The Art of Compromise
An Excerpt from: The Art of Compromise
Tuning a piano is a skill, a craft and an art. Knowing how to do it, doing it, and understanding it are three completely separate things. My father patiently demonstrated to me how to tune, but it took a long time to learn how to do it myself. It took an even longer time to really understand, and be comfortable with it.
There are many skills that have to be learned to tune a piano accurately, but there are just three basic parts to each tuning. The first, and the most important from a Tuner’s point of view, is called “Setting the Temperment”. This is the foundation on which the rest of the tuning is built, and the hardest part to master. It is also rather difficult to explain.
The musical scale that western ears have become accustomed to, and upon which the tuning of a piano is based, consists of twelve notes: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, and B. This arrangement had been invented and used long before any of the composers we know of had been born. So, when they did get here, they inherited a system of music that they were forced to use, even though it has a few nasty little problems.
The main problem has its root in what is called “Harmonics”. If you play a string, and then divide it in half by placing your finger on the middle of the string (what physicists call “the node”), you would hear a note one octave higher than the first note, which is called the “Fundamental”. (If you play middle C on a piano, and the C above it on a piano that is in tune, that is an octave.). If you then divide that half in half again, you would hear a ‘Perfect Fifth’ above the Octave. (Like playing C and the G above it). If you continued to subdivide the string in this manner you would hear a rather mysterious thing: a note two octaves higher, then a third (C to E) above that. Then the fifth, then a minor 7th (C to A#), then all the diatonic notes (like all the white keys), and then every single note. If you could go even further you would hear microtones, which are not part of the western scale, but which are a part of the music of other cultures.
This is all fine and dandy, except for a problem known as the ” Pythagorean Comma”. The first interval of a perfect fifth in harmonics is “pure”, that is to say, it does not have any warble or vibrato, called “beats”, when the two notes, the Fundamental and the fifth, are played together. All the intervals after this are also “pure” with the note previous to it, but they grow increasingly sharp of the Fundamental to the point that the Octaves are not “pure” with each other. They become sharp because of the “Comma”, which is a microtone that is missing in our western scale. So, in effect, we actually squeeze what are harmonically thirteen notes into our twelve-note scale. This is called “tempering” the scale, and the way in which we squeeze it is called the ” Temperment”.
When there were no keyboard instruments, this was not a big problem. Instrumentalists and singers learned to tune each note as they played or sang, so that they would be pure to any other notes played or sung with them. Since pianos and other keyboard instruments cannot be retuned on the fly, dealing with this became a problem that no one has really been able to solve completely.
Before J.S. Bach’s time, Harpsichordists dealt with the problem of Temperment by constantly tuning. They would play a piece in say, E flat, and then re-tune the instrument to play in a different key, like A or D. Large pipe organs of the time would have different temperments in separate sets of pipes, called ” ranks”. To play in a different key, you would change ranks. This method of changing temperments was not only awkward, but still resulted in some intervals sounding horribly out of tune.
The problem was eventually solved, or at least re-solved during Bach’s lifetime. Someone figured out how to temper the scale in an equal manner so that whatever key you chose, would be equally in tune. To demonstrate this new method of tuning, Bach wrote two preludes and fugues for every key, and called the collection “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier”, “The Well Tempered Keyboard”. The ” Equal Temperment” is now the standard tuning in every modern keyboard instrument.
The Temperment, set into an octave in the middle of the keyboard, is the first thing that is done when a piano is tuned. After that, one string of every set of strings per note is tuned from the temperment octave. When I say “set” I am referring to the fact that in the Mid-Range and Treble (Top) of the piano there are three strings per note, in the tenor there are two, and in the bass there is just one. Finally, the other strings in the sets of strings, called “Unisons”, are tuned.
When I first started to tune, my Dad would do the first two steps, and then I would do the last. As I mastered this, he would move me onto the previous step. Each step is an art in itself, and it takes a lot of practice to do it well. There is also the matter of learning to become comfortable with the tuning tool, called a Hammer, not to mention the differences between pianos. When you tune a piano, what you are actually doing is putting it out of tune in a very precise way, and it’s different for every piano and every location. It is no wonder that my Dad use to call his trade “The Art of Compromise”
Table of Contents
The Mechanics of Tuning
The Tuning Hammer
The Tuning Fork
The Temperment Strip
The Mechanics of Tuning
Step-by-Step Process of Raising and Lowering the Pitch of a String
Hammer Technique 101
The Keyboard Intervals
“Chasing the Tail”
“Beating around the Bush”
Thirds and Fifths
The “Blended” Temperment
Trouble Shooting your Temperment
The Harmonic Sequence
To Strip or Not to Strip
Order of Tuning
Octave Tuning in the High Treble
Octave Tuning in the Low Bass
Unison Tuning in the Low Bass
Unison Tuning in the High Treble
Pitch Raising and Lowering
The Pitch Raise
Music as a Second Language
The listening stage
The Noisemaking Stage
The Imitation Stage
The Speaking Stage
The Reading and Writing Stage
The Expression Stage
Keyboard Training Exercises
Chromatic Scales in Octaves
Various Parallel Intervals
The Individual Pitch of One String
The Sound of Two Strings Interacting with One Another
The Sound of Three Strings Interacting with Each Other
The Sound of a Semi-tone
The Sound of the Intervals
The Sound of Compound Intervals
The Sound of an Octave
The Sound of an Octave Stretch
About the Author
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