A decaying house, dust sheets on the furniture, creaking floors and a pigeon suddenly bursting from the rafters, or something like that. Something bad is going to happen in this movie -- you can tell because there is a very low sustained note. And then, the distant sound of a sorely out-of-tune piano. Where is this sound coming from? Is there a ghost in the attic, tickling the ivories, which are literally ivories because the piano would definitely not be a recent model?
Yes, terribly out-of-tune pianos sound creepy, but you can only know for sure if you're piano is haunted after you tune it.
There is no hard and fast rule as to how often you should tune your piano, but a well-maintained piano is generally tuned once or twice a year. Concert pianos are tuned before every performance. In fact, a keen player may detect their concert piano slip out of tune during the performance – as the audience fills a small venue, and hot stage lights shine down on the strings, the combination of increased humidity and heat is enough to affect the tuning. Not significantly enough for anyone to notice anything but the virtuosic performance, of course.
Rick Baldassin, RPT, is one of the piano industry's most honoured technician. He says, “The piano must be nearly in tune before it can be tuned.”
So what happens when the piano is not “nearly in tune”? How near is “nearly in tune”?
Piano technicians talk about changes in pitch in terms of “cents.” The distance between one note and the semitone above or below it is 100 cents. So half a semitone is 50 cents, a quarter is 25 cents and so on.
From spring to fall, it is not uncommon for a well-maintained piano to drop 3-5 cents in pitch. (This is the result of changes in humidity – in spring and summer, without heaters on or fireplaces roaring and with the windows open to let in our Sunshine Coast seaside air, humidity is significantly higher in our homes than in the winter months.) Unfortunately, the pitch does not drop the same amount for every string. Typically, the pitch shifts much more in the middle of the piano. The result is a piano that is out of tune.
When tuning a piano, we check how many cents flat or sharp it is as this will determine whether or not the piano requires a pitch-raise before tuning. If the piano is significantly flat, we must bring it up to pitch first. It is like making a bust: you can't begin detailing the eye until you've shaped the blob of clay into something resembling a head. Once the pitch-raise is complete, the technician goes through the piano again, this time tuning more precisely.
In Mario Igrec’s comprehensive book, Pianos Inside Out, he writes, “A piano can be considered ‘under pitch’ when it is more than 5 cents too low. A discrepancy of as little as 3 cents can be destabilizing enough to merit treating the tuning as a pitch raise.” This is not to say a piano can’t be stable when raising the pitch 5 cents. In fact, I’ve encountered some strange pianos that seem stable after raising the pitch as much as 20 cents! This is not typical … spooky, right? Right?
But given how much a piano can change from season to season, just imagine what happens to the pitch after three years, five years or even ten years without a tuning!
If it’s been so long since the piano was tuned that you can’t remember if your kids were in high school or kindergarten at the time, the piano, without a doubt, requires a pitch raise as well as follow up tunings before stability returns. After ten years without a tuning, I would not be surprised to find the piano 30 cents or more flat. If the piano is 50 cents or more flat, Mario Igrec advises that you “re-tune the piano twice within 1-6 weeks.” If less than 50 cents, you will still want to have it re-tuned once more in that space of time. If it continues to sound great after raising the pitch 50 cents and no follow-up tuning is necessary, well, then you have a haunted piano.
Now, was that helpful or what?
Scary video, right?