The Piano Doctor at theYellow Barn - Upscaled, Restored, Pianos, Furniture & More


Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Pianos and Piano Service



1) What is involved in tuning a piano?
2) Do you tune by ear or do you use a machine, and why?
3) Why is tuning necessary? (What causes it to go out of tune?)
4) How often should I have my piano tuned?
5) Will I damage my piano if I don't tune it regularly?
6) Is there anything I can do to reduce the need to tune my piano?
7) Can I just humidify the room where the piano is?
8) What does it cost to have a piano tuned?
9) How do you determine your fees and what are your qualifications?
10) How much does it cost to rebuild (or restore) a piano?
11) What is involved in reconditioning?
12) Do you give free estimates?
13) What constitutes basic piano maintenance?
14) What constitutes comprehensive or "complete" piano maintenance?
15) Should I get a "free" piano?
16) What should I expect to pay for a good used piano?



1) What is involved in tuning a piano?

The short answer: Piano tuning is the act of making minute adjustments to the tensions of the strings of an acoustic piano to properly align the intervals between their tones so that the instrument is in tune. The meaning of 'in tune', in the context of piano tuning, is not simply a particular fixed set of pitches. (Piano tuning - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_tuning

A somewhat longer and creative answer: Tuning a piano is somewhat similar to an artist painting a picture, or a composer writing a piece of music. In both cases, each respective artist wants the end result to be pleasing, either to the eye, or to the ear. In order to accomplish this he uses the tools he has at his disposal, and the talent and experience he has developed over the years to set down on canvas or paper an arrangement of colors or sounds that is recognizable to others as fine art or fine music. In general he or she is required to adhere to a certain set of parameters that are generally accepted as "correct" so as to achieve the intended result. These parameters are not necessarily "strict", requiring rigid adherence with zero tolerance of deviation, but rather a set of guidelines with some flexibility within which he can express his creative genius. If he deviates too far from these guidelines his work may be viewed as amateurish, weird, in poor taste, or just plain bad. Ten different artists could paint the same scene, remaining within the accepted parameters, yet each one would have a slightly different "flavor", each one being good, yet some might be considered better than others.

In the world of piano tuning today, the modern set of parameters, or guidelines generally used, is called "Equal Temperament". This is a system of dividing the octave into twelve equal steps and spreading this pattern throughout the rest of the piano. This allows the pianist to have at his disposal a virtually unlimited range of tones and harmonies available to him for musical expression. At the same time, it allows re-creation of printed music essentially as the composer intended for it to sound. For more information on equal temperament and how it came about you might be interested in reading the book by Anita Sullivan "The Seventh Dragon - The Riddle of Equal Temperament" http://www.seventhdragon.com

If the piano is out of tune, or has been tuned poorly, the music does not sound right. A little bit out of tune can be tolerated by most of us up to a point, but as a piano gets more and more "out of tune" the musical experience becomes more like "noise" rather than music. Not pleasing at all -- just a mechanical process of playing. A well tuned piano (of good quality) has a clarity and sonority that is difficult to quantify. It must be experienced regularly so as to really hear what "in tune" really sounds like. Then it is something to be desired.

2) Do you tune by ear or do you use a machine, and why?

I have tuned aurally (by ear) exclusively for 40 years. I do not use a machine (usually referred to in the trade as an ETD or Electronic Tuning Device). The primary reason for this is that I have worked hard to develop this unique skill that is a combination of mind, body, art and mechanics. I do not like the idea of relinquishing the decision making process involved to a machine. This does not mean that using a machine automatically results in an inferior result. To the contrary, today's ETD choices are all very accurate, sophisticated machines, and if used properly, are capable of assisting the tuner to do an excellent job. It is not a substitute for the human ear but rather an aid to the ear (at least it should be). It can in fact make the job easier to accomplish, however this fact actually creates a problem which I do not like, which is the fact that the tuner becomes dependent on the machine in a relatively short period of time. To me this is a bit more like a "paint by number" piece of work rather than one conceived and executed entirely with the skill of an artist.

I choose not to have my skills dependent on a battery. I know from experience that some aural tuning skills diminish as a result of depending on the machine to make many critical decisions. Some will argue that this makes no difference, but to me it does. This is why I choose to retain my aural tuning skills by using them regularly and always seeking to improve them.

I have nothing against those who choose otherwise, it just is not for me. Yes, it takes more effort, both mentally and physically, but I like it that way, it keeps me sharp, and clients tend to agree with this philosophy. Although I have a pretty sophisticated program on my cell phone, I only use it for pitch reference rather than tuning the piano.

3) Why is tuning necessary? (What causes it to go out of tune?)

Because temperature and humidity fluctuations affect the soundboard and structure of the piano unevenly, causing it to swell or shrink in varying degrees, therefore putting the strings (which are attached to it) out of tune with each other and/or with the actual pitch of other instruments which made be played along with it. In other words, the meticulous process that the tuner went through to put everything in harmony and proper order actually begins the process of "unraveling" so to speak, shortly after he is done. Depending on the general climate of one's latitude, the specific environment that the piano is kept in, as well as the size, quality and condition of the instrument, determines the rate at which this deterioration takes place. No two pianos are exactly the same, yet they all go out of tune in much the same way and for all the same reasons.

A word or two about timing. It has been said that the best time to tune your piano is after the heat is turned on on approach of winter, and after the heat has been turned off on approach of summer. There is some truth to this, particularly if the piano does NOT have humidity control. Technically speaking you will get more "bang for your buck" following this rule. Conversely, if you decide to wait until the piano is so horribly out of tune that you can no longer stand it, likely you will be calling the tuner in about February or March (just after the extreme of Winter) or August or September (just after the extreme of Summer). These are probably about the worst times of the year to do it, since a major seasonal change is right around the corner and, guess what?  Your piano will go right out of tune with that change! You will also have a tendency to blame the piano technician for the short time it stayed in tune. That is unfortunate since he/she has NO control over the weather. 


4) How often should I have my piano tuned?

The general rule of thumb is twice a year. Technically it needs it at every seasonal change which would be four times a year, but virtually no one does this due to the expense involved. So a reasonable compromise is twice a year, with an absolute minimum of once per year. This results in a piano that is relatively in tune about four months out of the year. The other eight months it sounds anywhere from "fair" to "bad". (See question #5 below)

5) Will I damage my piano if I don't tune it regularly?

Depending on who you talk to, the answer to this one can be either "yes" or "no". I have heard piano technicians try to "scare" people into tuning their piano regularly according to the schedule(s) as outlined above, by telling them that if they don't, they "will damage it" beyond repair (or some such thing). I have been tuning, repairing and restoring pianos for 40 years, and in all honesty I have yet to see one that has actually suffered damage specifically and categorically due to lack of tuning. However, with that said, what I have seen over and over again is that a piano that gets neglected, often ends up getting put into an environment that is ultimately detrimental to it, and therefore suffers damage because of that. Specifically, it may be moved to a spot out of the way, in front of a heater (that's a killer), or in a back unused room in an old house and mice get to it (if it was used and maintained that would not happen), or out in a garage, or barn, or somewhere else, and severe moisture and dryness take their toll on it. It can cost lots of money to reverse this kind of abuse, and it has nothing to do with the lack of tuning. Sometimes the damage cannot be reversed and it has to go to the dump or burn pile (that's actually sort of fun!)

At any rate, what actually does get damaged when a piano that is being used, but not tuned, is the hearing and musical sensitivity of the person (young or old, but especially the young) that is forced to play on this thing that sounds horrible all the time. This is real damage that can result in complete disinterest in music, especially in playing the piano. This situation is a very common occurrence with "non-musical" parents who have a child that wants to learn to play the piano. Often the parents fail to understand the importance of reasonable maintenance of the instrument and instead treat tuning and other maintenance as a "necessary evil" to be done as little as possible and as cheaply as possible. The learning child is not experienced enough to be able to blame the piano for their lack of progress ("no matter how hard I practice I can't make it sound like my teacher's piano"), and therefore gradually becomes disinterested and quits, blaming himself or herself because they "just can't do it". The parents then reason that it was a good thing they didn't "spend much money on that piano" because the kid didn't stick with it! To me, this is real damage.

One other issue is the fact that the longer a piano goes between tunings, the more work it takes to actually put it in tune, as well as the fact that it may be necessary to subject the piano to extra stress temporarily, (called a pitch correction or pitch raise) to actually get it back in tune. Depending on certain circumstances, this process might result in one or more broken strings that need to be repaired or replaced.

Suffice it to say that the acoustic piano is something that needs regular maintenance, just like the car, the lawnmower, the grass, the house, the teeth, the windows, etc. There will be ramifications if not taken care of properly or reasonably.

6) Is there anything I can do to reduce the need to tune my piano?

As a matter of fact, yes! Since the three greatest "natural" enemies of the piano are: 

1) Severe seasonal humidity fluctuations (less than 35% or greater than 65% RH) 
2) Direct sunlight
3) Being too close to a heating or cooling source

Therefore, the better you deal with these, the longer a good tuning will last. #2 & #3 are relatively obvious as to what to do. #1 is the hardest thing to get under control for most people to a reasonable degree, especially if you live in New England or similar, with the winter dryness creating the most problems overall. However, it is the cycling back and forth between dry and humid, year after year, which eventually spells doom for the average piano. The best overall solution for this is installation of an internal humidity control system. This is a setup that both humidifies and dehumidifies gradually, as needed according to it's internal "brain" that constantly monitors the relative humidity inside the piano. In my opinion, it is worth it's weight in gold, and I personally would not own and use a piano without this system. This link will tell you all about it: www.pianolifesaver.com

7) Can I just humidify the room where the piano is?

Yes, that can be done, and this is highly recommended by all of us piano technician "experts". However, there are some things you need to know about this that is not exactly common knowledge.

First of all, you are trying to humidify literally thousands of cubic feet of air space (even a small 10' x 17' living room contains roughly 1300 cubic feet of air). In the winter, the relative humidity indoors at our latitude here in New England can easily reach less than 20% (16% is Sahara Desert level). The amount of moisture needed on a daily basis to bring this up to where the piano ideally wants it (45%-50%) is huge, easily exceeding the capacity of any standard room humidifier. You would actually need several humidifiers going constantly to achieve the desired result. I can assure you that the noise and the maintenance of these things would quickly drive you nuts! So...you say: "I have a humidifier built into my furnace - I can handle that". Alright, that brings us to...

Secondly, most people are not aware of the fact that there is a limit to the amount of moisture that can safely be added. There is a formula that HVAC installers go by when they set these systems up. This formula is based on the geographic latitude where the system is being installed, and has to do with the average number of days the outside temperature drops below a certain level, and this determines the maximum humidity level they can safely set the system at. Why do we say "safely"? Because when you pump humidity into a closed area, it doesn't just stay there. It eventually has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is through the walls, then the insulation and structural members of the home (in a wood frame house), and then to the exterior sheathing and siding. The problem comes when the moisture reaches the outer parts that are at freezing temperature. When water freezes it stops moving and begins accumulating as ice. When the ice eventually melts it gets things wet that are not supposed to get wet. It also expands when it freezes, so if the amount of moisture is excessive here it eventually causes structural damage to the home, and can contribute to mold issues. In New England the formula requires that these whole-house humidification systems be set no higher than 35%. Installers will not set it higher than that for the reasons set out above. A homeowner can go ahead and jack it up if they want to, but they do so at their own risk.

So, the reality is that a typical room humidifier amounts to the proverbial "drop in the bucket" as far as the piano goes. However, if you could actually get it up to 35% consistently through the winter, you would have some beneficial effect, and I would not discourage you from doing so. Unfortunately, the issue comes down to what the actual difference is between the winter low and the summer high. Typically this is a 50% to 60% swing in humidity. The average piano will exhibit noticeable "out of tune-ness" with as little as 20% humidity swing.

The bottom line is that the on-board climate control systems do a noticeably better job at stabilizing a piano due to the fact that they are only dealing with a few cubic feet of air space. Also they work much better in an upright piano than in a grand piano due to the enclosure factor of the upright. Although not a panacea for eliminating any and all piano problems, they have proven to be a "life saver" for many. Hence, the name of the website: www.pianolifesaver.com of the manufacturer. In actuality we recommend both - internal and external humidity control, to the degree possible. We estimate that installation of, and proper maintenance of one of these systems results in a doubling of the piano's life expectancy from the time of installation. In addition, a climate-controlled piano can usually be tuned just once per year (usually uprights) and remain very playable all year long. It will never get "badly" out of tune. Grands generally will still need twice per year, but are still significantly improved.

8) What does it cost to have a piano tuned?

It depends on whether the piano is regularly maintained by a competent piano technician, or if the piano has been neglected for some time and is being "brought back to life" so to speak. As more time goes by and the instrument cycles between moist and dry seasons, the overall string tension is disturbed adversely, requiring what is called a "pitch correction" or (usually) a "pitch raise". Think of this as a rough tuning (sometimes two or three) in order to get the tension of the wires back up to "concert pitch" of A-440 hz. where it can then be fine tuned, making only minor adjustments. Obviously too, if repairs or other adjustments are required, more time is involved and therefore more expense.

Fee structures are different among piano technicians. Usually there is a "standard tuning fee" which applies to those pianos serviced regularly on a schedule. The range of standard tuning fees in our area goes from a low of about $120.00 to a high of $175.00. Then there is usually an hourly rate applied to things over and above the standard tuning fee. Some want to be the "cheapest tuner on the block", whereas others are more interested in maintaining high quality workmanship and professionalism. "If you think a good piano technician is expensive, just try a bad one" as the saying goes. Yes, we have had to correct the results of inexperienced and/or "cheap" tuners too many times. It's not fun.

In the interest of full disclosure, our fees are generally (but not always) the highest in the Seacoast area. Our standard tuning fee is $175.00 and our hourly rate is $100.00/hour. For a first time visit, where the piano has been somewhat neglected we charge $175.00 for the first hour and $100.00 for each subsequent hour. Typically, if all else is OK, it generally takes about two hours to make up for mild neglect, and about three hours for more serious neglect. You can do the math. It is also considered a fairly standard rule that for every 3 years a piano has gone un-tuned, it takes at least one tuning to make up for that and regain some stability.

9) How do you determine your fees and what are your qualifications?

Our fees are based on the actual cost of running a small business fully in accord with the requirements of both state and federal governments. This includes proper record-keeping, paperwork, and tax compliance. We have been doing this since 1975. The first 20 years were spent largely in learning the ropes. The second 20 years has been a progressive application of the first 20. Additionally, we are the only shop in the seacoast area capable of handling any and all problems pertaining to piano repair and maintenance. We run a fully equipped restoration facility where we routinely dismantle and fully rebuild good quality pianos (and other things too) and return them to a condition that can sometimes be as good as new. This requires time, talent, and expertise that only comes with decades of progressive experience.

Peter W. Grey, RPT (a.k.a. "The Piano Doctor", pianodoctor57@gmail.com) has been tuning, servicing, and restoring pianos since 1975. He passed his examination in 1980 to become a Registered Piano Technician (RPT) and has maintained that standing ever since. He has serviced literally tens of thousands of pianos.  Our specialty is restoring Steinway grand pianos, however we can, and will, fix just about any piano, in almost any shape. We have served the seacoast area of New Hampshire for 30 years (1975-1998 and 2004 to the present), and the Washington DC area for 9 years (1998-2007). (We were servicing both areas in the same years for a while). Visit http://www.ptg.org to see more information about becoming a Registered Piano Technician.

Other people in the business have different ideas as to settings their fees or having their skills tested and certified by a committee of their peers. Many self-employed people (not just piano technicians) do not understand the true costs of running a business, nor have they learned about "hidden overhead" (or accept that it exists). Over the years we have seen a number of them come and go.  Like so many things in life, "you get what you pay for".

10) How much does it cost to rebuild (or restore) a piano?

Rebuilding (or restoring) a piano is MAJOR SURGERY. It takes a lot of work, a fair amount of space, high quality materials, and the proper equipment and know-how to do it right. Details make a big difference. Details take time, knowledge, and experience to get right. In fact, about 90% of what the pianist perceives about a great piano is in the details. Generally we reserve this service for higher quality instruments, however we have restored some lesser quality pianos for individuals who have a strong emotional attachment to them.

The cost ultimately depends on whether it is an upright or a grand piano, the size of the instrument, the age and design of it, and finally, just exactly what is agreed will be done to the instrument. Full restoration of a quality upright piano can be in the range of $10,000 - $15,000. A grand piano can be anywhere from about $15,000 up to $30,000. A concert quality grand can even approach $50,000 in restoration cost. A historical preservation of an antique instrument can run as high as $75,000 or even more depending on the complexity.

Many, many hours go into restoring a piano (including blood, sweat, and occasionally tears), so you can see why we generally reserve this service for higher quality instruments. It costs just as much to rebuild a cheap piano as it does a well made one. Often that money could be better spent on another piano, a better one. That said, I have fully restored a few instruments that technically should not have been due to their worth, but ONLY because the owners insisted that the work be done (due to their sentimental attachment to it). I will always inform you of the relative worth of your piano in our discussions prior to any restorative work.

11) What is involved in reconditioning?

Reconditioning involves bringing the existing parts and structure back to a reasonably musical condition. Generally it does not involve any (or much) replacement of parts (as in rebuilding) but rather we deal with the existing parts and clean, repair, refurbish, lubricate, align, and adjust them so they work as well as possible in their present condition. We also are able to take advantage of certain "miracles" of modern chemistry to extend the useful life of some major components like the pinblock (which largely determines whether it is tuneable or not) and other parts that would normally be considered "worn out". There are limitations to these practices and need to be considered on a case by case basis, as well as just what the owner has in mind for the instrument, and of course, their budget.

Reconditioning costs usually top out at around $2,500 - $3,000, after which we would need to be looking at certain rebuilding procedures at significantly more cost. An old upright might be able to be made playable again for $800 - $1,200 or so. Sometimes it takes more. A somewhat younger upright (30 - 60 yrs. old) might only need $500 - $1,000 to turn it back into a nice instrument. A very neglected grand piano will probably require the full $2,500 - $3,000 to return it to suitable shape. These are just a few examples. Of course each instrument needs to be evaluated individually as to its suitability for reconditioning. Sometimes it just cannot be done within a reasonable budget. That's just the way it goes.

Our policy is to try to do things in the least invasive way possible if it makes good sense to do that. Where major surgery is required, we will inform you of it and let you decide what you would like to do, if anything. We will also answer any questions you have straightforwardly and honestly.

12) Do you give free estimates?

No. The standard fee structure applies. You are paying me for time, talent, and expertise acquired over 40 years in the field. Over the years I can count on one hand the number of "free" estimates I have given, and interestingly virtually none of these people actually did the work that the piano needed. You understand the point.

13) What constitutes basic piano maintenance?

It is very common for people to think in terms of tuning only, when it comes to maintaining their piano. And while it is true that acoustic pianos need regular tuning due to environmental humidity change, if we were to stop there, it would be tantamount to simply putting gas into the family car and perhaps changing the oil every now and then. Will the car continue to run with this sort of "maintenance"? Yes, for a while. However, the lack of tending to other items (minor and major) will eventually mount up to an overwhelming array of problems. It is no different with the piano. 

First and foremost, as discussed above in #6 and #7, reasonable control of the humidity affecting the piano is on the top of the list. 

Second, tuning the piano (by a Registered Piano Technician - RPT) a minimum of once per year (this works well for most uprights with humidity control), or twice per year as needed (most grands even with humidity control will still need and want this schedule due to their more open nature). 

Third, interior cleaning about every other tuning appointment. 

Fourth, tightening of flange screws about every 5 years or so. 

Fifth, reshaping of hammers and minor regulation of action about every 5 - 10 years - this would include re-alignment of hammers to strings and re-establishing proper geometric relationships in the action. There are other things too, but this is a pretty reasonable list.

If the above schedule is adhered to relatively faithfully, your piano will continue to function extremely well and give many years of service. Of course, as a piano ages it will eventually develop problems simply due to age, stress (20 tons of tension on average), and wear. If you have a good long-term relationship with a qualified piano technician (RPT preferably), he or she will normally keep you apprised of possible major issues that can and do arise as the decades pass.

14) What constitutes "advanced" or comprehensive piano maintenance?

In addition to what is listed above in "basic maintenance", to keep a fine instrument in tip-top shape we would add the following: 

At every tuning appointment (or as needed in between) we spend some time voicing hammers for evenness of tone from one to the other. Any issues raised by the pianist are attended to and remedied immediately, or arrangements made to care for it ASAP.

Approximately every 3 - 5 years we would recondition the action. This would include reshaping of the hammers to remove the grooves that develop due to repeatedly striking the strings. We would then perform a complete regulation of the action that would include things like spacing the hammers to the strings consistently, mating the hammer surface to the strings so as to strike all three strings evenly, adjusting the parallel travel of the hammershanks, checking and correcting key height and dip, and finally checking and adjusting all 30 points of regulation in the action as well as pedals and dampers if needed. Depending on the needs this can take anywhere from 1 - 3 full days of work. Usually the first time around is much more extensive and time consuming than later sessions.

Depending on the demands put on the instrument, about every 10 - 20 years we would think about replacing the hammers and perhaps some action parts. This constitutes "major surgery" and is usually reserved for the best instruments under very demanding conditions.

Further "surgery" would include restringing of the piano approximately every 25 - 40 years. This requires transport of the piano to the shop for some time. It is really a rebuilding procedure usually done once in the lifespan of the instrument.

Some or all of the above can be considered somewhat necessary for a piano that is purchased used and now needs to be brought up to top condition. Of course the specific needs of the instrument as well as the needs and wants of the new owner will dictate all that needs to be done. To be honest, very few instruments in the average home will ever get this kind of treatment, however concert instruments or those instruments used by very demanding pianists definitely require this kind of attention in order to be at their peak at any given time, somewhat analogous to keeping a race car in top performance condition.

15)  Should I get a "free" piano?

Well, the short answer is: "It depends, but probably not." Why?

Basically because free pianos are never really "free".  Virtually always, the reason they are free is that nobody wants them. And why are they unwanted?  Because they are usually junk by this time. And if not junk, they are usually sadly neglected and possibly abused, requiring significant repair/reconditioning or even rebuilding to make them somewhat "whole" again. Craigslist has many listings of free pianos and they can be quite tempting when you don't know exactly what you are looking at.

In 40 years of working on pianos,  I can easily count on one hand the number of free pianos that I have seen that were actually good and needed very little attention. Over the past few years I have had the "pleasure" of bringing back to life several "free" pianos for people who unknowingly picked up something they thought was a good deal "for free". The repair bills have generally been in the $1,200 - $2,500 range. And this is simply to deal with necessary stuff! Not putting the pianos in great condition! Definitely not "free" in my book! 

We get calls every week from people wanting to give away their pianos. We could easily fill a dozen barns with all the pianos we have been offered over the years. And, years ago I used to chase after them thinking "it might be a gold mine" that they don't know about. Nope! Those days are long gone. I gently inform them now as to how they can/should dispose of them. 

So, is it possible to get a good deal on a free piano? Probably yes, but it will not be "out of the box" free. You will need to put something into it (probably at least several hundred dollars [repeat AT LEAST!]).  If you are the risk-taking type and are willing to live with the consequences, then it might happen well for you (then again it might not...but you live with the consequences). 

A final thought (or two) on this subject - It has been my personal observation over the years that, generally the type of people who look to acquire a free piano are:  a) Just plain being cheap (i.e. they spend their money where they want to spend it, and a piano is not where they want to spend it) or, b) They truly cannot afford it (therefore they also cannot afford to maintain it...therefore it will continue to deteriorate into a pile of junk that no one can enjoy, or c) They are non-musical parents (see #5 above) who want their child to learn to play BUT do not understand (or want to understand) the need for basic good quality in the piano, and they just want to get out of it as cheaply as possible (repeat see #5 above), or d) Getting things for free is a deeply rooted personality trait that they just cannot break out of (i.e. it's an emotional thing)  None of these attitudes are ideal, but they do exist. Sorry if you suffer from one of them! 

It is your choice though if you want to "invest" in a free piano. Remember...there is a REASON that it's free. So, it depends. 


16) What should I expect to pay for a good used piano?
 
This will be answered soon. Tune in again to get the answer!
 





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