Robert Estrin - piano expert

Why a Piano is Never in Tune

Discover why a piano may be considered always out of tune

In this video, Robert tells you a very interesting and often unknown fact: pianos are generally always out of tune. That's right! Watch this video to discover why...

Released on September 17, 2014

  
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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to livingpianos.com and virtualsheetmusic.com. I am Robert Estrin with the show today. "Why A Piano is Never in Tune?" How can that be you might wonder. You get your piano tuned, you figured it's perfectly tuned. But is it? That's the question for today.

The short answer is, no. Your piano is never really in tune. Why is this? Well, you have to go back historically to understand this and understand how other instruments produce pitch. For example, when singing, the pitches are completely out of your head. You don't have a certain key to push. A violinist, the fret board doesn't have - there are no frets. The fingerboard, I should say, has no frets, so it's a continuous way that you could produce pitch and notes between the notes.

Even a guitar can bend the notes of each string, so other instruments can nuance the pitch. Now why would you want to? Well here's the secret. On instruments, long time ago, keyboards were tuned for a specific key. So if you were playing in piece if G Major, the keyboard will be tuned for G Major. It would sound okay in closely related keys like D Major, maybe even A Major, but if you got the E-flat Major or G-flat Major, it would sound pretty horrendous. So tuning started to evolve with compromise. So maybe, it wouldn't be perfect in D, let's say, but if would sound good in D, G, C, and maybe even A and E, and then maybe not so good in the flat keys.

Eventually what happened was all the pitches were equalized so that all the half steps are equal. So when a piano tuner tunes your piano, the first thing they do is they set the temperament. What is a temperament? The temperament is taking an octave and making all the half steps equal. What this means is that when you play any other interval on a piano, that is a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh, they are all equally out of tune in all keys.

So a piano that has just been tuned, if you play a perfect fifth, the perfect fifth is not really in tune, nor is the fourth, the thirds. They're all out. And we are so used to what's called "tempered tuning", based upon the temperament, that it might not seem that it's out of tune. However, if a string player tries to match pitch with a piano exactly, they will naturally make the adjustments to play in tune, because there are differences in pitch. And it goes beyond this.

One other facet beyond "tempered tuning equal half steps," is something called "stretched octaves". The ears actually hear flat in the high register. So to compensate for that, a piano that is tuned perfectly will sound flat in the high register. That's why tuners will stretch the tuning so that instead of multiplying, doubling the frequencies of A440 to 880, it's just a fraction greater than that as you go higher.

So, it really comes down to this: a great tuning is actually a compromise, and there is as much art to it as there is science. So when your piano has just been tuned, realize it's perfectly out of tune, and that's the best you can hope for.

Thanks so much for joining me, Robert Estrin here at livingpianos.com and virtualsheetmusic.com.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on June 13, 2018 @3:33 pm PST
1. I once had the opportunity to hear the difference between tempered pitch and what the musicologist giving the demonstration called true pitch. Afterwards, I had difficulty listening to piano music, which often sounded out of tune to my ears. It took years to get over that, and even today I find now and then that piano music can sound out of tune, an annoyance that still can haunt/assault my ears. Sometimes I wish I had never heard the demonstration. One musical expert has mentioned that there is a danger that tempered pitch can become the norm and that what isn't
may begin to sound out of tune. I hope that never happens.

2. Given that there are now computerized electronic pianos I have wondered why an enterprising manufacturer doesn't produce a piano that can be instantly tuned by the player, by hitting a particular switch or button which would change the tuning to the desired true pitch, whether that be G major, G minor (harmonic or melodic), etc. etc. After all, that requires only a series of computer programs to accomplish this end. In addition, one might also have pedals that can be used to slightly lower or raise the pitch of a note when desired.
Fulvia Bowerman * VSM MEMBER * on September 17, 2014 @5:22 pm PST
Once I had a tuner who tuned the lower keys just a bit too high, thinking that in time they would lower the tone by themselves. They didn't, and drove me nuts! I changed the tuner.
Now I am reading an old book in Italian, The History of Music, and it starts with the most ancient instruments. I am now in the chapter of the Greek instruments and the odd scales they were using. I almost don't understand anything! a scale with only 5 notes? another scale with 17 (I think it was used by the Arabs) ? Potential material for one of your video lessons?
reply
Robert - host, on September 18, 2014 @10:24 am PST
These are excellent subjects for future videos - thanks!
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