college, something changed. I played a few coffee house shows, but I noticed that I was no longer the best musician around. I had recorded a real CD in an actual CD recording place (found in the phone book!), but there were other bands on campus who OWNED CD recording places. They had dozens of recorded CDs, and they played instruments that were portable, such as guitars or ukuleles. There weren’t as many pianos sprinkled about randomly as there had been in my childhood. There were these quiet practice rooms at my college, and I used them a fair amount, but mostly I went to them when I was really sad and was done eating cookie dough about it. I was no longer taking piano lessons, so my technical skill stagnated. Music wasn’t my thing anymore. I decided writing would be my thing. At least when you fail at writing, I reasoned, you don't have to worry that no one will come to your concert.*

When I moved to New Orleans, I was VERY depressed. It was the most depressed I ever was — which I think would be devastating to my seventh grade self, who was INSISTENT that my thirteenth year would be the worst year of anyone’s life ever. A lot of bad things happened: On the way to New Orleans, my sister and I got in this massive car accident that should have killed us (we flipped off the highway and ended upside down underwater); most of our stuff was destroyed in the crash; I was thrust into a teaching job I was utterly unprepared for (teaching overaged high schoolers with Emotional Behavioral Disturbances); and The Love of My Life dumped me over the phone. When it rains, it pours — especially in New Orleans in fucking August, when it’s the height of hurricane season and it’s always ten trillion degrees, muggy, and intermittently thunder-storming. I dealt with all this by smoking tons of cigarettes and eating dollar pizzas from the market while trying to fall asleep to “Gilmore Girls” DVDs. 

I did not know how I was going to ever feel better. But I did find myself longing for the piano. It was the only thing I really longed for. I knew if I could sit down behind the piano and sing loudly about my anguish, a little bit of it would dissipate.**

Craigslist had a lot of pianos. They were either free or thousands of dollars. There was one exception: a small piano missing one octave that was $139. Because a person should never take on a free piano (which are always more trouble than they are worth), I bought the $139 piano sight unseen, and then hired two Frenchmen to bring it to my house and carry it to my third floor living quarters. I must have paid them all the money I had, so (after the $139 piano and six one-dollar pizzas) roughly $100. Moving a piano is the literal worst, and this was a gross underpayment, but hey: I was just trying to survive. 

When the piano was finally in the house, everything actually was magically better. I sat at that damn thing every day for hours and sang about how sad I was. It made me happier. That stupid tiny piano kind of saved my life. 

I moved the piano to two other houses (first floors, don’t worry), and eventually let the family who moved into the Toulouse Street house keep it. Their kids loved it, and it looked good in that house. The piano had served me. Here is a secret I have never told anyone: Once, after that house was all cleared out, the night after I’d scrubbed the fridge (grossest move-out task ever), I sat at the tiny piano and sobbed into it. How do you thank a piano? 

When we bought our house in Chicago, everything went wrong. I recognized the feeling. I needed a piano. This time I couldn’t find a $139 option on Craigslist; whereas I’d just spent all the money I’d ever had buying a house, I had to try my luck with one of the free ones. I offered to pay some poor teenagers $150 (a whole $50 more than I'd paid the Frenchmen!) to lug it from the Chicago suburb where it had been discarded and into our new house. Once it was inside, I sat down and played a C major scale.

Or, I tried to play a C major scale. Look. I think you probably think you’ve heard an out-of-tune piano before. You probably think you know how bad it can get. YOU DO NOT KNOW. This piano … you played the C and then you hit the D and it somehow played a note that was a whole octave DOWN. A lot of the keys seemed to be playing three notes at once. I did not understand how this could be possible. This was when I realized that I actually knew nothing about pianos.

It is expensive to get a piano tuned. It is something you do when you also have a built-in sprinkler system. It is not a necessary thing for the average person to have to pay for. I could not afford to have this piano tuned, nor could I afford to get it out of my house again. I briefly toyed with the idea of hacking it up with an axe for fun kitsch art projects. But where would I get the money for the axe?

A tuning kit on Amazon rings in at about six bucks. I opened up the piano and looked at all the knobs and strings and hammers. It looked impossible. This is why “piano tuner” is a job: because it is difficult and normal people can not do it. 

But the whole month had been full of things outside my control. The pipes exploded; there’d been a fire; the electrical system wasn’t properly wired. I felt so small inside this big house full of problems; I wasn’t about to feel small next to this piano. So I ordered the tuning kit and watched this wonderful video about how to tune pianos. I liked it because the guy explaining piano tuning says, “This is handy if you’re a guy who wants to save his local church a little money.” I love that that’s the reason why you’d be tuning pianos. Helping out the church. As one does.

He says in the video that it’s hard to tune pianos and people who try usually fail. I am going to tell you the most important thing you need to know about tuning pianos here and now: It is not that hard. It’s a little hard. I imagine it is harder than tuning a guitar, but I’ve never tuned a guitar, so as far as I am concerned, it is easier.

The main thing is that the hammers attached to keys on a piano have more than one string corresponding with each one. That means if a piano is tuned correctly, it’s three strings that are twisted in EXACTLY the same way, so it sounds like you’re playing just one note. It seems like this should be a good metaphor for something, but I can’t come up with anything that doesn’t liken people to cogs in machines, so. Free DIY metaphor. 

The lower keys are easiest because they each use just one string, and the highest keys are the most difficult because they have three strings and the strings are incredibly short (and therefore hard to mute).

You have clicked on and are reading an essay titled “How To Tune A Piano,” and so you might actually want to know how. I’m telling you: The YouTube church guy is pretty good. But here’s a step by step:

  1. Download a free tuning app on your smart phone. The future, amirite? 
  2. Open up your piano so you can see all the knobs (tuning pins). Determine what kind of wrench you will need and buy that wrench. (This is called a tuning lever. It’ll likely either be square-shaped or star-shaped.) Then also buy some muting ribbon. 
  3. Hit a key on the piano. Let your tuning app tell you what note it's playing.
  4. If the key is higher up on the piano, use the muting tape to mute two of the corresponding strings. With the single string isolated, hit the key over and over again while fiddling with the corresponding knob with your wrench. Fiddle with it until you get the note to match the one it’s supposed to be. 
  5. Take the mute off one of the strings. Turn the knob that goes with that string until the key seems to be playing just one note.
  6. Now the last string.
  7. Repeat with all the keys. 

You’ve correctly guessed that this takes a very, very long time. But it’s also a wonderful little puzzle that isn’t too too hard to solve, and every time you solve one part of it, there’s that small rush of adrenaline that comes with finishing anything difficult. It took me over a month to tune the piano because there were so many other tasks that got in the way. But every time I sat down with it, it was more like sitting down with a friend than with an enemy. It became a chore I looked forward to.

Once I was done, the piano still didn’t sound great. The keys are sort of loose, so they clack. The tone is still jangly, because the strings aren’t especially tight and they go out of key with a strong breeze. When the job was as done as it was going to get, I sat down and played “The City of New Orleans” — my favorite piano singalong song. It's a song I never would have learned had I given up when things were terrible in New Orleans. I wanted to give up. Honestly, the reason I didn’t was because it seemed like too much work.

But I didn’t give up on the piano because as an adult, I understand that difficult things are almost always worth doing. Even when you fail, you live a lot of life in those hard moments — a lot more than you do parked in front of “The Office” again. This particular instrument also brought me a question: If people want you to believe that tuning a piano is too hard for a commoner, what else do they want you to believe that about? There must be a lot of things you can do yourself — and enjoy doing — that have been made out to be too hard or too specialized or too… too. Like, just for instance: making bagels, fixing your own computer, building basic furniture, and growing food. 

I left the highest E untuned. I want to remember how much work went into getting this clanky, shitty piano to play. Also, that high E is next to impossible to get right. And who uses ultra-high E anyway? 

 

* AND THEN I WROTE A BOOK AND LEARNED THAT WRITING IS EXACTLY THE SAME AS MUSIC AND PEOPLE CAN REJECT YOU AT ANYTHING YOU DO.

** I went back through my emails to the aforementioned Love of My Life, because I vaguely remembered sending him a break-up song I wrote after I got my New Orleans. I did. Here is the song. If you are thinking, “Wow, that is great, I wish I could listen to a bunch of break-up songs Sophie wrote in New Orleans,” here is the link for that.